Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place

Walt Whitman and the City
Joann P. Krieg Hofstra University

“[G]ive me the streets of Manhattan!”

Though this year we celebrate the first, the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, it is in the 1860 edition that Whitman poured out aspects of himself that had not to that point found public expression. In line with this revelatory mode we find him, in the midst of the “Calamus” poems, bursting out with the exultant, “City of my walks and joys!” (in Calamus 18), and identifying his love for Manhattan as rising chiefly from the possibility, ever present, of finding in its streets the “swift flash of eyes offering me love . . . .”   This street-based reassurance and affirmation of his deepest self were the needed antidotes to those hours recounted in Calamus 9, “Hours of the dusk, when I withdraw to a lonesome and unfrequented spot,” when the poet alone and in torment wonders, “Is there even one other like me . . . ?” Contrasting moments such as these contribute a chiaroscuro effect to the generally bright canvas Whitman paints in the prewar editions of Leaves, and are even carried forward into “Drum-Taps,” to be manifested there in the slightly deceptive “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun.”

It may have been some time late in the year 1862 that Whitman penned the poem, which I refer to as deceptive only for the way in which at its outset the work appears to set up a balanced contrast between the claims on the poet of rural and urban life.   But early on the cards seem stacked in favor of one of these, and after only eleven lines, each beginning with the words “Give me” and each describing another aspect of what he terms “a rural domestic life,” the truth spills out: “While yet incessantly asking still I adhere to my city. . . .”  Underlying this easily deconstructed hierarchy of preference is the poem’s sense of war urgency, which it shares with others that appeared in the 1865 Drum-Taps, the militant call to arms of “Beat! Beat! Drums!” and the praises raised, in the poem “Eighteen Sixty-One,” for those responding to that call.

 I am led to think it may have been 1862 that gave rise to “Splendid Silent Sun” by the reference to the “soldiers in companies or regiments,” some of them leaving for war and “Some, their time up, returning. . . .”  Walt’s brother George had enlisted for 100 days in April 1861 and re-enlisted for the duration in October of that year.  The following September Andrew Whitman was discharged after fulfilling his three-month tour of duty.  Both events, the coming and going of soldier brothers, may have found their way into the poem. Further, in December of 1862 George was wounded, occasioning Walt’s departure from New York and from such Manhattan scenes as those he describes in “Silent Sun, ” which would then have proved a form of farewell to the city he loved.  The sun image had appeared earlier, in “To Think of Time” and more fully in the 1856 “Sun-Down Poem” where it was firmly linked to the city and its crowds, though this poem conveys as well his deep affection for the City of Brooklyn.  Whatever its impulse, the poem serves well its purpose, to emphasize the necessity of setting aside the desires of the soul for peaceful fields and gardens, the joys of nature, for the demands of war.  But beyond this there is evident in its powerful descriptions of the city Whitman’s overwhelming personal preference–even though he is “tired with ceaseless excitement and rack’d by the war strife”–a preference voiced now in his simple cry, “give me the streets of Manhattan!”

I am reminded by this cry of  those comical letters written by the twenty-one year old Whitman when, following his loss of employment in Manhattan, he had no recourse but to return to Long Island, there to find work as a teacher in a country school (Genoways, Corr 7: 1-12).  Caught in the school’s “boarding round” system, which meant boarding in turn with the families of his students, Walt’s letters to his friend Abraham Leech are filled with comical invective for the rural lifestyle and with pleadings for his friend to find him employment closer to the city.  Years later he would refer to the inhabitants of Long Island in affectionate, if somewhat condescending tones, as “the dear old Long Island farmers,” but it was not the rural life of Long Island that he most appreciated, rather it was the natural surroundings, Montauk Point, the waters that regularly traced their way in and out of the island’s shores, the apple orchards, the pine barrens where the hermit thrush pursues its solitary way, and the mocking birds with their mimic cries.  Long Island, or Paumanok, as he called it using the Algonquin name, was the starting point, but one he had to leave in search of the “audience interminable” he believed awaited him.  And that meant going to the city.

In Whitman’s time Brooklyn and New York were separate and independent cities, except that Brooklyn was really closer to what we know as suburbia.  It was a place of houses and churches, with plenty of fully functioning farms.  So, the descriptions of city life that we find in Leaves of Grass, especially in the early editions, are of Manhattan.  In Drum-Taps they take on a wider significance, so that the antipodes of “Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun,” rural and urban life, are reflections of the urban north and rural south.  And they reflect the conflict between individual and communal interests, as well as the divided interior life of one American torn between Jeffersonian desires for a simple, unfettered rural America and the Hamiltonian impulse toward a thriving city economy of plenitude.  Of this last reflection, it might be said that the turn away from the rural is necessitated by the (unspoken) awareness that the urban economy of the industrial north is in so many ways dependent on slavery in the agrarian south.  For these reasons then,“Silent Sun” is not a poem that balances opposing desires, rather it ends by simply rejecting one and accepting the other.  1862, or whatever the exact year of composition, was not a time for balancing one’s inclinations but rather a time for choosing and declaring one’s choice openly and forcefully.  

