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Title: Fortunes of a Country-Boy; Incidents in Town—and his Adventure at the South

Creator: Walt Whitman [listed as J. R. S.]

Date: November 18, 1846

Whitman Archive ID: per.00282

Source: The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and Kings County Democrat, November 18, 1846: 1. Transcribed from digital images of a microfilm reproduction of an original issue.

Contributors to digital file: Stephanie Blalock, Nicole Gray, and Ed Folsom




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A Moral Tale.

FORTUNES OF A COUNTRY-BOY;

Incidents in Town—and his Adventure at the South.

———

BY J. R. S. ˙ ˙ ˙ ˙ ˙.

———

[Continued.

When I arose the next morning, and thought over in my mind what it would be better for me to do first, I saw that it was necessary to provide myself with a boarding house.1 After breakfast I crossed the ferry, and purchasing a paper of one of the newsboys, for a penny, I looked over to the column containing advertisements of the places similar to what I wished. I was surprised to find that every one had the most "airy, delightful location," the very "best accommodations," with "pleasant rooms," and "all the comforts of a home." Some of them informed the reader that there were "no children in the house." These I passed over, determining not to go there; for I loved the lively prattle of children and was not annoyed as some people pretend to be, by their little frailties.

Noting down upon a memorandum several that I thought might suit me, I started on a voyage of discovery. The first place that I called at was in Cliff street. A lean and vinegar faced spinster came to the door, and upon my inquiring for the landlady, ushered me into the parlor, where in a minute or two I was accosted by that personage.—She was as solemn and sour as the spinster, and upon my mentioning my business, gave me to understand that she would be happy to conclude a bargain with me, but on several conditions. I was not to stay out later than 10 o'clock at night—I was to be down at prayers in the morning—I was never to come into the parlor except upon Sundays—and I was always to appear at table with a clean shirt and wristbands. I took my hat, and politely informed the lady that if I thought I should like her terms, I would call again.

I next made a descent upon a house, which in the advertisement was described as offering good conveniences on "very reasonable terms." This I supposed meant that it was a cheap boarding house. The mistress took me up into an open attic, where were arranged beds of all sorts and sizes. She pointed me to a very suspicious looking one, in a corner, which she said was not occupied. She told me I could have that and my meals for three dollars a week, payable punctually every Saturday night. I did not like the look of the woman or the house.—There was too little cleanliness in both; so I made the same remark at parting, as before.

A third and fourth trial were alike unsuccessful. The fifth, I liked the house very well, but upon being informed that all the boarders were men, I determined upon making another trial. I desired to obtain quarters where the society was enlivened with ladies.

Quite tired at length with my repeated disappointments, and more than half suspicious that I was myself somewhat too fastidious, I determined that my next attempt should bring matters to a conclusion. Fortunately, the place I called at had very few of the objections I found with the others. The landlady seemed an intelligent, well-bred woman, and the appearance of the furniture and floors quite cleanly. And here it will perhaps be worth while for me to state, that this item of cleanliness was one which I could not forego, from the effects of my country life. I had been used to see, amid much poverty, the utmost freedom from anything like dirt, dust, or household impurity. And without it, I could not be comfortable in any situation.

I concluded an arrangement with the woman, and told her I should come that very day. I was to have a snug little room in the attic, exclusively for my own use, and was to pay three dollars and a half per week.

Soon after leaving this place, which I gave a good look at when I got outside, lest I might forge it, I went down in Pearl-street to call upon Colby. He was glad to see me, but as it was now the business part of the day, and I saw he had plenty to do, I did not stay more than a few minutes. I gave him the street and number of my new residence, and he engaged to call and see me in the evening, when his employments were over.

Who should I meet, as I was coming up from the ferry after having been over to Brooklyn for my valise, but my friend of the day before, the antiquary. He expressed his pleasure at seeing me by a smile, and a few kind words.

"And how do you like the city?" said he.

"I have hardly had an opportunity of finding out much about it yet sir. But I dare say I shall know more by-and-by."

Too much," he rejoined, shaking his head—"too much, perhaps. There are a thousand things here, my young friend, which no man is the better for knowing."

He paused, and I knew not exactly what reply to make.

"May I ask what you intend doing in New York?" said he, at length.

"I hardly know myself, sir," I answered; "I have come here with the intention of getting employment. What that may be, will depend a good deal upon my luck. I shall not mind much what I turn my hand to, so that I gain an honest living by it, and fair chance of bettering myself as I grow older."

"That is a strange way," said my companion, evidently with some interest. "People are not apt to get any employment worth having in this city, if they come here in the way I understand you to say you come."

"I am determined to do my best. Perhaps," I added, for I thought the antiquary showed quite a friendly disposition—"perhaps, sir, you could suggest something to me in the way of getting a situation?"

