Read an ExcerptThe Correpondence
By Walt Whitman
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS Copyright © 2004 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One 1840
.01 To Abraham Paul Leech1 7.30.  ADDRESS: Abraham P. Leech | Jamaica L.I.
Woodbury Thursday July 30
I feel but little in the humour for writing any thing that will have the stamp of cheerfulness. - Perhaps it would be best therefore not to write at all, and I don't think I should, were it not for the hope of getting a reply. - I believe when the Lord created the world, he used up all the good stuff, and was forced to form Woodbury and its denizens, out of the fag ends, the scraps and refuse: for a more unsophisticated race than lives hereabouts you will seldom meet with in your travels. - They get up in the morning, and toil through the day, with no interregnum of joy or leisure, except breakfast and dinner. - They live on salt pork and cucumbers; and for a delicacy they sometimes treat company to ryecake and buttermilk. - Is not this enough to send them to perdition "uncancelled, unanointed, unannealed?" - If Chesterfield were forced to live here ten hours he would fret himself to death: I have heard the words "thank you," but once since my sojourn in this earthly purgatory. - Now is the season for what they call "huckleberry frolicks." - I had the inestimable ectasy of being invited to one of these refined amusements. - I went. - We each carried a tin pail, or a basket, or a big bowl, or a pudding bag. - It was fun no doubt, but it cost me two mortal pounds of flesh, besides numerous remnants of my apparrel, which still remain, for what I know, on the briars and bushes. - Was n't it hot! - And then our dinner - our pic-nic dinner! - there's the rub! - Guess now what we had. - A broken-bowl half full of cold potatoes; three or four bones thinly garnished with dirty, greasy ham; a huge pie, made out of green apples, molasses, and buckwheat crust; six radishes, and a tin pan of boiled beans!! - And all this had to be washed down with a drink they called "switchell," a villainous compound, as near as I could discover, of water, vinegar, and brown sugar. - Our conversation, too, was a caution to white folks; it consisted principally, as you may imagine, of ethereal flashes of wit, scraps of Homeric and Italian poetry, disquisitions on science and the arts, quotations from the most learned writers, and suggestions on the speediest way of making butter. - Tim Hewlett vowed he ought to have a buss from Patty Strong; Patty modestly declined the honour. - A struggle was the result, in which Tim's face received permanent marks of the length of Patty's finger nails; and the comb of that vigorous young damsel lost some of its fair proportions. - It was a drawn battle. - At the conclusion of this performance, we gathered together our forces and the bowls, baskets, and pudding-bags aforesaid, and returned home; for my part feeling "particularly and peculiarly kewrious" from the weight of amusement -
I am much obliged for the paper you sent me. - Write soon. - Send me something funny; for I am getting to be a miserable kind of a dog; I am sick of wearing away by inches, and spending the fairest portion of my little span of life, here in this nest of bears, this forsaken of all Go[d]'s creation; among clowns and country bumpkins, flat-heads, and coarse brown-faced girls, dirty, ill-favoured young brats, with squalling throats and crude manners, and bog-trotters, with all the disgusting conceit, of ignorance and vulgarity. - It is enough to make the fountains of goodwill dry up in our hearts, to wither all gentle and loving dispositions, when we are forced to descend and be as one among the grossest, the most low-minded of the human race. - Life is a dreary road, at the best; and I am just at this time in one of the most stony, rough, desert, hilly, and heartsickening parts of the journey. - But Time is the Great Physician who cures, they say, our ills of mind and body. - I pray the fates he may rid me of my spleen ere long W. W.
.02 To Abraham Paul Leech 8.11.  ADDRESS: Abraham P. Leech | Jamaica L.I.
