Walt Whitman House Final Research Paper & Slides For LGBTQ Historic Site

William Kurach

Prof. Gieseking

Queer America

May 10, 2016

Walt Whitman’s Queer Brooklyn


The poet Walt Whitman occupies an imposing position in the landscape of American literary history, and of American history itself. Both popularly and academically Whitman has been afforded a mythic centrality to the turbulent nineteenth century, and to subsequent shift of poetic style in America. But Whitman’s innovations, namely, the creative, philosophical and political ideals he celebrated in his expansive poetic output, were as much born out of the nineteenth century’s complicated discursive codes and expectations as they were threats to them.   Which is the locus around which Americans have understood a cultural transformation. A disharmonious and embattled America produced a young poet, and that poet in turn poetically re-produced a nation whose self-conception prized individualism and the existence of transcendental democratic comradeship. The extent to Whitman can be seen as causal in the nineteenth century’s political shifts is dubious, but Whitman’s reputation is safe as a literary figure that with the same pen defined American literature and Americanism itself.

Not incidental to Whitman’s life and work was his homosexuality. Some of his most enduring work is not only deeply homoerotic, but this homoeroticism serves a necessary function in his re-imagining of a collective America democracy. The first edition of Leaves of Grass and the Calamus cluster of future editions provide the clearest and most forceful articulations of Whitman’s homosexual political ethos. Whitman imagined affection between men in terms of “adherence,” a phrase borrowed from phrenology. He envisioned the interpersonal eros of masculine bonds as bearing the potential to bridge the fissures of an America divided by ante-bellum political and economic upheavals and the ensuing war. The centrality of homosexual love to Whitman’s poetic-democratic project was either ignored by readers during his lifetime or he was vilified for it. However, today Whitman is widely regarded both critically and popularly as a queer figure—that is, one who embodied and lived forms of gender and sexual non-normativity. I use queer because it is historically neutral and suggests connections between historical modes of sexual resistance and contemporary ones. But while never himself a part of any defined sexual community or identity, Whitman has been regarded for close to a century as a folk hero in LGBTQ circles, and as the father of a legacy of queer writers whose identities were formed and expressed through and around the discursive limits on their language and culture.

Another crucial element in Whitman’s social and cultural genealogy is the city of Brooklyn, which served as the site of his boyhood and a place to which he would return during the earliest and most productive years of his poetic career. Collectively, the poet spent 28 years of his life in Brooklyn, more than in any other place. For a year between 1855 and 1856, Whitman lived in the house at 99 Ryerson Street in the Wallabout neighborhood (today Clinton Hill). It was during this time that he published Leaves of Grass, the work considered synonymous with literary and civic legacy. In addition to this biographical and historical significance, 99 Ryerson holds the honor of being the only extant former Whitman residence in New York City.

I will argue that naming the house at 99 Ryerson to the National Register of Historic Places as an LGBTQ landmark honors the ways Whitman’s greatest literary accomplishments were born out of queer experience. Such recognition also draws attention to the alternate literary and cultural histories of LGBTQ Americans, and in making an effort to draw such histories into concert, help to demonstrate that queer history is American history. I also will argue that choosing the house on Ryerson serves to “pin down” Whitman’s life in the city onto a space. Such a landmark would allow us to consider the ways Brooklyn informed Whitman’s queer identity and his national and democratic imaginaries, as well as the ways Whitman had a hand in the historic and material organization of the city.

Literature Review

Whitman as National Bard

Walt Whitman was born in 1819 in Long Island, New York. As a young adult, he apprenticed for several newspaper printers in Long Island and too up the profession full time when he turned of age. In 1855 he self-published a book of poems, Leaves of Grass. Its first two editions were critical and commercial failures, but a third (1865) edition proved an instant and sustained success, and catapulted him to literary stardom.

