In the nineteen-eighties I spent a lot of time on Long Island, a much-maligned New York City appendage I found congenial for its vestiges of a rural past and the birthplace of Walt Whitman in West Hills, Huntington Township. Once I made the pilgrimage to the house where he was born but it was closed and nearly as small and humble as the house in which Thomas Edison was born in Milan, Ohio. Next to the Whitman house was a carpet-remnants outlet.
I remembered these things while rereading a favorite American autobiography, Witness by Whittaker Chambers, who was born in Philadelphia in 1901 (nine years after Whitman’s death) and whose family moved to Lynbrook, in Hempstead, when he was three. Chambers writes:
“In the first decade of this century, the south shore of Long Island was a landscape of unself-conscious, miniature beauty. Everything was small – little farms, little orchards, little unplanned villages, little white houses master-built in exquisite, functional proportions, little birch and swamp-maple woods following the course of little streams that slid silently over glinting sand. It was all saved from paltriness by the tremendous presence at its edge of the ocean, with its separating miles of salt marsh and sweeps of sky across which fleets of clouds rode continually to and from the sea.”
Previously I thought of Chambers as a quintessentially urban figure (New York, Baltimore, Washington, D.C.), but that’s ridiculous considering his beloved farm in Maryland and the lovingly elegiac tone his prose assumes when describing the Long Island of his childhood. Two paragraphs after the one cited above Chambers writes:
“Years later, when I came to read Walt Whitman, through whose verses the same tides flood and the same surf pounds the same beaches, it was not like reading any other verse. It was as if, by plugging my ears, I was listening to my own blood pound. No land ever again has such power over him as that in which a man was once a child.”
Compare Chambers’ memories of rural Long Island with those of Whitman, another Quaker and sui generis American, in “Elias Hicks” (from November Boughs, 1888):
"How well I remember the region—the flat plains of the middle of Long Island, as then, with their prairie-like vistas and grassy patches in every direction, and the `kill-calf’ and herds of cattle and sheep. Then the South Bay and shores and the salt meadows, and the sedgy smell, and numberless little bayous and hummock-islands in the waters, the habitat of every sort of fish and aquatic fowl of North America. And the bay men—a strong, wild, peculiar race—now extinct, or rather entirely changed. And the beach outside the sandy bars, sometimes many miles at a stretch, with their old history of wrecks and storms—the weird, white-gray beach—not without its tales of pathos—tales, too, of grandest heroes and heroisms.”