Devil's den, Tuesday Aug. 11
Why the dickins didn't you come out to the whig meeting at the court house, last Saturday week? - I went there, with the hope of seeing you and one or two others, as much as for any thing else. - I dare say you would have been much gratified; at any rate you would have been astonished, for the orator of the day related facts, and cut capers, which certainly never before met the eye or ear of civilized man. - Just before sun down the performance concluded, and starting from the C[ourt] H[ouse] I was overtaken by a most impertinent shower, which drenched me to the skin; probably all the whig enthusiasm generated on that occasion was melted down again by this unlucky shower, for we passed loads of forlorn gentlemen, with draggle-tailed coats, crest-fallen hats, and sour-looking phizzes. - The mighty patriotism they felt was drowned by a tormenting slipperiness of coat, shirt, and pantaloons. -
Were you ever tried? - I don't mean tried before Squire Searing or Judge Strong for breach of promise or theft; but tried as they try mutton fat, to make candles of - boiled down - melted into liquid grease? - tried as they try martyrs at the stake? - If you havn't - I have. - The scene was "Huckleberry plains," the day Friday last - the time, from twelve o'clock, N. until 3 1?2 P.M. - You see I'm particular. - The awful occasion impressed indelibly upon my memory every agonizing moment of that infernal excursion. It was what the ladies and gentlemen of this truly refined place called a party of pleasure. - Yes; it was delightful; fun to the back-bone; but it cost me a sun-burnt face and neck, from which the skin is even now peeling, and four mortal pounds of flesh which ran off in a state of dilution from my body. - The sun poured down whole lumps of red hot fire - not a tree, not a shed to shelter us from the intolerable glare. - I gave you in my last some account of my first "huckleberry frolick," but this beats it all hollow. - I can only wonder why I was such a thundering fool as to try it again. -
How are you all in Jamaica? - What is the news? - Do you have any games at Twenty Questions? - Does "our portrait" yet remain in the condition of the southern banks? - O, how I wish I was among you for a few hours: how tired and sick I am of this wretched, wretched hole! - I wander about like an evil spirit, over hills and dales, and through woods, fields, and swamps. In the manufactory of Nature, the building of these coarse gump-heads that people Woodbury, must have been given to some raw hand; for surely no decent workman ever had the making of them. - And these are the contemptible ninnies, with whom I have to do, and among whom I have to live. - O, damnation, damnation! thy other name is school-teaching and thy residence Woodbury. - Time, put spurs to thy leaden wings, and bring on the period when my allotted time of torment here shall be fulfilled. - Speed, ye airy hours, lift me from this earthly purgatory; nor do I care how soon ye lay these pudding-brained bog-trotters, amid their kindred earth. - I do not believe a refined or generous idea was ever born in this place; the whole concern, with all [i]ts indwellers, ought to be sunk, as Mosher says, "to cha[o]s." Never before have I entertained so low an idea of the beauty and perfection of man's nature, never have I seen humanity in so degraded a shape, as here. - Ignorance, vulgarity, rudeness, conceit, and dulness are the reigning gods of this deuced sink of despair. - The brutes go barefoot, shave once in three weeks, call "brown cow" "breown ke-ow;" live on sour milk, rye bread, and strong pork; believe L[ong] I[sland] sound and the south bay to be the ne plus ultra of creation; and the "gals" wear white frocks with red or yellow waist-ribands. -
Think, my friend, think on all this; and pray nightly for my deliverance from this dungeon where grace or good-breeding never were seen, and from whence happiness fled shrieking twenty years ago. - Farewell - and may the blessings of hope and peace, the sunshine of a joyous heart, never be absent from you. - May the bloom of health glow on your features, the tide of joy swell in your heart, and care and grief be strangers to your dwelling W. Whitman
.03 To Abraham Paul Leech 8.19.  ADDRESS: Abraham P. Leech | Jamaica, L.I.
Purgatory Fields, Wednesday Aug 19.
Have you never heard people advance the opinion that earth is man's heaven or hell, according as he acts or is situated, good or evil? - I believe that doctrine; or, at any rate, I believe half of it, as the man said when he was told that his wife had twins. - That this earthly habitation is a place of torment to my miserable self, is made painfully evident every day of existence. - Fate never made a place where dulness perched on every tree, obtuseness located himself on every hill, and despair might be seen "sittin on a rail," every ten yards, as completely as in this cursed Woodbury. - Woodbury! appropriate name! - it would-bury me or any being of the least wish for intelligent society, in one year, if compelled to endure its intolerable insipidity, without the hope of relief. - Before many weeks, I expect to be in the condition of those pleasant beings of whom it is said "They are nothing but skin and bone." - You do not know, my friend, nor can you conceive, the horrid dulness of this place. - Making money, plodding on, and on, and on; raising ducks, carting dung, and eating pork, are the only methods of employment that occupy the Woodbury animals. - And as avocations of this nature never met my fancy in any great degree, you may easily imagine what an interesting situation I am in. -