Whitman is often critically and popularly regarded as the most important poet in American history. In an introduction to a 2005 edition of Leaves of Grass, literary critic Harold Bloom describes Leaves as the “Secular Scripture of the United States of America” and Whitman as “the American bard, our Homer and our Milton, [the one that] broke the new road for the New World” (Bloom vii). Whitman’s work is regarded as so important because of both his formal innovations and his boundary-exploding re-negotiations of self, identity, and nation—negotiations that happened at a time when moral and political crises threatened America’s coherence as a state.

Whitman the initial 1855 publication of Leaves of Grass begins with the radical and provocative declaration “I celebrate myself” (LG 1855). The poems made liberal use of free verse line form and were deployed a shifting and ambiguous voice that often addressed the reader directly (Killingsworth 26). Whitman’s book took as its subject an exultation of the self, grounded in a transcendentalist experience of nature (Whitman was fond of Thoreau and Emerson) and sensual bodily experience. The poems touched on matters common to working class people, a decisive step away from contemporary literary norms. Whitman was widely if not exclusively responsible for initially ushering in Modern poetry in America,  a style that focused on the patters of everyday speech and the concerns of everyday people.

Whitman’s poetic voice foregrounded the body as a site of spiritual experience and situated knowledge. Never before had a major American poet articulated such an ethics of individualism. In a third-person editorial Whitman appended to the beginning of his book, he presented himself as an “American bard at last” (LG 1855). Whitman’s poetic concerns were the concerns of the nation, his people the people of America. His poems affirmed a belief in America’s transcendental democracy and its moral destiny. Whitman’s development of a poetic voice that bled between the rugged individual and the plural democratic nation was a critical innovation that helped to produce a conception of American individualism and democracy that still governs today.

For fans and scholars of Whitman, this period just before the publication of Leaves of Grass represents a kind of mystery. It is not clear what sort of experience or concentration of skill took place that transformed Whitman, a career newspaper printer with some scattered but middling poetic output, into a man that could pull off the most stunning literary coup in American history. In an appreciation, the poet C.K. Williams expresses his perpetual amazement at Whitman’s feat:

Whitman’s craft, his skill was supreme during that first blazing burst when he was compiling the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass… there was no place he could have “learned” his craft: it evolved along with his identity, with his very self… It’s as though his actual physical brain went through some incredible mutation, as though—a little science fiction, why not?—aliens had transported him down again with a new mind, a new poetry apparatus. It’s really that crazy. (Williams 2-3)

Scholars have always struggled to explain Whitman’s sudden shift, but what is readily apparent is that while on one side we have an anxious young poet and on the other lies a cultural icon with the seeming capacity to manipulate time and space as he spins verses that aim to bridge the nation’s divisions.

Whitman and Queer Identity

Not incidental to Whitman’s life and work was his homosexuality. The poet’s letters suggest he had several affectional or erotic relationships with men over the course of his lifetime, most notably with Washington D.C. streetcar conductor Peter Doyle. Such relationships could be understood as homosocial, and organized by the affectional terms of family. For instance, Whitman would refer to his younger partner as a son or nephew, and his partner might call him “father” (Katz 219). Whitman’s nineteenth century world was predominantly homosocial in this way, and deeply emotional affective relationships between men were common, particularly during times of war and in the middle class, in which men and women occupied highly separated organized by labor (Bronski 32).

Expressing queer desire and describing homosexual physical relations as a key part of one’s poetic project, however, was not only uncommon, but a deeply controversial challenge to expectations of the sorts of relationships used to organize national identities.. Whitman’s poetic homoeroticism became an integral part of his re-imagining of a collective democratic America, particularly as a form of comradeship that had the capacity to bound the nations wounds. The first edition of Leaves of Grass features repeated references to homo- and auto-erotic acts, often in ways that blur the two:

You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me,

And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestript


And reached till you felt my beard, and reached till you held my feet (LG 1855)

Whitman manages to to foreground sexually non-normative behavior while using a fluid poetic voice. With it, he seizes a degree of evasiveness and ambiguity. The second edition’s Calamus cluster made more explicit the connections between Whitman’s homosexual ethos and his political ideals. Whitman wrote of affection between men in terms of “adhesiveness,” as defined against affection between men and women, which he termed “amativeness” (Reyonolds 247). Whitman envisioned adhesiveness as bearing the potential to bridge the fissures of an America divided by war, economic instability, and political contention. Take this excerpt:

O my comrade!

