Numberless crowded streets — high growths of iron, slender, strong,
light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies …
Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week;
The carts hauling goods — the manly race of drivers of horses — the
brown-faced sailors …
The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d, beautiful-faced,
looking you straight in the eyes …
A million people — manners free and superb — open voices — hospitality —
the most courageous and friendly young men;
The free city! no slaves! no owners of slaves! …
The city of such young men, I swear I cannot live happy, without I
often go talk, walk, eat, drink, sleep, with them!
- from Whitman’s “Mannahatta,” 1860 version
Save for a brief, three-month sojourn in New Orleans during early 1848, Walt Whitman spent the first two decades of his adulthood (ages 22 to 43) living and working in Manhattan and Brooklyn. It is also here he’d experienced the bulk of his youth (1823–31, ages 4 through 17); and it was in the New York metropolitan area, from 1841 through 1862, that Whitman first began to write: cutting his teeth on such unimpressive and deservedly forgotten works of fiction as the short story “Death in the Schoolroom” and the temperance novel Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate: A Tale of the Times (which the beer- and cocktail-drinking Whitman would himself eventually condemn as “damned rot.”) [i] It was as well here that Whitman wrote for such papers as the New World, the New York Aurora (where he served as editor), the Evening Tattler, the Brooklyn Eagle (where he became editor in 1846), and the Free-Soil Freeman (which he founded in 1849). After resigning the editorship of the Freeman in 1850, Whitman wrote pieces for the New York Sunday Dispatch before taking on a short-lived editorship at the Daily News.
But it was only upon leaving full-time journalism in 1851, and starting as a Brooklyn carpenter working with his father and brothers while also moonlighting as a literary freelancer, that Whitman finally, in 1854, begin writing the pieces that would form the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Containing a mere twelve poems, this edition came off press in 1855. A second edition (containing 33 poems) emerged one year later, and a third edition (containing 155 poems) appeared during early 1860 — all conceived and executed amid the sights and scenes of greater New York and imbued with the tone, imagery and scent of the city. Historians Mike Wallace and Edwin G. Burroughs have called the early Leaves “an ode to New York” and “perhaps the first great urban epic.” [ii]
Whitman broke molds in Leaves of Grass — rising up with a new voice as unrestrained and spontaneous as the ever-growing city itself. Out of the three slim early editions of the Leaves — including, as they did, such seminal pieces as “Song of Myself,” “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” and “A Child’s Reminiscence” (more commonly known by its first line “Out of Cradle Endlessly Rocking”) — came the seeds for every leaf that was to come after. Perhaps most importantly, Whitman’s third edition offered up the vibrant (and, at the time, scandalous) “Calamus” collection: 44 poems based on the theme of physical love and shot through with homoerotic suggestion.
As the emergence of “Calamus” indicates, it was during Whitman’s days in New York that he explored, defined, and came to terms with his sexuality while also discovering his life’s mission in the Leaves. Lurking in the lonesome corners of the city where sexual outcasts gathered — amid “paths untrodden … the growth by margins of pond waters” — he conducted himself by “standards not yet published,” rejoicing in the “athletic love” of “comrades” with “tongues aromatic.” In his poems, Whitman celebrated his town as a “city of orgies” where he routinely found the “frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love.” As these words indicate, Whitman’s first assignations were — by necessity, given the conventions of the day — not only covert but anonymous, conducted by stealth in the woods that were then still abundant throughout northern Manhattan and various outposts of Brooklyn and Queens.
… just possibly with you on a high hill, first watching lest any
person for miles around approach unawares …
Here to put your lips upon mine I permit you,
With the comrade’s long-dwelling kiss or the new husband’s kiss,
For I am the new husband and I am the comrade.
Or if you will, thrusting me beneath your clothing,
Where I may feel the throbs of your heart or rest upon your hip … [iii]
In addition to sexual opportunity such as would have proved far more elusive in the provinces, the city also offered aesthetic and cultural values which Whitman — though not some others — found invigorating and alluring. At a time when many writers (Thoreau among them) made a cult of the vanishing rural districts of the East — mourning the intrusion of railways and the abandonment of farms for life in what they considered to be sty-like industrial centers — Whitman the poet instead delighted in his metropolis. He sang of the noise and bustle of the crowded streets, the many languages and cultures, and the agitation of political parades and debates. In the throbbing mass of the urban population the poet sensed the pulsing heart of democracy: true and robust democracy for all.
