Title: Letters from a Travelling Bachelor
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: October 14, 1849
Publication information: New York Sunday Dispatch 14 October 1849: .
Source: Original issue held at the Library of Congress. Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00292
Contributors to digital file: Vince Moran, Gertrud Elisberg, Jason Stacy, Elizabeth Lorang, Nicole Gray, and Kenneth M. Price
cropped image 1
Letters from a Travelling Bachelor.
FISH, FISHERMEN, AND FISHING, ON THE EAST END OF LONG ISLAND
Greenport, L.I., Oct 9th.
At its easternmost part, Long Island opens like the upper and under jaws of some prodigious alligator; the upper and larger one terminating in Montauk Point. The bay that lies in here, and part of which forms the splendid harbor of Greenport, where the Long Island Railroad ends, is called Peconic Bay; and a beautiful and varied water is it, fertile in fish and feathered game.1 I, who am by no means a skilful fisherman, go down for an hour of a morning on one of the docks, or almost any where along shore, and catch a mess of black-fish, which you couldn't buy in New York for a dollar—large fat fellows, with meat on their bones that it takes a pretty long fork to stick through. They have a way here of splitting these fat black-fish and poggies, and broiling them on the coals, beef-steak-fashion, which I recommend your Broadway cooks to copy.2
Nobody knows, I think, what really good fish are, as you get them from your city markets. The firm fine-grained meat, white as snow, and of indescribable sweetness, of a good-sized blue-fish, black-fish, or poggy, taken from these waters, and cooked the same day for dinner or supper, is worth journeying a good way to taste. It hath the same relation to the city served fish as the pure breath of some whole-toothed country girl hath to the scent of almond-paste which the perfumer has furnished for the mouth of perhaps the most lovely metropolitan belle. I am convinced of one thing, (I must say my say out,) that even cleaning and salting fish for a few hours deprives them of their best flavor—particularly the salting. Such weather as this, they will "keep" for thirty or forty hours at least; then let them be cleaned, and not salted till over the fire.
It is curious, and always instructive, to connect the physical peculiarities of certain localities, with the people's character there. Fish, now, and easy facilities for every body to catch them—what effects might you suppose? Effects really definite and weighty, do come from those causes, here, I am certain. Hundreds of poor men, with families, just rub on from year to year, never growing better off, and never worse; "the bay" stands between them and actual starvation, and they are never spurred on to any vigorous efforts after fortune. A kind of lazy pride is, from the same cause, begotten among many, who cannot afford it—the pride of poverty being the costliest in the world. Fish has its golden side, too. Besides what I have set forth in my praise of food, when presented in its best form, the ease and promptness with which any one—child or woman, almost as well as man—can catch enough for a day's eating, serve many with a good meal, who could not otherwise get one. Fish, too, "moss-bunkers," innumerable, fertilize the grounds, and give body to the grain which constitutes perhaps the very bread you eat. As a cooling article of diet, a temperer of the blood, fish is proverbial. Imagine a community of straggle-limbed, yellow-faced, hard-fleshed sea-dogs—or a goodly infusion of such communities in the nation; do you suppose such a nation could ever degenerate and decay, as old Rome did with her Sybarites?3 No, indeed. And though my compound adjectives above do not describe the ideal of masculine good looks, there is something surpassingly welcome in the sight of these sinewy and huge-pawed fellows.
I went down to Montauk Point a day ago, (whereof you shall have an account of one of these times,) and we came among a band of such amphibious men,—great unshaved, gigantic-chested beings, with eyes as clear as coals, and flesh whose freedom from the gross humors of artificial life told its tale in the dark and unpimpled brown of their faces and necks.4 One feels not a little ashamed, after mixing with such tough knots of humanity, to be so particular against sleeping in a lately scrubbed room, or a draught of wind from some chink in the window. These men—hundreds of 'em in the regions hereabout—make their beds and sleep soundly on the salt hay, or in the sails of a boat, or on the ground—go half stripped for days and days up to their waists in water—eat raw salt pork, seasoned with a little vinegar, (or perhaps bad rum,)—and, thus continuing for many seasons, live to a good old age, and die of Time more than of Sickness. Would they turn out so, were they to study our dietetic oracles, and be lanceted and calomeled occasionally?5
If you understand any thing of what I try to describe, you must get the idea of a race of men, even individual specimens of whom you never see in New York, where you see almost every thing. I have mentioned the eyes of these old fishermen; they are the eyes of hawks, piercing and sharp. I never saw such eyes in other old men, or young men either.