My friend looked down upon the ground awhile, and smiling good humoredly as he raised his face, replied,

"Well, Evans, I possibly may do something for you. Look you; I do not wish to conceal that I am somewhat interested in your case. When but a little older than you, I came to this city, in pretty much the same way that you come now. I was not poor, but was without acquaintances, or friends, as you say you are. And though I had money, I received, God knows, but little friendliness from those who might have shown at least some kindness to me: but whose dispositions were not as large as their means, for they were rich. I have, however, lived long enough to do without their friendship, and I don't know what reason there is that I should not give you a helping hand. Perhaps what I may do for you may not be much, and may not cost me any thing. So much more scope for your own exertions, and honor to you if you hew out your fortune for yourself. Here is my card," and he handed it to me: "come to me to-morrow morning at eleven. I am punctual, and shall expect you to be the same; and perhaps you will not regret the chance acquaintance you made in the market-wagon. Good day."

I could hardly return the salutation, so pleased was I at the turn events were taking. To be sure, I did not know the nature of the business my friend would employ me in, but it was employment, and that was the first stepping-stone to the heights that lay above. I looked at the card; upon it was written, "Stephen Lee,— Exchange Place." I carefully deposited it in my breast pocket, and with a lighter step wended on to my new boarding-house.

Whether it was that I had gained confidence since my interview with Mr. Lee, or from some other cause, I felt myself very little abashed at sitting down, for the first time in my life, at dinner with some well-bred ladies and gentlemen. Though many of the observances were somewhat new to me, and one or two of my nearest neighbors plainly saw and felt amused at my unsophisticated conduct in some respects; I believe I came off, upon the whole, with tolerable credit.

I had an opportunity, too, of seeing who were the really well-bred people of the house. For those possessed of the truest politeness will never deign to wound the feelings of one in their company, by showing that they notice his deficiencies, and are entertained at his ignorance and awkwardness. On the contrary, they would rather do like that greatest of rakes, and of gentlemen, George IV.; who, when some court ladies, at tea, simpered at a couple of unfashionable companions for pouring their tea in their saucers, instead of drinking it from their cups, poured his also into the saucer, and thus commended it to his royal lip, that they might not be mortified by the mirth of the rude ones.

At night, Colby, according to his promise, paid me a visit. He was much pleased when I told him of my encounter with Lee, and of his promise to me. He told me, when I showed him the card, that he had frequently heard of that personage, who was a merchant of much reputation and no small wealth. Colby congratulated me on my luck, and jokingly told me, he should not be surprised to see me one day the owner of warehouses and the head of great business.

"But come," said he, "this is dull fun here.—Let us go out and cruise a little, and see what there is going on."

"Agreed," said I. "I shall like it of all things."

So we took our hats and sallied forth from the house.

After strolling up and down one of the most busy streets several times, I became a little more used to the glare of the lamps in the windows, and the clatter and bustle which was going on around me. How bright and happy everything seemed! The shops were filled with the most beautiful and costly wares, and the large, clear glass of the show-windows flashed in the brilliancy of the gas, which displayed their treasures to the passers-by. And the pave was filled with an eager and laughing crowd, jostling along, and each intent on some scheme of pleasure for the evening. I felt confused for a long time with the universal whirl, until at length, as I said, the scene grew a little more accustomed, and I had leisure to think more calmly upon what I saw.

In a little while, Colby asked me if I did not wish to hear some fine music, and drink a glass of wine. I assented, and we entered a beautifully furnished room, around which little tables were placed, where parties were seated drinking and amusing themselves with various games. We took our station at the first vacant seats, and called for our drinks. How delicious everything seemed! The beautiful women—warbling melodies sweeter than ever I had heard before, and the effect of the liquor upon my brain, seemed to lave me in happiness, as it were, from head to foot!

Oh, fatal pleasure! There and then was my first false step after coming in the borders of the city—and so soon after, too! Colby thought not, perhaps, what he was doing—but still he was very much to blame. He knew I was young, fond of society, and inexperienced; and it would have been better for me had he ushered me amid a pest-house, where some deadly contagion was raging in its fury.


To be continued.2


Notes:

1. Boarding houses flourished in New York City in the mid-nineteenth century. In an article titled "New York Boarding Houses," published in the New York Aurora on March, 18, 1842, Whitman estimated that "half the inhabitants of the city hire accommodations at these houses," and noted that "if we were called upon to describe the universal Yankee nation in laconic terms, we should say, they are 'a boarding people.'" Whitman himself stayed a a number of different boarding houses during the early 1840s: see David Reynolds, Walt Whitman's America (New York: Random House, 1996), 84. For a discussion of the ways in which boarding houses acted as sites of fellowship and association for young men like Franklin Evans, see Christopher Castiglia and Glenn Hendler's introduction to Franklin Evans, or The Inebriate: A Tale of the Times (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), xx–xxi. [back]

2. Click here for the next installment of "Fortunes of a Country-Boy." [back]


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