February 4, 2013

Finding Walt Whitman


Walt Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass while he was living at 99 Ryerson Street.

Failing to fetch me at first,
keep encouraged.
Missing me one place, search another.
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

In the midst of an apartment hunt in Brooklyn — a search for a little inexpensive one bedroom with windows, a functional kitchen, and enough space for books — I heard the rumor that Walt Whitman had lived up the block.

Research yielded confirmation: Ryerson Street, one of the short streets between Myrtle Ave and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, was indeed the home of Walt Whitman while he was writing Leaves of Grass, a fact unearthed by Paul Berman in the 1995 New Yorker article “Walt Whitman’s Ghost.”

Berman recounts the story of this discovery, with help from elderly Elias Wilentz, proprietor of Greenwich Village’s bygone Eighth Street Bookshop, and his Princeton professor and Bob Dylan biographer son Sean.

Walt Whitman’s house today.

The elder Wilentz had led an unsuccessful campaign in the 1960s to preserve the printshop at Cadman Plaza where Leaves of Grass was typeset, and all three were inspired three decades later to set out on foot to see what they could find.

They knew that a building belonging to the Whitman family was on Ryerson Street, “three hundred and eighty feet from the corner of Myrtle” from a reference in Gay Wilson Allen’s biography The Solitary Singer. After physically counting out the steps, more definitive research into directories and real estate records from 1855 revealed the exact address where Whitman lived: 99 Ryerson St.

As Berman explains, Leaves of Grass was written by someone who already considered himself a ghost who “whispered to his future readers.”

He wrote about himself as if he had already died, and he wanted you to know that, even so, a hundred years later or hundreds of years later, he would always be standing by, a benign incubus, ready to clasp you by the hand or take you into his arms.

Since that New Yorker article, “Whitman-iacs” like NYU Professor Karen Karbiener have paid their respects to the ghost of Walt Whitman by visiting the unassuming white house that stands one story taller than the others next to it. Her excitement to share Walt Whitman’s Brooklyn with her students is palpable in a blog post about the field trip. As Berman says,

Anybody who has spent a little time over “Leaves of Grass” ought to be able to understand why one or another long-lost building associated with Whitman might incite a bit of feeling.

Now that I’m moved in, Whitman’s ghost has inspired me to flip through his complete prose works (there’s a beautiful Library of America edition) and read Walt Whitman’s America by David S. Reynolds.

When family and friends ask about the new place, I try my best to describe the apartment and the neighborhood. I say “there are three closets, friendly neighbors, lots of light — and the spirit of Walt Whitman.”



Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.