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Who Owns Walt Whitman?

Across the New York metro area, schools, convenience stores, malls and more are named after the American poet — but why?

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For reasons independent of his poetry, Walt Whitman is enjoying a resurgence. During Breaking Bad’s final season, he improbably played a major plot point. Then, out of nowhere, a story surfaced that Oscar Wilde and Whitman had been intimate — on “thee and thou terms,” according to Whitman — during Wilde’s 1882 visit to America. Among 19th century poets, there’s little question Whitman owned the second half of 2013.

But Greater New York City has loved Whitman for a while. I live on the Queens-Long Island border, and both the City and the Island make various claims to the bard. Long Island is not bashful about reminding you that Whitman was born there. Near his birthplace, which announces itself as a “fine example of native Long Island craftsmanship,” you will find Walt Whitman High School and Walt Whitman Shops (formerly known, and still referred to, as Walt Whitman Mall).

Whitman eventually left Long Island for New York City, a move NYC cannot forget. Indeed, you would be forgiven for thinking Whitman ever lived anywhere else. Brooklyn offers Walt Whitman Library, Walt Whitman Park and Walt Whitman Houses, which look exactly like every other dispiriting redbrick city project (no fine native craftsmanship here).

But my favorite Whitman homage is farther south, at the Walt Whitman Service Area of the New Jersey Turnpike. Whitman died in New Jersey, and that was enough for Cherry Hill. People who feel compelled to comment on rest stops via social media are aware of Whitman’s legacy. Mike B. (Yelp) admiringly quotes, “Know the universe itself as a road, as many roads, as roads for traveling souls,” and Matthew T. (Foursquare) suggests that “America’s great poet would be incredibly disheartened with the state of these restrooms.”


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