Next up in our series of Q&A’s with Networked New York panelists is Karen Karbiener, a Whitman scholar who teaches at NYU. She regularly organizes and participates in Whitman-related events in New York.
You spoke about some New York City sites as uncurated,non-institutional archives. Does this usage of the word “archive” complicate our usual understanding of it? What do we gain by defining 99 Ryerson and 647 Broadway as such?
I’m not looking to complicate, but test the boundaries of the traditional definition of “archive,” and to inspire fresh thinking about spaces that push the conceptual limits of what is conventionally deemed worthy of preservation. The first SAA definition of “archive”—loosely reinterpreted here—is ‘materials that are preserved because of their enduring value, or as evidence of the functions and responsibilities of their creators and users.’ But what about materials of such value or relative importance that have been preserved by chance or happy accident– collections that lie outside the bounds of institutions or protective agencies and are freely accessed and used? Materials that maintain organic relationships with their environs because they have not been isolated, organized or controlled? Materials of nontraditional mediums or types, such as sidewalk vaults, floorboards, the spirit of place?
Whitman’s former residence at 99 Ryerson Street in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, and the site of Pfaff’s Cellar Saloon at 647 Broadway in Manhattan, are what I’d like to call ‘living archives.’ Along with other city sites such as Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel, and Brooklyn’s Admiral Row, they are unofficial, unprotected treasure troves of one-of-a-kind historical materials. 99 Ryerson is a row house built in the early 1850s; the Whitmans moved into the house in May 1855 and lived there for about a year. 647 Broadway is one of a twin tenement built in the 1840s, with Pfaff’s occupying the cellar from about 1856 to 1875. Both of these sites have operated interruptedly—as a private residence and commercial space, respectively—for more than 150 years in New York City: 99 Ryerson is currently owned by a Brooklyn resident and divided into several apartments, and the basement of 647 Broadway now stores the stock for Zigis Shoes.
What makes these two structures remarkable besides their endurance through more than a century and a half of urban growth and renewal, is their significance in American cultural history— specifically, to the poet Walt Whitman. Though he worked and wrote in New York City for nearly four decades and lived in dozens of places, only two structures with significant links to the poet still stand. 99 Ryerson is not only the single surviving Whitman house in the five boroughs; it happens to be the one in which he completed and published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, and wrote much of the second. In the extraordinarily permissive underground bar known as Pfaff’s, Whitman gathered the forces for and may have even composed parts of the radical third edition of the Leaves. Frequenting what is now recognized as America’s first bohemian bar from 1858 through the early ‘60s, he mingled with outspoken, flamboyant actors like Ada Isaacs Mencken and leftist journalists such as Henry Clapp, editor of the Saturday Press; he also had ties to what may have been the city’s first gay men’s club, the Fred Gray Association. Whitman did not participate in any social or intellectual coterie before or after his years at Pfaff’s, and the relationships he developed there enabled his focus on intimacy as a subject for poetry in the “Calamus” and “Enfans d’Adam” clusters.
Whenever I’ve visited these ‘living archives’, I’ve learned something about Whitman and his New York. Retracing Whitman’s daily
two-mile walk from the location of the Rome Brothers Print Shop in Brooklyn Heights (where Leaves of Grass was printed) to 99 Ryerson, the house still feels “fearfully far” from gentrified Brooklyn (as a visitor remarked in 1855) and maintains a working-class vibe. Inside, the hallways and staircases are plain and strong-looking, if a bit shabby. Standing inside the threshold that Emerson and others entered, one faces the fact that this ordinary space was a cradle for extraordinary art. The current owner is ambivalent regarding recent efforts to place a historic marker on the house. But perhaps that is because the house—and in many ways, the poet himself—still belongs to this Brooklyn block. Residents of the other rowhouses on this street take pride in pointing tourists to Whitman’s abode; they come out to chat, show old photographs and share stories, often admitting that they’ve tried their own hand at poetry. 99 Ryerson may not be a traditional archive, but it accomplishes the best of what an archive can do: tell stories, identify relationships, and inspire. (and for an example of this much better than my own, please visit the site dedicated to 99 Ryerson created by my student Jesse Friszell)
What’s to be gained from labeling 99 Ryerson and 647 Broadway as ‘living archives’? First and foremost, a designator for these and similar unrecognized structures that don’t really qualify as ‘historic sites’ or ‘landmarks’. Just because such buildings have escaped official designation should not mean that they should be forgotten. Additionally, the word ‘archive’ calls to mind the questions, what’s worth saving? How do we do it? And what is lost when we can’t? I believe 99 Ryerson and 647 Broadway merit such attentions.
In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Whitman predicts that future New Yorkers will revel in some of the same facets of Brooklyn and Manhattan life that he enjoyed. He asks of his readers, “What is it then between us?/ What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?” Can the sites you discuss help us address these questions? What might it mean to preserve Whitman’s memory in New York in the spirit of his poetry?
Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not.
I too lived—Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine;
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan Island, and bathed in the waters around it;
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,
In the day, among crowds of people, sometimes they came upon me,
In my walks home late at night, or as I lay in my bed, they came upon me.
What’s between Whitman and us in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”? Residents of his city will recognize his references to the spirit of the city—a sort of ‘urban affection’, to use Ed Folsom’s phrase—a feeling of solidarity and support acquired by simultaneously losing and finding ourselves in the great metropolis. It’s this spirit that pulls Whitman out of the poem’s ‘dark patches’: doubts, guilty thoughts, regrets weigh him down (“The best I had done seemed to me blank and suspicious”), the camaraderie and energy around him buoy him up (as he responds to cries of “Walt!”—his nearest, or nighest name). This spirit is manifested in the faces and bodies around him as he traverses his New York. The divine connective power of the human form is celebrated in so many of Whitman’s poems: “this head is more than churches and bibles and creeds,” he declares in “Song of Myself” (adding, just for fun, “the scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer”). No need for priests anymore when the people of New York City were there to save him.And then the last stanza seems to bring them up anyway: You have waited, you always wait, you dumb, beautiful ministers, We receive you with free sense at last, and are insatiate henceforward, Not you any more shall be able to foil us, or withhold yourselves from us, We use you, and do not cast you aside—we plant you permanently within us, We fathom you not—we love you—there is perfection in you also, You furnish your parts toward eternity, Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.
The poem’s first title—“Sun-Down Poem”— hints that these lines are penned at the end of the narrator’s day, commuting from work in Manhattan back to Brooklyn. As he draws close to his destination, he recognizes those familiar aspects of his trip that signal he’s home: the waving flags and whipping masts, the Fulton Ferry buildings, the church steeples of St. John’s and St. Ann’s and the Holy Trinity (for a look at what Whitman saw, go to “Whitman’s Brooklyn”). These silent ‘ministers’, like the humanity around him, communicate more than any priest possibly could: they have a physical certainty about them that ensures Whitman’s connection with us through time. That certainty is reassuring to him: though he probably realizes we won’t be looking at the exact same ships and seagulls, he’s satisfied that a version of them will enable us to understand each other despite the years between.
So, in Whitman’s view, the survival of 99 Ryerson and 647 Broadway doesn’t really matter. The same spirit imbued in these places can undoubtedly be found in other spots in twenty-first century New York City; as he proudly declares in the middle of “Song of Myself”, he’s “no sentimentalist.” But 99 Ryerson and 647 Broadway should nevertheless interest us because such structures inspired his deep investment in his physical world. What is it about Whitman’s experiences with such tangibles that made him think they had spiritual value, that they could be immortal? Perhaps the secret still lies in the collapsed vault under the sidewalk of 647 Broadway.