Title: New York Dissected
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: August 9, 1856
Publication information: Life Illustrated 9 August 1856: 116.
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.00272
Contributors to digital file: Vince Moran, Elizabeth Lorang, Mark Neels, Jason Stacy, and Ed Folsom
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NEW YORK DISSECTED.
The chief street of a great city is a curious epitome of the life of the city; and when that street, like Broadway, is a thoroughfare, a mart, and a promenade all together, its representative character is yet more striking.
Broadway proper can only be measured from the Bowling-green to Union park—a distance of almost exactly two miles. Within this straight and confined stretch of narrow street, surges to and fro, all day, all night, year in and year out, absolutely without intermission, an endless procession, which might furnish no bad representative of the vast procession of humanity. But without making any parable, let us stretch the usual "order of the day" for its crowded files.
Before light, with an occasional sharp, heavy rattle, as from advanced light artillery, commences the thunderous charge of wheels, rapidly deepening into the steady roll that only dies away again with the last upward stages and late hacks at midnight. These advanced skirmishers are often butchers' carts, laden with meat for down town hotels, eating-houses, and steamers.
At five, or thereabout, come twos and threes, and soon full platoons, of the "industrial regiments," as Carlyle would call them,1 uniformed in brick-dusty shirts and overalls, battered hats, and shoes white or burnt with lime, armed with pick, spade, trowel, or hod, and with a complex tin pail that holds drink, dinner, and dessert in safe but separate neighborhood. They scatter away to this side and to that, all along the road, into half dug cellars or unfinished buildings, or to gulfs scored deep in the midst of newly sewered streets, or spaces laid bare for the heavy stone armor of the various patent pavements.
Next come trooping the shop-girls, chatty and laughing, or outworn and weary—some neat, some even sluttish2—and hither and thither they disperse to many a bindery and tailor-shop, to attics and back-rooms innumerable.
Mingling with them, and flocking closer, for now it is eight or nine in the morning, come the jaunty crew of the down-town clerks—a slender and round-shouldered generation, of minute leg, chalky face, and hollow chest—but trig and prim in great glow of shiny boots, clean shirts—sometimes, just now, of extraordinary patterns, as if overrun with bugs!—tight pantaloons, straps, which seem coming a little into fashion again, startling cravats, and hair all soaked and "slickery" with sickening oils. Creatures of smart appearance, when dressed up; but what wretched, spindling, "forked radishes"3 would they be, and how ridiculously would their natty demeanor appear if suddenly they could all be stript naked!
Now their employers begin to crowd the sidewalks, and for an hour or two the way is full of merchants and money-traders—the "solid business community." A grim and griping generation are they; some fat and sturdy; most lean and dried up; all with close, hard faces, and even in the fresh, early morning air, after the kindly gift of sleep, their brains full and throbbing with greedy hopes or bare fears about the almighty dollar, the only real god of their i-dollar-try!4 Among them you may distinguish here and there a lawyer, by something of intellectual expression; for though but little, yet somewhat is a legal quibble above a trader's quirk, in nobility.
Now the street may be said to be at high tide, and from eleven until three the full sea of the city, eddying and roaring, with no distinct current, boils and surges this way and that, in an undistinguishable and hopeless confusion; the only regularity being in the tacit observance—interrupted by many a mischance, folly, or ignorant, clumsy obstacle—of the law of the road, according to which a ceaseless line of wheeled vehicles goes down on one side of the street and up on the other, and in like manner there go little side streams upon each sidewalk.
From two until four or five, albeit business or pleasure may all the day keep the street somewhat dotted with the bright costumes of women, is the special hour for the promenade; and although the summer exodus weeds out so many of the "first families," who flit away to glitter at sandy Saratoga or cool Newport, all along the sea-coast, and all abroad among mountains and meadows, yet even then, at this canonical hour, is no contemptible show of millinery and dry goods, whalebone, and crinoline. The experienced city observer may everywhere recognize, in full costume and with assured faces, even at this broad daylight time, one and another notorious courtezan taking a "respectable" promenade. These horrible women, with quiet assurance, walk the street, or sit at lunch in fashionable refreshment saloons, not recognizing their "customers," but not, to the unpracticed eye, in any wise distinguishable from the painted and haggard lady of fashion.
