Whitman: America's First Urban Poet
SOME authors are associated in our minds with particular cities. Think of London and you think of Dickens; Paris, Balzac; Dublin, Joyce; St. Petersburg, Dostoevsky; Cairo, Naguib Mahfouz. And New York? For me, it is Walt Whitman.Skip to next paragraph
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Whitman wrote of ``Leaves of Grass'': ``Remember, the book arose out of my life in Brooklyn and New York ... absorbing a million people ... with an intimacy, an eagerness, an abandon, probably never equaled.''
Justin Kaplan, in his fine biography ``Walt Whitman, A Life,'' points out that ``America's first urban poet began as a student of the city's rhythms and sounds.'' In 1830, at age 11, Whitman's formal studies ended and he started work as an office boy in a law firm, exploring the two cities along the East River - New York and Brooklyn. (Brooklyn remained a separate city until 1897.) Among those to whom he delivered legal papers was Aaron Burr. ``He had a way of giving me a bit of fruit on these occasions - an apple or a pear.''
As a newspaperman and poet, Whitman came to know his two cities well. ``Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,/I too walk'd the streets of Manhattan Island....'' He enjoyed riding the Broadway omnibus and would help the drivers collect fares. On the omnibus, or on the East River ferry boats plying between Brooklyn and New York, Whitman sometimes declaimed Homer and Shakespeare, or sang snatches from opera. He loved the opera and believed that without the emotional intensity it provided him, he might never have become a poet.
The harbor was a favorite part of the city for Whitman. The first time he ever wanted to write anything enduring was ``when I saw a ship under full sail, and had the desire to describe it exactly as it seemed to me.'' And describe ships he did, with lines such as these, written later: ``Look'd toward the lower bay to notice the vessels arriving,.../Saw the white sails of schooners and sloops, saw the ships at anchor,/The sailors at work in the rigging or out astride the spars,/The round masts, the swinging motion of the hulls, the slender serpentine pennants....''
As Whitman traveled by foot, omnibus, and ferry, he became increasingly aware of the beauty of his island cities. ``The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings, on the walk in the street and the passage over the river.''
In the streets of New York he was witness to historical events. ``When a great event happens, or the news of some great solemn thing spreads out among the people, it is curious to go forth and wander a while in the public ways.'' At age 14, he saw President Andrew Jackson ride through the city streets in an open carriage. (Whitman's 72 years, 1819-1892, overlapped the lives of John Adams, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt - a reminder of the brevity of our nation's history.)
By City Hall, near the spot where, in the presence of General George Washington the Declaration of Independence was read to the Continental Army five days after its adoption in Philadelphia, Whitman watched President-elect Lincoln arrive at the Astor House. ``I had ... a capital view of it all, and especially of Mr. Lincoln, his look and gait - his perfect composure and coolness - his unusual and uncouth height, his dress of complete black, stovepipe hat push'd back on the head, dark-brown complexion, seam'd and wrinkled yet canny-looking face.... [F]our sorts of genius, four mighty and primal hands, will be needed to the complete limning of this man's future portrait - the eyes and brains and finger-touch of Plutarch and Eschylus and Michel Angelo, assisted by Rabelais.''
Whitman learned of the firing upon Fort Sumter when walking down Broadway to the Brooklyn ferry to return home after attending a performance of Verdi's ``A Masked Ball'' at the Academy of Music on 14th Street. Newsboys were selling papers announcing the event. He bought a paper and read it under a gaslight street lamp.
He shared the excitement of his fellow New Yorkers when word reached the city of the meeting between Generals Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, bringing to a close the Civil War.
Church bells tolled six days later, this time for the slain President Lincoln. Jubilant banners along Broadway were replaced by weepers of black muslin. Read one banner: ``The silent city from its homes and towers/With universal tears flings out its signs/Of woe.'' As Whitman strode along Broadway that day, he wrote in his notebook: ``Black clouds driving overhead. Lincoln's death - black, black, black - as you look toward the sky - long broad black like great serpents.''
For Dickens, Balzac, Joyce, Dostoevsky, and Mahfouz, their city served as a source of inspiration. The same was true for Whitman. The people, events, streets, buildings, rivers, and harbor of this ``Proud and passionate city - mettlesome, mad, extravagant city'' contributed to his greatness as a poet.