Title: New York Dissected
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: July 12, 1856
Publication information: Life Illustrated 12 July 1856: 85.
Source: Original issue held at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, University Archives and Special Collections. Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00269
Contributors to digital file: Vince Moran, Elizabeth Lorang, Mark Neels, Jason Stacy, and Ed Folsom
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NEW YORK DISSECTED.
NEW YORK AMUSES ITSELF—THE FOURTH OF JULY.
The Fourth of July begins a few days beforehand, with a sort of premonitory eruption of crackers, "double-headers," and other explosive materials, fired by jubilant boys in every street, back-yard, hole, and corner. On the evening of the Third, the nuisance is terrific; and for that night hardly anybody but an experienced old commodore or brigadier can sleep, under the incessant pop, crack, rattle, fizz, and bang of all manner of artillery, from cracker to cannon. This bombardment lasts in an intermittent state for some time after Independence Day, and dies off when the young artillerists can no longer replenish the military chest.
Let us recount briefly the scenes of the day. Those concerned may be classed as:
It is of this last class that we must chiefly speak, so far as observation goes. But for our sketch of proceedings.
Park, 8 A.M. Scattered refreshment stands; foreign element predominant in attendants; preparations for fireworks, viz., wooden frames of various kinds, lying flat on the ground. There has been an early shower, the Goddess of Liberty not choosing to have a dust kicked up in her honor, and the air is clear and cool.
Broadway. Men and women walk up and down singly, in couples and groups, waiting for the military.
Union Place, 8 ½. The statue of Washington is unvailed, with applause and military salutes.1 The great commander and statesman is represented sitting on horseback, extending one arm as if in command, with the well-known look of firm and grave benignity upon the composed features, and the characteristically upright posture.
5. Rev. Dr. Bethune2 delivers an oration appropriate to the occasion; there is no other speaking, with an accompaniment, all along, of three pistol shots and a thousand crackers, to two cheers. The military companies, wheeling and forming, move in long order down Broadway. Headed by two platoons of police—to indicate that, after all, the civil power is first—they move deliberately on, horse and foot, light infantry, hussars, dragoons, riflemen, Highlanders (with ridiculously white knees, and slim, clerkly legs), semi-Highlanders (with plaid, but no knees), and one company of lancers. They are interspersed with a dozen bands of music, whose brazen melodies do somewhat interfere with each other, to the confusion of some of the citizen soldiery, who can't exactly frame to keep step either with the tooting before or the tooting behind. Each regiment is headed by a squad of pioneers, who wear enormous caps of bearskin and broad aprons of buckskin, and who carry fancy pickaxes and exaggerated tomahawks, polished like silver. The chief pioneer marches grandly alone in front, brandishing a peculiar sword; sometimes it is a short, broad blade, sometimes a long, broad blade, but always a straight cut-and-thrust affair, heavy and solid, and usually apparently double-edged. In like manner, before each band marches, in gloomy splendor, the majestic drum-major—a long-legged, tall man, with twice or thrice as much cap, red pantaloons, and fixings generally as anybody else; and also with a huge club called a baton, having splendid red strings in it, and a great gilt or silvered ball at the end. This he brandishes in a fantastic and mysterious manner, and by it he governs his obedient men of music. We looked eagerly to see one of the drum-majors fall down. They went slip, slip, with such a funny air of majesty under difficulties; and—particularly when walking backward—they would have come down so nicely in the greasy mud, and so curiously have stuck their long legs in among the shins of their followers! And then to see them scrabble up and go on again, with more majesty—and mud than ever—but no drum-major fell that we saw. One company had short, straight swords on their rifles for bayonets. The lancers carried a weapon just about the size of a "rake's-tail," with a bright steel head, eight inches long, set on with a socket. There is a battery of eight brass field-pieces. The troops carry their breastworks with them—a new military invention, we believe. Each man seems to have about a bushel of cotton—or perhaps it is his blanket and pillow?—under the front of his coat. On the approach of the enemy, they could fortify in a minute, by simply taking off their coats and piling them up in front. They are almost all round-shouldered, and the cavalry ride like bags of sand, and with a somewhat unhappy look. But here comes the Seventh Regiment, in the well-known gray. That is real marching—close, straight, every musket sloped true, steadily, and with a front as even as a wall, they present a striking contrast to nearly every other portion of the procession.
So they go. Last of all come the Cartmen, in great force, armed with whips and umbrellas, mounted upon their own heavy, strong horses, worn and marked with harness; stout, sun-burned men, able-bodied and hard-featured. At the hinder lower corner of each saddlecloth is a gay, red tassel, which swings to and fro, and plays tickle, tickle, tickle, under the bellies of the horses, who don't know that under all grandeur, both human and equine, there is always something tickling, and who squirm and fret about it.
On they go, two miles of procession, sober and slipping, muddy and glorious, to be reviewed by Mayor Wood in the Park.3 We enter Union Square. The great fountain is playing, and round it is a ring of pleased faces of old and young, watching the beautiful spray, cooled by the shade and the radiated freshness of falling water.
Out into the street again; up and down the city. In narrow streets, lined with festering green gutters, the tenants, men and women, loaf at the doors in lazy apathy, imbibing the fat aroma, and the children dabble or crawl or bask in the plenteous feverish filth. In thoroughfares, rowdy boys, with a pistol in each hand, go swinging them along, pointing them at anybody, while they load and make ready, and fire in the air with a boyish indifference to smell, and delight in banging. Firemen are grouped round corners, or in and about the open engine-houses, and the crowds walk hither and thither.