By four or five o'clock the feminine promenaders gradually disappear, and the successive waves of the morning tide now begin to roll backward in an inverse order—merchants, brokers, lawyers, first; clerks next; shop-girls and laborers last; all tired, and all hastening to whatever of comfort boarding-house, hotel, or hired home can give, of dinner, rest, and sleep. Gradually the sidewalk is emptied, for an hour or two the street is left to the stragglers of the mighty army, to the hideous women of the night, who now come forth to their miserable patrol, and to the scattered policemen. After supper there is a partial rally of the crowd of sight-seers, hastening to theater or concert, then another pause, and then they rush up town again, and the iron street is at last left, dreary and gas-lit, to a feverish, unquiet, and unnatural intermission of half-rest; to the possession of numerous belated stragglers; of the tawdry, hateful, foul-tongued, and harsh-voiced harlots; of the swearing gangs of rowdies at the corners; of the police again, who go qnietly up and down, trying the doors, and watching everybody that passes; and the unresting street is as still as ever.5
But it is never still—never empty—never in a life-time; not even of a Sabbath night. At the stillest hour—a little after midnight—pass along. You smell dust. In the dim gas-light you see marching with measured pace down the midst of the street a lonely man with an enormous birch broom, which he waves across and back with slow, deliberate motion, leaving a wide track of half-clean stone behind him, and on each side a sort of swath of the day's dirt. In the rear of this commander come others, who in like manner sweep the dirt into the gutter; and last come the carts, into which with hoe and shovel it is cast, and carried off to be dumped absurdly into the docks, or, perhaps, into the Battery enlargement.6
Before these ghostly cleaners have done their task, the circuit of the hours is over, and the endless procession following round, begins again with the reckless rattle of the headlong butcher's cart, and the next day treads fast and close upon the heels of the last.
The time would fail to enumerate the various spectacles which diversify this regular routine. Now a little army of police, two and two, girt with clubs, a stern-faced and ready-handed race, passes by with military step detached on some duty. Every day there are funerals, and in the coaches attendant you may usually discern that though the faces in that next the hearse are sad, there are laughs and jollity farther down the line. Here comes a militia company on an excursion, the everlasting music in front, and the vaporing drum-major with his bauble singly leading the van, as the Norman Taillefer7 did before the Conquerer's8 army at the battle of Hastings,9 and as the steel-clad champion did his sword while he chanted the war-song of Rollo,10 so doth the gigantic drum-major toss up and catch his gorgeous squash-headed staff. Beggar-women with bad faces and a counterfeited sorrow in their hypocritical, twisted features, sit on the door-steps; on some few well-known corners you may see gamblers—whiskered, down-looking, debauched villains loafing all the afternoon; a man with a staring red umbrella containing painted words, dodging the ordinance against walking advertisements, trudges up and down; dirty looking German Jews, with a glass box on their shoulders, cry out "Glass to mend," with a sharp nasal twang and flat squalling enunciation to which the worst Yankee brogue is sweet music; a small ragged boy nearly lifts you out of your boots by screaming suddenly with the voice of a steam-whistle, a wild parody on the name of an evening paper; a band of bare-headed, sturdy, brown-cheeked, hard-featured German peasant women stumps along, escorted by one or two men of unnaturally stupid faces, almost as if they were blind drunk, and followed by "chunked" children in woolen garments of supernatural stiffness, and with no fit whatever; Frenchmen gesticulate and gabble; dandies spit and swear and giggle; country louts, with heads craned forward and tow-colored hair, stare and stumble; perhaps there is a bustle, like an eddy in a river, where a thief is caught, or an Irishman killed by falling from a house, or a man proves his method of extirpating warts, upon some boy of preeminent fortitude, and holds an audience round him by a voluble and senseless harangue of disconnected joke and jargon.11
Such is the procession of the street, to the outward eye. A dreamer would not fail to see spirits walking amid the crowd; devils busily whispering into scheming ears; the demons of falsehood, avarice, wrath, and impurity flitting hither and thither, and mingling eagerly their suggestions in the hot, seething atmosphere of human plots and devices; and angels, too, among or above the hurrying mass, seeking to lift some soul out of evil ways, or to guard it from imminent temptation.
