Category Archives: Walt Whitman

a letter from Walt Whitman

 

 

 

What interests me about the letter of Walt Whitman posted here (text below) is his feelings about his native city, New York. They are similar to mine.

Whitman, then working as government clerk and a volunteer in hospitals in Washington, DC, was visiting New York at the time the letter was written. He was staying at his mother’ s house on Portland Avenue in Brooklyn.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   June 2019

 

 

 

 

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Monday forenoon November 9 [1863]

 

Dear comrades, as I did not finish my letter yesterday afternoon, as I had many friends come to see me, I will finish it now—the news this morning is that Meade is shoving Lee back upon Richmond, & that we have already given the rebs some hard knocks, there on the old Rappahannock fighting ground. O I do hope the Anny of the Potomac will at last gain a first-class victory, for they have had to retreat often enough, &: yet I believe a better Army never trod the earth than they are & have been for over a year.

Well, dear comrades, it looks so different here in all this mighty city, every thing going with a big rush & so gay, as if there was neither war nor hospitals in the land. New York &: Brooklyn appear nothing but prosperity & plenty. Every where carts & trucks & carriages & vehicles on the go, loaded with goods, express-wagons, omnibuses, cars, &c—thousands of ships along the wharves, & the piers piled high, where they are loading or unloading the cargoes—all the stores crammed with every thing you can think of, & the markets with all sorts of provisions—tens & hundreds of thousands of people every where, (the population is 1,500,000) , almost every body well-drest, & appearing to have enough—then the splendid river & Harbor here, full of ships, steamers, sloops, &c—then the great street, Broadway, for four miles, one continual jam of people, & the great magnificent stores all along on each side, & the show windows filled with beautiful & costly goods—I never saw the crowd thicker, nor such goings on & such prosperity [italics added]—& as I passed through Baltimore.& Philadelphia it seemed to be just the same.

I am quite fond of crossing on the Fulton ferry, or South ferry, between Brooklyn & New York, on the big handsome boats. They run continually day & night. I know most of the pilots, & I go up on deck & stay as long as I choose. The scene is very curious, & full of variety. The shipping along the wharves looks like a forest of bare trees. Then there are all classes of sailing vessels & steamers, some of the grandest & most beautiful steamships in the world, going or coming from Europe, or on the California route, all these on the move. [italics added] As I sit up there in the pilot house, I can see every thing, & the distant scenery, & away down toward the sea, & Fort Lafayette &c. The ferry boat has to pick its way through the crowd. Often they hit each other, then there is a time—

My loving comrades I am scribbling this in my room in my Mother’s house. …

 

 

— Walt Whitman, The Correspondence: Volume I: 1842-1867, edited by Edwin Haviland Miller (New York University Press, 1961), pp. 180-181

Walt Whitman … profoundly a New Yorker

 

 

In his sprawl, his vaunting ambition, and his humanity, Walt Whitman was profoundly a New Yorker. His poetry bore no little resemblance to the “mettlesome, mad, extravagant city” that he called home, and to the end of his life, he remained “a Manhattanese, free, friendly and proud.”

Whitman was born in the small community of West Hills in Suffolk County, and he returned often to the rural scenes of “fish-shape Paumanok,” as he called Long Island. But he grew up in Brooklyn, at a time when it was growing explosively, and proudly called himself a “Brooklyn boy.” Like his father, he found occasional work in carpentry and contracting, and that may have affected the way he thought about his poetry–with “the preparatory jointing, squaring, sawing, mortising, the hoist-up of beams the push of them in their places, laying them regular.”

New York’s expansion resembled Whitman’s own during the “seed-time years” that preceded Leaves of Grass. He later claimed that the poems “arose out of my life in Brooklyn and New York from 1838 to 1853, absorbing a million people, for fifteen years, with an intimacy, an eagerness, and an abandon, probably never equaled.” Although he moved to Washington during the Civil War and then to Camden, New Jersey, he never stopped revisiting the New York of his imagination. In a letter from 1868, he wrote, “I sometimes think I am the particular man who enjoys the shows of all these things in New York more than any other mortal–as if it was all got up just for me to observe and study.” [italics added]

 

– exhibit label, “Walt Whitman: Bard of Democracy”; exhibition at the Morgan Library, New York, NY

 

 

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CITY OF SHIPS.

 

CITY of ships!
(O the black ships! O the fierce ships!
O the beautiful sharp-bow’d steam-ships and sail-ships!)
City of the world! (for all races are here,
All the lands of the earth make contributions here;)
City of the sea! city of hurried and glittering tides!
City whose gleeful tides continually rush or recede, whirling in and out with eddies and foam!
City of wharves and stores—city of tall façades of marble and iron!
Proud and passionate city—mettlesome, mad, extravagant city!
Spring up O city—not for peace alone, but be indeed yourself, warlike!
Fear not—submit to no models but your own 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— love all—I do not condemn any thing,
I chant and celebrate all that is yours—yet peace no more,
In peace I chanted peace, but now the drum of war is mine,
War, red war is my song through your streets, O city!

