Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
New York City
Author:
Thomas, M. Wynn
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"This is the city," wrote Whitman, "and I am one of the citizens" ("Song of Myself," section 42). For most of the first forty years of his life, New York was the great milieu that crucially affected every aspect of his existence. Yet he had not been born there, never really lived there, worked there only intermittently, and was devoted to the rival, "parasitical" town of Brooklyn. This may help explain his complex relationship to New York proper—his ability to relate to it simultaneously as spectator and participant, as knowing insider and dazed or chronically awed outsider; his easy accommodation of the contrasting claims of city and country (see "Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun"); his nonpossessive sense of the fluidity of New York's identity; and his anti-nativist appreciation of the hospitable openness of its "proud, friendly, turbulent" character ("First O Songs")—so different from that of its prim Yankee rival, Boston. 

Moving from roominghouse to dingy roominghouse throughout 1835-1836 while working as a rookie printer, he grew into manhood amidst the feverish whirl of the city streets. Returning there in 1842 as rookie editor of the Aurora, he quickly joined in its ferocious political squabbles, and discovered the underlying violence, squalor, and degradation that served to heighten its social glitter. Even as the young autodidact set about acquiring his intellectual education from museums, sermons, speeches, and public lectures, he received an equally valuable streetwise education in the galvanic ways of a city caught in the throes of a socioeconomic revolution that turned it into the very image of the throbbingly modern. 

As it exploded from 123,706 in 1820 into a metropolis of 813,669 (almost half of them immigrants) in 1860, New York disintegrated socially. Ethnic ghettos like Kleindeutschland appeared alongside such exclusive refuges of the rich as Astor Place. Plate-glass windows in that new wonder, the department store, displayed the goods and mirrored the fashion show on Broadway, while the immigrant poor were penned into the infamous Five Points District, where conditions, stinking of vice and crime, were appreciably worse than in the notorious East End of Dickens's London. No wonder that in his early poetry (1855-1860) Whitman worked to reintegrate society by means of such linking, collectivizing, or aggregating structures as choric rhythm, syntactical parallelism, and promiscuously inclusive cataloguing of activities and occupations. 

He also produced a deliberately hybridized art, innovatively mixing high and low to create the verbal equivalent of that novel New York concoction, the cocktail. That ruffianly lower-class swell, the Bowery B'hoy—already a hero of the raucous popular theater frequented by Whitman—lent his outrageous swagger to "Song of Myself" (1855). Gaudy, vibrant New York glutted Whitman's passion for all the mixed entertainments of "art and heart"—from Italian Opera to folksy harmonizing, from stylishly histrionic Shakespeare to the street theater of carnivalesque popular festivals and the cutthroat rivalry of the fire-companies' chariot races. All these first became part of the young journalist who went forth every day during the 1840s, licensed to loafe at his ease around the streets, collecting "copy" that later, from Leaves of Grass (1855) onwards, turned him into a Barnumesque self-promoter and a nineteenth-century Cecil B. De Mille who produced spectacular urban epics with casts of thousands, sometimes using the visual techniques he'd learned from the photographic studios he'd visited, or the grand dioramas and panoramas he'd seen. 

Although beginning as a city dandy, and always a natural flaneur, he quickly became a hardened political infighter, social commentator and committed liberal reformer. As newspaper editor (on and off from 1842 through 1859), Whitman campaigned on issues ranging from ferry charges to clean water, raged against the appalling slum housing conditions, and argued for hygienic control of prostitution. Very much the product of the "new journalism" that had resulted from New York's invention, in the thirties, of that quintessentially urban phenomenon the mass newspaper, Whitman was alive to both the responsibilities and the opportunities of his trade. He saw himself as an educator, helping to turn raw New Yorkers (many of them immigrants) into full democratic citizens. He was aware of the newspaper's capacity to act both as urban mirror and urban map—enabling readers to find their bearings in a chaotically changeful world and thereby helping them to create a new civic space. 

But he was also mindful of the urban population's appetite for thrills and scandals. Although he came to despise the unprincipled opportunism of the sensationalizing penny press, he skillfully exploited the market for urban shockers in early fiction such as Franklin Evans (1842), a crude example of his fascination with the unbridled violence of New York's energies. And as Graham Clarke has shown, Whitman exhibits in a Poe-esque poem like "The Sleepers" (1855) a troubled psychic affinity with the twisted souls and poor misshapen bodies of New York's multitudinous social rejects, living in their own twin city of dreadful night. How far such an affinity implies a kind of covert identification remains an open question. There seems to be evidence aplenty in the poetry that a Whitman uneasy with fixed gender and social identity valued New York as an unprecedented solvent of traditional social ties and promoter of new (sometimes secret and proscribed) modes of relationship. Likewise, as one perhaps permanently in psychic transit, Whitman was fascinated with the stage drivers, horsecar conductors, and ferry pilots who participated in what a contemporary saw as an orgasm of locomotion. For this, as for many other reasons, it is appropriate that probably his single greatest urban poem is "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" (1856). 