When the unknown Thoreau made a brief visit to the equally unknown Whitman during a passage through New York in November of 1856 (two years following the dismally-received publication of Walden, a book at that point equally obscure as Whitman’s Leaves), he came away liking and applauding the poet as a person. At the same time, however, Thoreau — whose own “connections and obligations to society” were, by his own account, “very slight and transient” — wondered at Whitman’s strenuous, energetic patriotism, his gregariousness, and his spirited participation in the life of the city. (While working at the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Whitman had led the charge in advocating for a suitable memorial to the thousands of patriot martyrs of who died in British prison ships moored in New York Harbor during the American Revolution. His efforts resulted in the erection of the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument and the creation of Fort Greene Park as a site for the memorial.) Also, Thoreau found baffling Whitman’s fascination with urban politics: “something so superficial and inhuman that practically I have never fairly recognized that it concerns me at all.” [iv] Whitman, on the other hand, insisted that: “This is the city and I am one of the citizens,/Whatever interests the rest interests me, politics, wars, markets,/newspapers, schools,/The mayor and councils, banks, tariffs, steamships, factories,/stocks, stores, real estate and personal estate.” [v]
Whitman’s romantic enthusiasm for New York seemed both unbounded and — to some — downright rowdy. Again and again, the poet painted lover’s portraits of “million-footed Manhattan, unpent,” [vi] of people “endless, streaming, with strong voices, passions, pageants; Manhattan streets, with their powerful throbs,” and “Manhattan crowds, with their turbulent musical chorus — their varied chorus, and light of the sparkling eyes; Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me.” [vii] Shopkeepers, janitors, firemen and coopers — all were to be sung of equally. Indeed, the poet in Whitman was clearly a democrat with a small “d.” Thus his Leaves invited criticism from such aristocratic men-of-letters as Boston’s James Russell Lowell, who made a point of burning the copy sent to him by the author, and then denounced Whitman as a “New York tough, a loafer, a frequenter of low places, a friend of cab drivers!” [viii]
But — and this is important to remember — Whitman’s affinity for “cab drivers” varied greatly depending on their ethnicity. The 1840s brought an enormous influx of Irish Catholics fleeing the rural depression and famine of their homeland. By 1850, the Irish comprised one quarter of the city’s population, and immigrants from such countries as Germany and Italy another 15%: a social cataclysm so far as WASPs of all economic levels were concerned. Wages for laborers dropped in step with drastically increased supply. Working-class “native Americans,” in turn, saw their incomes sink. As so beautifully rendered in Martin Scorsese’s film “Gangs of New York,” tensions and violence between lower-class “natives” and immigrants became inevitable. As well, formerly respectable neighborhoods morphed into slums. Vice of all kinds expanded in step with the population. Meanwhile, corruption percolated throughout every branch of New York’s burgeoning civil service.
Whitman himself came from working-class “American” stock. As he watched his own family’s fortunes decline, he became a fire-breathing nativist. Although absent from the often-naive enthusiasm of his Leaves, Whitman’s darker sympathies came out quite clearly in his reporting. Under Whitman’s journalistic gaze, the chaos of the growing city seemed less a heroic tableau and more a hideous combination of problems nowhere near to being solved. In his editorializing he complained about how “murderers appear to rule the hour. The revolver rules, the revolver is triumphant.” [ix] Catholics, in particular, revolted him. During April of 1842, after a Protestant mob stoned the rectory of New York’s Irish Catholic Bishop John Hughes, who’d been advocating for public funding of Catholic schools, the 23-year old Whitman used the editorial page of the Aurora to condemn “villainous priests” and “Irish rabble,” saying that if the stones of the attackers had been aimed at “the reverend hypocrite’s head, instead of his windows, we would hardly find it in our soul to be sorrowful.” The rioters, it appeared, were heroes in young Whitman’s view. [x] (In “Song of Myself,” Whitman praised the “fury of rous’d mobs.”) [xi]
Whitman the journalist denounced “law-defying loafers who make the fights, and disturb the public peace.” This “rum-swilling, rampant set of rowdies and roughs” needed to be put down. When he wore his reporter’s cap, Whitman’s boasted “city of orgies” became a town which he condemned as “Gomorrah,” with streets “overrun with swine, outraging all decency.” [xii] (In “Advice to Strangers,” a freelance article written for an 1856 edition of the magazine Life Illustrated, Whitman warned New York visitors of exactly which neighborhoods to avoid, specifically pointing out Manhattan’s notorious red-light district, popularly known as Satan’s Circus.) [xiii] When he wrote with his reporter’s pen, the exuberant, triumphant and ever-hopeful citizen of the Republic who’d composed the Leaves denounced politicians (whom he saw as being uniformly self-interested) and cursed corrupt political parties, all of which sprang, he said, from “the tumors and abscesses of the land … from the running sores of the great cities.” [xiv] Later in his life, some of Whitman’s journalistic cynicism would sneak into his poems, but not during his days of residency in New York.
