If one judges by the local roads, hiking trails, public schools and even shopping mall that bear his name, 19th century poet Walt Whitman holds a singular place across Long Island. As evidenced in many of the celebrated lines he composed, the Island — “the perfume of the sedge-meadows,” “the soothing rustle of the waves” — equally impacted the iconic bard’s own development.
On the 200th anniversary of Whitman’s birth in a farmhouse in West Hills, the Long Island Museum has taken a cue from the South Huntington shopping center, which once boasted excerpts from the famous poet’s “Leaves of Grass” on its facade. Passages selected from Whitman’s great body of work now adorn the museum's walls, interposed with artworks from the same period in “Walt Whitman’s Arcadia: Long Island Through the Eyes of a Poet & Painters,” on view through Sept. 2.
“Whitman’s writings are a wonderful musical accompaniment to what artists were creating in oil and watercolor,” says Joshua Ruff, the museum’s chief curator. “They were moving in new directions — away from aristocratic models to depict what regular people were experiencing.”
The idea for pairing Whitman’s words and some 17 contemporaneous images of life on rural Long Island by the likes of William Sidney Mount and John Frederick Kensett grew out of an ongoing project the show’s co-organizer, Susan Scheckel, began last summer at Stony Brook University. The English professor and her students have traced some 200 — and counting — references in his poetry to the local landscape.
“People tend to look at Whitman’s relationship to Long Island as a straight trajectory,” says Scheckel, referring to the poet’s move at a young age with his family to Brooklyn, where he soon after began work as a printing apprentice. “However, he came back to Long Island as an itinerant schoolteacher, with stints in villages from Smithtown to Southold.”
Much like the artists represented in the exhibition, Whitman knew intimately the shores and woodlands of Long Island — or Paumanok, the Lenape name he preferred for his spiritual home. “He would walk from Huntington all the way to Greenport to visit his sister, who was married to a shipbuilder,” says Scheckel. Views like “the tossing waves, the foam … the wild unrest,” described in his 1891 poem “From Montauk Point,” are amplified in the paintings, in this instance Mauritz Frederik Hendrik de Haas’s depiction of churning seas off the East End coast.
To further impart the essence of Whitman’s beloved Long Island, a brochure mapping out a walking tour that begins at the museum and continues through parts of Stony Brook will offer up vistas of unspoiled sights then familiar to the artists — estuaries, beaches, gardens, even an old family graveyard.
According to Scheckel, Whitman insisted that an 1856 second edition of “Leaves of Grass” (the show includes four other printings of the groundbreaking poetry collection) be designed so that it would fit in the pocket of a working man’s jacket. “He wanted to connect to the common people,” she says. “It was a goal all the artists here shared.”
WHEN | WHERE 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and noon-5 p.m., Sunday, through Sept. 2, Long Island Museum, 1200 Rte. 25A, Stony Brook
INFO $10, $7 ages 62 and older, $5 ages 6-17 and college students with ID, free ages 5 and younger; 631-751-0066, longislandmuseum.org