Walt Whitman was born in the farming community of Huntington, Long Island on May 31, 1819, two hundred years ago today. He was the second of what would eventually be nine children, one of whom died in infancy. Whitman had a strong sense of history and always believed he was taking part in a large historical narrative, probably because he was. Whitman and his family feature prominently in my book manuscript “Incorporating New York,” and I just may write a fair bit about the Whitmans over the summer. A friend and I intend to see the exhibit at the Grolier Club in the coming weeks or months. He also lived across the street from where I work, which has always made him seem that much more immediate to me. The Brooklyn printing house where he set the type for the first edition of Leaves of Grass was torn down in the early 1960s to make way for a Robert Moses project. Whitman and his siblings gloried in listening to stories of how their Long Island elders tricked the Redcoats during the British occupation in Revolutionary War.
By the time Walt Whitman was born the second round against the British—the War of 1812—had been over for nearly half a decade. During this Era of Good Feelings there was a feeling of optimism in the young republic, that the country held great possibility. A sense of history was clearly not lost on the parents; three of Walt’s brothers were named George Washington Whitman, Thomas Jefferson Whitman, and Andrew Jackson Whitman. George Whitman became an officer in the 51st New York Volunteers during the American Civil War, serving in the Army of the Potomac. It was after hearing of George’s wounding at the Battle of Fredericksburg that Walt rushed down South. His brother was okay, but what Walt saw in the hospitals horrified him. It was then that he became a nurse in the wards.
The Whitmans’ story is nothing less than the story of nineteenth century America. In addition to the Grolier exhibit I mentioned, there will be a number of other events in New York and elsewhere for those inclined.
(image/Jerrye & Roy Klotz MD via Wikimedia Commons)