Commentary

Selected Criticism

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

After growing up in rural Long Island and the busy village of Brooklyn, Whitman spent his adult life living in and writing about the American city. Whether editing city newspapers such as the Brooklyn Daily Eagle or the New Orleans Crescent, or composing poetic catalogues of downtown spectacles, Whitman devoted much of his work to representing what he saw in the faces of laborers, what he heard exchanged on the sidewalks, what he felt pulsing all around him as he stood on the corner of, say, 15th and F streets in Washington, D.C. He resided in New York during the forties and fifties (except for a brief stay in New Orleans in 1848), writing articles about city politics and the cultural scene before leaving newspaper work in the mid-fifties to begin his experiments in poetry. He stayed in Washington during and after the Civil War, serving first as a volunteer nurse in the hospitals before securing a minor post in the Department of the Interior in 1865. Finally, he settled in Camden, New Jersey, writing and revising poetry and prose and receiving visitors who had come to pay homage to America's bard. Whitman's lifelong immersion in numerous American cities renders him America's first great poetic celebrant of metropolitan life, a sensitive recorder of urban experience. Ever fascinated by street scenes, by the "blab of the pave" ("Song of myself," section 8), by the pageantry of Broadway at noon and the expectant rush of commuters on Brooklyn ferry, Whitman always sought to transcribe the workaday routines and proletarian intercourse of the city and to give them just as much poetic value as that traditionally ascribed to nature and aristocrats.

Whitman's glorification of the American city assumes many different forms in his writings. In Leaves of Grass he includes numerous poems and passages documenting the sights and sounds of urban life in all its splendor and modernity and ferment, as well as revealing its despair and exhaustion and crime. With its exuberant lists of butcher-boys and blacksmiths and machinists and prostitutes and suicides, ballrooms and wharves and hospitals and shop windows, "Song of Myself" is the most copious repository of Whitman's episodic or even single-line descriptions of city scenes. (This is why Ralph Waldo Emerson, when recommending the book to Thomas Carlyle, said to Carlyle that he might find the volume to be nothing more than "an auctioneer's inventory of a warehouse" —6 May 1856 [Norton 2:283].) Other poems such as "City of Orgies," "A Song for Occupations," "A Broadway Pageant," "Mannahatta," and "Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun" contain the same quotidian urban data, though often Whitman counterbalances his city notes with compendious images of nature. In detailing the city, Whitman tends to adopt an attitude of pure observation, of an innocent vision taking in indiscriminately all that it sees: "Where the city's ceaseless crowd moves on the livelong day, / Withdrawn I join a group of children watching, I pause aside with them" ("Sparkles from the Wheel"). Stepping out of the crowd's endless movement, Whitman pauses simply to watch, to let impressions accrue in his impartial democratic consciousness. He strives to reduce his experience of things to unbiased perception and reach a point of view unaffected by political and social distinctions, one equivalent to the ingenuous eye of children. That way, the city will appear lower class but not low, dirty but not corrupt, commercial but not mercenary, chaotic and violent but not evil. The usual moral conclusions will not apply, and the city will retain its poetic character.

Whitman's unmediated, present-oriented poetic descriptions of the city contrast sharply with the nostalgic reminiscences that make up much of his prose accounts of the city. While some of his prose writings contain diary notes of his stay in Washington during the war and of his "western jaunt" across the Rockies from St. Louis to Kansas City to Denver and his trips to Canada and Boston and Philadelphia, Whitman also composes several remembrances that look back upon a city that was but no longer is. Written in the 1870s and 1880s, first printed in newspapers but later gathered into Specimen Days & Collect (1882), November Boughs (1888), and Good-Bye My Fancy (1891), Whitman's chronicles of "The Old Bowery," "New Orleans in 1848," "Old Brooklyn Days," "Broadway Sights," "Washington Street Scenes," and so on record the American city just as it is moving from town to metropolis (the years 1840–1860). His warm memoralizations of a then new urban world and its now bygone customs and vanished technologies are tinged with Whitman's personal reflections on what it all meant to him, how it made him feel. For example, his note on "Omnibus Jaunts and Drivers" begins with a few facts about the main bus lines in New York and the "Rabelaisian" character of the drivers. Whitman then records how often he would ride the bus from one terminus to the other absorbing the Broadway milieu from the passenger perspective. Finally, he asserts that "the influence of those Broadway omnibus jaunts and drivers and declamations and escapades undoubtedly enter'd into the gestation of 'Leaves of Grass'" (Prose Works 1:19).

A less personal account of the nineteenth-century American city appears in another sizable body of Whitman's prose writings: his journalism work in the 1830s and 1840s, plus the series on "Brooklyniana" (city history and culture) published in 1861–1862. Working mainly for New York and Brooklyn newspapers, Whitman wrote stories and editorials on a variety of municipal issues and events: school reform in Queens County, factionalism in the state Democratic party machinery, increases in suburban burglaries, rowdyism among city firemen, deficient mental health care facilities, poor city sanitation, swill milk, and so on. He also reviewed plays and opera and occasional ballet presented in New York theater houses. These years of daily reportage Whitman always recalled fondly (see, for example, "Starting Newspapers," Prose Works 1:286–289), and he correctly attributed much of the material of Leaves of Grass to his reporter identity. Covering the city's political, social, and cultural scene put Whitman in the observational attitude of the populist writer, and eventually of America's epic poet. To bring the news of the city to the city's inhabitants, Whitman had to mingle among all classes and in all neighborhoods, to witness trials and parades and elections and other municipal events, to assess the cultural status of New York arts, and then to translate his perceptions into a public discourse. That is, Whitman had to become what he calls in Leaves of Grass the "Answerer," the one who faces the confusions and discords of the masses and resolves them into a democratic idiom.