O you and me at last—and us two only;

O power, liberty, eternity at last!

O to be relieved of distinctions! to make as much

of vices as virtues!

O to level occupations and the sexes! O to bring

all to common ground! O adhesiveness! (LG 1860)

Whitman borrows from progressive political rhetoric and medical pseudo-science at once to imagine a life beyond the sexual norms and expectations of the nineteenth century, something I read as a queer form of subject assembly when presented with one’s own cultural illegibility.

The centrality of homoerotic affection to Whitman’s poetic-democratic project was ignored by many during his lifetime and for nearly century beyond it. Gay Wilson Allen’s 1955 The Solitary Singer was the fist critical biography to recognize Whitman’s homoeroticism. Robert K. Martin’s influential 1978 book The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry reads Whitman as the literary progenitor of an entire lineage of homosexual writers whose culture and self-identity was transmitted through creative indirection. He calls scholarly attempts to disprove Whitman’s homosexuality “lies, half truths, and distortions so shameful as to amount to a deliberate attempt to alter reality to suit a particular view of normality” (Martin 3). Whitman scholars have since made great strides in acknowledging the importance of the poet’s sexuality to his life and work.

Michael Bronski charts a key link between Whitman’s poetic articulations of queer masculinity and the work of Carpenter and Symonds, British sexologists who developed a theory of “eros” similar to that of Whitman’s democratic comradeship (Bronski 81). Symonds wrote to Whitman directly and asked if Whitman allowed that his proposed comradeship might lead to “semi-sexual emotions and actions” between men (Reynolds 198). Whitman explicitly denied this suggestion, and claimed to have fathered six children, a claim widely considered false and sometimes read as a joke (Katz 220). Whitman’s ideas no doubt contributed to emerging discourses and public awareness of a defined homosexual subjectivity, but Whitman himself never admitted publicly endorsed homosexual life. Whitman instead only allows us to read him through his poetry and his correspondence.

Contemporary critics are more careful in assigning Whitman to categories such as “gay” which are not historical for mid nineteenth century America. Instead, we can read Whitman’s powerful and creative negotiations of non-normative gender and sexual identity as attempts to conjure up new form American citizenship, a standard that is essentially democratic. This body of work represents a fundamentally queer literary and political legacy, one that aims to reshape terms of citizenship as well as the terms of statehood in ways that challenge power.

Whitman became a part of what Gerard Koskovitch calls a “folk historiography” for LGBTQ people in the 20th century. He points to Blair Niles’ 1931 novel Strange Brother, in which a homosexual character is given a copy of Leaves of Grass before leaving for New York City. Whitman’s poems have been reprinted in LGBTQ publications such as one, found as easily in in a 1960 Boston Mattachine Society newsletter and as in a 1957 copy of Swiss gay magazine Der Kreiss. (both excerpts described an ideal “city of friends” populated exclusively by men—LG 1860).

Whitman and his works are still understood as an important part of American LGBTQ legacy today. The recently erected New York City Aids Memorial is floored by stone paved with inlaid excerpts from “Song of Myself.” The piece’s artist, Jenny Holzer, described the poem as  “a beauty from a man in full and glad possession of his body” (Harris). The memorial encourages visitors to use an app which allows one to hold up a smartphone camera to the poem to see other text by visitors and queer artists digitally overlaid. The pride of place Whitman plays in this monument gestures at the ways he is considered an important and deeply meaningful part of queer culture, and that the literary strategies he developed for the expression of the body remain relevant to today’s continuing queer struggles to claim physical and cultural space.

