If Walt Whitman’s association with Brooklyn is not necessarily overlooked by scholars and biographers, then neither is it explicitly emphasized. The fact of Whitman’s residency – he lived in Brooklyn for over half his life, and twice as long as he lived anywhere else – might not be so meaningful if his work wasn’t so saturated with the physical world. Whitman celebrated physicality, not only of the body but of the environment, and one is hard-pressed to imagine such muscular symbols having arisen from anywhere other than the explosion of progress along the East River in New York in the mid-nineteenth century. If one of the miracles of Whitman’s poetry is how successfully it transcends time, one of its wonders is how richly it evokes place.
Our journey here is entitled Whitman’s Brooklyn, not Brooklyn’s Whitman. Brooklyn holds no exclusive claim to Whitman. He belongs to America; he belongs the world. Perhaps the rationale for minimizing Whitman’s local association in mainstream scholarship is to emphasize the larger context, the emblematic nature of his connection with not only America but with humanity itself. Highlighting Whitman’s environment is not to suggest that he was any less America’s poet for the influences of his locale, but rather to suggest that Brooklyn was America — at least, at any rate, the America Whitman envisioned.
The 1850s were arguably the pinnacle of Brooklyn’s rise as a great American city, with a uniquely modern mix of cultural diversity, industrial might, and progressive thought. Henry Ward Beecher had recently established his immensely influential pulpit at Plymouth Church; diverse ethnic communities were living side-by-side with greater ease than anywhere else in the country, and the rate of sheer physical progress outpaced any other city in the nation.
One of the challenges in curating a visual impression of antebellum Brooklyn is not as much due to the relative scarcity of images as to the evolutionary nature of the city itself. Brooklyn in 1850 was an entirely different place than it was just twenty years earlier. Incorporated as a city in 1834, what was little more than a port village became an indefatigable boom town within a decade. It took less than two decades for Brooklyn to become a true metropolis, and by the mid-1850’s it was the third largest city in America.
The sheer physicality of this remarkable expansion is rarely contemplated as a foundational influence on Leaves of Grass, the first edition of which was published in 1855. But the material expression of the period’s unbridled optimism, the brute symbolism of American enterprise – economic, social, and spiritual – could not have failed to have an impact on the poet, especially considering the potent physical metaphors in the work itself.
Great is liberty! Great is equality! I am their follower,
Helmsmen of nations, choose your craft . . . . where you sail I sail,
Yours is the muscle of life or death . . . . yours is the perfect science . . . . in you I
have absolute faith.
Great is today, and beautiful,
It is good to live in this age . . . . there never was any better.
Great are the plunges and throes and triumphs and falls of democracy,
Great the reformers with their lapses and screams,
Great the daring and venture of sailors on new explorations.
The palpable momentum built by the architecture of Whitman’s words is what contributed in large measure to his eventual place as the first true American poet. No drawing-room reverie this, no diaphanous declarations these. Whitman’s words were as large as the pillars on Brooklyn City Hall, as heady as the Heights when the acres of peach trees blossomed; as powerful as the mechanics and masons who labored each day over two tumultuous decades of insatiable progress.
About the Images
Great care has been taken to provide the highest-quality visual experience. As such, the goal was to present these images not in their found condition (various stages of fading, discoloration, etc.), but as restored versions that evoke the spirit of the original.
Nothing has been altered except for the purposes of clarity, and to evoke a vivid sense of place. The one dimension in which a greater degree of artistic license has been undertaken is in some judicious modern tinting. This addition illuminates many images beyond their basic illustrative nature, and, incidentally, represents an idea that was popular in the time period as well.
About the Author
Russell Granger is the founder and CEO of Arch Digitals, a branding and marketing agency focused on strategy and design, and specializing in online marketing and commerce. He centered his research and archiving efforts on antebellum Brooklyn when family history pursuits led to the discovery of an association with Walt Whitman. With both a residence and offices in the Dumbo neighborhood of Brooklyn, Russell lives and works just a few streets away from several of his ancestral addresses from the 1830s and ’40s.
Contact: russell (at) archdigitals (dot) com or submit this form.
Whitman’s Brooklyn would not have been possible without the sponsorship and generous support of The Walt Whitman Project and its indefatigable founder and champion, Greg Trupiano. Grateful acknowledgment also goes to Erik Fortmeyer, Brooklyn historian and tireless scribe, whose research has been pivotal for the project. Also in our debt is Brian Merlis, the most relentless collector of Brooklyn photographs the world has ever known; Daniella Romano, Archivist at the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s Bldg 92 and the most charming historian the city has ever seen; Lisa DeBoer at the Brooklyn Public Library, Ruth Janson of the Brooklyn Museum, and Lon Black of the the Walt Whitman Project.