A little to the east of here, but in sight when you sail down to Montauk Light-House, are a whole island full of these peculiar personages, the Block Islanders.6 They have the foregoing characteristics, in double intensity. Their very hair is a sort of seaweed, and the Block Island babe makes for the shore with its first creep. Shelter Island and Gardiner's, Fisher's, and Plum Islands, also partake of the briny cast; but as you don't positively have to hold the hair on your head by main force, when the sea gale blows over them, Block Island, which is quite out in the ocean, and used to the exhibition of wind and water power on the most sublime scale, goes ahead.
When I was down, for the moment, among those Montauk chaps—I forgot to say before that they were preparing to catch the sea-bass—I took some little pains to return the considerable courtesy they showed me, by first, finding out what politeness I might do them in response. Of the specimens I tried, all they wanted to fill up the measure of their perfect content, was, some plug tobacco and the latest election news! The tobacco I had not, but made them happy by the gift of two stray numbers of the Tribune, which were in my pocket. There they would stay, on what was equal to the sea-shore, twenty miles from any human habitation, except that of the Light-House keeper; there they would stay for many a week, entirely cut off from communication with "the public." I suspect those two Tribunes were completely got by rote. It was a pity I didn't happen to have anything better.7
One of the men had the most magnificent Newfoundland dog, young but full-grown, that I ever saw—probably a finer no one ever saw. He was black as tar. He would dash off in the water, and out—and in and out again. All of a sudden, while his master was talking with me, and his brilliant (I really cannot find the right word,) vitreous eyes were vibrating from mine to the surface of the sea, he broke off from his talk, and in a loud quick tone called the dog to our side, just as he was splashing in to try another of his equatic excursions.
"Do you see that?" said the fisherman to me, pointing to something like a small black chip, slowly moving edgeways on the surface of the water. "That's a shirk. I've no idea of losing my dog by a darned shirk!"
An hour before I had been thinking of a little swim along there, although the day was cool. It was altogether too cool, after that. On the same occasion there was the prettiest of marine exhibitions—prettier, to my eyes, than any New York yacht race that ever tapered off with the "prize," or a dinner in that yellow edifice which used to puzzle us so at Hoboken. Two hundred men, in a hundred skiffs, catching bluefish by trailing! Imagine the skiffs, real beauties, too, darting like swallows, and managed by five-score bold and expert water-dogs, each ambitious of doing some dare-devil maneuver that would eclipse his fellows—the sails bulging like the puffed cheeks of an alderman, and anon dipping in the water, or making the boat turn sharper corners than I ever saw boat turn before—a hundred men ceaselessly employed in hauling in the lines, taking off the fish, and casting out again—and then such casting out! Such a length as they made the bones fly! such a twirl of the rope! no twisting, although the coils be many! such superb attitudes, equal to any thing in Greek statues! such ready expedients to avoid any obstacle to the incessant hauling in, and throwing out of those lines, and the rapid depositing of fish in the boats, which seemed, to my eyes, to rival the celerity with which a "faster compositor" deposits type in his stick!8 the flashing of the white bones in the sunlight, and the ornamental flourishes which the "fancy ones" among the young fisherman would cut with their lines in the air—and all this done under the swiftest motion of their vessels in a stiff breeze over the dark sparkling waters! All silent, too, was the spectacle, except the slapping of the waves on the shore of the promontory, and the occasional screech of a sea-bird. Here they intertwined among each other, to and fro, in and out and around—much like the sparkles of moonlight that you can see sometimes of a summer night dancing in the East River—or any other river, I suppose when the water is smooth, and the moon bright.
But perhaps I should have told you that the blue-fish is a very voracious creature; so voracious that, instead of a bait, we fasten a piece of bone, or even a white rag, to the usual place on the line, and so let it trail from the stern of the boat. The greedy fish snaps it down at a gulp. Two or three lines, fixed off in this way, are often appended to one boat; and then, if the fish be plenty, one man must work himself. Sometimes two men "throw out" from one boat, and so on. Very often, too, the sharp teeth of the blue-fish ease the boat of hooks, bones and all.
My friends on sea-bass intent (they were waiting for a particular wind, or something to complete their nets, I think,) looked with a sort of superciliousness, I discovered, on the blue-fish business. I found one buying a basket of the fish, from a boat which just came in loaded; and when I was curious enough to ask him why, while they were waiting, he and his mates didn't go out and catch for themselves, he gave me to understand that sea-bassers never demeaned themselves in that way.
Item, a consolation for wearers of beards; a full-whiskered grizzled old chap—young and old, however, were thorough sons of Esau9—informed me how experience had proved to all sea-bassers and other fishermen, that an application, while out there, of the razor or shears was equal to aches, chills and neuralgic twinges forthwith, and that their sovereign'st defence against the same and all kindred attacks, was to let their beards and hair grow.