Still, not all the news was bad. At the same time that New York caught up with the world’s other major towns in the way of paupers and crime, so did it catch up with them in becoming profoundly cosmopolitan. The city’s upper class — ever-richer due to increased real estate values, a growing port trade, lower wages, and an expanding banking sector — embarked upon increasingly grand displays of wealth. Whitman regularly visited New York’s massive Crystal Palace, constructed for 1853’s Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations — a structure meant to mimic (and challenge the primacy of) that other Crystal Palace built in London for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Whitman described the building as: “an edifice certainly unsurpassed anywhere for beauty … an original, aesthetic, perfectly proportioned American edifice.” [xv] Within, he found — along with a grand assemblage of modern industrial inventions — the greatest collection of paintings and sculpture ever assembled in North America.
Whitman became immersed in New York’s emerging music, theater, literary and arts scene. As a sometime critic, he enjoyed press passes to Castle Garden, Palmo’s Opera House, the Astor Place Theatre, and the Academy of Music. Thus, he quickly became a devotee of both drama and classical music. [xvi] During 1847, Whitman developed a passion for Italian opera after seeing Don Francisco Marti’s company from Havana at Castle Garden. (“But for opera I would never have written Leaves of Grass,” he told a young protégé who tended him in old age.) [xvii] Whitman saw and heard the “Swedish nightingale” Jenny Lind, brought to town by P.T. Barnum, when she performed at Castle Garden in 1852. (He also interviewed Barnum himself for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and regularly attended Barnum’s American Museum of freaks and other oddities at the corner of Broadway and Ann Street — an establishment which by 1846 drew 40,000 visitors annually.)
Talent abounded throughout the city. In the editorial office of the Broadway Journal, by the corner of Beekman and Nassau Streets, Whitman got to know its editor, the author of “The Raven,” Edgar Allan Poe. The latter eventually published several macabre short stories by Whitman: pale imitations of Poe’s own better work. (“I have seen Poe — met him,” Whitman told Horace Traubel in the early 1890s, nearly fifty years after his 1845 encounter with the doomed writer. “He impressed me very favorably: was dark, quiet, handsome from top to toe: languid, tired out, it is true, but altogether ingratiating.”) [xviii] Sadly, Whitman seems never to have crossed paths with the other major literary figure with whom he shared New York — his direct contemporary Herman Melville — although he reviewed Melville’s work with favor in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. [xix]
Young Whitman found a mentor in William Cullen Bryant, who published him as a freelancer in the New York Evening Post. He found friends in such painters as William Sydney Mount, Walter Libbey, Charles Louis Heyde (who married Whitman’s youngest sister Hannah), Henry Kirke Brown, Jesse Talbot, and John Quincy Ward (as well as the daguerreotypist, actor, poet and landscape painter Gabriel Harrison, the first person in America to promote photography as art). He attended numerous exhibitions at the Brooklyn Institute, the Brooklyn Art Union, and many other museums and galleries throughout both Brooklyn and Manhattan. And he cultivated an extraordinary, eclectic crowd of bohemians — these gathering nightly in Pfaff’s Beer Cellar at 645 Broadway, near Bleecker.