The Brooklyn Bard

Whitman spent 28 years of his life living in Brooklyn, including the earliest years of his childhood and his earliest years as a poet. Brooklyn proved without a doubt the most formative place for the young poet, who himself is often referred to as the “poet of place” (Allen 165) Whitman saw Brooklyn as an intermediate between the civilization and culture of Manhattan across the East River, and the rural lands of Long Island. Whitman saw Long Island as his natal home, the place he wrote about fondly and repeatedly as “Paumanok.” Manhattan, on the other hand, was the place Whitman frequently travelled to in order to absorb culture such as theater and music, as well as to travel to distributors and publishing houses later on in his career. For Whitman, Brooklyn represented a harmony between the authentic rural origins of the American nation and the economically volatile, socially diverse modernity of the city. His poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” sees him on the waters between the two, exclaiming, “Stand up, tall masts of Mannahatta! stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn!” (LG 1855). Brooklyn became Whitman’s poetic surrogate for the nation itself (Reynolds 32). The city also held symbolic import to Whitman as the site of the Battle of Brooklyn during the Revolutionary War, a turning point in the conflict in which his grandfather had fought (45). Leaves of Grass features a tripartite reference to three sites of intense national significance to Whitman: Mount Vernon, Saratoga, and Wallabout bay, in Brooklyn (LG 1855), where the British had kept prison ships and in whose memory which Whitman later helped establish a memorial.

Brooklyn provided a space for Whitman to develop his detailed and unique understanding of what and who constituted America. It was an industrial and shipping and it existed in a state of continuous growth throughout Whitman’s life. A city of around 20,000 people in Whitman’s youth, by 1855 it boasted 140,000 (Hugh). From 1860-1890 it was the third largest city in America. The rapid growth was sustained by European immigrants, and by 1847 Brooklyn was two thirds German. The 30s to the 50s saw enormous development, particularly in the factory districts near the water, which brought even more workers in (Hughes 14).

Brooklyn was home to a number of churches of various faiths. Because Whitman’s father was not religious, Whitman attended two different Sunday schools and several churches (Reynolds 34). This can be read as a source of the boundary-burring spirituality Whitman engages in his poems to make sense of his embodied experience. Brooklyn’s religious diversity also got Whitman hooked on the sermons of Quaker preacher Elias Hicks and the orator Henry Ward Beecher (Hughes 15). Such opportunities allowed Whitman to develop a sense of and appreciation for orality, an instinct he would incorporate into his formal poetic style.

Other forms of local diversity provided opportunities for Whitman’s personal and intellectual development. Brooklyn had as many as 1432 slaves among a population of 4,500 in 1812 (Allen 53). When Slavery was abolished in 1827, most blacks were segregated to the cramped ferry district. Reynolds points out that “largely in response to these disturbing conditions, African-Americans entered political and cultural life in ways that manifested independence and sometimes militancy” (Reynolds 47). Black fraternal organizations, churches, and abolitionist groups co-existed in a political and socially vibrant Brooklyn. Whitman later earned praise for his portrayal of black people from Langston Hughes and Sojourner Truth, even though his own feelings about abolition and race often proved problematic (48). Brooklyn also was home to the Brooklyn Collegiate Institute for Young Ladies, one of the earliest higher education institutions for women (47). This social and gender diversity gave Whitman a rich palette to draw from his self-imposed challenge to poetically reform the national order.

The southernmost side of Brooklyn is Coney Island. This entertainment district became known in the nineteenth century as a place for working class men to cruise and as a hotbed of gender and sexual non-normativity (Ryan). Between this sexual economy and the working class and naval communities of West Brooklyn, Whitman did not shortage of waterfront spaces to solicit or offer sex and companionship. As historians we may only surmise what sort of diverse experience offered by Brooklyn Whitman actually tried let along incorporated into a political worldview, but it seems beyond coincidence that abundance Brooklyn’s heterogeny and abundance of varied humanity corresponded to Whitman’s poetic celebration of precisely such a community, but on a national scale.

Whitman’s upbringing and life amid the working class of Brooklyn, a microcosm of his America, led to him to a particular poetic self-presentation: “I Walt Whitman: an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos” (LG 1855). “Rough” was a pejorative for working class amidst the middle and upper classes, and so Whitman’s conscious identification with a particular margin of American society simultaneously placed him in its symbolic center (Whitley 156). Whitman sought to give voice to the mechanics and the laborers, often to the reproach of his actual audiences (a great irony and complication of Whitman’s poetic persona is that his work never reached the working man he wrote for, nor did it ever directly cause the sexual revolution he suggested).

