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New signs at Walt Whitman's birthplace help commemorate his 200th birthday

New historical marker commemorates the birthplace of poet

New historical marker commemorates the birthplace of poet Walt Whitman in Huntington Station. Credit: Howard Simmons

The green and contemplative oasis where Walt Whitman was born is divorced from this century’s hurly-burly — yet the poet likely would have embraced the drivers racing by who now will find it harder to miss his tiny park, thanks to a new historical marker.

The new sign was unveiled Saturday on Route 110 in Huntington Station for the 200th birthday festivities for the poet, whose love for this nation and democracy didn't prevent him from grasping the cruelty and peril of the Civil War, historians say.

The sign at the Walt Whitman Birthplace Historic Site was erected by the William G. Pomeroy Foundation, which celebrates local history. The state parks department also added a sign directing visitors to the Old Walt Whitman Road entrance.

Born just over four decades after this country’s birth, Whitman was a true believer, writing: "Restrict nothing — keep everything open: to Italy, to China, to anybody. I love America. I believe in America, because her belly can hold and digest all — anarchist, socialist, peacemakers, fighters, disturbers or degenerates of whatever sort — hold and digest all.”

As Cynthia Shor, executive director of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, which runs the state historic site, put it: “He would have been happy to see the Walt Whitman Shops,” the nearby mall, “drawing from the crossroads of the population.”

Ahead of Whitman’s May 31, 1819, birthday, the nonprofit, aided by the state parks and education departments, the Robert D.L. Gardiner Foundation, and Parks & Trails New York, a nonprofit, renovated exhibits and photographs, expanded the stage and added a television at the site. It will host events all weekend — from presenting “Multitudes,” a one-actor biographical play, to a reading of “Leaves of Grass,” possibly the poet’s most famous work.

The reasons Whitman’s poetry still transfixes people are countless. The journalist and house-flipper was fired by the secretary of the Department of the Interior after he scanned “Leaves of Grass,” historians say, because the portrayal of female sexuality — not the homoerotic verses — was deemed immoral.

The New York Public Library, which has the letter ending Whitman’s clerkship, added on its website: “Fortunately, influential friends of the poet rode to the rescue, and Whitman quickly secured … an even more favorable position (fewer hours) in the Attorney General's office.” 

Whitman had gone to the nation's capital to help care for Civil War soldiers — including one brother — and helped them write letters. "He would detail their emotions … he really captured the imagery and magnitude, especially of the dying soldiers,” Shor said. There was no sugarcoating. “He was very honest with the parents.”

For Miguel Adrover, 39, of East Hampton, a special-education teacher waiting to tour Whitman’s home with his wife, “It changed my life when I read ‘Leaves of Grass’ for the first time.”

He continued: “I was writing poetry myself and I was very insecure about what I was doing.

"Back home in Puerto Rico, people said poetry should rhyme, and should be neatly organized,” he said. “I read it and I identified a lot with what he was saying; he talked a lot about poetry and wonder, and he did it in a straightforward way without fancy words — that made sense to me.”

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