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Title: New York Dissected

Creator: Walt Whitman

Date: August 16, 1856

Whitman Archive ID: per.00273

Source: Life Illustrated 16 August 1856: 125. Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue. Original issue held at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, University Archives and Special Collections. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the journalism, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Vince Moran, Jason Stacy, Elizabeth Lorang, and Ed Folsom




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NEW YORK DISSECTED.

V.—STREET YARN.

Soldiers and militiamen are not the only people who wear uniforms. A uniform serves two purposes; first, to distinguish the wearers from others, and secondly, to assimilate them to each other. The universal uniform is more for the former of these than the latter; and is not only the style and substance of garments, but appearance and carriage. Come and walk in New York streets, or sit in a restaurant; we will detect some people for you by their uniforms.

Mild, foolish, dough-colored, simpering face; black cloth suit—shad-bellied, single-breasted coat, with low standing collar all round, vest buttoned close to the throat, knees a little bent, toes turned out, and chin down. Episcopalian deacon.

Wild cataract of hair; absurd, bunged-up felt hat, with peaked crown; velvet coat, all friggled over with gimp,1 but worn; eyes rather staring, look upward. Third-rate artist.

Dress strictly respectable; hat well down on forehead; face thin, dry, close-shaven; mouth with a gripe like a vice; eye sharp and quick; brows bent; forehead scowling; step jerky and bustling. Wall Street broker.

Hands crossed behind him; step slow; dress well enough, but careless all over; face bent downward, and full of thought. Leading lawyer.

Rusty black costume; white choker; look oddly compounded of severity, superiority, curiosity, apprehension, and suspicion; shoulders stooping, chest flat. Country clergyman.

Half-a-dozen ill-dressed fellows together (this in the evening); dirty, unshorn faces; debauched expression; the half-shut eyes, and loose, hanging lips of the tribe; hoarse voices, incredibly tuneless; oaths and curses; laughs made up of a yell and a cackle; a peculiar quick, eager step, as they flock along close together. Short-boys; damnable dangerous villains.2

Dirty finery, excessively plentiful; paint, both red and white; draggle-tailed dress, ill-fitting; coarse features, unintelligent; bold glance, questioning, shameless, perceptibly anxious; hideous croak or dry, brazen ring in voice; affected, but awkward, mincing, waggling gait. Harlot.

Heavy moustache; obtrusively expensive dress; big breast pin; heavy gold chain; rings; hat down over brows; loafing attitude on corner; eye furtive, glassy, expressionless; oaths; tobacco-spit. Gambler.

There, somewhat in that manner, you may learn even to distinguish the trades from each other. But now let us sketch individuals. We are sitting, we will suppose, in the St. Nicholas front windows, or standing in front of Delmonico's, or anywhere in a thoroughfare.3 The crowd flows by; among it goes, now and then, one of these following:

A tall, slender man, round-shouldered, chin stuck out, deep-set eyes, sack-coat. His step is quick, and his arms swing awkwardly, as if he were trying to knock his elbows together behind him. Albert Brisbane the Socialist; the capitalist, too—an odd circumstance for a radical in New York!4 Somehow or other he always looks as if he were attempting to think out some problem a little too hard for him.

Old gentleman in carriage. A well-built, portly old man, full, ruddy face, abundant wavy—almost frizzly—white hair, good forehead, kindly, intelligent look. Dr. Francis, the encyclopædia of historical information, especially in local history and genealogy.5

Tall, large, rough-looking man, in a journeyman carpenter's uniform. Coarse, sanguine complexion; strong, bristly, grizzled beard; singular eyes, of a semi-transparent, indistinct light blue, and with that sleepy look that comes when the lid rests half way down over the pupil; careless, lounging gait. Walt Whitman, the sturdy, self-conscious microcosmic, prose-poetical author of that incongruous hash of mud and gold—"Leaves of Grass."6

Middle-sized person, upright and alert; dark, sallow, Spanish-looking phiz;7 jet black hair and beard, a wild and glittering eye, and a certain air of satisfaction, as if well content to be of importance. That is Stephen H. Branch, the Alligator; the burr in the skirts of Mr. Matsell; the "indefigitable" searcher after Brandon records; the great worm-doctor, and the only writer of the Branch school known to exist.8

Oldish, tall, large-framed, slouching man, in negligent costume of blue cloth; drags his feet along like "flat irons hung on a string; seems much interested in the sidewalk; if he looks up, shows a face as blank as a brick wall, yet with a benign and pleasant look. The benign and pleasant look Professor Robinson can't get rid of; and if his learning and intelligence don't always appear on the outside of his capacious head, it is because they are "urgently engaged" within. For that careless, lumbering old gentleman is Professor Edward Robinson, of Union Theological Seminary;9 the first scholar of the country, if not of his time, in Biblical Learning, and whose discoveries in Palestine, and other labors, have made him a name all over Protestant Christendom, and proved him fully equal to the greatest of the great Germans who have done so much in that department, and in whose own language and literature he is himself so thorough a scholar.