Now the military are dispersing into lager-bier saloons and armories; and there is an undecided sort of lull, while the crowds walk up and down over the hard, hot pavements, until the fireworks in the evening; and after the blaze and sputter and whirl and fizz and bang is over, "ending," as saith the programme of the Bunkum Museum, "with busting into a Brilliant Perspiration!"4 they gradually scatter away home.
So much for the day; now for a short comment. The most noticeable fact is that everybody is sober. The crowd moves gravely up and down; the soldiers tramp solemnly along; the little peddling of the streets is done with a funeral face. The whole people goes questing and wandering anxiously about, as if with the general impression that pleasure is hidden somewhere, and that by searching they may possibly find it—but that it's very doubtful. As Froissart said of the English, "We take our pleasure sadly."5
The day seems only the listless vacation of laborers overworked—not the joyous exultation of a free people. Nor can there be discerned, unless it be in the threadbare tediousness of a Fourth-of-July Oration, or the blazing letters of a firework, any conscious reference to the significance of the time.
But what better could be expected? The anniversary has fallen to be a mere powder-puff; an occasion of aimless parades and noise and tumult; of tiresome, empty ceremony, and wasteful expenditure. The value and pleasure of the day, at least in this city, is hopelessly gone, unless its observance be reformed.
What reform to recommend is not difficult to say. Discontinue all the "sound and fury, signifying nothing,"6 from the cannon's mouth, or the juvenile oratoricalist's; stop the noise and the evil smell. Let there be fireworks, perhaps, for there is much beauty in them. But let the features of the day be addresses by the best speakers—not the poorest, as now—for those that want them, and let the remainder of the community "celebrate" for themselves, as on a great day of hereditary national thanksgiving and pride, with rustic festivals and friendly hospitality, with public triumphs, if spontaneous, but not by chilly management of squabbling civic authorities; with visitings and gifts, with song and mirth; in short, with spontaneous social and affectional display of joy, and in civil and decorous forms; not with brutal noise and sulphury steams, aimless, lounging, and empty fatiguing processions made to order.
1. The equestrian statue of George Washington in New York's Union Square was commissioned in 1851, and the project was originally given to sculptor Horatio Greenough (1805–1852), who had earlier sculpted for Congress the classical (and controversial) marble statue of Washington that graced the east lawn of the capitol building. After Greenough's sudden death in 1852 the project was given to Henry Kirke Brown (1814–1886), who had earlier completed a statue of New York governor Dewitt Clinton for Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Assisted by John Quincy Adams Ward (1830–1910), who would later sculpt the likeness of George Washington for New York's Federal Hall, Brown spent 18 months on the statue and depicted the triumphant moment on November 25, 1783, when Washington and his army reentered the city after the British evacuation. The statue is made of bronze and was cast at the Ames foundry in Chicopee, Massachusetts. It was installed on June 5, 1856, and formally given to the city of New York on July 4. In 1930 it was moved from its original position on a street island (where it was prone to traffic and pollution) to its present location within Union Square Park (City Department of Parks and Recreation, http://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/unionsquarepark/monuments/1676). [back]
2. George Washington Bethune (1805–1862) was a preacher and hymnist in the Dutch Reformed Church. He graduated in 1822 from Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and studied theology at Princeton University. In 1827 he became pastor of the Reformed Church in Rinebeck, New York, before moving in 1830 to Utica, New York. He later resided for a time in Philadelphia and finally settled in Brooklyn Heights, New York, in 1850 (John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology [London: John Murray, 1892], 138–9). [back]
3. Fernando Wood (1812–1881), mayor of New York City, served two non-consecutive terms from 1855 to 1857, and the second from 1860 to 1862. He also served several terms as U.S. Congressman (1841–1843, 1863–1865, and 1867–1881) and was named chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in the 45th and 46th congresses (1877–1881). During his second term as mayor, Wood received national scrutiny for being a Confederate sympathizer and for suggesting to the city council that, as a means of continuing New York's cotton trade, the city secede from the Union and become an independent city state. In January 1865, Wood led the effort—unsuccessfully—in the House of Representatives to defeat passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Following the war, Wood was censured for using "unparliamentary language" on the floor of the House when he called a piece of legislation "a monstrosity, a measure the most infamous of the many infamous acts of this infamous Congress." Nevertheless, Wood still won reelection that fall and served until his death in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1881. See James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 247, 505; Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), 601, 654; and Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, 1867–1868 (January 15, 1868), 193–6 (http://memory.loc.gov). [back]
4. Whitman quotes an 1851 advertisement for P. T. Barnum's American Museum, which opened in 1842 and continued to operate until its destruction from fire in 1865. The advertisement ran in several period magazines, including the Knickerbocker, and highlighted such curiosities as "TWO LIVE BOAR CONSTRICTERS," "A STRIPED ALGEBRA," the "SWOARD WITCH GEN. WELLINGTON FIT WITH AT THE BATTEL OF WATERLOO," an "ENORMUSS RATTLETAIL SNAIK," and "BENGALL TIGER: SPOTTED LEPROSY!" Toward the end, the advertisement announced an exhibition of "Maroon Bulbs, changing to a spiral weel, witch changes to the Star of our Union; after, to butiful p'ints of red lites; to finish with Busting into a Brilliant Perspiration!!!" (The Knickerbocker, or New York Monthly Magazine, 37 [January 1851], 70–1). [back]
5. Whitman quotes Jean Froissart (1337–1405), a French medieval author, who wrote of the English in his chronicles of the Hundred Years' War, "They take their pleasure sadly" (see "The Online Froissart," http://www.hrionline.ac.uk/onlinefroissart/index.jsp). [back]
6. William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5. [back]