Literary pilgrimages are best saved for internal musing, since the drive to go stand inside the homes where the great poets or other artists lived stirs up deep sediment that doesn't really serve anyone else except the primary visitor. It is a personal matter. I mean, which writer among us can really properly convey the feeling and meaning of just being there in the same room where Walt Whitman was born? Hell if it's going to be me.
However, I would like to just note it for the record: Standing in the room where Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, which is the downstairs bedroom of the farmhouse Walt Whitman's father built in the West Hills area of Huntington on Long Island in 1816, exceeded my own expectations.
I've stood in front of or been in houses where Edgar Allen Poe lived; where Emily Dickinson wrote in genius seclusion; Hawthorne was born Salem; where the poet Charles Olson pumped out his Gloucester poems; where James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein and Anais Nin worked in Paris ... but there is something more fundamental about Whitman, at least for me, not only because of his humanism, progressiveness and his marriage of personal and political, but because he hailed from Long Island, my birthplace.
That the farmhouse still stands is the first miracle. What was once a 60-acre farm in the middle of other farmland is now one acre set inside high fencing to secure the historical site from the suburban sprawl of shopping centers and housing development. Another part of Walt Whitman's legacy, among the most seminal and iconic and landmark artists in American or literary history, is that his name is born on the shopping mall that stretches down Route 110 (Walt Whitman Road) in Huntington across from the poet's birthplace. Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale's, Williams-Sonoma: These may not be any of the things Whitman catalogued in his newspaper accounts or verse, but there these big box stores sit, surrounding the sedate grounds where the Whitman house stands.
And while it's definitely weird trying to find the Whitman Birthplace site amidst the clutter and clatter of modern-day (i.e. car-addled/store-riddled) Long Island, it turns out to be OK.
For the poet who celebrated himself and gave ample, sprawling voice to the burgeoning song of Democracy, the scrum and mess of society blithely whizzes around and past the former pastureland where Whitman was birthed. Thanks to efforts in 1949, when the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association was formed, and continued advocacy and fundraising via former Newsday newspaper publisher Alice Patterson, the site was preserved from the fast-encroaching suburban development. The state of New York helps administer the site along with the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, which has erected a statue of the poet and a modern loft-like building that houses a shop and reading space.
The entire site and experience is worth the trip and the $6 for the guided tour of the house. On the crisp November day I visited, an enthusiastic guide led me across the lawn and into the home, which Walt Whitman Sr. grandly built as a model home to show prospective clients just what he could build for them, too. We entered the foyer, then the parlor, with its wide-plank wood floors and custom, built-in cabinets and large windows. Then, we walked through to the bedroom where, the guide said: "And this is where Walt Whitman was born."
Whatever sense of being in a semi-sacred space that I had had just walking through the front door of the home was, in that instance, amplified. Most of it came from the striking realization that for everything Whitman did, everything he became and remains, started in one room. I was in a real place that stands in concrete confirmation against the decades and centuries of the Whitman who became the poetic father and god and enduring definition of a hearty, heralded strain of the new American poetic canon.
In a world of shopping malls and cars and democracy under siege, the sanctuary of the Whitman home was palpable. It was made even more so by my profound sense that, stripped of the noise and the Internet and the virtual world I have come to inhabit for great chunks of time, Whitman walked from Long Island to Brooklyn to Washington to the Civil War battlefields and hospitals to Camden, NJ and witnessed his world, his America, unfolding in real time. Our songs of ourselves these days ... hard to not see them by comparison as wanting. But at least the visit got me reconnected to some time and some place distilled of distraction, distilled to its essential point and purpose.