A short, "chunked," light-haired, fair-faced, big headed, jolly roly-poly man, with a ready smile and a prompt step, like a bold little game-cock. Robert Bonner, the hero of unheard-of and tremendous advertising, who fires cannon, fills page upon page of newspapers, and—if he could—would placard the very walls of Paradise with hifalutin handbills, to sell that gorgeous and unprecedented sheet, the New York Ledger.10

Somebody in an open barouche, driving daintily. He looks like a doll; is it alive? We'll cross the street and so get close to him. Did you see? Fantastic hat, turned clear over in the rim above the ears; blue coat and shiny brass buttons; patent leathers; shirt-frill; gold specs; bright red cheeks, and singularly definite jetty black eyebrows, moustache, and imperial. You could see that from the sidewalk; but you saw, when you stood at his wheel, not only the twinkling diamond ring and breast-pin, but the heavy, slabby red paint; and even the substratum of grizzly gray under that jetty dye; and upon our word there's a hair of the same straggling out under the jaunty oiled wig! How straight he sits, and how he simpers, and how he fingers the reins with a delicate white little finger stuck out, as if a mere touch were all—as if his whole hand might govern a team of elephants! The Baron Spolasco, with no end of medical diplomas from all sorts of universities across the ocean, who cures every thing immediately; you may consult him confidentially, or by letter, if you choose. It would be worth money to see that old gentleman—they say he is nearly eighty—undress himself! Clothes, wig, calves, stays, moustache, teeth, complexion—what a bald, bare, wizened, shriveled old granny he would be!11

A lady—slender and elegant—in black from head to foot; pure white complexion, pale, striking chiseled features, perfect profile, abundant fair hair; abstracted look, and rather rapid, purposeful step. That is Miss Ada Clare, called by many a perfect beauty; questionless, of decided talent; one about whom many interesting stories might be told, and a persevering and energetic votary of the mimetic art. Possessed of some wealth, great personal attractions, no inconsiderable share of intellect and cultivation, she has already often appeared upon the stage, which she may possibly adopt as a profession.12

A straight, trim-built, prompt, vigorous man, well dressed, with strong brown hair, beard, and moustache, and a quick and watchful eye. He steps alertly by, watching everybody. Charles A. Dana, chief editor of the New York Tribune, a man of rough, strong intellect, tremendous prejudices firmly relied on, and excellent intentions.13

Down the other side goes one with a dry, spare, hard visage, black eyes, and a huge white beard of somewhat ragged appearance. He strides along regardlessly and rapidly, a book in his hand, a thought—and more too—inside of his head, a most rustical straw hat outside of it, turned sharp up behind and down before, like a country boy's, and a summer coat streaming flag-like from his shoulders. He is senior partner of a book and job printing firm, down town. "Pshaw! what is he worth describing for?" Wait a minute. That firm is also a firm of newspaper editors and publishers. It is the firm of William C. Bryant & Co; and the senior partner, the white-bearded, scrawny, striding old gentleman, is, if not our foremost and noblest poet, abreast with the foremost; and, moreover, a strong, valiant, and uncompromising—and more yet, and rarer—an absolutely fair and courteous political newspaper editor, on what side it is unnecessary to say.14

A big, heavy, overgrown man, with a face like a raw beef-steak, little piggy eyes, queer, dry, straight, harsh, coarse hair, "of a speckled color," made up of brownish red and gray, rather dirty clothes, and quite dirty, yellow dog-skin gloves. He goes rolling along in an elephantine style, and for fear of being trod on, probably, people get out of the way. That is George Law, who never will be President.15 Those people, and many more, go about the streets of New York.


