Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Ferries and Omnibuses
Author:
Dougherty, James
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The cities around New York harbor developed public transportation early in the nineteenth century. Scheduled ferries traveled from Manhattan to the west bank of the Hudson and to the cities across the East River; stages and omnibuses plied the streets of the larger cities. By 1833 the ferries were double-ended steamboats, about 130 feet long, with side-mounted paddle wheels, a pilothouse at each end, and a single stack amidships. Cabins for passengers flanked gangways for vehicles; there was also an open upper deck. In the early 1850s at least seven lines ran scheduled crossings between Long Island and Manhattan; the Fulton Street Ferry took about ten minutes. The stages were coaches with lengthwise seats, drawn by a pair of horses. After 1831 they were supplemented, and eventually supplanted, by the omnibus, a longer vehicle seating about twelve, operating over fixed routes for fixed fares. On both, the driver rode on an exposed seat at the top.

In his journalism Whitman described the ferry passage several times, emphasizing the crowd, the harborscape, and the water traffic. He editorialized about the passengers' haste and impatience, which sometimes led to injuries or near-drowning, and about smoking and chewing tobacco in the cabins. He wrote comparatively little about the stage service. Omnibus drivers were frequently accused of recklessness and cheating on fares, but Whitman attributed these practices to the cabs rather than to the omnibuses and spoke sympathetically of the drivers' exposed and monotonous work. In his articles Whitman usually figures not as passenger but as pedestrian, relishing the spectacle of his fellow walkers.

In Specimen Days Whitman extols the ferry and the omnibus as privileged points of view. The boat offers him a vantage point from which to survey the shows, panoramas, and prospects of New York harbor with its tides of water and of humanity: they provide "never-failing, living poems" (16). There he rides up in the pilothouse; on the omnibus he sits with the driver, listening to his yarns or shouting some passage of poetry out into the roar of Broadway. The view from the omnibus is not so much eyesight as temperament: the drivers were a class of "roughs" with whom the poet made friends and whose animal vitality, vernacular eloquence, and camaraderie "undoubtedly enter'd into the gestation of 'Leaves of Grass'" (18–19). Just so, in the only poems about city transport, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" capitalizes on the visual experience of the harbor, while "To Think of Time" describes the funeral of a driver, phrased in the jargon of his trade. It was while visiting sick and injured stage drivers in New York Hospital that Whitman first encountered wounded soldiers, whose similar virtues he would honor in Drum-Taps and later in Specimen Days.

Bibliography

Brouwer, Norman. "'Cross from Shore to Shore': Whitman's Brooklyn Ferry." Seaport 26.1 (1992): 64–67.

Cudahy, Brian J. Over and Back: The History of Ferryboats in New York Harbor. New York: Fordham UP, 1990.

Stratton, Ezra M. The World on Wheels. 1878. New York: Blom, 1972.

Whitman, Walt. Specimen Days. Vol. 1 of Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. New York: New York UP, 1963.


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