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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

McCallum: Walt Whitman Road

This month marks the 196th birthday of one of America’s most celebrated poets, Walt Whitman.

I grew up surrounded by the same deep woods and rich Long Island farmland as Walt did, near a two-lane highway named after our famous native son. It was lined with mom and pop stores, and nothing stayed open all night, not even gas stations. Summer nights, my brother and his friends drag raced down Walt Whitman Road, perhaps rattling windows of the old farmhouse where Walt was born in 1819.It sat back from the highway, but if you knew when to look through the dusty car window as you passed by, you could catch a glimpse of it. The weathered house that Walt’s father had built around 1810 sat on a patch of yard surrounded by a split rail fence that neatly hemmed in the house, old trees and a barn. By my teens, the forested hills and flat farmland of Walt’s day showed the beginnings of suburban sprawl. The first hamburger drive-in opened in 1962 and we flocked to it for its novelty and the speed at which we could get a burger and shake to the car.

We couldn’t have known that this heralded the beginning of an erosion of local history and culture. Woodsy paths that Walt had walked as a boy sprouted housing developments and the road was widened to accommodate the surge in traffic. The view of the house disappeared when a carpet center erected a boxy store on the Whitman property line. Businesses cashing in on name recognition built Walt Whitman Dental, Walt Whitman Fencing and the crown jewel, Walt Whitman Mall. As a teenager, I shopped its length while my classmates played football against Walt Whitman High School.

Walt reveled in the complexity of the universe, and shifted easily between rural and urban themes. While he happily vagabonded through nature, his free verse catalogs of urban life are rich with velocity. In his masterpiece, “Song of Myself,” Walt wrote, The ring of alarm-bells, the cry of fire, the whirr of swift-streaking engines and hose-carts… the steam whistle, the solid roll of the train of approaching cars… I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera, Ah this indeed is music - this suits me.

Walt’s birthplace is now a state historic site with lilacs in the dooryard, and island of calm in a sea of development. If Walt could drop in for a chat today, I wonder what this poet of contrasts, with his feet so firmly planted in the pastoral, would think of the transformation.

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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