I have eaten my dinner since the last line over leaf was written; but I don't know that I felt any the better as to good-humour. - What do you think I had for dinner? - Guess, now. - Beef? - no. - Mutton? - No. - Pot-pie? No. - Salad and iced champagne? - No, no, no. - I'll tell you in the order that it was put up, or rather put down. - Firstly, two cold potatoes, with the skins on, one of said potatoes, considerably nibbled in a manner which left me in doubt whether it had been done by the teeth of a mouse or the bill of a chicken; secondly three boiled clams, that had evidently seen their best days; - thirdly a chunk of molasses cake made of buckwheat flour; - fourthly, a handful of old mouldy pot-cheese, with a smell strong enough to knock down an ox; - fifthly, and lastly, two oblong slats of a mysterious substance, which I concluded, after considerable reflection, must have been intended for bread; - this last would undoubtedly [have] been very interesting either to a Grahamite, or to one fond of analyzing and studying out the nature of the mineral kingdom. - Was n't this a feast for an Epicure? - Think, O thou banquetter on good things, think of such an infernal meal as that I describe, and bless the stars that thy lot is as it is. - Think, moreover, that this diabolical compound was wrapped up in [a] huge piece of brown paper, and squeezed into a little tin pail, which said pail, being minus in the matter of a handle or bail, had to be carried by a tow string instead! - Imagine yourself, now, that you see me toting along with such an article as I [have] been describing. - Don't I cut a pretty figure? O, ye gods, press me not too far - pour not my cup too full - or I know what I shall do. - Dim and dreadful thoughts have lately been floating through my brain. - The next you hear of me, I may possibly be arraigned for murder, or highway robbery, or assault and battery, at the least. - I am getting savage. - There seems to be no relief. - Fate is doing her worst. - The devil is tempting me in every nook and corner[,] and unless you send me a letter, and Brenton remits me an armful of news, there is no telling but what I shall poison the whole village, or set fire to this old schoolhouse, and run away by the light of it. -
I suppose all "your folks" are the same as usual, and that Jamaica is "situate, lying, and being" as in November last. - But do for pity's sake forward something or other to me soon, in the shape of mental food. - May you grow fat with peace and good cheer. - May the sun of peace warm you, and the dews of prosperity fall thick around your path. - May the Fates be busy with cutting other threads than yours - and may kind fingers shield you in the hour of death. - Adieu. - Walter Whitman
.04 To Abraham Paul Leech 8.26.  ADDRESS: Abraham P. Leech
Wednesday August 26.
Dearly beloved - Moved by the bowels of compassion, and pushed onward by the sharp prickings of conscience, I send you another epistolary gem. -For compassion whispers in mine ear that you must by this time have become accustomed to the semi-weekly receipt of these invaluable morsels; and therefore to deprive you of the usual gift, would be somewhat similar to sending a hungry man to bed without his supper. - Besides, conscience spurs me to a full confession; which generally operates on me like a good dose of calomel on one who has been stuffing immoderately, making a clear stomach and comfortable feelings to take the place of overburdened paunch and rumbling intestines. - Excuse the naturality of my metaphor. -
Speaking of "naturality" reminds me of the peculiarities that distinguish the inhabitants, young and old, of this well-bred and highly romantick village. - For instance, I was entertained the other day at dinner, with a very interesting account by the "head of the family," (families of fourteen or fifteen, in these parts, have but one head amongst them) of his sufferings from an attack of the gripes; how he had to take ipecachuana, and antimonial wine; the operation of those substances on his stomach; the colour and consistency of the fluids and solids ejected from the said stomach; how long it was before epsom salts could be persuaded to take pity on his bowels; with many and singular concomitant matters, which, you may well imagine, contributed in a high degree to the improvement of my appetite. - I frequently have the felicity of taking my meals surrounded by specimens of the rising generation. - I mean little young ones getting out of bed; and as "to the pure all things are pure," the scene of course is in a high degree edifying to my taste and comfort. -
We have had delightful weather out here for the past few days. - The sun at this moment is shining clear, the cool breeze is blowing, the branches of the trees undulate, and all seems peace and joy but the mind - the mind, that strange, unfathomable essence, which is, after all, the main spring of our happiness here. - My period of purgation is almost up in these diggin's. - Thank the pitying fates! in two weeks more I shall wind up my affairs, and with tears in my eyes bid a sorrowful adieu to these hallowed precincts. - Shady walks, venerable old schoolhouse, dismantled farms, innocent young ideas - all - all - will I look upon for the last time. - But I must stop - I cannot carry out the affecting thought any farther. - My heart swells, and my melting soul almost expires with the agonizing idea. - Let me hold out a little longer, O, ye powers!
How are politicks getting along down your way? - Is hard cider in the ascendant; or does democracy erect itself on its tip-toes and swing its old straw hat with a hurrah for "Little Matty?" Down in these parts the people understand about as much of political economy as they do of the Choctaw language; I never met with such complete unqualified, infernal jackasses, in all my life. - Luckily for my self-complacency they are mostly whigs. - If they were on my side of the wall, I should forswear loco-focoism, and turn traitor in five minutes. -We had a swinging meeting at the Court house, last Saturday. - I tell you what, our speakers went as far ahead of "the fat gentleman in striped trousers," as a Baltimore clipper does beyond a North River dung boat. - There was no 'kimparysun.'
Can't you look round Jamaica and find out whether they dont want a teacher somewhere, for a quarter? - I shall probably drop down there in the course of a week or two, and stay a day. - See to it, and oblige me. - I hope that holy angels will have you in keeping, and that the fragrance of plenty and the musick of a pleasant heart, will never be foreign to you. - Sweet blossoms bloom beneath your eyes, and the songs of birds gladden your hearing! - Farewell. - Walter Whitman
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