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"I was born," wrote Dylan Thomas, "in a large Welsh town at the beginning of the Great War-an ugly, lovely town, or so it was and is to me." To come from Thomas's city of Swansea is to know what wonderfully creative liars poets can be about their hometowns, and so to be naturally inclined to wonder how reliable a guide Whitman would have been to the place whose spirit he addressed in Leaves of Grass as "you lady of ships, you Mannahatta, / Old matron of this proud, friendly, turbulent city" (418). In his Manhattan could be found, he added, "[a] million people-manners free and superb-open voices-hospitality-the most courageous and friendly young men" (586). Visitors to mid-nineteenth-century New York would, surely, have done far better to listen to the "Advice to Strangers" offered in the journal Life Illustrated. "Every great city," they would have learned, "is a sort of countryman-trap ... [Avoid] wandering about the streets or parks unnecessarily in the evening. The degrading confession and warning is necessary, that New York is one of the most crime-haunted and dangerous cities in Christendom." This streetwise writer has got the very literal measure of his New York-shrewdly estimating, for instance, the distances between various streets so that a traveler could calculate how much a hackman should charge. The reliable, hardheaded guide turns out, of course, to be none other than Walt Whitman himself, in another of his bewilderingly frequent "changes of garment." "Don't be in haste," this wily Walt continues, "to make city street acquaintances. Any affable stranger who makes friendly offers is very likely to attempt to swindle you as soon as he can get into your confidence. Mind your own business, as we said before, and let other people mind theirs" (141). How different this recommended conduct is from the trustful tryst of glances that he celebrates in his poetry: "as I pass O Manhattan, your frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love, / Offering response to my own-these repay me, / Lovers, continual lovers, only repay me" (279).
Faced with such barefaced and unmitigated contradictions, some readers have concluded there was not one Walt Whitman, but two. On the one hand, the time-bound figure of the hack journalist from New York, more or less routinely reflecting the political prejudices and reporting the social ephemera of his own particular period; on the other, the suprahistorical poet of an imaginary Mannahatta who addressed not so much his own age as all American (and all-American) time and whose best work was inspired by private, rather than public, affairs. Yet in those sections of Specimen Days in which Whitman outlines his anti-Wordsworthian version of the growth of a poet's mind, he pointedly insists that not only the plays and operas he saw but also "those Broadway omnibus jaunts and drivers and declamations and escapades undoubtedly enter'd into the gestation of Leaves of Grass" (703). Equally entranced by both plays and omnibuses, Whitman was doubly stagestruck, and an understanding of the mixed historical sources of his mongrel talent informs and invigorates the best recent biographical and cultural studies of his work. Other more specialized studies have concentrated on demonstrating how contemporary fads and interests from phrenology to photography and from hydrotherapy to linguistic theory are inscribed in his poetry. Implicit in these forms of study is the belief that his journalistic prose and his poetry are two fundamentally different but essentially complementary ways of mediating the modern, of articulating by means either direct or symbolic the character of life in his time. Whitman's poetic Mannahatta is, then, the Siamese twin of his journalistic New York: the one image is linked internally and inseparably to the other, and the point at which they are joined is the point at which they jointly connect with history. Or, to change the image, Whitman may be thought of as building his New York up, through his different kinds of writing, on several different levels. This was a strategy appropriate to a New York that, as it increasingly assumed its distinctive modern shape as a vertical city, gave rise to the Otis elevator at the very same time that it produced the dumbwaiter, a device that emphasized anew, in the context of this ostensibly democratic city, the distance between life above and life below stairs.
In recent times, Peter Conrad has been an incomparable cartographer of Whitman's Mannahatta. He notes how walking the streets is for Whitman a way of "dispensing sociability," how "the commonality of experience" in his city "makes all parts of one another." In one place Whitman find his own electric body the very image of the galvanic body politic; in another he "establishes an official religion for New York: a metropolitan pantheism ... [refusing] to distinguish between the city's vital plenum and the profusion of nature" (12). Possessed by the spirit of the collective, Whitman "writes chorally, not lyrically" (15). Concerned for the city's good name, he rebaptized it "Mannahatta," the original Algonquin term for "the place encircled by many swift tides and sparkling waters," and in 1860 he wrote a poem to explore "what there is in [that] name" (585).