Whitman earlier chose the streets of Manhattan around the time he was electioneering for Martin Van Buren, chose it largely because it was a booming, wealthy city, strongly labor oriented, ethnically diverse, and forward looking toward a greater, wider democracy than the founding fathers–especially those of rural, slave-holding Virginia–had ever envisioned.  So much is known of Walt Whitman’s connections to New York City that one is hard pressed to offer new insights.  Whitman himself has taken us, figuratively, with him, by omnibus and on foot, along Manhattan’s Broadway and many another street in that teeming city.  In poetry and in prose, especially in his early writings in the New York Aurora, we walk the streets of lower Manhattan with him, enter the theaters and opera houses, prisons and hospitals of his time, as well as view such spectacles as parades, processions and exhibits.  So detailed are some of his descriptions and so suggestive of today that in those moments he seems more our contemporary, especially those of us who make New York our home, than do any of his literary contemporaries.  And so strong is this sense that one is not really surprised to find him, as part of his campaigning for public parks, delving into what is today the New York City resident’s favorite topic of conversation, real estate and its costs (Journalism 2:275).  Of course, Whitman knew a great deal about real estate values, through his experience, with his father, as a builder of houses.  He knew a great deal about living in a city, and though his early years were lived in the City of Brooklyn, the city that lives and breathes in Whitman’s writings is the city of New York, and he drew from it a vitality that is loosed from the pages of Leaves of Grass even as we turn them in our present-day classrooms and studies.

        Scholars have taken these references of his and expertly expanded upon them so that one can immerse oneself in their revelations to such a degree that the concerns of the New York of the 1840s and ‘50s can seem almost as pertinent as those of today; and turning that coin, the concerns of today are often reflected in Whitman’s lines. Who of us, on hearing, in autumn of 2003, of the horrendous collision of a Staten Island ferry crashing into its pier, with the consequent loss of life and limb, did not immediately think of Whitman’s Brooklyn Ferry ode of immortality?  And, on the fateful 9.11 date, of his words, “I am the mash’d fireman with breast bone broken, /Tumbling walls buried me in their debris. . . .”  On almost any night the 10:00 p.m. city newscast can echo section 8 of “Song of Myself,” with its “blab of the pave,” its “Arrests of criminals,” and its “fury of rous’d mobs.”  Whitman is never far from his city, his Manahatta, or its people, for as he promised, distance and time avail not.

Indeed, one cannot fail to note the wide differences between Whitman and his intellectual colleagues, the New England Transcendentalists, in matters pertaining to landscape.  Emerson’s description, in Nature, of moments of ecstasis may occur when he is crossing a bare common, yet the experience is not one of commonality, but rather of intense privacy, and in the woods, he tells us, he is “uplifted into infinite space” there to become not part of a bustling crowd, but “part or parcel of God.”  Emerson, himself an inheritor, was conscious of the avaricious possessiveness of the land-conscious New Englanders.  In his poem “Hamatreya,” the Earth god mocks them for it, and it is only the god’s rebuke that causes the avarice of the poem’s speaker to cool, “like lust in the grave.”   The utopists among the Transcendentalists retreated further into nature for their communal undertakings, the Brook Farm and the Fruitlands experiments, where it was supposed that tending to pigs or raising only those vegetables whose roots grew laterally rather than downward would enhance one’s spiritual life.  The most obvious opposite to Whitman in this regard, of course, is Henry David Thoreau whose removal to Walden Pond, though far from being totally reclusive, was the best method he could devise for his joint economic and spiritual experiment in living.  It is only the coming of spring that can move the consumptive Thoreau beyond the grasp of a despair he seems, to that point, to have been uneasily holding at bay, only the thawing of the icy pond that can renew his spirit and make him fit to return to “civilization” and Concord.  How different all this is from Whitman’s experience of daily renewal, when the child within him goes forth every day into what that unknown poet of the Middle Ages called The Field of Folk wherein salvation lies.  Emerson, whom Whitman once addressed as “Master” (though in truth he had none), was possessed of an optimism rooted in a belief in the healing and redemptive power of the natural landscape, Whitman of a belief that, “To be surrounded by beautiful curious breathing laughing flesh is enough. . . (“Body Electric” [1855], l 41).  And where better to be so surrounded than on the streets of Manhattan?  The Walt Whitman who presents himself to the world in the early “Song of Myself” is a young man who owns the city.  Oh, not as Tom Wolfe’s young “masters of the universe” would later claim, to their destruction, to own it, but in the more positive sense of one who embraces the city, for all its good and evil, and identifies himself with its totality.  In the 1865 “City of Ships” Whitman could not have been any clearer when he claimed to have learned democracy from the City of New York: “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. . . .”

