Features: Walt Whitman and the Arts in Brooklyn

Early Years in Brooklyn

Francis Guy: Winter Scene in Brooklyn

In 1823, Walt Whitman's family moved from Long Island to downtown Brooklyn, the same area that is depicted in Francis Guy's painting Winter Scene in Brooklyn. Years later, Whitman wrote about the painting in the newspaper the Brooklyn Standard:

Among the few relics left to remind the present inhabitants of Brooklyn of the days and scenes of their grandfathers, few are more valuable than the large, somewhat time-stained picture known as "Guy's Brooklyn." This work is to be seen at the Brooklyn Institute. . . . Soon after the painting was made, in the earliest part of the present century, it was exhibited here and in New York, under the title of "A Snow Scene in Brooklyn," by F. Guy, of Baltimore. . . . This picture of Guy's . . . was . . . a literal portrait of the scene as it appeared from his window there in Front Street, looking south. The houses and ground are thickly covered with snow. The villagers are around, in the performance of work, travel, conversation, etc. Some of the figures are likenesses. We have heard that the full-length portraits of Mr. Sands, Mr. Graham, Judge Garrison, Messrs. Titus Birdsall, Hicks, Meeker and Patchen, then leading townspeople here, are some of the principal ones in the composition. . . . We have thus attempted to give a sketch of the spot and persons commemorated in the print from Guy's composition, which, though perhaps not of superior excellence in art, is still of great value as a reminiscence to all Brooklynites. [1]

General Lafayette

Whitman's reminiscences of Brooklyn include vivid recollections of the Brooklyn Apprentices' Library, which later evolved into the Brooklyn Institute and eventually into the Brooklyn Museum. One of his early memories, later recounted in the Brooklyn Standard, was of the Revolutionary War hero General Lafayette laying the cornerstone of the Library building:

The corner stone of the building was laid in 1825. The writer of these sketches, who was at that time a lad in his seventh year, remembers the occasion perfectly well, having been present at it. It was on the Fourth of July. The famous Lafayette was then on his last visit to America—the fourth, we believe. . . . Lafayette, with his hat off, rode slowly through the lines of children and the crowd that was gathered. . . . After he had passed along ahead, to where Market Street now is, the carriage stopped, and the children, officers, citizens, etc., formed behind in procession, and followed him up to the corner of Henry and Cranberry streets, where the operation of laying the corner stone was to be performed by Lafayette himself. . . Everything was more informal than it would be now, and as the children arrived, there was a little delay in getting them into safe and eligible places . . . so that they might have a fair share in the view and hearing of the exercises. As most of the group around Lafayette were assisting in this work, the old companion of Washington . . . pleasantly took it into his head to aid the same work himself. . . . As good luck would have it, the writer of this series was one of those whom Lafayette took in his arms, and lifted down to be provided with a standing place; and proud enough as he was of it at the time, it may well be imagined with what feelings the venerable gentleman recollects it now. [2]

Apprentices' Library Association

Founded in 1823, the Apprentices' Library was chartered to provide "a repository of books, maps, drawing apparatus, models of machinery, tools and implements generally, for enlarging the knowledge, and thereby improving the condition of mechanics, manufacturers, artisans and others." [3] The Library offered lectures, exhibits, and a collection of books devoted to a wide array of cultural and scientific topics. According to the Minutes of the Apprentices' Library from January 31, 1835: "Walter Whitman acting librarian presented a Report this evening, in which it is stated that there are now about 1200 volumes in the Library in a proper state for being drawn out; and that the number of Readers is 172." [4]

Although no written record has verified that the Walter Whitman mentioned in these minutes was indeed the poet, other connections link him to the Apprentices' Library. The Brooklyn printers and publishers Erastus Worthington and Alden Spooner, who were both very involved with the administration of the Library, had each previously employed the young Whitman. [5]