1. Greenport is a village on the North Fork of Long Island. When Whitman was writing from Greenport in 1849, the place was bustling with life: A major whaling port, it was also home to two shipyards and the final destination on the newly built Long Island Railroad (1844) (Long Island via the Long Island Railroad. With Sketches of Objects of Interest Along the Railroad and its Branches [New York: Taintor Brothers, 1866], 24-25). [back]
2. "Pogy" and "moss-bunker" are interchangeable terms for small forage fish. Also known as Menhaden, they were typically used for bait, not human consumption. See George Brown Goode, American Fishes: A Popular Treatise Upon the Game and Food Fishes of North America (Boston: L.C. Page and Co., 1903), 92. [back]
3. Sybaris, a city-state founded in 720 BCE in what is now southern Italy. Originally Greek settlers, the Sybarites became in mythical memory the epitome of overindulgence, sloth, and luxurious, decadent living. Sybaris fell in 510 BCE to neighboring Croton. See N. K. Rutter, "Sybaris: Legend and Reality," Greece & Rome, 17.2 (October 1970), 168-176. [back]
4. Montauk Point is located at the tip of the South Fork of Long Island and the location of New York State's oldest lighthouse, Montauk Point Light, built in 1797. See Francis Ross Holland, America's Light Houses: An Illustrated History, (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1972), 83. [back]
5. Whitman is commenting on the use of mercury paste and bloodletting as two common medical treatments for a wide range of ailments. Calomel, or mercurial chloride, an odorless, tasteless, yellowish-white mineral paste, was used extensively by physicians until the late nineteenth century. Calomel acts as an anti-inflammatory and a laxative, but is also highly toxic when dispensed in large doses. Its use ranged from treatment of syphilis to teething pains in infants, to the point where "nearly every disease seemed to fall successively within the prescription of its therapeutic charms." However, the prolific administration of Calomel became increasingly controversial within the medical profession, and during the Civil War, in 1863, the Surgeon-General banned its use on Army soldiers. Several medical reports also documented the devastating effects of Calomel on children. Bloodletting, usually done with a small spring-lancet, was also widely practiced, both as a treatment of varying forms of diseases and as a preventive measure to secure good health. In the nineteenth century, bloodletting reached a high point around 1830, whereafter the procedure gradually disappeared, as new knowledge of the causes of bacterial infection emerged. See John S. Haller, Jr, "Samson of the Materia Medica: Medical Theory and the Use and Abuse of Calomel In Nineteenth Century America,"Pharmacy in History, Vol. 13, No. 2 (1971): 67-76, and Toby Appel, Bloodletting Instruments in the National Museum of History and Technology (District of Columbia: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979). [back]
6. Block Island is a fairly large island (approximately ten square miles) in the Atlantic Ocean, situated midway between Long Island and Rhode Island, to which it belongs. Fourteen miles east of Montauk Point and missing any natural harbors it was an isolated place with no significant commerce or industry except farming. Around 1850, however, the increasing demand for vacation spots dramatically changed Block Island's status as a remote location inhabited by simple fishermen and farmers, and it became a favored tourist place for affluent mainlanders. By 1860, there were three hotels on the island, and in 1870 the construction of Government Harbor, on the east side of the island, commenced. See Historic and Architectural Resources of Block Island, Rhode Island (Rhode Island: Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission, 1991). [back]
7. The New York Daily Tribune was a Whig party penny paper founded by Horace Greely in 1841. The Tribune, unlike other penny papers, had a strong, reformist bent and was a purveyor of what Adam Tuchinsky has dubbed "New England moralism." As a prominent voice of the cultured, enlightened, Northern elite, the paper was also a venue for various literary notables, among them Margaret Fuller and George Ripley. Although Whitman here seems to pander to the idea that the Tribune was elitist and out of touch with common people, his work would later appear on numerous occasions in the paper, the first being a publication of three poems in 1850. In 1855, the Tribune published a private letter to Whitman from Ralph Waldo Emerson (without Emerson's consent or knowledge) in which the latter commended Whitman's poetry as "the beginning of a great career." See Adam Tuchinsky, Horace Greeley's New-York Tribune: Civil War-era Socialism and the Crisis of Free Labor (New York: Cornell University Press, 2009), 3. [back]
8. Compositor; a typesetter. [back]
9. Hebraic name meaning "bearded" or "hairy." A reference to biblical patriarch Abraham's son Esau: "his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau" (Genesis 25:25). [back]