Title: Letters from Paumanok
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: June 28, 1851
Publication information: New York Evening Post 28 June 1851: .
Source: Original issue held at the American Antiquarian Society. Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue. One line of print is illegible in the digital image, because of a fold in the newspaper. This portion of the text has been supplied from Walt Whitman, The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, ed. Emory Holloway (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1921), 250–254, and appears in brackets below.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00265
Contributors to digital file: Jason Stacy, Elizabeth Lorang, Vince Moran, Gertrud Elisberg Moreno, and Ed Folsom
cropped image 1
Letters from Paumanok.
GREENPORT, L. I. June 28th.
A VILLAGE WITH A NEW NAME.
The turnpike on the peninsula of which Orient, (formerly Oysterponds,)1 is the eastern point, is a pleasant and thrifty looking road. It is laid quite thickly with farm cottages, none of them very grand in their appearance; but then there are hardly any that seem remarkably mean, either.
One new and costly house, on the north side of the turnpike, is the residence of Dr. Lord, formerly member of Congress,2 and the owner of large tracts of land here.
Strolling on through the neighborhood, I came to a thicker collection of houses, formerly known as Rocky Point, but now christened with the more romantic appellation of "Marion."
Very great confusion arises on Long Island, from the numerosity of names, belonging to one and the same place. Hardly one fourth of the neighborhoods retain the same names for twenty years in succession! Letters, packages, and even travellers are constantly getting lost, through this unfortunate propensity.3
I MAKE THE ACQUAINTANCE OF AN OLD FELLOW.
As I was passing the "store" at Marion, I was accosted by an old fellow, with a pipe in his mouth, and a clam-basket and hoe in his hands. He had evidently put a dram or two into his stomach, more than it could cleverly stand; but it probably made him better company than he would have been without the liquor.
I must give you a description of him, for I responded to his salute and we walked on a way together.
His trousers were originally bright blue homespun, but they had long since seen their good times, and were now variegated with patches of many colors—particularly about the "seat," which was of the style that tailors call "baggy." His vest was of a spotted dirt color, and of a cut like those you see worn by Turkish slaves, or "supes" in a melo-drama, at the Bowery Theatre.4 Its points hung down in front. The figure of the old man was short, squat and round-shouldered, but of Herculean bone and muscle. His hair was not very grey, and he showed palpable signs of strength.
But his hat! It was a hat which I am sorry now I did not buy up and present to one of the Broadway "merchants" in that line, or to the eating house near the Fulton ferry, whose window has such amusing curiosities. It was a truly wonderful hat! It was not a large hat; neither could it have been called a small hat. It was unquestionably a very old hat, however. It had probably stood the storms of many winters, and the sun of many summers. Yet it held itself tolerably erect, with various undulations and depressions in its surface; but an unfortunate paucity of brim. True, there was an apology for a brim, but it was a very narrow apology. It was laughable to see that hat!
While the old man was telling us that he owned a certain windmill, which we were then and there passing, and that he was now on his way to get a basket of soft clams, for bait to catch fish, a waggon came along, in which he was furnished with a ride, and so left us.
THE ROAD—THE BRIDGE—THE FISH.
The various windows of Rocky Point, doubtless, exhibit a flitting array of heads on all occasions of strangers passing. It was, therefore, the case, that [our walk, for a awhile, was quite a public passage. Indeed, had there been a little hurrahing, we might] (my companion and I,) have fancied ourselves some distinguished people, taking the honors.
A bend in the road brought us to an old mill, on the broad railing of whose bridge I sat down to rest. Underneath, as I leaned over, I saw in the stream myriads of little fish endeavoring to get up, but balked by an obstruction, and apparently in council, as if at a loss what to do. The water was as clear as glass.
Directly two or three large eels crawled lazily along, wriggling their tails, and sucking up whatever they found on the bottom. Then came a couple of little black fish; after which a real big one, twenty inches long, opening his great white mouth, and behaving in a very hoggish manner. Also, there were crabs, and divers small fry.
Had I possessed a hook and line, there is no telling what feats might have been performed.
A couple of rods from the shore, and near at hand, was the old gentleman, with the remarkable hat; he had arrived before us, and was busily engaged with his hoe, digging a basket of soft clams, "for bait," as he said. He procured quite a mess in fifteen minutes, and then brought them up, and sat down on the bridge by me, to rest himself.
A COLLOQUY—"AUNT REBBY."
Lighting his pipe very deliberately, he proceeded to catechise me as to my name, birth-place, and lineage—where I was from last, where I was staying, what my occupation was, and so on. Having satisfied himself on these important points, I thought it no more than fair to return the compliment in kind, and so pitched into him.