 

Leaves of Grass (1881-1882)

 

 

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But I was a Manhattanese, free, friendly, and proud
I was called by my nighest name by clear loud voices
of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,
Saw many I loved in the street, or ferry-boat, or public assembly, yet never told them a word,
Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,
Played the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,
The same old rôle, the rôle that is what we make it, as great as we like,
Or as small as we like, or both great and small.

 

— Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (excerpt)

 

 

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The house-builder at work in cities or anywhere,
The preparatory jointing, squaring, sawing, mortising,
The hoist-up of beams, the push of them in their places,
laying them regular

 

— Walt Whitman, “Song of the Broad-Axe” (excerpt)

 

 

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The exhibit label is vague about where Whitman actually lived during his years in what now comprises New York City. (Brooklyn and Manhattan were separate municipalities when Whitman lived there. Jamaica, Queens, where Whitman was a schoolteacher briefly, was then part of Long Island, where Whitman was born.) He grew up in Brooklyn; and, in the years of his adulthood prior to the Civil War, he resided in both Brooklyn and Manhattan at various times. When in Manhattan, he lived downtown in boarding houses in or near what is now the Financial District. When he was residing in Brooklyn, he often took the ferry to Manhattan. He was a regular at Pfaff’s beer cellar in Manhattan, which was located on Broadway near Bleecker Street.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

  June 2019

 

 

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Addendum:

In 2017, University of Iowa Press published a lost Whitman novel (its existence was unknown to scholars):  Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, which was originally published by Whitman in 1852 under a pseudonym and was serialized in a New York newspaper, the Sunday Dispatch. Zachary Turpin, who wrote an introduction to the 2017 edition, made this remarkable discovery.

If one reads the novel, which is set in Manhattan at around the time of Whitman’s boyhood — i.e., the early nineteenth century —  one can readily perceive Whitman’s familiarity with the City, which provides a setting and backdrop for the events and gives the story verisimilitude.

how could she omit the dates? (Whitman scholars won’t be happy)

 

 

 

 

'Walt Whitman Speaks' -book cover

 

 

I purchased yesterday at the Stand Bookstore the following slim book:

 

Walt Whitman Speaks: His Final Thoughts on Life, Writing, Spirituality, and the Promise of America

as told to Horace Traubel

edited and with an introduction by Brenda Wineapple

New York: Library of America, 2019

 

 

Whitman’s remarks are grouped, arranged, by topic.

They are all taken from With Walt Whitman in Camden by Whitman’s friend and acolyte Horace Traubel. Nowhere in the present volume is there any indication of on what DATE the conversation with Traubel occurred (all of which is fully indicted in the nine volumes of Traubel’s).

In James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the date on which a conversation with Johnson occurred is an important consideration, and was duly noted by Boswell. Same thing here (regarding the importance of dating when the remark was made).

What was Brenda Wineapple thinking? She is an accomplished and well known American literary scholar. I blame her, and also the Library of America.

Whitman scholars will be disappointed.

 
— Roger W. Smith

May 2019

Walt Whitman: simplicity and complexity

 

 

 

“No one makes craft, carefully wrought, seem more casual than Walt Whitman.”

 

— Richard Rhodes, How to Write: Advice and Reflections (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1995), pg. 12

 

 

A former friend of mine, the poet Charles Pierre, made a comment to me — I wish I could remember exactly what he said — to the effect that Walt Whitman is actually very difficult. Difficult for the reader, that is. That he presents a level of difficulty that requires acute understanding of? I think Pierre would have said: an understanding of what Whitman is doing; of his poetic technique, of his originality, poetic genius, and ingenuity. That Whitman, who seems on the surface so simple, is not really simple.

And yet, I find Whitman to be easy to become acquainted with and comprehend without necessarily being (as in the case of myself) expert at poetry. I “got” his poetry almost right away.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   February 2019

New Yorkers

 

 

 

I was on a bus in Brooklyn a couple of weeks ago.

My eyes strayed to a seat across from me, and I saw that a young woman was smiling at me.

Beaming.

She had a five or six or year old boy in her lap. It was a bit different than holding a toddler in one’s lap. The boy was restless. But the mother and her son and seemed to be totally in sync.

“Is he going to school. Or he is too young for that?” I asked.

“No, he’s going to school,” she said, still smiling.

Then, I got off the bus. She waved at me and wished me a good day. It was as if we had been glad to meet.

This little encounter — unanticipated, most would say totally inconsequential — set me up for the rest of the day. It was as if somehow I had made her morning pleasurable. She certainly did that for me.

A reason I am writing about this is because this sort of thing happens to me very often in New York. I doubt such encounters would be as likely in the suburbs. (Certainly not if one were driving to work or an appointment.) Rubbing shoulders with others as a matter of course is something I love about living in NYC.

When I first moved to New York as a young man, everyone seemed to in a hurry, and the City seemed cold and impersonal.

It’s exactly the opposite. Many New Yorkers have told me that their experience has been the same.

 

 

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In his poem “Mannahatta,” Walt Whitman said something very similar:

 

Rich, hemm’d thick all around with sailships and
steamships, an island sixteen miles long, solid-founded,
Numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender,
strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies, …
The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d,
beautiful-faced, looking you straight in the eyes,
Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway, the women, the
shops and shows,
A million people–manners free and superb–open voices–
hospitality–the most courageous and friendly young
men,

 

 

Roger W. Smith

December 2018

“I knew a man”

 

 

 

 

 

I knew a man . . . . he was a common farmer . . . . he was the father of five sons . . .
and in them were the fathers of sons . . . and in them were the fathers of sons.

This man was of wonderful vigor and calmness and beauty of person;
The shape of his head, the richness and breadth of his manners, the pale yellow
and white of his hair and beard, the immeasurable meaning of his black eyes,
These I used to go and visit him to see . . . . He was wise also,
He was six feet tall . . . . he was over eighty years old . . . . his sons were massive
clean bearded tanfaced and handsome,

They and his daughters loved him . . . all who saw him loved him . . . they did not
love him by allowance . . . they loved him with personal love;
He drank water only . . . . the blood showed like scarlet through the clear brown
skin of his face;
He was a frequent gunner and fisher . . . he sailed his boat himself . . . he had a fine
one presented to him by a shipjoiner . . . . he had fowling-pieces, presented to
him by men that loved him;
When he went with his five sons and many grandsons to hunt or fish you would pick
him out as the most beautiful and vigorous of the gang,
You would wish long and long to be with him . . . . you would wish to sit by him in
the boat that you and he might touch each other.

 

 

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Written in free verse, “I knew a man,” by Walt Whitman, is part of “I SING THE BODY ELECTRIC.,” a poem with nine short subsections included in the original (1855) edition of Leaves of Grass.

It is a great example of the utter simplicity and non-literary character of Whitman’s poetry. (This aspect of Whitman’s poetry is analyzed and explained definitively in C. Carroll Hollis’s monograph Language and Style in Leaves of Grass [Louisiana State University Press, 1983]).

The poem is read here by the actor Ed Begley (1901-1970). Begley is, without question, the greatest reader, the greatest vocal interpreter, of Whitman’s poetry ever.
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Reflecting upon this poem, it occurs to me that I know, and have known (beginning with my parents), people eliciting such thoughts, such admiration from me.

People seemingly ordinary. Meaning not famous, or great as we commonly take great to mean when we speak of a great statesman, a great author, or any other person of such stature.

Ordinary people.

Yet remarkable people.

Men and women whose character, integrity, sincerity, kindness, thoughtfulness, unselfishness, fortitude, and so forth one is struck by over and over, almost daily. Of whom one finds oneself reminding oneself constantly what a privilege it is to know such persons. And of what they have to offer. To you or me.

Whitman stopped to admire a blade of grass. I often find myself, as did Whitman in this poem, “stopping to admire” ordinary people whom I meet and reflecting upon their wonderful qualities and, by extension, upon our common humanity.

 
— Roger W. Smith

  December 2018

 

an early take by Walt Whitman on his conception of himself as America’s poet

 

 

Walt Whitman began his writing career as a journalist. He was known early on for writing anonymous reviews of Leaves of Grass — in other words, reviewing himself, in laudatory terms. A motivation for his doing this was that he clearly felt his poetic endeavor would not be understood by the literati or his countrymen, and indeed his poetry initially baffled most and offended many because of its frankness, or what one might call lack of reticence when it came to topics not discussed in polite society. Even his own family seems not to have for the most part read his poetry or understood it.

Below is an unpublished puff piece by Whitman that was in his papers. It is not un-similar to anonymous reviews of Leaves of Grass he actually wrote. His conception of himself as a sort of literary gatecrasher is amusing. It has more than a grain of truth.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   August 2018

 

 

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We suppose it will excite the mirth of many of our readers to be told that a man has arisen, who has deliberately and insultingly ignored all the other, the cultivated classes as they are called, and set himself to write “America’s first distinctive Poem,” on the platform of these same New York Roughs, firemen, the ouvrier class, masons and carpenters, stagedrivers, the Dry Dock boys, and so forth; and that furthermore, he either is not aware of the existence of the polite social models, and the imported literary laws, or else he don’t value them two cents for his purposes.

 

Notes and Fragments, edited by R. M. Bucke; in Complete Writings of Walt Whitman, vol. IX (New York, 1902), pg. 70