At the age of 27, Whitman landed a job as the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Times. He held several such jobs over the extent of his adult life in Brooklyn, and became an active member of the community, writing frequent editorials about the city. He wrote in the Times in 1848 that “if there ever existed a city whose resources were undeveloped, whose capabilities were misunderstood, and undervalued, it is Brooklyn” (Brasher 146). Whitman also played a substantial role in the establishment of Fort Greene Park, and of the Prison Ship Martyr’s Monument which stands there today (Hughes 22). Whitman shaped Brooklyn in much the way that it shaped him. This lived relationship to Brooklyn as space informed and inflected the shifty and strategic expressions of individual and collective identity that formed the basic of his queer poetic voice.

Site History: The House at 99 Ryerson

The house at 99 Ryerson Street is a three and a half story wooden building with a resided vinyl facade. It appears to have been built during the 1850s with the false facade extension being added sometime in the twentieth century (Myrtle Report 18). Walt Whitman moved into the house on Ryerson in May of 1855 (Whitman and Holloway 88). On May 15, Whitman walked into the office of the clerk of the South District Court of New York and asked him to provide the wording required to print a copy write notice for a new book of poetry, Leaves of Grass (Feinberg 91). The clerk registered the copyright then and there. Whitman printed the book at the Rome Brothers’ print shop at Cranberry and Fulton streets (Hughes 178), setting the type himself between the brothers’ commercial jobs. Whitman published Leaves of Grass either the day before or the day after the fourth of July of that year (Loving 178). The book sold poorly, but Whitman sent copies to Emerson, Longfellow, and Whittier. On July 21st, Whitman received a letter sent to the house on Ryerson. It was from Emerson, who wrote what Reynolds refers to as “the Gettysburg address of American literary commentary” (Reynolds 342). Emerson’s most famous line: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start” (341). This is Whitman’s first major moment of recognition, praise for saying “incomparable things incomparably well.” One other major thing is recorded as having happened there, the visist of Emerson’s friend Mocure Conway, who described the house as “one of a row of small wooden houses with porches, which all seemed occupied by mechanics” (Berman 101). By “mechanics,” Conway vaguely means working class tradesmen, i.e. something coded similarly to Whitman’s beloved “rough.” Not much else is recorded as having happened at 99 Ryerson house before Whitman moved out in May of 1856, and into the house on 77 Classon Ave (Whitman and Holloway 88).

99 Ryerson is privately owned and rented out as several apartments. The house is only infrequently mention in literary or local history blogs or tours. In 1995 with the publication of Reynolds’ Walt Whitman’s America, New Yorker writer Paul Bernman identified the Ryerson house as the last extant Whitman residence. He notes that it lacks historical status, and tells the story of the printing house at Cranberry and Fulton Whitman printed Leaves at. During the early sixties, facing its demolition, many community leaders and college student organized a campaign to save it (Berman 99) Interestingly, the organizers had mistakenly identified it as Whitman’s home while he was printing Leaves. Berman calls the rediscovery of the Ryerson house a second chance to preserve and honor a tangible connection to Whitman. A 2005 local historical neighborhood preservation committee’s report, produced by Columbia professor Andrew Dolkart, identified the Ryerson house as Whitman’s and marked it as a candidate for preservation, but the organizational effort fell apart shortly afterwards.

A survey of internet accounts of visits to the house suggests many, even local residents, are unaware of the building’s significance. Whitman enthusiasts are known to make enthusiastic pilgrimages to the site, however. A repeated desire expressed by the visitors in most every blog or article is the desire to feel moved by the presence of Whitman, to be touched somehow by his ghost. 76 year old Darrel Blaine Ford, a man who has visited all of Whitman’s homes, explains that “I stood in front of the house once, but got very little feeling for him” (Poetry). On the contrary, a Columbia English professor Karen Kerbiener was allowed in to tour the house when she and her students stopped by for a visit and reported an almost religious experience, writing “I felt the solidness and soundness of the construction as I grasped the generous wooden banister and climbed the good-sized stairs.  Walt is here.  In the floorboards, the doorknobs, the old float-glass window panes.  And in our faces as we passed through this magical place” (Karbiener).

