I too lived, (I was of old Brooklyn,) I too walked the streets of Manhattan Island, and bathed in the waters around it, I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me, In the day, among crowds of people, sometimes they came upon me, In my walks home late at night, or as I lay in my bed, they came upon me.
Those lines, from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” the version that appeared in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, are a good reminder that Walt Whitman was a Brooklyn boy as well as a citizen of the world. Next fall, some modern New Yorkers — students at City Tech, CUNY’s New York City College of Technology — will explore the Fulton Ferry Landing that Whitman described in the poem and record their investigations on a Web site. Meanwhile, thanks to open-source software, students at three other institutions — New York University, Rutgers University at Camden, and the University of Mary Washington, in Virginia — will be recording their own literary and geographical explorations of Whitman’s work on that same Web site.
The project, “Looking for Whitman: The Poetry of Place in the Life and Work of Walt Whitman,” is the brainchild of a group of professors at all four schools led by Matthew K. Gold, an assistant professor of English at City Tech. It received a start-up grant of $25,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities. James Groom, an instructional-technology specialist at the University of Mary Washington, is the site’s architect.
The technological backbone of the project, according to Mr. Gold, is the WordPress multi-user blogging engine. It will draw on CommentPress, an “open-source theme” designed by the Institute for the Future of the Book for use with WordPress, and BuddyPress, which makes WordPress into a platform for social networking. The site will incorporate wiki tools and such Web 2.0 staples as Flickr, YouTube, and Twitter.
“The basic idea is to bring all four of these classes together in this one space,” Mr. Gold said in an interview. Each class will have its own turf on the Web site, and each will concentrate on a different era of the poet’s life. Students at NYU and City Tech will focus on Whitman in mid-19th-century New York, those at Mary Washington will examine his Civil War-era experience, and the Rutgers contingent will turn its attention to his sage-of-Camden period. Each group will work with and annotate the relevant edition or editions of Leaves of Grass. Each will have access to the others’ work. So will the general public — at least that’s the plan.
“We really don’t know what these interactions will be like,” Mr. Gold said. “It’s one of the risks of the project but also one of the exciting things about it. What can NYU students learn from City Tech students and vice versa? Even as education is becoming more open, we are still, many of us, in the silos of our universities. Breaking through those walls is one of the things that’s innovative about this project.”
Mr. Gold believes that Whitman would appreciate the openness of the endeavor. The poet was nothing if not open source:
It avails not, neither time or place — instance avails not, I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence, I project myself — also I return — I am with you, and know how it is.
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt, Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd, Just as you are refreshed by the gladness of the river, and the bright flow, I was refreshed …