Brooklyn, one building at a time.
Name: Wood-framed row house
Address: 99 Ryerson Street
Cross Streets: Myrtle and Park avenues
Year Built: 1850s
Architectural Style: Italianate, underneath all that siding
The story: Underneath this rather uninspiring façade is an Italianate clapboard framed row house. What makes it special among all the other covered-up, remuddled pre-Civil War houses on this block is that this is the last remaining home of the great Brooklyn (and American) poet, Walt Whitman. From this house in 1855, Whitman penned his greatest and best known work, Leaves of Grass.
Whitman is everywhere these days, most noticeably in a commercial for Apple. He lived in Brooklyn for 28 years, and during that time supported himself as a carpenter, a teacher, a journalist and a government clerk, while all the while writing his poetry and essays. For two years, between 1846 and 1848, he was the editor of the Brooklyn Eagle. He lost his job when he sided, in an editorial in the Eagle, with the “Free Soil” wing of the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, the Eagle’s owner, his boss, sided with the other side. Instant unemployment.
Leaves of Grass was Whitman’s opus, a collection of poetry that he would edit, refine, and edit again until his death. He paid for the first printing himself, and printed it at a Brooklyn printshop when the workmen were on breaks. 795 copies were printed. Whitman received much attention, both good and bad, from this seminal work. He was hailed by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote a very flattering five page letter to Whitman, praising him for a “most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” Many other critics were horrified and highly offended at the sensuality of some of the verses, and were quick to call Leaves of Grass, “trashy, profane & obscene.”
All of those letters of praise and damnation came to this house. (more…)