By Greater Astoria Historical Society
In conjunction with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, TimesLedger Newspapers presents noteworthy events in the borough’s history.
Born Walter Whitman on May 31, 1819 in West Hills, N.Y., Walt Whitman was a quintessentially American poet, essayist and journalist. He is best remembered for his collection of poetry “Leaves of Grass,” an American epic that champions and identifies with the common man.
His work was highly controversial in its time, with many finding the open sexuality of his great work to be obscene. To make ends meet, he also worked as a carpenter, government clerk and a schoolteacher at Jamaica Academy, on the site of present day Queens College. Whitman greatly influenced other writers, including close friend Bram Stoker, who may have modeled the original “Dracula” after the poet from New York.
The second of nine children born to Walter and Louisa Whitman, the future author moved to Brooklyn as a young boy, frequently relocating due to his family’s financial difficulties. In one of his few happy childhood memories, he recalled being lifted into the air and kissed on the cheek by the Marquis de Lafayette during a July 4th celebration in 1825.
Ending his formal education at age 11, Whitman worked as a printer’s apprentice for local newspapers and began publishing poetry anonymously. In the late 1830s, the footloose young man lived for a while in Jamaica, Queens, where he earned a living as a teacher and newspaper writer. His time in the borough was presented in a 2005 Queens College exhibit titled “Did You Know I Was Your Neighbor?”
Not finding satisfaction in teaching, Whitman returned to Brooklyn and worked as a carpenter building houses. After years of struggling for what he called “the usual rewards,” however, he began writing “Leaves of Grass.” Written in free verse with a cadence based on the Bible, he first published his seminal work in 1855 using his own money. Due to its overt sexual nature, the great compilation of poetry met with great controversy, with one critic deeming it “trashy, profane & obscene.” Other great contemporary writers, including essayist Henry David Thoreau, greatly admired Whitman’s epic celebration of the young, bustling nation.
Walt Whitman never attained financial success from his work and continued working as a journalist to support himself. While volunteering as a nurse tending to wounded Union soldiers in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War, the poet penned a moving dispatch to the New York Times titled “The Great Army of the Sick,” which recounted his many encounters with the wounded and dying young men he encountered.
After suffering a stroke in 1873, Whitman moved to Camden, N.J. to live with a brother. After recovering his health, he continued publishing new editions of “Leaves of Grass” and receiving visitors, including Irish poet Oscar Wilde and the painter Thomas Eakins. Wilde claimed to have kissed his American friend during the visit, adding to speculation that Whitman was either bisexual or gay. After a period of failing health, the “poet of democracy” died at his home on March 26, 1892 and was buried at the Harleigh Cemetery in Camden. The Walt Whitman House is now a museum open to the public.
In “Song of Myself,” which appeared in “Leaves of Grass,” the carpenter, Queens schoolteacher, journalist and poet left behind this timeless message.
“I depart as air . . . . I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.”