by Miranda Knutson
Recently on a Brooklyn Heights tour our group exclaimed excitedly when they saw a memorial plaque for the Walt Whitman Park down by Cadman Plaza. We explained the irony of how by clearing this area’s housing for the park, the city destroyed the building that housed the Rome brothers printing press where Walt Whitman first published his seminal work, “Leaves of Grass”.
Whitman was known for his bohemian lifestyle and his love of Brooklyn, so imagine my surprise when I pulled into a rest stop off the New Jersey Turnpike to go to the Walt Whitman Service Station. As you walk in, smelling the mix of fried chicken from Roy Rogers and pure liquid sugar from Cinnabon, you find on your left a faded picture of Walt Whitman. He is smiling sardonically and looking hip while across from him is a bright new photo of Chis Christie looking unsure and awkward.
Whitman’s photo is surrounded by a biography and two examples of his poetry. From this plaque, I learned why a small stop in New Jersey would be named after a person I inherently thought of as a Brooklynite. Whitman moved to New Jersey after the Civil War, first living with his brother, then purchasing a place in Camden. This is where he lived out the last years of his life, editing and re-publishing Leaves of Grass.
What would Whitman think of being memorialized in a large neon sign? Grandiose and colorful – well maybe he would love it. Fried food for the masses – not sure. This plaque (and we learn as tour guides to be wary of plaques) mentions how he called “Leaves of Grass” – “democratic literature commensurate with people,... simple and unconquerable.” I could see how Nathan’s Hot Dog stand could follow in the footsteps of that description.
“O you bedraggled neon signs,
O you golden arches,
With insidious oily saltiness, seeping into our pores.”
What do you think? What is the strangest, most commercial place you have seen memorializing a writer/artist?