HISTORICAL CORNER

Walt Whitman’s birthplace

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Each week, reporter and history-lover Mariana Dominguez visits a historical location on Long Island. This week she visited the Walt Whitman Birthplace and Interpretive Center in South Huntington.

I will confess that I knew very little about Walt Whitman before I visited his birthplace in South Huntington. The grounds feature the house in which Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, as well as an interpretive center that features a chronological history of Whitman’s life and some important artifacts from his time period, including a writing desk used by Whitman when he was a schoolteacher and a first edition of “Leaves of Grass.” I was guided around the Whitman house by a lovely tour guide named Barbara, who was extremely knowledgeable about the house and grounds.

Largely self-educated, Whitman worked as a newspaper printer in New York City until the economy worsened in the 1830s and he returned to Long Island to work as a schoolteacher. Whitman did not enjoy teaching and always wrote and dreamed of his other pursuits. In 1838, he founded The Long-Islander, Huntington’s weekly newspaper that is still in existence today. In 1839, he sold the business. In 1855, Whitman published the first edition of “Leaves of Grass,” a collection of 12 untitled poems. Whitman’s free verse was considered strange by the contemporaries of the day, and he did not receive critical acclaim on any of his work until after his death. Today, his poems are considered American masterpieces and have been translated into numerous languages. His poetry is credited with being “uniquely American” in style and theme.

The farmhouse in which Whitman was born was built by his father, Walter Whitman Sr., in 1816, and is maintained jointly by the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. The Walt Whitman Birthplace Association was organized in 1949 and they purchased Whitman’s birthplace. Visitors can tour two whole floors of the farmhouse, which is set up to look like it would have when Whitman lived there. The Whitman family only lived in the house until 1823, when they decided to move into Brooklyn.

The interpretive center is a great building, with artifacts as well as a small stage for presentations. Barbara, my guide, played a short biographical video about Whitman as well as a video of Whitman reading his poem “America.”

In the gardens outside the farmhouse is a gorgeous statue donated by Daisaku Ikeda, a Buddhist leader, educator and poet, who was awarded the Champion of Literacy award. The Champion of Literacy award was established in 2009 by the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association to honor “individuals who enhance the impact of literacy through their body of work.” Ikeda was especially fond of Whitman and donated the statue to the birthplace of the man who inspired him.

The Walt Whitman Birthplace is a great place to visit if you love history or American literature. Many local libraries offer discounted or free tickets for up to a party of four. Next time you go up to the Walt Whitman Mall, make sure you plan a stop at this historic site! 

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