1. Essayist and social theorist Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) presented his idea of organizing labor in industrial regiments in response to the oppressive factory conditions created by the capitalist factory owners that he called "The Captains of Industry." These regiments would be led by "proper men." In this respect, Carlyle did not believe in democracy but instead valued a society that placed men of certain genius or skill over the masses (Thomas Carlyle, Latter Day Pamphlets [London: Chapman and Hall, 1850], 198, 200). Carlyle was a highly influential figure whom Whitman admired even though their opinions on issues such as democracy were dissimilar. Carlyle, however, did not return Whitman's admiration (see Matthew C. Altman, "Carlyle, Thomas [1795–1881]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J. R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings [New York: Routledge, 1998], 104–105). [back]
2. Whitman's use of the word "sluttish" means unclean and unkempt. [back]
3. Whitman takes the phrase "forked radishes" from Shakespeare's Henry IV. Referring to his old friend Justice Shallow, Falstaff says, "when a' was naked he was, for all the world, like a forked radish, with a head fantastically carved upon it with a knife" (Act III, Scene 2). [back]
4. Whitman poetically describes the changing nature of the public workforce during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Hand-in-hand with the growth of industry emerged an increasingly unskilled workforce as well as a specialized employer-employee hierarchy within the workplace. See Sean Wilentz, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984), and Paul E. Johnson, A Shopkeeper's Millennium: Society and Revivals in Rochester, New York, 1815̵1837 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978). [back]
5. By the mid-nineteenth century, America's urban centers were home to people from all socio-economic classes, who participated in increasingly separate public spheres. Even though those spheres overlapped in the same physical space, rarely did people from different spheres socialize with one another. One of the few exceptions where cross-class socialization took place were city theaters. See Timothy Gilfoyle, City of Eros: New York City, Prostitution, and the Commercialization of Sex, 1790–1920 (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1994) and A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2007). [back]
6. The battery Whitman refers to was built in 1811 in preparation for the War of 1812. After the war, the battery was renamed Castle Clinton and then Castle Garden in 1823, when it was used as an opera house and entertainment center. At the time of this article, the battery was an immigration depot where 8 million people entered the United States. It still stands today, once again named Castle Clinton, and is a popular tourist attraction (Castle Clinton, National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/cacl/index.htm). [back]
7. Taillefer was a juggler in William I's army during the Battle of Hastings. He struck the first blow of the battle after juggling his sword in the air, astonishing the English forces before he charged into them. He was ultimately killed in the battle. Whitman may have discovered this tale from any number of contemporary sources, such as Louisa Stuart Costello, Specimens of Early Poetry From France (London: William Pickering, 1835), xxx. [back]
8. Whitman refers to William the Conqueror (1028—1087), the Duke of Normandy who became King of England after his victory at the Battle of Hastings and reigned from 1066 until his death in 1087. [back]
9. The Battle of Hastings (1066) was fought near Hastings, England on the southwest coast, between the Norman army commanded by William I and King Harold II's English forces. Harold II was killed in the quick Norman victory and William was subsequently crowned King of England. [back]
10. Some sources claim Taillefer's song was of Rollo, a viking warrior who King Charless III of France named the first Duke of Normandy after he was baptized into the Christian faith. Rollo was not completely unconnected to these events, because William I was one of his direct descendants. See, for example, Wace, Master Wace, His Chronicle of the Norman Conquest from the Roman de Rou (London: William Pickering, 1837), 189. [back]
11. Many aspects of this paragraph are problematic and insulting by today's standards, but Whitman wrote in a very different historical context. Anti-Semitic and prejudicial statements like these were common, and no groups escape Whitman's opprobrium here. [back]