overview

Walt Whitman and his family lived in this house when the first edition of his epochal first collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, was finished and published in June 1855.

The house is one of only two known extant sites, and the only residence, in New York City associated with the great American poet.

Header Photo
Credit: Christopher D. Brazee/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2016.

History

Walt Whitman (1819-1892), often proclaimed America’s greatest poet, lived mostly in Brooklyn and Manhattan between 1823 and 1862. Whitman was intimately associated with Brooklyn, where he worked as an editor, journalist, and writer, and lived in many different residences. Whitman lived in this Ryerson Street house between May 1, 1855, and May 1, 1856, with his family, including his mother Louisa, father Walt Sr. (who died here in July 1855), and his brothers George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and Edward. The Whitmans were the first owner-occupants of the recently completed house. According to Cleveland Rodgers’s December 1959 article, “The Good Gray House Builder,” published in the Walt Whitman Review, “Walt took the front room on the second floor.”

It was in this residence that Whitman finished his epochal first collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, which was published and for sale in Brooklyn in June 1855. Some of the original 12 poems in this edition feature homoerotic passages. One notable example comes from the fourth poem, which would later become known as “The Sleepers”:

Double yourself and receive me darkness / Receive me and my lover too, he will not let me go without him.

Walt Whitman, passage from Leaves of Grass (1855)

It was also while living here that he received his first favorable reviews of the work, which launched his new career as a poet. Whitman shrewdly sent a copy to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the eminent transcendentalist poet honored him with a letter praising the work in July 1855 and with a visit at the Ryerson Street home in December 1855.

Whitman’s poetry was then considered controversial by some for its sensuality, and a later edition of Leaves included his famously homoerotic “Calamus” poems expressing male-male love. These made Whitman iconic in the United States and Europe as one of the first people to openly express the concept of men loving men. Today, Leaves is considered one of the most important American works ever written.

Although altered, this house is one of only two known extant sites (the other being Pfaff’s), and the only residence, in New York City associated with the great American poet. It is also one of the earliest extant buildings in the city associated with someone who today would be considered an LGBT individual.

Entry by Jay Shockley, project director (March 2017; rev. July 2018).

NOTE: Names above in bold indicate LGBT people.

Building Information

  • Architect or Builder: Unknown
  • Year Built: 1854-55; 1890 (third story added)

Sources

  1. Cleveland Rodgers, “The Good Gray House Builder,” Walt Whitman Review (December 1959).

  2. Karen Karbiener, Walt Whitman scholar, various correspondence with the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2017-2018.

  3. Paul Berman, “Walt Whitman’s Ghost,” The New Yorker, June 12, 1995, pp. 98-104.

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