Arguments for Inclusion

While the house at 99 Ryerson is self-evidently loaded with meaning for Whitman fans, I will argue that it is loaded with information and perspective for all Americans, particularly if it were to be recognized as an LGBT landmark.

Pinning Down the Poet of Place

Walt Whitman is a toweringly important figure in American literary history. With Leaves of Grass, Whitman single-handedly ushered in the nation’s first seismic shift in literary style. He is considered the father of American poetry, and remains an outsize influence on poetry internationally. The place that Whitman published his masterwork is naturally a sensible place to honor his life and contributions as a literary figure.

In addition, 99 Ryerson is the only remaining Whitman residence in New York. It would be irresponsible to not preserve the site of a one of the American history’s most richest and most treasured literary breakthroughs. Naming the Ryerson house to the NHRP would concretize Whitman’s place amidst a city and a community that seems to have lost touch with enormity of his legacy and the weight his ghost holds in American culture.

Such a move would allow us to pin down the version of Whitman that published the first edition of Leaves, the Walt that had the most to say about identity, our American condition, Brooklyn, and sexuality. The Ryerson house provides us with an opportunity not to fossilize, simplify, or sanctify Whitman as a cultural and literary figure, but rather to preserve him in all his richest specificity and contradiction.

Whitman’s Queer Legacy

A critical element of this specificity is Whitman’s queerness. To ignore the way Whitman’s queer life and work were a key component of what made his literature valuable is to misread Whitman’s life, to sanitize literary history, and to erase queer history. For a hundred years the sexless reading of Whitman defined the literary and intellectual discourses of American culture. Today, our standards of inclusion are greater and understanding of history’s processes and participants more complex. Recognizing LGBT history is about honoring the validity and situated knowledge  of minority/non-normative experiences. Queer literary culture, whether we imagine it as Martin’s homosexual poetic tradition or as Koskovitch’s folk historiography, should be considered no less valuable or informative than what’s been taught in schools for decades. Such historiography seeks to recover erased voices from the past and to imagine an epistemologically equitable future. As is demonstrated by Whitman’s inclusion in the AIDS monument and the its app’s “layering” of queer texts atop one another, LGBTQ Americans have a rich history formed in part by superimpositions and identifications across time and place. A Whitman landmark could  recognize the meanings Whitman’s work has accumulated in and around queer histories of resistance.

Honoring Whitman also allows us to correct sexual histories in ways that can prove educational and encourage understanding of the history of sexuality in America. Leila Rupp suggests in “Teaching LGBTQ History and Heritage” that teaching such sites and their accompanying histories in schools makes students aware of the ways gender and sexuality are historically contingent and socially produced. This has the potential to make them not only better historians, but more prone to question naturalist sexual discourses they themselves may struggle with (Rupp 3). A way for students to examine Whitman, she suggests, might be to have students consider photos of men from the Civil War against accompanying homosocial letters or poems (6).

Loraine Hutchins argues that recognizing historical figures like Whitman as part of queer history can function to make bi-sexuals more visible as members of the LGBT community. While this sort of argument may appear to be a mapping of a contemporary identity formation onto an historical subject, Hutchins instead suggests that such bi-visibillity really means the recognition that no one is fully gay or straight, that no sexual identities are absolute or entirely binary. A Whitman landmark would draw attention to the processes of reading historical subjectivity with accuracy and sensitivity, and would give Whitman’s life and work the space to continue unsettling the binaries it first troubled over a hundred years ago.


