Walt Whitman’s Long Island
February 1888. The decrepit, ancient-looking Walt Whitman, a displaced Long Islander, was in his upstairs bedroom in his small townhouse on Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey, his home in his later years. He was sitting in his rocking chair and reading a newspaper. It was The Long–Islander, published in Huntington and delivered every week to Walt in Camden, 140 miles away. The Long–Islander. His paper. He had founded it back in 1838, when he was the nineteen-year-old Walter Whitman, a journalist and an aspiring poet. In Camden, Walt subscribed to the paper because it brought back memories of his native Long Island.
Walt was born in 1819 in West Hills, just below Huntington, and at age three was taken by his family to live in Brooklyn, then a town of 8,000 but growing rapidly. For more than four decades, Brooklyn was his home base. During those years, he ferried often to Manhattan, and he lived intermittently all over Long Island. He ran The Long–Islander in Huntington for a time and taught in one-room schoolhouses in Woodbury, West Babylon, Smithtown, Southold, and other towns, as he roamed about the island.
Long Island embodied for him the beauty and the rhythms of nature, which led him to extol life as an ongoing miracle in his poetry collection Leaves of Grass. “All along the island and its shores,” he recalled, “I spent intervals many years, all seasons, sometimes riding, sometimes boating, but generally afoot, (I was always then a good walker,) absorbing fields, shores, marine incidents, characters, the bay-men, farmers, ship pilots.”
Walking around Long Island. Those were the days. Now, at 68, he was a physical wreck, stranded in Camden. A series of strokes—“whacks” he called them—had left him partly paralyzed. He was, as he wrote in his journal, “almost altogether disabled in walking power & bodily movement.” He had headaches, dizziness, indigestion, and constipation. With his long white hair, billowing beard, drooping eyelids, and creased face, he looked like a ruined Santa—or, in his words, “an old, dismasted, gray and batter’d ship.”
The floor around him was a chaos of letters, books, and manuscripts of poems and prose. Many of the papers were fan mail requesting his autograph or a photo. Somewhere in the clutter was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1855 letter hailing Walt’s Leaves of Grass as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.”
Yes, Emerson’s letter had helped. Not at first, when Walt was a nobody and had to give away collections of his unconventional prose-poetry for free, but later on, after the Civil War, when many others came to appreciate him, inspired in part by Emerson’s praise. Now, Walt was world famous. He was a brand name too: there was a Whitman cigar, a Whitman calendar, Whitman anthologies, and a Whitman church. Not that Walt profited from the spin-offs (rip-offs, actually, in that era of uncertain royalties). He barely got by, mainly through contributions from well-wishers. But the fame was gratifying. He was visited in Camden by assorted notables like Oscar Wilde and Andrew Carnegie.
Walt looked across Mickle Street at the row houses, just like his. He sighed. Camden was a dreary town, with noisy factories and shabby houses–the refuge, a journalist of the time joked, for those who were in doubt, debt, or despair. Walt had moved there in 1873, at age 53, when he was alone, impoverished, and had just suffered his first stroke. He needed the financial and emotional support of his married brother George, a well-paid inspector of water pipes in Camden. Now, having lived there for fifteen years, Walt considered Camden his home too. He was making plans to be buried in Camden.
Walt looked down at the newspaper. He thought back to the days when he used to write, print, and publish The Long–Islander all by himself—and deliver it too, riding his horse Nina to homes all over Suffolk and Nassau counties.
And The Long–Islander was still in print after all these years! It was far superior, Walt insisted, to any of the Camden papers. A really fine local newspaper. All about the people, events, and sights on Long Island, still Walt’s spiritual home.
He called the island Paumanok, Indian for “land that pays tribute.” The term referred either to wampum (shell beads) that the natives paid to other tribes for protection or to the symbolic tribute that the island, shaped like a fish and surrounded by salt water, paid to the sea. Walt, who often referred to his “fish-shaped island,” accepted the latter definition. Nostalgia overtook him when he wrote about Long Island. “O to go back to the place I was born!/….O to continue and be employ’d there all my life,” went his poem “Song of Joys,” which dwelt on the island’s barns, fields, bays, and “the briny and damp smell—the shore—the salt weeds exposed at low water.”
When describing Long Island to visitors in Camden, he extended his forearm and held out two separated fingers. He would point below his arm and say, here’s the Great South Bay, where I dug for clams in the summer and went eel spearing on the ice in the winter. Above my arm is Long Island Sound. The island’s coastlines, he remarked, had a unique “salt-marshiness” as they stretched eastward
And here, he said, pointing to his two separated fingers, is the fish’s tail, the North and South forks. Here near the knuckle of my lower finger is Sag Harbor, a town with many fine houses and stores. In the space between my fingers is Shelter Island, and, a short ferry ride to the north, is Greenport, where my sister Mary, her husband Ansel, and their five children lived.
Walt recalled his many visits to Greenport. Early on, the trip there took nearly three days; the only regular transportation that far east was by mail stagecoaches that took post roads, with overnight stops in towns like Hicksville and Setauket. Then in the 1840s came the Long Island Railroad, which chugged along at 26 miles per hour, shortening the trip to 3 ½ hours. Greenport, not one of the Hamptons, was chosen as the railroad’s terminus—not only because, like Sag Harbor, it was an important fishing town but also because it provided what was then the speediest route between New York and Boston, via ships from Orient Point.
When Walt visited Mary in Greenport, he frequently took the opportunity to explore the East End. He loved the local people because they were close to the earth. He talked with the fishermen, the farmers, and “the strange, unkempt, half-barbarous herdsmen, at that time living there entirely aloof from society or civilization.” He also observed the area’s tribes, the Montauks and the Shinnecocks.
Back then, one didn’t go to the East End to be chic. Just the opposite. “The eastern end of Long Island,” Walt wrote, “affords a relief from the trammels of fashion.” For Walt, the East End permitted an immersion in raw nature. One of his favorite pastimes was sailing around Shelter Island and out to Montauk Point. Invigorated by the wind and the ocean, he would scamper over the rocks below the Montauk lighthouse, wave his hat wildly, imitate the cries of the seagulls, and scream out stormy passages from Shakespeare, who was, for Walt, a force of nature. (Here, as in many other ways, Walt resembled his contemporary Abe Lincoln, who, like him, had little formal education but could recite Shakespeare). Remembering these yelling sessions, Walt wrote wryly, “I doubt whether these astonished echoes ever vibrated with such terrible ado.” Most of all, Walt enjoyed just standing on the Montauk rocks and looking at the broad expanse of the sea.
Montauk Point…those younger days. So different from Camden, where Walt’s ship had run aground, even as his fame had soared.
Old Walt sat and mused. He had recently contracted with the New York Herald, the nation’s most popular newspaper, to write a series of short poems. The paper had already published two of his memory poems, “Paumanok” and “Mannahatta.”
He picked up a scrap of paper, dipped a quill into an inkstand and scribbled a new title: “From Montauk Point.” His mind went far back in time, to an afternoon when he had gazed at the Atlantic. “I stand as on some mighty eagle’s beak,” he wrote,
Eastward the sea absorbing, viewing, (nothing
but sea and sky)
The tossing waves, the foam, the ships in the
The wild unrest, the snowy, curling caps—that
inbound urge and urge of waves,
Seeking the shores forever.
It was a simple poem, a spontaneous reminiscence jotted down between bouts of indigestion. But it captured Walt’s spirit.
The sea, the distance, the foam, the waves—urgent, restless, ceaselessly seeking shores. This was nature, its rhythms and its beauty. This was life, forever a miracle.
As Walt Whitman was the first to tell the world, this was Long Island.