For most of us when we think about Brooklyn’s greatest poet Walt Whitman we think about his poetry and not about his prose. However, Whitman like many creative people today in Brooklyn, had to pay the bills and to make ends meet from 1857 to 1859 he edited a Williamsburg newspaper called the Brooklyn Daily Times, which changed its name from the Williamsburg Daily Times when Williamsburg merged with the city of Brooklyn in 1855, the same year Whitman first published his celebrated “Leaves of Grass.” Whitman worked out of an office that was near the foot of Broadway in Williamsburg and the prose he wrote there gives us a unique window into what our area was like on the eve of the Civil War.
Many of the editorials that Whitman wrote for the paper concerned the spread of slavery, the burning national question of the day. Whitman was no abolitionist and even told his readers that there were some positive aspects to slavery. Whitman was a “Free Soiler,” which meant that he favored stopping the spread of slavery into the new western territories that were to be incorporated into states. Previously, Whitman had edited the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a Democratic paper and he had been fired because of his free-soil stance from the paper.
Looking back on Whitman’s racial views a century and a half later, we are struck by the fact that a man who was so humane and sensitive in his poems could be so indifferent to the enslavement of millions of Americans. Whitman never believed in racial equality and asked, “Is not America for the whites?” He also asked what he believed to be a horribly racist rhetorical question, “Who believes that whites and blacks can ever amalgamate in America? Or who wishes it to happen?”
Aside from dealing with the burning political questions of the day, Whitman also loved Brooklyn deeply and wrote extensive observations of local life. In 1857, he visited Greenpoint and described at length the burgeoning pottery industry here. He visited Pottery Hill, where the father of local ceramics, Charles Cartlidge had set up our area’s first pottery and Whitman went into great detail describing the process by which pottery was crafted.
Whitman also visited the German area of Williamsburg, which was known as Dutch Town where he noted that the Germans all seemed to ignore the blue laws, which forbid the consumption of alcohol on Sunday. The German community in Brooklyn would continue to grow until by the 1870s one in three New Yorkers was of German blood.
Whitman’s extensive observations of local life were placed in a book published in 1932 called, “ I Sit And Look Out.” Reading it, you can get a feel for what local life was like then. Whitman describes baseball games and already by the late 1850s baseball fever was sweeping Brooklyn. He also describes the illegal sport of prizefighting with much disgust. Old Walt would probably shudder were he to watch mixed martial arts today. Whitman even had a whole section on women, sex and marriage, and he devoted newsprint to the alarming tendency of Brooklyn women to engage in public kissing!
Whitman left the local paper in 1859, right at the eve of the great Civil War. Whitman would leave our area to serve as a nurse for the tens of thousands of wounded who streamed through Washington D.C. He left an interesting picture of North Brooklyn in his journalism, and if you are interested I am giving a talk on Whitman’s history in North Brooklyn on Wednesday, February 6, at Borough Hall on Court Street at 6:30 p.m.