Friday, April 18, 2014

Walt Whitman At Bear Mountain  
           Neither on horseback nor seated
           But like himself, squarely on two feet
                     Louis Simpson, Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain

When W Averill Harriman diverted a statue of Walt Whitman called “Open Road: Afoot and Lighthearted” to an out of the way outcropping of rock in upstate New York in 1940, he said he thought Whitman would’ve wanted it there -- to breathe  ‘the fresh air of the mountains’ -- instead of asphyxiated by the fumes of a million cars a year on Long Island.

To look at the poem written about the statue by Pulitzer Prize winning poet (and long-time Long Island resident) Louis Simpson and published in 1960, there’s certainly logic to Harriman’s point of view.

In his poem, Simpson decries the corrosion of the American myth of the open road. “The Open Road leads to the used car lot,” decries the Jamaican-born poet in one his most famously anti-material progress utterances.  “all the realtors, pickpockets, salesmen and the actors performing their official scenarios…turned a deaf ear, for they had contracted American dreams.”

Yet Simpson offers some hope of redemption in the very loneliness of the statueplaced in an out of the way place and viewed by few. “All that grave weight of America/Cancelled! Like Greece and Rome./The future in ruins!...
The man who keeps a store on a lonely road,
The housewife who knows she is dumb,
And the earth, are relieved!’

The statue – and its placement – support that redemptive hope.  Entitled “The Open Road: Afoot and Lighthearted,” portrays Whitman without regard to placement on highway or outcrop of glacial rock – America’s visionary poet is in full stride, hat in hand, one hand thrust confidently forward and his eyes fixed firmly on a distant destination.

Originally designed with Central Park or Battery Park in mind, but rejected by the New York City Parks Commission, the statue was the handiwork of sculptor Jo Davidson (1883-1952). It was not the only statue of a beloved literary figure sculpted by the man. Over his long career, the New York-born man was tapped to portray many of them – including Carl Sandburg  Arthur Conan Doyle, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling,  Rabindrinath Tagore and J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan.

But Whitman may very well have been the most well-known work of his, at least when it was first exhibited at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. According to one newspaper account, so many visitors reportedly tried to shake the statue’s hand at its location in front of the ‘perisphere’ in Flushing that the soft bronze hand was bent out of shape – and a new one, made of harder material, had to be put on the statue.

After the World’s Fair, the statue faced a new hazard, at least to Harriman’s way of thinking. It seems the influential Robert Moses was intent on having the figure of Walt placed along Grand Central Parkway – but Harriman would have none of it. Instead, the future New York governor succeeded in having placed upstate.

In choosing the spot, Harriman said he was seeking a location visitors have to hike to. “Fifty years ago the rocky hills and lakes seemed of little or no value, but they appealed to my mother and father and it was here they made their home,” he said at the dedication ceremony. He cited his father’s promotion of roads, rather ironically, and proclaimed that whoever should see the statue of Whitman would have to ‘come here by foot.”

That having been said, he set old Walt atop an outcropping of granite, with a sign which reads: “presented to the Palisades Interstate Park Commission by William Averell Harriman in behalf of his brother and sisters as a memorial to their mother Mary Williamson Harriman on the thirtieth Anniversary of her gift to the State of ten thousand acres of land and one million dollars to establish the Bear Mountain – Harriman section of the Palisades Interstate Park.”

While the site today does receive considerably more attention than in 1940 – a park museum and zoo is located very close to the statue – it may be argued that William Averill Harriman succeeded in giving the ‘afoot and lighthearted’ Walt Whitman an appropriate ‘road less traveled’ to call home.  

Or as Louis Simpson put it, a spot where one may imagine an America beyond the ‘used car parking lot, ‘the castles, the prisons, the cathedrals/unbuilding, and roses/blossoming from the stones.”

(nb For those whose 'Long Island Pride' is put off by Harriman’s insistence that the statue not be located on its byways, there is this to consider. Seventeen years later, as the sitting governor of  New York State,it was William Averill Harriman who accepted the petition of local residents to have the Whitman Birthplace designated as a state historic site. )

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