Walt Whitman birthplace
246 Old Walt Whitman Road (off Route 110)
In the midst of a sprawl of suburban development (across from the “Walt Whitman Mall”) is the carefully preserved family home of the Good Gray (Gay?) Poet, Walt Whitman. Built somewhere between 1810 and 1816 by Whitman’s father, the small shingle house, originally located on sixty acres of farmland, was the site of the poet’s birth and very early childhood. By that year, Whitmans had been farming in the vicinity known as West Hills since the mid-1600s, and the region is still sprinkled with historic structures associated with the extended family.
Whitman’s birthplace is now a museum and state historic site that is open to the public. (It’s shown above in a 1903 photo.) Downstairs are period rooms, while upstairs is a modern exhibit with photos and documents from Whitman’s life, including a first edition of Leaves of Grass. Not surprisingly, the museum’s interpretation of Whitman is missing any overt reference to his homosexuality. His lover Peter Doyle, for example, is referred to as his “Confederate veteran pal” – but to their credit, the curators do display the well-known photo of Walt and Pete sitting close together, looking very much like a queer couple.
Whitman’s father moved his family to Brooklyn in 1823 to pursue a career in carpentry and construction, but when an economic depression hit in the late 1830s, the family returned to Long Island. Over the next few years, young Walt – who himself left his formal schooling behind at age 11 – taught school in a number of Long Island towns, including briefly at the Smithtown Schoolhouse, 9 Singer Lane, earning $72.70 for five months of work. The desk he used as a schoolmaster at the Woodbury School, Woodbury Road and Jericho Turnpike, is on display at the birthplace.
During his teaching years, Whitman used his early training in printing to found The Long Islander, a weekly newspaper out of Huntington that is still in circulation (its masthead includes, “Founded by Walt Whitman”). On his own, he wrote, edited, typeset, and delivered the paper. Restless to try something else, he sold the paper the following year, but over the next 20 years, he continued to hold editorial positions at various newspapers on Long Island, in Brooklyn, and in New York. In his editorials he was outspoken in his advocacy of social, economic, and political reform.
The years he spent on Long Island proved an influential part of Walt Whitman’s upbringing. A frequent swimmer at Montauk Point, Whitman’s poetry abounds with sensual references to the power and beauty of the ocean. Many of his early sketches and short stories from the 1830s contain typical Long Island scenes. And his 1882 reminiscences, Specimen Days and Collect, include many recollections of the people among whom he had lived – the most “hospitable, upright, common-sensible people anywhere about.”
You sea! I resign myself to you also – I guess what you mean,
I behold from the beach your crooked inviting fingers,
I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me,
We must have a turn together, I undress, hurry me out of sight of the land,
Cushion me soft, rock me in billowy drowse,
Dash me with amorous wet, I can repay you.
–Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”