Pfaff’s rathskeller catered nearly exclusively to fringe artists, writers and actors, as well as such social pariahs as homosexuals, left-wing politicos, and advocates of free-love. [xx] Among the regular denizens at Pfaff’s one found Ada Clare, an actress and writer notorious for having unapologetically borne a child out of wedlock with the Creole composer and piano virtuoso Louis Moreau Gottschalk. [xxi]Another writer and actress who spent evenings at Pfaff’s was Adah Isaacs Menken, infamous for once appearing on stage wearing nothing but a G-string over flesh-tinted tights. Additional habitués included the witty, alcoholic, free-love supporter Henry Clapp: a native of New England and the sometime (though by no means exclusive) paramour of Ada Clare, with whom he’d lived in Paris. Clapp was the founder and editor of an experimental literary weekly, the Saturday Press, where Whitman sometimes published poems.
Two young and as-yet unproved writers — Thomas Bailey Aldrich and William Winter — hovered about Clapp and served as his assistants. (Late in life, Winter was to become the defacto biographer of the Pfaff’s crowd. In that position he would reveal his utter disdain for Whitman, the latter having always dismissed Winter as a mediocre talent at best.) Other Pfaff customers included Fitz-Hugh Ludlow (who in 1857 published a book about his drug experiences titled The Hasheesh-Eater [sic]), the painter Winslow Homer, and Fred Vaughn, a bisexual Irish-Canadian stagecoach driver with whom Whitman was known to be intimate. (In fact, Vaughn shared quarters with Whitman for a time, and seems to have been the inspiration for several of the “Calamus” poems.) [xxii] Whitman also brought other gay associates to Pfaff’s: a mixed set of younger men from all classes — brokers, attorneys, longshoremen, sailors, merchants, students, and so forth. Among the group, which Whitman informally labeled as the “Fred Gray Association,” was Frederick Schiller Gray himself, (the son of a prominent physician), along with Fred’s brother Nat, and Hugo Fritsch, son of the Austrian consul-general to New York. [xxiii]
Sitting around what they called “the cave,” at the very front of Pfaff’s cellar, Whitman and his friends — both sexual and artistic — downed beer after beer while also discussing and debating literature, art, philosophy and politics long into the evening. “I used to visit Pfaff’s nearly every night,” Whitman recalled in 1886. “… There was a long table extending the length of the cave; and as the bohemians put in an appearance Henry Clapp would take a seat at the head of the table. I think there was as good talk around that table as took place anywhere in the world. Clapp was a very witty man … There were between twenty-five or thirty journalists, authors, artists, who made up the company that took possession of the cave under the sidewalk.” [xxiv]
What a transformation in New York during the years of Whitman’s residency, when his city of unsophisticated innocence and provincialism (characterized best, perhaps, by the quaint prose of Washington Irving) underwent the most sweeping and swift of social, political, architectural and artistic metamorphoses. What a place, this rapidly evolving metropolis of Whitman’s coming of age, this hothouse where Leaves of Grass sprouted wild, untamed and radically different from any poetry that had come before. Many years after his time in the city, Whitman himself insisted that Leaves of Grass “arose out of my life in Brooklyn and New York … absorbing a million people … with an intimacy, an eagerness, an abandon, probably never equaled.” [xxv]
Clearly, New York and Whitman matured together: parallel revolutions, with the social revolution of the town doing much to fuel and inform the revolution of Whitman’s writing. [xxvi]
[i] Feingold, Michael. “Drink It Up.” The Village Voice. 4 September 2007. Whitman wrote most of Franklin Evans, which was published anonymously, through late 1841 and early 1842 while sitting in the reading room at New York’s Tammany Hall, then something of a hangout for New York’s literati. Source: Perry, Bliss. Walt Whitman. (Boston: Houghtom Mifflin & Co., 1906). p. 28.
[ii] Burroughs, Edwin G. and Michael Wallace. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999). p. 708.
[iii] Whitman, Walt. “Calamus” Leaves of Grass, (Third Edition, 1860).
[iv] Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.) p. 221.
[v] Whitman, Walt. Untitled poem eventually to be titled “Song of Myself” in later editions. Leaves of Grass. (First edition, 1855).
[vi] “The Errand-Bearers.” The New York Times. 27 June 1860. Revised as “A Broadway Pageant (Reception Japanese Embassy, June 16, 1860)” in Drum-Taps (1865) and reprinted in Leaves of Grass (1881–82).