He was born on the spot where he now lived; that very same Rocky Point. He was sixty-seven years old. For twenty years he had kept a butcher's stall in Fly Market, in New York, and left that business to move back on the "old homestead."
He volunteered the information that he was a Universalist in his religious belief, and asked my opinion upon the merits of the preachers of that faith, Mr. Chapin, Mr. Thayer, Mr. Balch, and others.5 He also commenced what he probably intended for a religious argument; and there was no other way than for me to stop him off, by direct inquiries into the state of his family and his real estate.
He was "well off" in both respects, possessing a farm of over a hundred acres, running from the turnpike to the Sound, and being the father of numerous sons and daughters. He expatiated on the merits of his land at great length; and was just going into those of his bodily offspring,
When our confab was fated to receive a sudden interruption. For at this moment came along an old woman with a little tin kettle in her hand.
"Aunt Rebby," at once exclaimed the old gentleman, "don't you know me?"
But Aunt Rebby seemed oblivious.
"Is it possible you don't know me? Why we've bussed one another many a time in our young days!"
A new light broke upon the dim eyes of the old dame.
"Why Uncle Dan'l!" cried she, "can this be you?"
Uncle Dan'l averred that it was'nt any body else. And then ensued a long gossip, of which I was the edified and much-amused hearer. They had not met each other, it seems, for years, and there needed to be a long interchange of news.
"What a fine mess of clams you've got," said the old lady.
"Yes," responded Uncle Dan'l.
"But I," rejoined the old lady, in a mournful voice—"I have no body to dig clams for me now."
"No, I s'pose not," said the other, composedly; "your boys are all gone now."
Supposing that the "boys" had emigrated to California, or married and moved off, I ventured an inquiry as to where they had gone.
Three young men, all the sons of the old woman, had died of consumption. The last was buried only a short time before.
Old times were talked of. Aunt Rebby expressed it as her positive opinion that the young folks of the present day don't enjoy half as much fun as the young folks of fifty years ago, and a little longer, did. She was seventy years old, and remembered the days of General Washington. Those were jovial times, but now "it was all pride, fashion and ceremony."
At the mention of pride, Uncle Dan'l interrupted her with an invitation to look at him and his apparel, and say whether he furnished any exhibition of that vice.
WE RETURN HOMEWARD.
The afternoon being now pretty far advanced, Aunt Rebby wended on her way towards the east; and the old man, with I and my companion, turned our course westward. The old fellow shouldered his heavy basket, which dripped down his back.
I made him tell me the personal history of the affairs of each family, as we passed the houses on our way. But, although I was much amused and interested with the narration, perhaps your readers wouldn't be, and so I pass it by.
About twenty-eight months ago, the old man's two eldest sons, one of 33, the other 24 years of age, had sailed off in the new and fine sloop "Long Island," bound for some port nearly down to Florida. He had never heard from them since. They were lost in a terrible storm that came up while they were out at sea. They owned half the sloop, which was worth $5,000.
When we arrived at the old fellow's house, he invited us in and treated us to good berries. And so, at sundown, we had a nice cool walk of three miles, back to our quarters.
1. Orient, New York was originally called Poquatuck after a Native American tribe, but later changed to Oysterponds and, in 1851, to Orient. [back]
2. Frederick William Lord (1800–1860) lived in Greenport and was a member of Congress from 1847 to 1849. [back]
3. James Fenimore Cooper complained of the same phenomenon: "'Oyster Pond,' one that conveys in its very sound the idea of savoury dishes, and an abundance of a certain and a very agreeable sort, has been changed to 'Orient,' Heaven save the mark! Long Island has hitherto been famous, in the history of New York, for the homely piquancy of its names, which usually conveyed a geographic idea of the place indicated. It is true, 'Jerusalem' cannot boast of its Solomon's Temple, nor 'Babylon' of its Hanging Gardens; but, by common consent, it is understood that these two names, and some half-a-dozen more of the same quality, are to be taken by their opposites." (The Sea Lions; Or, The Lost Sealers [London: Richard Bentley, New Murlington Street, 1851], 301). [back]
4. Designed in the Greek revival style by Ithiel Town (1784–1844), the Bowery Theater, on New York's Lower East Side, featured popular acts and rowdy performances throughout the 19th century, primarily for working class audiences.(Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 [New York: Oxford University Press, 1999], 467, 642). [back]
5. Whitman refers to Augusta Jane Chapin (1836–1905), Thomas Baldwin Thayer (1812–1886), and William Stevens Balch (1806–1887). The kind of universalism Whitman references here holds that all souls will ultimately achieve salvation. Universalist congregations first appeared in North America in the late eighteenth century, most notably those founded in Massachusetts by Adams Streeter (1735–1786). [back]