There has to be an antidote to the louring doom of this morning. And I find it at the end of the street, at the water's edge. Here, where renovated 19th-century schooners stand with their rigging archaic against steel and glass, South Street Seaport Museum is celebrating 150 years of a text whose optimism is an implicit rebuttal to the awful start we've made to the 21st century. But is the exhibition's title - "Walt Whitman and the Promise of Democracy" - anything more than an ironic phrase in 2005?
As a journalist-turned-visionary poet, Whitman saw America as the way forward, and in his collection, Leaves of Grass, he used the image of its best-known city as a metaphysical expression of his message: "Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son" ("Song of Myself"). New York was nothing less than his Jerusalem. He hymned its boats, its buildings, its people. He regarded his commute, from Brooklyn across the East River via the Fulton Ferry, as a daily drama of human contact.
Whitman saw sexuality as part of the artistic process, and liberation as part of his mission: "I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,/ And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man." He loved his fellow man - to the extent that he would sleep with strangers he met on the street - and his poem, "Calamus", contains some of the most explicit lines published in the 19th century: "Or if you will, thrusting me beneath your clothing,/ Where I may feel the throbs of your heart or rest upon your hip". Banned in Boston, Leaves of Grass was declared by Thoreau to be "disagreeable, to say the least ... it is as if the beasts spoke", while Emily Dickinson announced, "I never read his Book, but was told that he was disgraceful."
But this year the sensational Mr Whitman is about to become current again, with the publication of Michael Cunningham's new novel, Specimen Days. Cunningham, who won the Pulitzer Prize for The Hours in 1999, has created an experimental, three-part narrative which uses Whitman as its presiding genius; even its title is taken from Whitman's "random autobiography" of 1882, Specimen Days and Collect.
Cunningham reconfigures the New York of the past, present and future in the shadow of Whitman's genius, starting with a ghost story set in 19th-century Manhattan, in which a deformed boy blurts out lines from Leaves of Grass: "The smallest sprout shows there's really no death." In the second section, the boy metamorphoses into a child suicide bomber in post-9/11 New York, part of a "Children's Crusade" which takes Whitman's utopianism as its creed. And in the last section of the novel, Cunningham looks 150 years into the future, in which an android is programmed to quote Whitman: "For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." Specimen Days has already been optioned by producer Scott Rudin, responsible for filming The Hours; clearly the poet's profile is set for even wider exposure in the near future. But does what Whitman had to say to 19th-century America still hold out hope for our own uncertain era?
Walter Whitman was born on 31 May 1819 in Long Island and educated in Brooklyn where, at 13, he joined a printing office. By 17 he was writing for newspapers; by 21, he was editing one. Yet he devoted most of his early life to idling - "I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass" - and it wasn't until 1855 that he published Leaves of Grass. That first edition is on show in the exhibition; it is an exquisite object. Bound in green morocco, it bears only the words, Leaves of Grass, tooled in gold and sprouting roots and branches as though morphing into Nature itself. It is a self-consciously splendid artefact; but its contemporary reception was something less than its author hoped for. Critics regarded it as vulgar, irreverent, and self-indulgent; one said it was "not poetry, but the materials of poetry". Yet for the first time in American literature, the common man had become part of the cultural expression of the age, and an embodiment of all that Whitman considered sensual and civilised about his homeland:
When America does what was promised
When each part is peopled with free people,
When there is no city on earth to lead my city,
the city of young men
Whitman's New York was both vastly different from the city we know now, and at the same time remarkably similar. Its past is still there in its street-plans, a future memory of the metropolis-to-be. In the 1850s, the land around lower Manhattan had yet to be reclaimed, and Castle Clinton - now the ticket office for ferries to Liberty Island - was an island in itself, housing a concert hall where the great Jenny Lind sang. Residential and commercial Manhattan was concentrated downtown; farther north were genteel suburbs; by 14th Street, the land was still sufficiently rural to be farmed.
New York's raison d'être was the sea, Whitman's "mast-hemm'd Manhattan". Steamships, tugs, and barges serviced this new city, connected to, yet apart from, the rest of the world. It was that sense of energy which fired Whitman, as it would other artists in coming years; indeed, Whitman represents, in many ways, the birth of the American modern. As part of the exhibition, Manhatta, a film made in 1921 by photographer Paul Strand and painter Charles Sheeler, is being shown. Described as "the first American avant-garde film", it uses inter-titles from Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry", and in vivid expressionist imagery, it surges with the power of the city's skyscrapers and scenes of bustling crowds disembarking from the Staten Island ferry - the same boats from which commuters still pour today - like the "undone" on London Bridge in T S Eliot's The Waste Land, itself written in the year Strand and Sheeler made their film.
Whitman identified with the modern city, as much as he identified with "the body electric", and gloried in his own physicality. An imposing figure, six feet tall, he dressed in a loose shirt and wide-brimmed hat, a sartorial expression of his empathy with the working class. As he aged, he grew a flowing beard - a Christ-like demeanour which his disciples proclaimed and with which Walt, unaffected by modesty, could only agree.
"I weigh full 220 pounds," he told friends back in Brooklyn, when working in the military hospitals of the Civil War, "yet still retain my usual perfect shape - a regular model. My beard, neck, etc, are woolier, fleecier, whiteyer than ever. I wear army boots, with magnificent black morocco tops, the trousers put in, wherein shod and legged, confront I Virginia's deepest mud with supercilious eyes." Whitman complained, "I have been photographed, photographed and photographed until the cameras themselves are tired of me." But it was a lame protestation; he posed for his photographic portrait at least 130 times in his lifetime. He was, like Oscar Wilde, a man of his own invention.
