The Poet Returns: Whitman’s Visit to West Hills

131 years ago, Walt Whitman returned to his birthplace.

Walt Whitman’s Birthplace in 1920, 39 years after his 1881 visit.

During the first week in August in 1881, when he was 65 years old, Walt Whitman visited West Hills and his birthplace with his friend Richard Maurice Bucke. Happy to share his memories of the place that first formed his creative mind, Whitman wrote to the New York Tribune. Below is the letter he sent:

“A Week at West Hills.”

New York Tribune, August 4, 1881

Sir: I have been for the last two weeks jaunting around Long Island, and now devote this letter to West Hills (Suffolk County, 30 miles from New York), and the main purpose of a journey thither, to resume and identify my birth-spot, and that of my parents and their parents, and to explore the picturesque regions comprised in the townships of Huntington and Cold Spring Harbor. I shall just give my notes verbatim as I pencilled them.

Went down nearly a mile further to the house where I was born (May 31, 1819) in the fertile meadow land. As I paused and looked around I felt that any good farmer would have gloated over the scene. Rich corn in tassel, many fields; they had cradled their wheat and rye, and were cutting their oats. Everything had changed so much, and it looked so fine, I began to doubt about the house, and drove in and inquired, to be certain. I saw Mrs. J— wife of the owner, (son of the J— that bought the farm of my father 60 years ago.) She was very courteous, and invited us in (Dr. Bucke, of Canada, with me), but we declined.

We drove back to the homestead, let down some bars at the foot of a slope, and ascended to a spot most interesting of all.

The Whitmans as originally spreading from this outset, were long-lived, most of them farmers, had big families, and were strenuous for the best education that could be obtained. One is mentioned as a great linguist, and sometimes acted in the courts as interpreter with the Indians; and down to the present date twelve of the name have graduated at Harvard, five at Yale and nine at other New England colleges. There have been ministers and deacons and teachers by the dozen.

I write this back again at West Hills on the high elevation (the highest spot on Long Island?) of Jayne’s Hill, which we have reached by a fascinating winding road. A view of thirty or forty, or even fifty or more miles, especially to the east and south and southwest; the Atlantic Ocean to the latter points in the distance–a glimpse or so of Long Island Sound to the north.

Huntington, Aug. 1.–We are just leaving; a perfect day in sun, temperature after the rain of yesterday and last night. I am indebted to Charles Velsor, Henry Lloyd, John Chichester, Lemuel Carll, Lawyer Street, Charles Shepard and other friends and relatives, for courtesies. Seems to me I have had the memorable though brief and quiet jaunt of my life. Every day a point attained; every day something refreshing, Nature’s medicine. All about here, an area of many miles, Huntington, Cold Spring Harbor, East and West and Lloyd’s Neck (to say nothing of the water views), the hundreds of tree-lined roads and lanes, with their turns and gentle slopes, the rows and groves of locusts, after the main objects of my jaunt, made the most attraction, as I rode around. I didn’t know there was so much in mere lanes and trees. I believe they have done me more good than all the swell scenery I could find.

August 3, 1881 W.W.

A broadside of this letter can be purchased in our gift shop for $0.95.

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