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But I thought about it because this is a presidential election year and, at the age of 21, Whitman took on his first active...
By Kenneth Kowald
May 31 is Walt Whitmans birthday. No big deal this year, however; since he was born in 1819, this is not a special anniversary.
But I thought about it because this is a presidential election year and, at the age of 21, Whitman took on his first active involvement in politics and he did it right here in Queens in a presidential election year.
According to David Reynolds, author of Walt Whitmans America (Knopf, 1995), Whitman served in the fall of 1840 as the official Democratic electioneer for Queens County and he engaged in political debates.
Lets back up a bit.
Whitman was born to parents of English-Dutch background and Quaker persuasion in West Hills in Huntington, L.I. in a house his father built that same year. Now a state historic site off Route 110, it is referred to as a fine example of native Long Island craftsmanship in the states brochure.
But the family, mainly of Long Island farming ancestry, did not do well and by the time he was 4, Whitman and the family moved to Brooklyn, where the father was a carpenter. There Whitman got what little formal education he was to receive to the age of 11, 12 or 13, depending on whom you read.
Clearly that education was sufficient to supply the future poet not only with an appreciation of the reading resources he devoured but with a love of art, music, opera, the theater, philosophy and nature. He wrote that often in his later years on Long Island, he would walk the beaches declaiming Shakespeare and Homer.
Whitman was in various places, and at various times in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Long Island he was a newspaper writer, editor and publisher, as well as a printers devil, carpenter, teacher and novelist. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he came out with Leaves of Grass (although the book sold very few copies) in 1855. It was at this time that he began to call himself Walt Whitman and not Walter.
He spent the rest of his life adding to and revising Leaves of Grass, which contained many subsections, such as that containing his powerful poems of the Civil War, Drum Taps. In his prose works after the war, Whitman lamented the decline of the American character as he had known it in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island and as a male nurse on the battlefields of the war.
He denounced the greed that had overtaken politics and the people. He also reminisced about his life. Much of that prose beautifully captures what life was like in America in the early and mid 19th century.
By then he had become The Good Grey Poet and, in the opinion of many then and now the nations greatest poet. For many, his When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomd, on the death of President Abraham Lincoln, is the finest threnody written in this country and perhaps the finest in the English language. When read aloud, as all great poetry should be read, it is a moving, devastating and ultimately transcendent work of art.
But lets get back to 1840 and Queens. While teaching in Smithtown from 1837 to 1838, Whitman joined a local debating society and was its secretary for awhile. Records indicate he was against slavery, discouragement of foreign emigration to this country and the maltreatment of American Indians by the early colonists, and he supported abolition of capital punishment.
A bit later, Whitman taught for six months at the Jamaica Academy at Flushing Hill, between Flushing and Jamaica. And from 1839 to 1840 he taught in another school in Little Bayside, according to Reynolds.
The fall of 1840 was a tough one for Democrats. Martin Van Buren (born in upstate New York) was Andrew Jacksons second vice president and had won the presidency in his own right in 1836. But despite many good qualities (Samuel Eliot Morison wrote that he deserved re-election), he fell prey to the most idiotic presidential contest in our history, Morison wrote. Morisons Oxford History of the American People was published in 1965, so who knows what he might have written later.
Reynolds wrote that Whitman got an acidic reception in early October 1840, when he took on a Whig opponent in a debate in Jamaica. Reporting on the debate, The Long Island Farmer charged that Whitman used the most false and scurrilous assertions in his arguments and warned him that if he acted this way again he might face severe and deserved chastisement.
I dont know if Whitman debated again, but the Whigs ousted Van Buren in a landslide, mainly on the slogan Tippecanoe and Tyler too! Imagine a presidential race was won, most historians agree, not on the facts or ideas but on slogans. How times have changed.
Van Buren, however, was the overall winner in the counties of what is today New York City. And in Queens he managed to get 2,550 votes to William Harrisons 2,522.
Whitman went back to teaching, writing, editing, publishing, carpentering and, thankfully for the glory of American literature and the English language, to becoming the magnificent poet we know.
In his poem A Child Went Forth, Whitman shows that everything the child saw and did each day became a part of him. In his poetry, Whitman tried to incorporate all he saw and heard in a busy life. In that life he also found time, as we have seen, while he Sat and Looked Out to engage in Queens in the kind of citizen activity that remains of such vital importance to the preservation of our democracy.
Debater, writer, editor, carpenter, poet, American: Happy 185th birthday, Walt Whitman.
©2004 Community Newspaper Group
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