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Two years ago a film from the acclaimed director Martin Scorcese, Gangs of New York, caught something of that city as it was in Whitman’s time.  Though the film did not come up to its director’s hopes, it did provide a backdrop against which we were able to mentally set whole portions of Leaves of Grass and years of Whitman’s life as recounted by his biographers.  A major shortcoming of the Scorcese work was the inability of the filmmaker, because of the artificiality of the sets, erected in Rome, Italy, as a re-creation of antebellum lower Manhattan, to convey the sense of a grid-patterned cityscape, which, in the nineteenth century, had encouraged the creation of public spaces not in centralized circles or squares (though these later, defiantly, came into being), but along long lines of north and south thoroughfares intersected at regular intervals by less heavily trafficked side streets.  Whitman’s repeated references to Broadway indicate how important these north/south thoroughfares had become, Broadway, of course, foremost among them in importance.  This developmental scenario was partly the result of the Commissioners’ Plan adopted by the city in 1811 as a means by which to measure and chart the island’s real estate, above 14th St., for purposes of ownership records and of development.  The plan reduced the city’s geography to a system of discretely proportioned rectangles, especially on the east/west routes, that could be bought and sold.  While this served commercial needs, the island’s natural geography favored the north/south routes that developed with the city’s continued growth northward.  Because of this growth, transportation too, quite naturally, took the wider north/south roads, thus making these principal roadways the more public by their increased accessibility.  The result was that the grid plan reinforced and formalized the naturally occurring pattern of land use.  Businesses, churches, theaters, as well as the homes of the wealthy, clustered along the north/south routes leaving the narrower side streets to smaller establishments and residences.     

This pattern of development in Manhattan, along, if you will, “main traveled roads” and those less so, suggests paradigmatically the well acknowledged perception of Whitman as both a public and a private poet, distinctions often made by reference to various clusters within Leaves of Grass or to individual poems.  The “Calamus” cluster, for example, is the most strikingly private portion of Leaves, especially in its original format, and “Drum-Taps,” though it deals with the most public event of Whitman’s life, remains private in its manner of expression.  For many readers Whitman is least successful when intending to speak publicly, as an occasional poet, for example in “After All, Not to Create Only” (later –though not better– known as “Song of the Exposition”) or when publicly marking his country’s achievements, though an exception must be made, I believe, for “Passage to India,” which transcends both public and private realms to enter the mythic.  Contrast these public utterances, however, with a more personal poem such as “A Noiseless Patient Spider” where one finds such a moment of confessional privacy that one feels almost an intruder on the poet’s reflections, and the distinction between public and private is validated.

This notion of the public and private Whitman has sometimes been extended to include his dual roles, as poet and journalist, which, if valid, might further the paradigmatic suggestion of a grid-like development in his work along the lines of the Manhattan grid.  For such a dichotomy to be sustained, however, it would have to rely on the dubious categorization of one of these roles as less public, and, if that distinction were applied to the role of poet, it would be very much at odds with Whitman’s own perception of the poetic role.  An outgrowth of an early desire to become a public orator and nurtured by an exposure to vocal music and its emotive effects, Whitman’s intention to reach and influence as wide an audience as possible was openly declared by him and is easily discernible in the poems at even a casual reading.  Rather than distinguishing between poetic and journalistic, the grid pattern is perceptible in both areas of Whitman’s work for in both contexts he is very much “a walker in the city” – to borrow Irving Howe’s descriptive term for his own relationship to New York.   In some of his early newspaper pieces Whitman depicts himself as he will later in the poetry, as a stroller along city streets.  These jaunts typically take him along the broad main thoroughfares, the more public access routes of the city.  But he does not always remain there; in newspaper articles and editorials he will often turn and take us into the lesser known areas and along the more narrow side streets where traffic is lighter and often the poverty, with its concomitant evils, of the residents, greater. These are the streets where children, lacking parks, played until chased away by police officers, where young men, lacking evening schools that might improve their condition, loitered aimlessly after their work day, where the absence of street lights brought danger to passers-by, and where dwelled, no doubt, many of the prostitutes who, when plying their trade on Broadway, were often, in Whitman’s word, “kidnapped”  by local police.  Each of these situations, and others like them, Whitman the journalist believed had first to be brought to the attention of the reading public and could then be made subjects of his editorial reform advocacy. Here is the more essential intersection of public and private in Whitman’s newspaper work, for the gathering of information and bringing it into the public sphere is the primary function of journalism, a function that for a city newspaper means drawing on all aspects and strata of society.  In a muckraking era he might be said to have employed the technique of the expose; when he carried it into his poetics it was with the same intentions, to draw on every segment of society, to inform and reform.  The reformation aimed for in the poetry was not that of the newspaper editorials, however; its aim was not to create a public demand for some municipal action, nor did it--anymore than had the editorials--urge on individuals behavioral improvement.  Rather, the reformation aimed for might be said to have been a reforming of the city grid, a trespassing of those arbitrary, measured, territorial boundaries laid upon the natural landscape, to allow a broad inclusion of everything in the city’s human landscape, a transgression modeled by the verbal cityscape depicted in the poetry itself.    

