When the Whitman family moved to Brooklyn in 1823, Walter Sr. sold the property to Carlton Jarvis whose descendants retained it throughout the 19th century. After 1899 the house exchanged ownership several times. Recognizing the structure’s vulnerability, the Huntington Historical Society spearheaded local interest in protecting the property. Attracted to its historical associations, John and Georgia Watson purchased the house and lived there for over 30 years.
In the 1940s, plans were made to purchase the house and turn it into a historic site. In October 1951, the newly chartered Walt Whitman Birthplace Association acquired the house and grounds. In April 1957, Governor Harriman signed a bill for the state to assume ownership, and on September 28, 1957, it became New York’s 22nd state historic site.
At our Interpretive Center, visitors can delve deeply into Whitman’s life and poetry through a series of exhibits that allow you to follow through his boyhood on Long Island to his international prominence as one of our country’s greatest visionaries. The exhibits display many portraits of Whitman as well as original letters and manuscripts. Walt’s writing desk that he used as a young teacher on Long Island is also on display. Visitors may hear a recording of Walt Whitman’s voice as recorded by Thomas Edison in 1890. Just across from the Interpretive Center is a beautiful panoramic view of the Birthplace, the Gathering House, and a bronze statue of Whitman.
Walt Whitman is one of the most photographed poets of all time.
I Hear America Singing - Collectors, Composers, and Whitman
Walt Whitman has inspired artists in many fields since he first published Leaves of Grass in 1855. While his influence on other writers and poets is readily acknowledged, Walt’s influence on musical composers is less well known. Four collectors who made it their business to preserve and spread the enjoyment of these musical pieces are featured this exhibit, produced by the Walt Whitman Birthplace’s summer interns in 2022.
Walt, who was said by his brother George to have” “cute” ( acute) hearing, enjoyed music of all kinds. In his own words, “But for the love of opera, I could have never written Leaves of Grass.” He witnessed street performances, attended concerts and recitals, and wrote reviews for the newspapers where he worked. The tables were turned when in early 1880, Walt was delighted to receive a letter from Mrs. Fanny Raymond Ritter seeking his approval on behalf of her husband to use verse from “Two Veterans” in a composition of “melodramatic music for the pianoforte.” Walt also gave “further approval for musical adaptations of my pieces.” Walt, who was inspired by music, was now inspiring musicians!
Only 32 years after Walt’s death there were enough musical pieces inspired by Walt to require a list! Henry Saunders was one of the earliest Whitman followers to take note of this. In 1926 he self-published the first of three booklets listing these with updates in 1938 and 1946. The WWBA owns number 8 of the 10 booklets he produced in 1938, simply titled “List of Whitman Music.”
By the mid twentieth century, two Whitman afficionados, Kenneth Neilson and Fredric Berndt, working on opposite coasts in California and New York, separately collected as many of the musical compositions that were inspired by Whitman or which used his lyrics that they could find, in order to create a catalog of these works. This was a daunting task before the age of the internet. Both discovered there were musical scores written by world famous composers performed by world class orchestras and vocalists. Frederic Berndt also uncovered works by many unknowns – amateurs and even students enrolled in music programs around the world who were inspired by Whitman’s words or themes.
In the 1960’s Queens College Professor Kenneth Neilson donated his collection of musical scores and recordings in the form of LPs, along with a stereo “hi-fi” record player, to the Birthplace. His proposal to create a Walt Whitman Musical Society with meetings incorporated into the regular activities of the Association may yet come to pass.
In 2020, a large portion of Fredric Berndt’s collection of over 300 musical scores, his list of 490 composers of Whitman music last revised 1993, and related items, were donated to the Birthplace. The daunting task of cataloging and housing this donation was recently completed by volunteer student interns under the supervision of the curator, Margaret Guardi.
In addition, George Mallis, a music afficionado and dedicated and knowledgeable Birthplace contributor, set about updating and adding to the list of scores and enhancing our knowledge of the compositions with biographical information and portraits of the composers. He generously donated a ( still-growing ) collection of 86 Compact Discs with musical performances of many of the compositions.
This exhibit presents a sampling of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Music Collection for your enjoyment.” We wish to make music fans and Whitman scholars aware of the collection, and hope it will round out our understanding of Whitman’s continued influence on all the arts.”
Each item in this exhibit reflects the efforts of four collectors, Kenneth P. Neilson, George Mallis, Henry Saunders, and Frederick Berndt, and how Walt Whitman was influenced by music and how musicians reflected that back to him. Various objects displayed include musical compositions, CDS, reviews, vinyl records, and even lists of Whitman composers. Additionally, you will find scannable QR codes so you can fully immerse yourself in the world of Whitman-inspired music.