Walt Whitman’s New York City

“The best, most effective medicine my soul has yet partaken”

By Stuart Mitchner 

Sorting out his first impressions of Walt Whitman in a letter from November 1856, Henry David Thoreau admits feeling “much interested and provoked“: “Though peculiar and rough in his exterior,…he is essentially a gentleman. I am still somewhat in a quandary about him…He told us that he loved to ride up and down Broadway all day on an omnibus, sitting beside the driver, listening to the roar of the carts, and sometimes gesticulating and declaiming Homer at the top of his voice.”

Actually, it was more often than not Shakespeare that Whitman was declaiming while riding “the old Broadway stages” like “the Yellow-birds, the Red-birds, the original Broadway, the Fourth Avenue, the Knickerbocker.”

Looking back on those mid-century jaunts in Specimen Days in America (1881-1882), he recalls reciting “some stormy passage from Julius Caesar… (you could roar as loudly as you chose in that heavy, dense, uninterrupted street-bass).” He makes special mention of the drivers, “a strange, natural, quick-eyed and wondrous race” and savors the flavor of their names, “Broadway Jack, Dressmaker, Balky Bill, George Storms, Old Elephant, his brother Young Elephant (who came afterward), Tippy, Pop Rice, Big Frank, Yellow Joe, Pete Callahan, Patsy Dee.” These men “had immense qualities, largely animal—eating, drinking, women—great personal pride, in their way…Not only for comradeship, and sometimes affection—great studies I found them also.”

The passage ends with a wink at the critics who he imagines will “laugh heartily” to hear that “the influence of those Broadway omnibus jaunts and drivers and declamations and escapades undoubtedly enter’d into the gestation of Leaves of Grass.”

Thanks to Gay Wilson Allen’s biography, The Solitary Singer, we have a snapshot of the poet (“about 40 years of age”) at this time: “he was always dressed in a blue flannel coat and vest, with gray and baggy trousers, …wore a woolen shirt, with a Byronic collar, low in the neck, without a cravat…and a large felt hat. His hair was iron gray, and he had a full beard and mustache of the same color. His face and neck were bronzed by exposure to the sun and air. He was large and gave the impression of being a vigorous man.”

WHITMAN’S POWER

The vigorous man’s impact on the author of Walden can be likened to the way Whitman has embraced and repelled, seduced and intimidated generations of readers. In a subsequent letter, Thoreau writes: “We ought to rejoice greatly in him. He occasionally suggests something a little more than human. You can’t confound him with the other inhabitants of Brooklyn or New York. How they must shudder when they read him! He is awfully good.” But then, “To be sure I sometimes feel a little imposed on. By his heartiness and broad generalities he puts me into a liberal frame of mind prepared to see wonders,—as it were, sets me upon a hill or in the midst of a plain,—stirs me well up, and then—throws in a thousand brick.” This last figure would surely have amused Walter Whitman, the builder of houses. There’s also a potent insight in the phrase “more than human,” although Walt being Walt would have dismissed the idea of being set apart (as in not to be “confounded” with his fellow New Yorkers whom he loves en masse and who know him by his “nighest name”) when he imagines himself submerged in the human tide. In his own way, Thoreau, whose famous devotion to solitude would seem to make him the roaring poet’s absolute opposite, has expressed the truth about a life-force that can be at once in the city and of the city while being the city, and seeing beyond the city.

“FACE TO FACE”

It stands to reason that the work Thoreau remembers best is “the Sun-Down Poem,” later retitled “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” where Walt looks directly at us, “face to face,” across the centuries, as if to call us by our first or “nighest” name as we do him, our Walt, the world’s Walt, who disdains convention, complacency, the reality of limits, mortality, life, death, time, space, incarnating himself in us as he does in the two cities he would embody as one, Brooklyn and Manhattan. “Curious what is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man that looks in my face,/Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you.” The outlandishly presumptuous claims Walt makes are convincing and endearing in their force, their spontaneity, as he tells us that if we have thoughts of him (as we surely do, reading him, his words), he has thoughts of us. “Who knows but I am enjoying this/Who knows but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?”

That was in the 1850s. Whitman returned to New York two decades later in summer 1878, older and ailing, an experience he expands on in Specimen Days under the title “Human and Heroic New York.” After three weeks of resuming “with curiosity the crowds, the streets he knew, Broadway, “human appearances and manners as seen in all these,” he finds that after “making all allowances for the shadows and side-streaks of a million-headed-city,” the “brief total of the impressions, the human qualities, of these vast cities, is…comforting, even heroic, beyond statement…In old age, lame and sick, pondering for years on many a doubt and danger for this republic of ours—fully aware of all that can be said on the other side—I find in this visit to New York, and the daily contact and rapport with its myriad people, on the scale of the oceans and tides, the best, most effective medicine my soul has yet partaken—the grandest physical habitat and surroundings of land and water the globe affords—namely, Manhattan island and Brooklyn, which the future shall join in one city—city of superb democracy, amid superb surroundings.”