Pinning down a queer Whitman in Brooklyn would allow a formal recognition of Brooklyn’s formative effects on Whitman life, work, and his accompanying conceptions of democracy. Brooklyn was Whitman’s home, and it represented his cherished microcosm of America. When Whitman wrote “I contain multitudes” in the first edition of Leaves of Grass, the multitudes of Whitman’s transcendent democracy were those of Brooklyn. Whitman’s deep respect for the working class and his political dimensionality on issues of race and gender emerged from his participation in a vibrant waterfront social economy, one which allowed him space for queer relations.

In his article surveying the Ryerson house, Paul Berman points out that often historical homes faced with changing surroundings lose the spirit or environmental context that made them compelling spaces for their historical figures and communities. Berman writes that the Ryerson home of 1995 actually gives him a sense of continuity with the neighborhood during Whitman’ss time. It is primarily working class, its streets still name Revolutionary war heroes, it is still the home of immigrants (Berman 203). Berman overstates the extent of local ethnic and racial diversity during Whitman’s time, and Berman’s parallels of working class life across time without regard for how changes occurred (especially with the extent of gentrification today) strike me as vaguely condescending. But Bernman’s essential point is persuasive. It is namely, that by recognizing continuities in the way space produces identity and informs citizenship, we can connect meaningfully to the “ghosts” or legacies of the Americans that reckoned with the same forces over a century ago. The richness of Whitman’s relationship to space and the sublimely expressive imaginaries he produced in response allows us to feel his ghost in Brooklyn because it was Brooklyn that made him who he was.


Whitman’s queer identity and Brooklyn’s native diversity led Walt Whitman to conceive of a transcendent democracy that emerges from out of the heterogeny of communities. This is an idea that intimately resonates with the project of LGBTQ history—that of recognizing and drawing strength and knowledge from difference, not reducing it. The fact that these insights of Whitman’s emerged out of the cultural geography of Brooklyn and the relational ethics of queer experience is of immense historical importance. Recognizing geography in addition to identity challenges us to consider the ways they are co-produced. I might summarize this case for 99 Ryerson thusly: the fact that in 1855 a man’s queer experience of space became a celebrated cultural discourse of democracy, and came to define national values, in essence came to define space itself in America, is one of the most moving testaments to the power and the insight of queer experience I have ever encountered. Landmarking Ryerson recognizes queer lives as a constituent parts of the larger truth of American life, and makes it know that queer history is American history.

Proposed Plaque Text

This is the house in which Walt Whitman lived while he completed and published his seminal book of poetry, Leaves of Grass. Whitman’s free-form style ushered in a new age of poetic experimentalism, and the text is a defining document in the history of American literature. Leaves of Grass’s celebration of transcendent democracy proved influential amidst the turbulent negotiations of American self-image that raged across the nineteenth century. Whitman’s place in Brooklyn featured importantly in his intellectual development. Working class men and women of this neighborhood inspired Whitman’s populist poetic declaration: “I contain multitudes,” an assertion that the American democracy drew its strength from difference. His moving poems blurred the lines between self and other, individual and community, heterosexual and homoerotic, and they earned him an important place as a literary and spiritual forefather of LGBTQ movements of the twentieth century. Whitman’s poetic insight, born of queer experience, proved a defining force in the intellectual and cultural history of the United States.


Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. Chicago: Univ of Chicago Pr, 1985. Print.

Aspiz, Harold. So Long! Walt Whitman’s Poetry of Death. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004. Print.

Aviv, Rachel. “Whitman Really Slept Here by Rachel Aviv.” Poetry Foundation 18 Oct. 2008. Web. 10 May 2017.

Benton, Thomas H. “A Professor and a Pilgrim.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 11 Aug. 2006. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Web. 10 May 2017.

Berman, Paul. “Walt Whitman’s Ghost.” The New Yorker Magazine 12 June 1995: n. pag. Print.

Brasher, Thomas L. Whitman as Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970. Print.

Bronski, Michael. A Queer History of the United States. Boston, Mass: Beacon Press, 2011. Print. ReVisioning American History.

Burrows, Edwin G., and Mike Wallace. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. The History of New York City edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.

Charles E. Feinberg Collection of Walt Whitman (Library of Congress), Walt, and Whitman. The Correspondence of Walt Whitman,. [New York]: New York University Press, 1961. Print.

Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. unknown edition. New York: Basic Books, 1995. Print.

Christman, Henry M., ed. Walt Whitman’s New York: From Manhattan to Montauk. First edition. New York: New Amsterdam Books, 1998. Print.

Dolkart, Andrew. “Wallabout Cultural Resource Survey.” Mar. 2005. Web.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.

Erkkila, Betsy, and Jay Grossman, eds. Breaking Bounds: Whitman and American Cultural Studies. 1 edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.

Feinberg, Charles E. “A Whitman Collector Destroys a Whitman Myth.” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 52.2 (1958): 73–92. Print.

Fone, Byrne. Masculine Landscapes: Walt Whitman and the Homoerotic Text. 1st edition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992. Print.

“Gay Organizations, Boston Area Council Mattachine Society, January 1, 1958-May 18, 1968.” 1 Jan. 1958. Gale. Web. 10 May 2017.

Geffen. “Silence and Denial: Walt Whitman and the Brooklyn Bridge.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 1.4 (1984): 1–11. Print.

Gieseking, Jen Jack. “LGBTQ Spaces and Places.” LGBTQ America: A Theme Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History. National Park Service, 2016. Web.

Harold, Bloom. “Intoduction and Celebration.” Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass : The First 1855 Edition. Penguin, 2005. Print.

Harris, Gareth. “Jenny Holzer Draws on Walt Whitman for Aids Memorial.” The Art Newspaper. N.p., 27 Dec. 2015. Web. 10 May 2017.

Haw, Richard. “American History/American Memory: Reevaluating Walt Whitman’s Relationship with the Brooklyn Bridge.” Journal of American Studies 38.1 (2004): 1–22. Print.

Hutchins, Loraine. “Making Bisexuals Visible.” LGBTQ America: A Theme Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History. National Park Service, 2016. Web.

Karbiener, Karen. “My Avatar.” Looking for Whitman. N.p., 8 Apr. 2009. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.

Katz, Jonathan Ned. “Coming to Terms: Conceptualizing Men’s Erotic and Affectional Relations with Men in the United States, 1820-1892.” A Queer World: The Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. NYU Press, 1997. Print.

Kelley, Claire. “Finding Walt Whitman » MobyLives.” Melville House Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. The Cambridge Introduction to Walt Whitman. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Print. Cambridge Introductions to Literature.

Loving, Jerome. Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. Berkeley, Calif London: University of California Press, 2000. Print.

Martin, Robert K. The Homosexual Tradition in American Poetry. University of Texas Press, 1979. Print.

Ostrander, Stephen M. A History of the City of Brooklyn and Kings County: Volumes I and II. Jazzybee Verlag, 2016. Print.

Pollak, Vivian R. The Erotic Whitman. University of California Press, 2000. Print.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. Vintage Books, 1996. Print.

Rupp, Leila J. “Teaching LGBTQ History and Heritage.” LGBTQ America: A Theme Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History. National Park Service, 2016. Web.

Ryan, Hugh. Hugh Ryan on the Queer Histories of Brooklyn’s Waterfront. N.p. Audio Recording. New York Public Library Podcast.

Wardrop, Daneen. Word, Birth, and Culture: The Poetry of Poe, Whitman, and Dickinson. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2002. Print.

Whitley, Edward Keyes. American Bards: Walt Whitman and Other Unlikely Candidates for National Poet. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. Print.

Whitman. “J’ai Rêvé Dans Un Rêve.” Nov. 1957. Gale. Web. 10 May 2017.

Whitman, Walt. “A BROOKLYN SOLDIER, AND A NOBLE ONE.—.” Whitman Archive. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 May 2017.

—. “AN OLD BROOKLYN LANDMARK GOING.” Whitman Archive. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 May 2017.

—. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. New York, N.Y. : Literary Classics of the United States :, 1982. Print.

Whitman, Walt, and Emory Holloway. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, Much of Which Has Been but Recently Discovered. New York: P. Smith, 1932. Print.

Williams, C. K. On Whitman. First Edition edition. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2010. Print.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *