Tag Archives: Walt Whitman Life and Adventures of Jack Engle

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.

Fiction will tell you better what the past was really like.

 

 

I was a history major in college. The past has always fascinated me. Especially the Middle Ages. I had an exciting history teacher in high school, Paul Tedesco, who stimulated an interest on my part in American history. And, it was my very good fortune to have had a great medieval history professor in college, Norman F. Cantor.

I never actually never learned that much history, from the point of view of factual knowledge. What I most liked, especially in the college courses I took, was great historical writing from the aesthetic point of view.

Be that as it may, I would like in this post to “expound” briefly on something that has occurred to me from time to time.

History is all well and good — and necessary (I don’t mean to show ignorance by detracting from it) — but if you want to know what the past was really like, fiction is the best, without question. It can tell you better than a nonfiction monograph, better than a work of scholarship, about the past, not only make you feel like you are there, but feel what it was like, experience it vicariously, and learn all sorts of little things about how those times were different, from how people behaved to their households and customs. There is no comparable way to experience and know the past; there’s no comparison.

 

 

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To give an example, I have been reading Charles Dickens’s first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1837).

In Chapter V, Mr. Pickwick and his companions hire a post-chaise to take them from the town of Rochester to Dingley Dell manor, a distance of fifteen miles. “It was a curious little green box on four wheels,” Dickens writes, “with a low place like a wine-bin for two behind, and an elevated perch out front, drawn by an immense brown horse.”

That’s how gentlemen traveled in those days.

There is not enough room in the post-chaise for the entire party of four, so one of them, Mr. Winkle, has to travel on horseback. Mr. Winkle experiences difficulty mounting his horse, and it runs away. The other horse runs off with the chaise, which eventually crashes into a wooden bridge. The party end up walking the distance, leading by its harness “a dreadful horse that [the party of travelers] can’t be got rid of.”

The scene, as told by Dickens, is hilarious. And it illustrates what traveling was like in the English countryside in the early nineteenth century. You had to hire a coach and driver or rent your own horse to ride. (And people as a matter of course could ride on horseback in those days.) But, hiring the horse was often a problem. Yes, coaches would ply the streets of London, but, depending on your transportation requirements and where you were, you might have to find a hosteler. Then, travelling by horseback or coach was much, much slower than traveling nowadays. In Chapter IX, Mr. Pickwick hires a coach to pursue the fleeing scoundrel Alfred Jingle:

‘Pretty situation,’ thought Mr. Pickwick, when he had had a moment’s time for reflection. … Pickwick Club. Damp chaise — strange horses — fifteen miles an hour — and twelve o’clock at night!’

Also, in Chapter V, there is a description of the interior of a roadside public-house in a small town:

a large apartment, with a red brick floor and a capacious chimney; the ceiling garnished with ham, sides of bacon, and ropes of onions. The walls were decorated with several hunting-whips, two or three bridles, a saddle and an old rusty blunderbuss….

And, “an old eight-day clock.” This refers to a clock that could run for eight days without having to be wound. It feels so nineteenth century and unlike any lodging one would stay at in one’s travels nowadays. Certainly not a Ramada or Holiday Inn!

 

 

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Reading a novel can often, in some respects, be like traveling back in time. For instance:

 

Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722)

life in seventeenth-century London

 

Jane Austin, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

family life in an early nineteenth century English village

 

Balzac, Père Goriot (1835)

early 19th century Paris

 

Walt Whitman’s newly discovered novel Life and Adventures of Jack Engle (1852)

early 19th century Manhattan

 

Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1878)

upper class life in prerevolutionary Russia

 

Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island (1883)

boyhood in an 18th century English seacoast town

 

George Gissing, New Grub Street (1891)

London near the end of the Victorian era

 

Arthur Henry’s little known novel The Unwritten Law (1905; Henry was a friend of Theodore Dreiser’s who influenced and encouraged the latter in his early writing career)

turn of the century Washington Square

 

Henry Roth, Call It Sleep (1934)

life in the Lower East Side for Jewish immigrants

 

George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936)

1930’s London

 

John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

the Dust Bowl during the Depression

 

J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Saul Below, Seize the Day (1956)

Manhattan in the post-World War II period

 

Edwin O’Connor, The Last Hurrah (1956)

1950’s Boston

 

All wonderful books, all of which, I am proud to say, I have read.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   March 2018