A 1998 study by David M. Henkin, titled City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York, while it does not include Whitman in its scope, claims that a verbal cityscape (similar to the one we find in Whitman’s poetic descriptions) was created by the New York City dailies, the so-called “penny papers” that came into existence from 1830 on.  Henkin argues that this verbal cityscape paralleled the formal grid that had been imposed on the city’s landscape by “rendering new forms of social knowledge visible in the public spaces of the city to a broad and impersonal readership,” and that “they [the newspapers] constituted their own public space, an arena of print exchange where strangers appeared, circulated, browsed, and presented themselves before the urban crowd.”  Finally, he posits a “symbolic relationship between rectilinear city blocks and rectilinear print columns,” which he sees as “reciprocally clarifying” (104).  Clearly, there are correlations, as well as some important differences–especially in matters of form and intent-- between the ways in which these newspapers are said, by Henkin, to have gone about creating a cityscape and the ways in which Whitman did the same in Leaves of Grass.

 The “penny” press, which referred to the cost of the newspaper, was distinguished from the six-cent weekly press that largely served commercial and political interests.  Unlike the weeklies, the daily papers had to find their source of news within the city itself rather than in the national and international scenes.  This meant looking into every community and every stratum of city society to find what was newsworthy and inform the general public of it.  To fill its pages every day, the paper could not focus its attention exclusively on Broadway or on the city’s north/south routes, but had to expand, had to, in the term relative to Whitman’s poetry, transgress the boundaries set by the commercial grid , which principally served the wealthy land owning segment of the city’s population.  Further, because of their low cost, the dailies reached the same segments of society now being reported on, and thus became the “arena of print exchange where,” as Henkin says, “strangers appeared, circulated, browsed, and presented themselves before the urban crowd.”  Whitman, himself, during his brief tenure in 1842 as editor of a daily paper, the New York Aurora, wrote of the penny press comparing it to “common,” or public, schools.  “They [the dailies] carry light and knowledge in among those who most need it.  They disperse the clouds of ignorance; and make the great body of the people intelligent, capable, and worthy of performing the duties of republican freemen.. . .   Nor is it only the lower and middling classes,” he continues, “who take the cheap papers. They are found in the houses of the rich. . . .   Every where is their influence felt.   No man can measure it, for it is immeasurable” (Journalism 1:74).  While Whitman’s primary claim here for the penny paper is the provision of education for responsible citizenship, he also lauds its function as a medium for the transgression of social and economic lines, a function which he insists has produced an influence stronger than any form of measurement (such as the city grid) for this influence, he says, is “immeasurable.” 