However, the highly mediated manner in which the city is represented in that poem is typical of the difficulties the poetry puts in the way of critics who seek to assign it firmly to the actual, historical New York. Whitman himself signaled the separate, textual, and perhaps visionary, character of his poetry's city when, objecting to the hateful colonial provenance of the name "New York," he replaced it with the aboriginal "Mannahatta," supposedly the Indian word for " A rocky founded island—shores where ever gayly dash the coming, going, hurrying sea waves " ("Mannahatta [My city's fit . . . ]" [1888]). As the invocatory poem "Mannahatta [I was asking . . . ]" (1860) shows, such redemptive renaming allowed Whitman to refashion a city that had been rigidly grid-blocked for the convenience of commerce, transfiguring it into a landscape as fluid with possibility as the surrounding waters that magically transformed New York for him into a city of ships. Such "metropolitan pantheism" (Conrad 12) allowed Whitman to assimilate New York to his evolutionary "cosmos," a strategy seen by some critics as a (suspect?) way of turning a real recalcitrant cityscape into a malleable personal mindscape. But others view it as Whitman's remarkable means of rendering the novel psychology of modern urban experience. Along with Baudelaire, he has therefore been credited with pioneering discourses for exploring anomie, estrangement, isolation, euphoric togetherness, and many of the other symptoms of urban consciousness that sociologists were later to identify and analyze. 

Whitman's feelings about a New York he significantly preferred to apostrophize in maternal terms were deeply and fruitfully ambivalent, veering between ecstatic faith and deep misgivings. His doubts centered on the city's callous (and in his view anti-republican) "i-doller-try," its increasingly selfish and cynical politics (the fifties saw Fernando Wood pave the way for Boss Tweed's Tammany machine), and its disregard for the egalitarianism that was for Whitman the very bedrock of democracy. His faith was placed in the indomitably radical spirit of New York's working class, in the irresistible energy for social progress he sensed in the dynamism of the streets, and in the newness that was inscribed in New York's very name and guaranteed by the regular influx of an immigrant population in flight from the old. But could such faith withstand the shock of discovering during the Civil War exactly how reactionary New York's politics could be, and the bewilderment of viewing, from a distance (for Whitman left Brooklyn in 1862 never really to return), the emergence of a booming postwar city more socially ravaged and riven than ever before? While most critics argue that these circumstances only intensified Whitman's longstanding arguments with himself, M. Wynn Thomas has suggested that from the early sixties there was a qualitative change in Whitman's relationship to the city, reflected in a decline in his poetry. His deepening bafflement made his affirmations increasingly hollow and his poetry correspondingly vapid, as he could no longer hold vision and contemporary urban reality in a single rapt focus. Thomas claims to find evidence for this in the way Whitman strains to address New York in Democratic Vistas (1871), and in those sections of Specimen Days (1882) where he records his nostalgia for the prewar years, exhaustively details what seems to be a compensatory postwar love of nature, and includes an unconvincingly portentous description of his recovered faith in a New York he briefly revisited in 1878. All this is seen by Thomas as touching evidence of the breakdown of the old authentic relationship that had been so memorably underwritten by creative engagement. 

What is, however, certain beyond all such argument is that in his prime as a poet (about 1855-1865) Whitman was indeed "of Manhattan the son" ("Song of Myself," section 24) and that his yearningly boastful prediction about New York has proved true: "City whom that I have lived and sung in your midst will one day make you illustrious" ("City of Orgies"). 

Bibliography 

Brand, Dana. The Spectator and the City in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. 

Clarke, Graham. Walt Whitman: The Poem as Private History. London: Vision, 1991. 

Conrad, Peter. The Art of the City. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984. 

Jackson, Kenneth T., ed. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven: Yale UP, 1995. 

Johnson, John H. The Poet and the City. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1984. 

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980. 

O'Connell, Shaun. Remarkable, Unspeakable New York: A Literary History. Boston: Beacon, 1995. 

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995. 

Seaport: New York's History Magazine 26 (1992). Special Whitman number. 

Sharpe, William Chapman. Unreal Cities. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1990. 

Spann, E.K. The New Metropolis: New York City, 1840-1857. New York: Columbia UP, 1981. 

Thomas, M. Wynn. The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987. 

____. "Whitman's Tale of Two Cities." American Literary History 6 (1994): 633-657. 

Versluys, Kristiaan. The Poet in the City. Tubingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1987. 


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