Herein lies what makes Whitman's representations of the American city important: not so much his panoramic descriptions of city workers and settings or his factual accounts of marches on Pennsylvania Avenue as his visionary idea of city life in the new World. The American city to Whitman is much more than a mere concentration of persons, dwellings, and marketplaces. It is an idyllic realization of what Whitman calls the paradox of "Democracy": the development of free, unique, myriad individuals within an aggregate, equalizing, consolidating society. As Whitman puts it in Democratic Vistas, democracy balances two opposing principles —"the leveler, the unyielding principle of the average" and the "principle [of] individuality, the pride and centripetal isolation of a human being in himself" (Prose Works 2:391). That is, while the American city brings people together as social and economic functions (boss, employee, merchant, consumer, bus-driver, neighbor, policeman, etc.) contributing to the overall liveliness and prosperity of the city, these city identities only serve to highlight the singularity of every individual involved. In the metropolis, American citizens become lost in the crowd, submerged in a prodigious congregation of carriages and goods and department stores and tenements that accepts all persons but tends to homogenize them. Yet, because American society ideally is organized on egalitarian principles, every laborer and consumer feels equally valuable in the city's bustling operation, and thereby stands out as a unique personality at the same time he or she stands for a portion of humanity. The city is the site of representative democracy, where the crowd (demos) has a legitimate political voice, but no more than that of any individual member. Of course, various social and political inequities still prevail, but that can change, for with "eligibility" (one of Whitman's favorite words) characterizing each citizen's status, American society is always open to progress and reform. And that potential is most easily reached in the city, whose concentration of persons demands from them a greater cooperation and understanding than rural society requires.

A theater of passions and incidents, teeming with conflicts and conciliations, mixing classes, races, occupations, nationalities, and sexualities, Whitman's American city is the social analogue of Whitman's inclusive democratic poetry: "I will not have a single person slighted or left away" ("Song of Myself," section 19); "This is the city and I am one of its citizens, / Whatever interests the rest interests me, politics, wars, markets, newspapers, schools" (section 42). Like Whitman's poetics of integration, the city levels those distinctions of persons (wealth, title, privilege) which lead to artificial hierarchies and privileges. However, in massing citizens together indiscriminately in the same streets and stores and parks, the city does not sink individuals into an anonymous, powerless existence. Citizens' close socioeconomic relations properly manifest a natural fellowship that enlivens people's lives, a communal bond that guarantees their vital participation in democracy. While Edgar Allan Poe or Nathaniel Hawthorne might discover in the crowded city a nightmarish dissipation of personal identity, Whitman finds in the bustling thoroughfares and saloons and churches and offices a cosmic energy that enhances the personhood of those partaking of it.

Of course, to understand the city as an expression of "a deep, integral, human and divine principle, or fountain, from which issued laws, ecclesia, manners, institutes" (Prose Works 2:390), citizens must see urban living and working conditions as a result, a creation, a poem. They are not an end in themselves nor do they originate in themselves or in simple materialistic human needs. Rather, the city spectacle and the experiences it yields are but one grand materialization of numerous spiritual currents and tendencies. This is why Whitman says in his first Preface, "The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem" (Prose Works 2:434). The United States and all its cities have a spiritual import, a substratum of "spinal meaning" (396) wherein resides the "democratic genius" (394), the "ensemble-Individuality" (396) shaping New World politics.

There is a threat to this municipal spiritualism only if urban relations become disconnected from the natural attachment of souls they should represent, if, say, business relations rest not upon a spirit of cooperation but upon a drive of competition. To Whitman, the best antidote to the decay of urban ideals would be to maintain intimate ties with nature: "American Democracy, in its myriad personalities, in factories, work-shops, stores, offices—through the dense streets and houses of cities, and all their manifold sophisticated life—must either be fibred, vitalized, by regular contact with outdoor light and air and growths, farm scenes, animals, fields, trees, birds, sun-warmth and free skies, or it will certainly dwindle and pale" (Prose Works 1:294).

Bibliography

Andrews, Malcolm. "Walt Whitman and the American City." The American City: Literary and Cultural Perspectives. Ed. Graham Clarke. New York: St. Martin's, 1988. 179–197.

Brasher, Thomas. Whitman as Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1970.

Norton, Charles Eliot, ed. The Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and Ralph Waldo Emerson. 1884. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1896.

Weimer, David R. "Mast-Hemm'd Mannahatta: Walt Whitman." The City as Metaphor. By Weimer. New York: Random House, 1966. 14–33.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.

____. Walt Whitman's New York: From Manhattan to Montauk. Ed. Henry M. Christman. New York: Macmillan, 1963.


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