Lost in History, Vol. 31

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05/23/2007 12:00 AM |

Ah, the sun, the surf, the sail. The only slightly choppy waters of the East River (not a river at all in fact, but a tidal estuary) and the brilliant pre-summer sun charging down on us like so many armies of ultraviolet rays. The views of the isle of Manahatta from the middle of the river: the density and skyscrapery of the city vs. the space and enormity of Brooklyn. One doesn’t normally allow for this type of altered viewpoint, what with the constant move and shake and demands of our urban lifestyle. However, sometimes it is absolutely critical for one to get away from it all, even if “getting away” means boarding a schooner built in 1885 and sailing out into the middle of the harbor for two hours, listening to the poetry of Walt Whitman on his 188th birthday, which coincided with Memorial Day, last Monday.

Walt Whitman was an iconoclast, a true poet of Democracy and a chronicler of a newly burgeoning America, an America  shuddering and shifting with waves of immigration and radical industrial and economic changes. Born in 1819 to practically destitute parents (Mother was barely literate, Father was a carpenter and died while Walt was a child), Whitman received only six years of formal education while bouncing back and forth between Long Island and Brooklyn. At the age of thirteen he became a printer’s devil (the precedent to the intern) for the Long Island Patriot and started to fill in open passages in the paper with bits of “sentimental” material (read: sensationalist and fiercely patriotic articles); this was Walt’s first experience with the majesty of the printed word. Whitman bounced around more than a dozen papers and publications in New York and on Long Island through the 1840s, including the editorship of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle between 1846 and 1848.

Without a doubt, his most famous scripture is the poetry collection Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855, but constantly revised and edited throughout the remainder of Whitman’s life. The most important edition was published abroad in 1860, where it was an enormous success — especially in France, where Whitman’s Naturalist descriptions of the human body and the celebration of life encouraged the naturalist revolution in French letters. Leaves of Grass wasn’t such a success in the States upon its publication, standing as it did as a direct rebuke to the Victorian social mores of America at the time. Charles A. Dana, the book critic for the New York Times, wrote upon its publication that Leaves of Grass contained language that was “too frequently reckless and indecent … quite out of place amid the decorum of modern society.” Charles Elliot Norton wrote in Putnam’s Monthly that the slim volume of poetry was “superficial yet profound … preposterous yet somehow fascinating … mixture of Yankee Transcendentalism and New York rowdyism.”

Although he was hardly accepted by the mainstream press and readership, Whitman was justly elevated to near mythic status (his Christ-like beard and semi-obvious homosexuality helped) by a number of international poets and writers, both during his life (Oscar Wilde, Anne Gilchrist) and well after his death (Hart Crane, Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac). With the benefit of hindsight, we can see Whitman’s work as a rare, stupendous accomplishment: words and ideas liberated from the severe public construct of the era and standing for all time as a celebration of the human body, spirit and soul over politics, economics, war, and all the other day-to-day happenings of the topical and mundane. Whitman died in 1892, and his works have been in constant publication since.

So, how best to celebrate Whitman’s beauty and poetry? Why, on board an 1885 schooner, courtesy of the South Street Seaport Museum! The Museum, located on Fulton Street, a fish’s scale from the old Dutch Clipper Ships in the East River, celebrates New York’s mostly forgotten maritime culture, and proudly features a number of ships, some docked in the harbor as well as some that set sail on daily excursions. The Peking (1911), Wavertree (1885), and Ambrose (1908) are all permanently moored off of the piers at South Street and are open as museums to the public. Those that cruise out around the harbor include the Pioneer (which Dad Levy and I boarded last Monday, on one of our notorious New York City geek dates), the Lettie G. Howard (1893), and the W. O. Decker (1930); these three ships, along with making multiple public sails a day, can be rented for chartered events and training opportunities. The Seaport Museum is always looking for volunteers, so anyone interested in the ages-old science of mooring, masting, and shouting “Leeward wind off the starboard side!” can and should sign up for a sail or three. Those interested in just going for the ride, it should be noted, can do so with a bottle of wine and a picnic lunch on board the 2-hour tour. While on board, bring a copy of Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, and read it to yourself or your honey (or your father). Close your eyes, listen to the gulls, and thank Walt for bringing the experience alive for the ages.