Scholars in recent decades have made us aware of the many similarities between Whitman’s writings in the Aurora and, later, in Leaves of Grass (Kummings 458), so that we know Whitman the journalist was part of this rendering visible, in the city’s public spaces, forms of social knowledge, a practice carried over into the poetry as part of an intentional program set forth in the 1855 Preface, and where the descriptions and actions of Americans are clearly drawn from his observations and experiences in New York.  Here is just a portion of one such description, which ultimately touches on a point vital to Whitman’s interpretation of the city: “the tremendous audacity of its [New York’s] crowds and groupings and the push of its perspective spreads with crampless and flowing breadth and showers its prolific and splendid extravagance.”  That “extravagance,” or going beyond proper limits, so familiar to us from Whitman’s poetry, is also a vivid illustration of what Henkin, speaking of the symbolic relationship between the rectilinear grid spaces and those of the columns of print in the penny papers, terms a “reciprocal clarification,” but in Whitman’s poetry it clarifies not a symbolic, but rather a direct relationship between the actions of the city’s people and the appearance of the poems on the page.  Whereas the penny papers constructed a rigorous system of columns and a formality of type into which the news was organized (Henkin 113), Leaves of Grass, though the work of a man highly skilled in printing, presented quite a different picture.  Many of you, I’m sure, have heard in your classes the same kind of objection to Leaves I once received from a Freshman student: “It doesn’t look like poetry; there’s not enough white space around it on the page.”  Whitman’s poetry was, and is, extravagant in both content and in form.  When Oscar Wilde visited him here in New Jersey in 1882 the younger man hoped to learn something of the older one’s prosodic methods and asked him what governed his decisions as to the ending of a line of his poetry.  Whitman told him that the decision was often made for him by the extreme limit to which the print would extend on the page.  In such instances it seems the limit set by the page was the only limitation Whitman would observe.  As for the limitations imposed by the city grid, one may see a correlation between them and the declaration in the 1856 “Poem of the Road,” “From this hour, I ordain myself loosed of limits and imaginary lines!”

Another, and  important, aspect of the penny dailies, was advertising, which, while not so specific to the city grid, also has a bearing on Leaves of Grass.  Advertising became an important source of revenue for the penny papers.  The weeklies depended on subscribers for their revenue, a support system that Whitman was familiar with from his early days when, in 1838, he became the owner of his own weekly paper, The Long Islander, which he sold the following spring.  In that year of ownership, he wrote the paper, printed it, and delivered it from house to house, probably with the same care he remembered having been extended to the subscribers of the Patriot, the Democratic Party organ to which his father subscribed.  Writing later for an article in the Brooklyn Daily Standard, Whitman commented on the impressive way in which each subscriber’s name was written on the edge of the Patriot, and that it was not at all uncommon for the editor and proprietor of such weeklies “to serve them with care to the subscribers through the town with his own hands” (Christman 49). 

The daily papers were not sold by subscription, as they are now, but were hawked on the streets by newsboys who brought the news of the day even more publicly into the city thoroughfares by calling it out on the streets.  At this level the papers were selling themselves, via the newsboy, to the public, but in order to cover their costs and be assured of a more steady income, especially as competition from proliferating dailies increased, the papers soon found themselves in the position of having to sell themselves to advertisers as well.  As Whitman moved from the world of the weekly papers into the new world of the dailies, it is not at all surprising that he acquired skill in the business of selling, not only in selling his book-- by such means as anonymous self-reviews and the use of a ringing endorsement from a certain prominent New England writer– but by selling himself to the public, in the texts of the poems, as being part of the public, a man of the city streets, all of the streets, and representative of all the people living in all those rectangles on the city grid.  Just as Benjamin Franklin had publicly advertised himself to creditors and subscribers alike by pushing a wheelbarrow filled with supplies for his stationery store through the streets of Philadelphia, and as Norman Mailer--another, though later, New York City “rough”-- titled one of his books Advertisements for Myself, Whitman too absorbed the practicalities of city life.  If one of the practical results of the appearance of penny papers on city streets was, as Henkin says, that “strangers appeared, circulated, browsed, and presented themselves before the impersonal urban crowd,” we can find no better depiction of this than that offered by the poet in the 1855 “Who learns my lesson complete” where he presents himself and the fact of his existence as a matter of wonderment, adding, “And that my soul embraces you this hour, and we affect each other without ever seeing each other, and never perhaps to see each other, is every bit as wonderful . . . . “  If Henkin is correct–and his argument is persuasive--there may well have been the very correspondences he describes between the New York dailies and the City Commissioners’ land grid, but the grid remained an impersonal measurement of the city landscape, and the newspapers’ public space, inevitably, ephemeral. Whitman took the break- through to its farthest extreme of transgression and extravagance by personalizing it and defying the very boundaries even of time and space.  Surely Whitman, who readily picked up foreign words and phrases, using them in his own way, would have loved the Italianate construct that later produced the word “extravaganza”; there are few words that better describe his achievement in Leaves of Grass and few streets that so well fit the construct as those streets of Manhattan he delineated.

Works Cited

Bergman, Herbert, Douglas A. Noverr and Edward J. Recchia, eds.  The Journalism, Vol. 1: 1834-1846 (New York: Peter Lang, 1998).

Christman, Henry M. Walt Whitman’s New York (New York: Macmillan, 1963).

Genoways, Ted.  Walt Whitman: The Correspondence, Vol. VII (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2004).

Henkin, David M.  City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

Kummings, Donald D. and J.R. Lemaster, eds.Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1998.

Mickle Street Review Issue 17/18: Walt Whitman and Place