[vii] Whitman, Walt. “Given Me the Splendid Silent Sun.” Leaves of Grass (1881–1882).
[viii] Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.) p. 31.
[ix] Brooklyn Daily Times. 7 July 1857.
[x] The New York Aurora. 11 April 1842.
[xi] Whitman, Walt. Untitled poem eventually to be titled “Song of Myself” in later editions. Leaves of Grass. (First edition, 1855).
[xis] Greenspan, Ezra. Walt Whitman and the American Reader. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.) p. 56.
[xiii] Holloway, Emory & Adimari, Ralph (editors). New York Dissected: A Sheaf of Recently Discovered Newspaper Articles by the Author of Leaves of Grass. (New York: R.R. Wilson, 1936.) p. 135.
[xiv] Blake, David Haven. Walt Whitman and the Culture of Celebrity. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.) 183.
[xv] Whitman in an 1857 article for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Quoted in: Cutler, Edward S. Recovering the New. (Hannover: University of New Hampshire Press, 2003.) p. 146.
[xvi] The original Astor Place Theater that Whitman knew still stands at 434 Lafayette Street, in New York’s East Village. The theatre is located in the historic Colonnade Row, constructed in 1831, and declared a New York landmark in 1963. Today the theater is home to the Blue Man Group.
[xvii] Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1908.) p. 246.
[xviii] Traubel. With Walt Whitman in Camden. p. 23.
[xix] See Whitman’s unsigned review of Melville’s Omoo in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 5 March 1847.
[xx] The building that housed Pfaff’s still stands on the west side of Broadway, with a Korean deli (“Han’s Deli & Grocery”) on the first floor and apartments above. The large cellar which once extended under the sidewalk has long since been truncated due to the development of the New York Subway System. Charles Pfaff — a native of Baden, Germany — moved his place to nearby 653 Broadway in 1860 and renamed it the “Bohemia Chop House.” Pfaff remained in business at that location until late 1875, then spent another three years at a spot on 24th Street near Broadway. At the same time that he managed his rathskeller at 645 Broadway, Pfaff also owned another restaurant on Broadway near Amity Street. Prior to the opening of Pfaff’s, Whitman regularly attended the Pewter Mug, a bohemian hangout located around the corner from Tammany Hall on Spruce Street, where he liked to partake of “gin cocktails.” Source: Perry, Bliss. Walt Whitman. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1906). p. 28. For further details on Charles Ignatius Pfaff, see his New York Times obituary published 26 April 1890.
[xxi] Ada’s real name was Jane McElhenney, but she’d changed it to Ada Clare, after the famous orphan in Dickens’s Bleak House. She had, in fact, come to know Dickens during a visit to London shortly after the publication of that novel. The scion of a prominent South Carolina family, Ada was the heiress to a small fortune with which she underwrote her highly non-remunerative life as a singularly untalented actress and writer.
[xxii] Stansell, Christine. “Whitman at Pfaff’s: Commercial Culture, Literary Life and New York Bohemia at Mid-Century.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. 10.3 (1993): p. 107–126. See also: Shiveley, Charley, ed. Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman’s Working-Class Camerados. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press, 1987. p. 14 and pp. 38–39.
[xxiii] Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. Whitman’s Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics and the Text. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.) p. 108. Note that some of these young men, among them Fred Gray and Fred Vaughn, eventually entered into heterosexual marriages that produced offspring. The fact of the “Fred Gray Society” has caused some historians to identify Pfaff’s as Manhattan’s first gay bar.
[xxiv] Bazalgette, Léon. (Ellen Fitzgerald, Translator). Walt Whitman: The Man and His Work. (Garden City: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1920). p. 76.
[xxv] Jackson, Kenneth T. and Dunbar, David S. Empire City: New York Through the Centuries. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.) p. 105.
[xxvi] Numerous works have focused on other narrow sectors of Whitman’s life, most especially his days in Washington DC during the Civil War, and his old age. These include Roy Morris Jr.’s The Better Angel: Walt Whtman in the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), Charles I. Glicksberg’s Walt Whitman and the Civil War (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1933), and With Walt Whitman in Camden by Horace Traubel (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1908).