Suffolk Closeup: Walt Whitman’s Long Island love affair


The most famous native of Suffolk County is Walt Whitman and much of the poet’s work was closely tied to his birthplace. “Starting from the fish-shape Paumanok, where I was born,” he wrote in “Leaves of Grass.”

He always referred to Long Island by its Native American name. From here, he wrote, “I strike up a New World.”

In a poem titled “Paumanok,” Whitman wrote: “Sea beauty! stretch’d and basking! One side thy inland ocean laving, broad, with copious commerce, steamers, sails, And one of the Atlantic’s wind caressing, fierce or gentle — mighty hulls dark-gliding in the distance. Isle of sweet brooks of drinking-water — healthy air and soil! Isle of the salty shore and breeze and brine.”

This year has seen a lot of attention paid to Whitman in these parts. Canio’s Cultural Café of Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor held a “Walt Whitman Marathon” last Saturday, an all-day reading of “Leaves of Grass.”

There have been special events at the house where Whitman was born on May 31, 1819 in West Hills, now Huntington Station.

Suffolk County Green Party activists Ian and Kimberly Wilder, lovers of poetry and nature, residents of Riverhead, have proposed making his birthday a national holiday.

Said Ms. Wilder, a teacher, in an essay that is online at “Walt Whitman was born close to me in West Hills … For me Whitman has become a touchstone for something more than beautiful poetry. I first discovered [his work] for myself when he was quoted in a sermon in an interfaith church in Virginia.

Then a bookstore colleague of mine read with me from ‘Leaves of Grass,’ and I was awakened to this powerful voice of self, universe and nature combined. Since then, I have come to realize Whitman’s amazing gifts as a poet, as political figure, as a re-shaper of language, as loving brother and as complicated and beautiful a person who ever lived.”

“Whitman’s sense of self and poetry are effused with a love and connection to nature,” Ms. Wilder went on. And, she emphasized: “Whitman credited this constant backdrop of Long Island’s pulsing waters for the subtle rhythm in the new poetic language he invented. And as a good transcendentalist, he had a genuine passion for the sea, the sun and the earth over material goods.”

On a Whitman birthday celebration, she said, “every person and business (especially those on Long Island) should observe 15 minutes of silence. We could stop mowing our lawns, stop driving our cars, click off our cellphones, turn off all buzzes and drones of machinery and just listen to the silence that enfolds us again in the embrace of nature.”

At Canio’s on the Friday eve of the marathon reading of “Leaves of Grass,” William T. Walter, president of the board of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, gave a presentation on “Walt Whitman on Long Island.”

I have been to the Walt Whitman Birthplace — indeed, years ago, on the first of the “Long Island World” series of programs I hosted on WLIW-TV/21, I began at the birthplace, with shots of it inside and outside, photos of Whitman, words from “Leaves of Grass” read by my late friend, Richard Cummings of Bridgehampton, and then jumped to what is now known as Walt Whitman Shops just a few blocks away.

The lilting words of Whitman were replaced by the cacophony of noise emanating from the mall. This TV program, no surprise, was about change on Long Island.

But until listening to Mr. Walter at Canio’s, I really didn’t have a grasp about Whitman on Long Island. Mr. Walter, who since 1980 has been involved with the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, which operates the state-owned official historic site, explained how Whitman was of the fifth generation of his family in the Town of Huntington.

Whitman’s father, Mr. Walter, “didn’t want to be a farmer” like those in the generations before him. “He wanted to be a carpenter.” But ultimately there was “not much of a market” in then lightly populated Huntington so the family moved to Brooklyn where  Whitman went to school for a while, then apprenticed as an “office boy” and also in a print shop.

But he was back in Suffolk County in 1838, starting his own newspaper in Huntington, the Long Islander, which is still published.

This, the beginning of Mr. Walter’s presentation, just skims the surface of his fascinating talk.
Ian and Kimberly Wilder are right.

We should have an annual celebration on Walt Whitman’s birthday and learn more about his colorful life and brilliant, extraordinary poetry, and the love he expressed so beautifully for Suffolk County.