As an account of the poetry with the history left out, Conrad's corruscating commentary on this "urban ode," or "prayer to a place," could hardly be bettered. But "Mannahatta" also resounds with the name that is not spoken-the prohibited term "New York" that bespeaks the actual proscribed historical identity of Whitman's city. By midcentury that identity was troubling many inhabitants who were seeing the population grow over eightfold in forty years, from 120,000 in 1820 to not far off a million people by 1860. Between 1840 and 1859, immigration into the United States rose to a total of 4,242,000, and 428,000 of these newcomers entered New York in 1848. By 1858, two-thirds of the male population was foreign-born, a development that provoked violent reactions from nativists and others who resented the disappearance of an America they took to be more socially stable, economically equitable, and ethnically homogeneous. The remarkable, if gross, vitality of midcentury New York was the product of socioeconomic upheavals that had split the old order apart, on the one hand producing an increasingly dominant class of capitalists, plutocrats, and political bosses, while on the other bringing into being a vast new world of subordinated, degraded labor that extended from boardinghouses and sweatshops to the teeming tenements of the slums and the ragpickers' shacks on the fringes of a city with the highest death rate in the civilized world.
By 1850, New York was the undisputed "commercial emporium" for the whole of the United States. It was uniquely situated to benefit both from the large and growing market for goods throughout the populous Northeast and from its role as exporter of the South's cotton. As trade expanded, downtown New York was virtually emptied of inhabitants and given entirely over to business. The city indulged in an orgy of tearing down and building up. Lower Broadway ceased to be a place for "solid residences" and became "the great stage for the display of metropolitan wealth and success, a great 'agglomeration of trade and fashion, business and amusement, public and private abode, churches and theatres, barrooms, and exhibitions, all concentrated into one promiscuous channel of activity and dissipation'" (New Metropolis, 95). Memorable monuments to luxury included the new hotels, with their gaslights, plumbing, and steam heat, and the giant stores of which A. T. Stewart's was unquestionably the most imposing. Besotted with Broadway, Whitman boasted that "it is never still" but also noted that the only person to be seen there after midnight was a "lonely man with an enormous birch broom" who slowly worked his way from side to side as he cleared away the accumulated muck and filth of the day (New York Dissected, 122). Here can be glimpsed the dark underside of all that glitter.
Even as the residences of New York, removed from the downtown area, raced up the island, 58 percent of the inhabitants remained penned into the fifteen downtown wards. For a long period, the bulk of the working population couldn't afford to ride on the omnibuses that linked downtown to the much more salubrious new regions; but it was those very horse-drawn omnibuses that were to serve Whitman as a kind of modern urban equivalent to Pegasus. Writing in 1881, he was to indulge in a litany of nostalgic praise to the vanished omnibus companies-"The Yellow-birds, the Red-birds, the original Broadway, the Fourth Avenue, the Knickerbocker"-of long ago (702). And as he recounted the names and exploits of the drivers-"Broadway Jack, Dressmaker, Balky Bill, George Storms, Old Elephant, his brother Young Elephant (who came afterward), Tippy, Pop Rice, Big Frank, Yellow Joe, Peter Callahan, Patsy Dee, and dozens more" (703)-he was consciously proclaiming himself to be the Homer, the aboriginal epic poet, of his city.
Although these downtown areas occupied less than 9 percent of Manhattan, they were twice as densely populated as London's notorious East End. Only a tiny fraction of the population earned an adequate living wage. By 1855, 30 percent of the workforce were little better than laborers or clerks, while another 30 percent worked as menials in the new factory system. Whitman's reaction to these consequences of the shift to a market economy was a creatively ambivalent one-a doubleness of response that partly reflected his divided social allegiance. He came originally from an artisanal background and so had firsthand experience of the workingmen's futile collective effort, particularly during the 1830s, to prevent the incoming phase of capitalism from disabling them socially, economically, and politically. However, he went on to become a journalist and was therefore professionally attuned to progress even as he vigorously campaigned for reforms. His class position was correspondingly ambiguous, a fact of considerable importance for one's understanding of every aspect of his writing.