In 1896, Wilde would announce, "I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age ... I felt it myself, and made others feel it ... I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me." Yet his intentions had been pre-empted half a century earlier by Whitman: "I found myself possess'd, at the age of 31 ... with a special desire and conviction ... to articulate and faithfully express in literary or poetic form, and uncompromisingly, my own physical, emotional, moral, intellectual, and aesthetic Personality, in the midst of ... the momentous spirit and facts of its immediate days, and of current America - and to exploit that Personality, identified with place and date, in a far more candid and comprehensive sense than any hitherto poem or book."
It was a remarkable encounter. Wilde arrived at Whitman's house on 18 January 1882, declaring, "I have come to you as to one with whom I have been acquainted almost from the cradle." Walt poured two glasses of homemade elderberry wine, and allowed Oscar to put his hand on his knee. He had heard much of this young man, and described him as "a great big, splendid boy ... so frank, and outspoken, and manly ... a fine handsome youngster ... I don't see why such mocking things are written of him." Wilde went home claiming, "The kiss of Walt Whitman is still on my lips."
It is easy to see why Whitman was a hero to Wilde. His letters were addressed to "darling boys", and he lived with Peter Doyle, an ex-soldier and streetcar conductor, for a decade. He called his love of comrades "adhesiveness", a sensibility which surfaced poignantly as he nursed the wounded and dying of the Civil War. On 18 June 1863, for instance, he came upon Thomas Haley, "a fine specimen of youthful physical manliness - shot through the lungs - inevitably dying ... He lies there with his frame exposed above the waist, all naked, for coolness, a fine built man, the tan not yet bleach'd from his cheeks and neck ... Little he knew, poor death-stricken boy, the heart of the stranger that hover'd near." Whitman's ministrations made the deaths of many lonely young men a little easier to bear.
The anniversary of Leaves of Grass seems to cut to the heart of the dilemma of modern America; the promise of democracy indeed. From lower Manhattan, I walk over Brooklyn Bridge, through its web of suspended wires threaded through gothic arches, tethering one land-mass to the other. From here, Manhattan never looked more like Gotham City. For all the modern blocks of concrete and glass, the aspiring spires of the older skyscrapers - from the Flatiron to the Empire State, from City Hall to the Woolworth Building - still shape an early 20th-century skyline, one which seems to have sprung from Whitman's dreams. On the far side, I descend into the newly fashionable area of "Dumbo" (down under Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges). This was where Whitman began his diurnal journey of discovery, newly commemorated by the installation of a metal balustrade pierced with quotations from "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry".
It is an exhilarating sight. The towers of Manhattan are seen through Whitman's words, captioned by the sections of fencing over which they appear: "Tall masts of Manhatta!" "Gorgeous Clouds!" "Drench With Your Splendour Me". But there is a counterpoint to the view, too. America has outgrown Whitman's dreams, and the city which was encompassable in his lifetime now reaches for the sky, out of scale with the humanity it serves. Whitman's celebration of the individual sits ill at ease in an age augured, not by his utopia, but by Eliot's apocalyptic waste land, and a nation increasingly limiting the liberties of the citizens to whom the poet promised such freedom.
Drawn back to the Seaport museum on a second visit, I linger over its most evocative objects: a pair of Whitman's boots in a display case. Brown leather with rubber soles and wide straps and buckles, they are ostentatiously ordinary, yet authentic as the sound which issues from a nearby speaker - the voice of the poet himself, recorded in the 1880s by Thomas Edison. By then an aged and acclaimed national figure - his image reproduced in carte-de-visites and even on cigar boxes, as near to a poet laureate as a republic would want to get - Walt recites a parting elegy to the city he loved: "Centre of equal daughters, equal sons, All, all alike endear'd, grown, ungrown, young or old, Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich, Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love..."
It is eerie, having heard his voice in my head so often, to hear it in actuality; still stranger to hear the drawn-out accent of the final line - "Perrrennniaaal with the Earrrrth".
Whitman died on 26 March 1892, at the close of a century in which he had placed so much hope. His song of himself was a song for humanity, too. And in spite of all that has happened since, it still echoes here - even as, down at the waterside he loved, the ferries leaving for Liberty Island are flanked by police boats with cannon mounted on their prows, and behind me yawns a gaping hole where the Twin Towers once stood. m
'Walt Whitman and the Promise of Democracy': South Street Seaport Museum, Fulton Street, New York (00 1 212 748 8600), to December. Michael Cunningham's 'Specimen Days' (4th Estate £15.99) is published tomorrow (review, page 26)
Whitman on the world
"I think well of the President. He has a face like a hoosier Michael Angelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep cut criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion."
On Abraham Lincoln
"The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem."
From the Preface to 'Leaves of Grass'
"I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars".
From 'Leaves of Grass'
"Do I contradict myself?
Very well then . . . . I contradict myself;
I am large . . . . I contain multitudes."
From 'Leaves of Grass'
"The sum of all known value and respect I add up in
you whoever you are;
The President is up there in the White House
for you. . . . it is not you who are here for him,
The Secretaries act in their bureaus for you . . . . not
you here for them,
The Congress convenes every December for you,
Laws, courts, the forming of states, the charters of cities, the going and coming of commerce and mails
are all for you."
From 'Leaves of Grass'
The world on Whitman
"There is no one in this great wide world of America whom I love and honour so much."
"I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has ever produced."
Ralph Waldo Emerson, writer
"We would talk of ordinary matters. He would recite poetry, especially Shakespeare; he would hum airs or shout in the woods. He was always active, happy, cheerful, good-natured..."
Peter Doyle, lover
"What thoughts have I of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache/ self-conscious looking at the full moon.
In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!"
Allen Ginsberg, 'A Supermarket in California'
"It is like no other book that ever was written, and therefore, the language usually employed in notices of new publications is unavailable in describing it."
'Life Illustrated' review of 'Leaves of Grass', 1855