CITY AS AUTHOR

Obviously this later vision of the city, for all its optimism, has little of the face-to-the-face-of-the- ages cosmic immediacy of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” where “shadows and side-streaks” need not be allowed for when the poet’s very essence is in flux, “the impalpabe sustenance of me from all things, at all hours of the day…myself disintegrated, everyone disintegrated, yet part of the scheme.”

But what of ”the others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them;/The certainty of others—the life, love, sight, hearing of others”?

With a very “flood-tide” of poetic license already flowing below us, why not imagine Walt peering from Brooklyn Ferry into the first two decades of the 21st century where a young woman “attired in the usual costume” is sitting with her students mid-span on the Brooklyn Bridge reciting “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”?

Or, perhaps “the woman who waits for him” is holding open to the title page a copy of the first edition of Leaves of Grass to show that under the title where the name of the author should be it says only “Brooklyn New York,” as if the city were the author, which is something the woman in question, Karen Karbiener, a Whitman scholar at New York University, pointed out to me after citing “City of Ships,” in which Walt in effect calls New York by its nighest name, “O city/Behold me! incarnate me, as I have incarnated you!/I have rejected nothing you offer’d me—whom you adopted, I have adopted;/Good or bad, I never question you—I love all—I do not condemn anything;/I chant and celebrate all that is yours.”

FOLLOWING WHITMAN’S FOOTSTEPS

A New Yorker born and raised in Walt’s neck of the woods, and a Columbia graduate, Karbiener teaches “American Outlaw: Walt Whitman’s Radical Cultural Legacy,” a sophomore seminar divided between the classroom, where she discusses Whitman’s ideas of race, gender, politics and art, and the street, where she takes her students on guided literary tours, following Walt’s footsteps around Brooklyn Heights, where the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass was printed; around Newspaper Row, where Walt got his start; down to what remains of Pfaff’s Cellar, America’s “first Bohemian hotspot and his hangout in the late 1850s”; they take the Staten Island Ferry, “in an effort to simulate those countless rides on the Fulton Ferry.” Karbiener’s favorite tour is a perambulation around Fort Greene Park (established as Brooklyn’s first official park in 1847, because of Whitman’s almost-daily newspaper editorials calling for the need for green space in his neighborhood), then down the now omnibus-less Myrtle Avenue (passing the site of the offices of Whitman’s Brooklyn Freeman) to Walt’s house at 99 Ryerson, where in 2008 Karbiener and her class of 26 received an impromtu tour from the ”congenial landlord” who “ushered them through the ground floor entrance and up the staircases that Walt daily ascended and descended in 1855.” In her lookingforwhitman blog, Karbiener notes that “though the house is now divided up into smaller apartments (Pratt students and recent immigrants now live in closer quarters than the Whitman family did), the spirit of the house still felt broad, muscular.”

Besides editing Leaves of Grass: First and Death-bed Editions for Barnes & Noble Classics, Karen Karbiener is at work on a book titled Walt Whitman and New York: The Urban Roots of Leaves of Grass and is excited to have a volume of Whitman coming out this month in the Poetry for Kids series published by MoonDance Press for the 9-12 age group. Her selections are a much-needed response to the fact that the best of Whitman is so often excluded from young readers. Her notes in the section, “What Walt Was Thinking,” clearly reflect her enlightened passion for her subject. In her comment on “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun,” where Walt “bares his city soul,” he “fell in love with New York at a time when other writers simply did not find inspiration or even a reason to live in the city. Walt felt energized instead of overwhelmed by its constant motion, heard music instead of madness in its street din, and saw humanity instead of strangeness in its crowds.”

One of Karbiener’s favorite projects is New York City’s annual “Song of Myself” Marathon, which will be held on June 10 this year. According to Michael Robertson, author of Worshipping Walt, the events “are always joyous enactments of Walt Whitman’s central values: democracy, equality, diversity, and the pleasures of reading poetry in the open air (at least when weather permits).”

THE LOST NOVEL

Walt Whitman was in the news earlier this year when the New York Times reported the finding and publishing of a lost novel from 1852, Life and Adventures of Jack Engle (Univ. of Iowa Press $14), rescued by Zachary Turpin from the pages of a long-forgotten New York newspaper, the sole copy residing in The Library of Congress. Presented for readers of 2017 as “a short, rollicking story of orphanhood, avarice, and adventure in New York City,” the 156-page book is an exciting find that nevertheless contains only flashes of Whitman and his city. For one example, this summation of the city: “I was happy that I lived in this glorious New York, where if one goes without activity and enjoyment, it must be his own fault in the main.” Even given the money-making motive, it’s hard to believe that so stilted, judgmental, and prosaic a sentence was written by the same man who breathed life into his city in Leaves of Grass and Specimen Days.