Reporters are, after all, nothing if not connoisseurs of the contemporary, and New York newspapermen of the 1850s relished the challenge to make sense of a kaleidoscopically changing social scene. That by midcentury New Yorkers needed new guides to their city is evident from the enthusiasm with which in the summer of 1846 they flocked to view a carved wooden model of New York. Executed by E. Porter Belden and 15o assistants, it was a monumental thirty feet square, cost $120,000, and was adorned with a magnificent ornamental Gothic canopy decorated with oil paintings of the leading business establishments of the city. The painted model included perfect facsimiles of every building, down to the smallest detail of window frame and fence color. Since the model was advertised complete with testimonials to its accuracy from the Common Council of New York, editors of city newspapers, an assortment of the clergy, and thousands of the principal citizens, it was clearly the business establishment's effort to ensure that their city incarnated them as they had incarnated it. This Whitmanesque way of putting it is quite appropriate. The New York City of that time was a contested space, both literally and symbolically, and through his poetry Whitman participated in the contest. "Were I to you as the boss employing and paying you, would that satisfy you?" (355), Whitman inquires in "A Song for Occupations," in a sentence part of whose significance derives from the fact that the very word "boss" came into English in the New York of the 1820s and was coined (from the Dutch "baas") to reflect a key aspect of the new class relationships that a new capitalism was introducing into the world of work (Gotham, 516). "The learn'd, virtuous, benevolent, and the usual terms, / A man like me and never the usual terms," Whitman continues. "Terms" here equals salary, equals legal contract between employer and employee, equals social relations, and of course equals style of spoken and written discourse. In his poetry Whitman was out to change the terms on which contemporary New York conducted its affairs by changing the terms in which it spoke, and thus thought, of life.
The new phase of capitalism that had transformed the modest town of Whitman's childhood into a gigantic city was blatantly powered by money. In his 1869 study, The Great Metropolis, Junius Henri Browne irritably complained that "[t]he first impression one gets of ... New York, is, that everything in [it] is for sale.... All signs, all faces, all advertisements, all voices, all outward aspects of things, urge you to buy." It was i-dollar-try agreed Whitman as he tried, in "Song of Myself," to rewrite contemporary life in the hieroglyphics of the soul. Words themselves seemed in his city to be coined only for commercial use. One enterprising business, he noted, avoided the prohibition on advertising in Broadway by printing its slogans on a perambulated red umbrella (New York Dissected, 120). Whitman's own restless patrolling of the streets of Mannahatta in "Song of Myself" and countless other poems can be partly construed as his attempt to challenge the sovereignty of that umbrella; to cover its print with his own different imprint; to redistribute the type, in his printer's fashion, in order to retextualize his city. No wonder that printing had become New York's fastest growing industry. In a city where some 9o percent of the population was literate, signs proliferated everywhere, constituting what has been described as a "pageant of text" (Gotham, 679). Appropriately enough, an 1862 cartoon, "The Bill-Poster's Dream," featured a huge billboard plastered with messages that, "creating a patchwork of odd and quintessentially urban juxtapositions," read like a parody of Whitman's famous paratactical lists: "People's Candidate for Mayor ... The Hippopotamus." "Miss Cushman will ... take Brandreth's Pills." "The American Bible Society will meet at the ... Gaieties Concert Saloon." "$100 Bounty Wanted ... A Jewess for one Night Only" (Gotham, 680).
It was the age of advertising-the first advertising agencies opened in the 1840s-and Whitman as poet was quick to practice this key art form of the new urban capitalism. But his advertising of self and publications was for the sake of a poetry that undermined the commercial order rather than reinforcing it. Every word of Leaves of Grass 1855 testifies to the truth of that definition of the English language Whitman offered in its preface: "It is the powerful language of resistance" (25). And in an adjacent passage he included "the treatment of the bosses of employed people" in the list of practices and products that could not "long elude the jealous and passionate instinct of American standards. Whether or no the sign appears from the mouths of the people, it throbs a live interrogation in every freeman's and freewoman's heart after that which passes by or this built to remain. Is it uniform with my country? Are its disposals without ignominious distinction? Is it for the evergrowing communes of brothers and lovers?" (25). In this passage, Whitman commits himself to the work of opposing the ubiquitous "signs" of the inequitable commercial society of his day and of realizing instead the unspoken "sign" that throbs in the hearts of a people yearning for a society governed by "democratic" forms of relationship. It is in order to advance "the evergrowing communes of brothers and lovers" that "I give the sign of democracy" (50).
Excerpted from Transatlantic Connections by M. Wynn Thomas Copyright © 2005 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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|1||A tale of two cities||3|
|2||The new urban politics||33|
|3||Leaves of grass and The song of Hiawatha||59|
|4||The dreams of labor||93|
|5||Fratricide and brotherly love||115|
|6||Weathering the storm||133|
|7||The English Whitman||161|
|9||"What a Welshman you would have been"||227|