Notes:

1. To "friggle" means to fuss, and "gimp" is the trim of a coat. [back]

2. The "Short Boys" were a notorious nineteenth-century New York City nativist gang, involved in various attacks on new immigrant groups. There were many such gangs (Swill Boys, Rock Boys, Old Maid Boys), all known for prowling the city streets at night. [back]

3. The St. Nicholas Hotel was built in 1853 to rival the luxurious Astor Place with its white marble facade and capacity for 1000 guests. Next door was Delmonico's, known for its expensive fare and wealthy customers (Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace, Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 [New York: Oxford University Press, 1999], 671). [back]

4. Albert Brisbane (1809–1890) promoted the socialist theories of Charles Fourier (Donald E. Pitzer, America's Communal Utopias [Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997], 160). [back]

5. John Wakefield Francis (1789–1861) was president of the New York Academy of Medicine and an amateur historian of New York City. His best-known history, Old New York: Reminiscences of the Past Sixty Years (1857), was published one year after this editorial, but was based on an earlier lecture he gave for the New York Historical Society (John Wakefield Francis, Old New York: Reminiscences of the Past Sixty Years [New York: Widdleton, 1861], 12). [back]

6. Whitman, of course, frequently offered descriptions of himself in anonymous reviews, notes to the press, and even in his poetry. His description here might be said to contain another "self-review" of his book. [back]

7. Whitman's use of "phiz" here means countenance (i.e., physique or physiognomy). [back]

8. Stephen H. Branch was the author of popular exposés during the mid 1850s. In this editorial, Whitman refers to Branch's quest for the birthplace of George Washington Matsell, New York Chief of Police, whom Branch accused of being a British subject and thus illegally holding the position of police chief. Branch's journey to England was recounted in the New York Times and in Branch's own newspaper the Alligator, where he claimed to have discovered Matsell's British birth place in the village of Brandon. Matsell's supporters countered Branch's claims by dredging up some of Branch's youthful indiscretions. Branch claimed this trouble was caused by a youthful case of worms, which he argued infected many of the great men of history, including Napoleon, Patrick Henry, and Andrew Jackson ("Stephen H. Branch on Worms," New York Times, September 22, 1855). In October 1855, an upstate New Yorker and English immigrant born the same year as the police chief, and also named George Matsell, upended Branch's claim ("The Briggs Committee," New York Times, October 22, 1855). In 1858, Branch was convicted of libel and sent to Blackwell's Island ("Stephen H. Branch's Experience on Blackwell's Island," New York Times, October 26, 1858). [back]

9. Edward Robinson (1794–1863) pioneered the field of Biblical geography (Jay Williams, "The Life and Times of Edward Robinson," The Bible and Interpretation, http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/robinson.shtml). [back]

10. Robert Bonner (1824–1899) edited the New York Ledger from 1855 to 1887 ("The Robert Bonner Papers 1860-1899," New York Public Library and Manuscripts, http://archives.nypl.org/mss/335). [back]

11. Baron Spolasco (d. 1858) was a notorious quack doctor who emigrated from England in the early 1850s. Spolasco was also known for writing the Narrative of the Wreck of the Steamship Killarney (1838). Spolasco lost his eight-year-old son in the wreck of the Killarney, and spent two nights on a rock off Bristol, England, before he was rescued along with the other survivors (Michael Lenihan, Hidden Cork: Charmers, Chancers and Cute Hoors [Cork: Mercier Press, 2009], 11–18). [back]

12. Ada Clare (1834–1874) was a prominent New York actress who frequented Pfaff's beer saloon along with other New York bohemians, including Whitman, during the 1850s (Joanna Levin, Bohemia in America, 1858–1920 [Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009]). [back]

13. Charles Anderson Dana (1819–1897) was a resident at Brook Farm between 1841 and 1846, and he edited the Transcendentalist journal Harbinger between 1847 and 1849 (James Harrison Wilson, The Life of Charles A. Dana [New York: Harper and Brothers, 1907]). [back]

14. William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878) was a popular poet in the nineteenth century, and he edited the Democratic New York Evening Post between 1818 and 1878. Whitman published a number of articles and poems in Bryant's Evening Post during the 1850s, including the series "Letters from Paumanok" (1851) (Jerome Loving, Walt Whitman: Song of Himself [Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2000], 153). [back]

15. George Law (1806–1881) was a prominent financier who sought the nomination of the American (Know-Nothing) Party for the presidential election of 1856, but he lost his bid to Millard Fillmore and had to settle for the vice-presidential nomination (Thomas G. Mitchell, Antislavery Politics in Antebellum and Civil War America [Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007], 92). [back]


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