Title: Letters from a Travelling Bachelor–No. II
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: October 21, 1849
Publication information: New York Sunday Dispatch 21 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.00293
Contributors to digital file: Vince Moran, Gertrud Elisberg, Jason Stacy, Elizabeth Lorang, and Kenneth M. Price
cropped image 1
LETTERS FROM A TRAVELLING BACHELOR–No. II.
OLD GRAVE YARDS ON EAST LONG ISLAND—ONE OF THE PREACHERS—WHALING VESSELS
GREENPORT, L.I., Oct. 17
Some tatters of the mantle of Old Mortality have surely descended to me, for I find a real enjoyment in exploring the ancient burial places of East Long Island. The other day, while returning from a long walk to Oysterponds Point—the north mate of Montauk Point—I turned off the road, to ascend some bleak and stony hills. They were close upon the Sound, and had an unusually bare and dismal and lonesome appearance. Between a couple of the largest, what should I come upon, but an old grave yard, and a very large one, too. Not a single inscription upon the stones, could be made out with ease; and only a few could be made out at all.1 It was a weird looking place; the wind piped its thousand trebles over the hill-tops on each side, and a sullen base came from the shore near by, yet down there not a breath of the wind could be felt. There were hundreds of graves, all of generations long before our own; but from some reason or other, no new burial appeared to have taken place there for many many years. Several of the tomb-stones were large flat ones, even with the ground, and quite covered with moss and stone-rust. Some were crumbled away, some just poked out a few inches of their tops, above the surface. 'Twould have been curious to decipher the inscriptions upon them; but one needed to make a day's work, perhaps several days, for any satisfactory result that way.
At Southold, (90 miles from New York, by the L.I. Railroad,) there is another very old grave yard.2 Perhaps the two are the oldest in the United States. That at Southold is in good preservation, and is still used. It contains the graves of many of the "oldest inhabitants," some of whom were buried as early as 1620 and 30. And the neighbors have a commendable way of resetting the monuments when they get to crumbling from age, and of re-cutting the inscriptions, which I was very much pleased at. One of the old stones has this upon it:"Here lyeth interred the body of Colonel
As it is a pretty rare thing to find in fresh preservation in our republic such tangible and avowed presence of "one of His Majesty's Council," the story seemed to me worth printing.3 Then there is another:"To the blessed memory of Mrs. Mary
Many of the inscriptions must be really interesting if one could only make them out. But it needs more than an idle hour's time; and an hour or so was all I had to spare.
Large and venerable grave yards are very numerous all over Long Island, particularly at this end of it. Many of them are placed upon hills, and are without trees or shrubbery. As you travel along the roads you see the white tomb-stones, group after group, some far, and some near. I suppose you know that Long Island is quite equal to any part of North America in the antiquity of its settlement, and in the desire of its sons and daughters to be buried among their kindred.
It is a great pity that some of that feeling which has, of late years, led to the setting apart of beautiful and wooded grounds for burial, had not prevailed of old, when it could have been done so much more easily and cheaply. The feeling, however, does not seem to take start in country places, even yet. I notice that they put their dead in singularly dreary and dismal spots, bad of view and bad of everything, connected with locality. Some sandy stone hill, hopeless for the growth of any crop, is generally selected. Must we say the choice is from that sort of "thrift, thrift," which served up certain meats at the wedding-table of Hamlet's step-father?4
I have noticed, too, that a funeral in the country is indescribably chilly and depressing. Let me start somebody to thinking why—for I am sure, whoever has attended such a funeral will recall to mind the same fact, and will find a great difference between its scenes and the like solemnity in a city.
Talking of funerals allows me to slide off in some remarks upon the performances at one of the "meetings" in this village, last Sunday night. The regular preacher was absent, and his place was supplied by certainly one of the oddest of human specimens. (I saw him the next morning cheapening a gun in a neighboring shop). If he was a wag, he succeeded to perfection in burlesquing the sermon: if serious, it was a seriousness as funny as Mitchell's or Placide's in their dreadful travesties.5 You may imagine something of the gentleman's style when you know that he earnestly demanded of the audience, "Do you imagine Christ was such hypocricat as that?" Shade of Mrs. Malaprop!6 "Hypocricat"! About every third or fourth attempt at rolling off a sentence would stick him in the mud; whereupon he would extricate himself by an unintelligible jabber, containing no distinct words—a decidedly "unknown tongue." One of the contingencies he put before the audience was the being "as rich as Zeros"! And as to moods and tenses, and the good old rule of "a verb must agree with its nominative," &c, the work was a slaughter beyond precedent. My poor handkerchief, when I pulled it from my pocket the next morning, was what the wolverines might call "tetotaciously chawed up." I had done it in the agonies between my laughter and attempted decorum.
On Saturday last, we all gathered on the dock, to see the departure of a whaler. Formerly there was quite a flourishing business carried on from here, in fitting out such ships, and receiving them back again. But lately it has declined. They have mostly returned weary enough, but not heavy laden. I am told that the raw hands who go out in these whalers make a poor business of it. Some of them barely get enough to repay their outfit. The captain gets his sixteenth or twentieth "lay," and one or two others share equally well; but the hands generally leave the shop as poor as they entered it, except in experience. I am told that whales have been scarce of late years; and that very few vessels from any quarter, get full cargoes. The ship that left here last Saturday has been on two whaling voyages from this port—neither of them very successful. Her owners are persevering fellows. I almost wonder they didn't start her off to California.7
1. Whitman describes the Terry Hill Cemetery, also known as Browns Hill Burying Grounds, near the village of Orient, Long Island. Originally named Oysterponds by English settlers in 1661, the easternmost tip of North Fork was divided into two townships in 1836 and renamed from Oysterponds Upper Neck and Oysterponds Lower Neck to Orient and East Marion, respectively. Although Whitman writes of his walk to Oysterponds Point, the location's official name had been Orient Point for well over a decade. See Peter Ross and William Smith Pelletreau, A History of Long Island: From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, vol. 2 (New York and Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1905). The inscriptions on the gravestones of Terry Hill Cemetery, as well as the stones in Southold, have since been extensively documented (see note 2). [back]
2. This graveyard is most likely the Presbyterian Cemetery of Southold, New York. Established in 1640, it is the oldest burial ground in New York State. The inscriptions on Terry Hill Cemetery and Southold stones have been transcribed and photographed. For transcriptions and genealogy, see New England Historical Genealogical Register, vol. 53 (Maryland: Heritage Books, 1899). For photographic resources, consult the Stony Brook University library's Richard F. Welch Collection, http://www.stonybrook.edu/commcms/libspecial/collections/manuscripts/welch.html. [back]
3. John Youngs, the eldest son of the settler of Southhold, Rev. John Youngs, was a well-known public figure on Long Island, and served as an honorable counselor appointed by the British crown as governor of New York. The state was at the time a provincial (or royal) colony, hence the title "His Majesty's Council of the Province of New York." John Youngs' house still stands in Southold (Rufus Rockwell Wilson, Historic Long Island [New York: The Berkeley Press, 1902], 46). [back]
4. Whitman quotes a conversation between Horatio and Hamlet in Shakespeare's play: "Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables" (Act 1, scene 2, lines 179-80). [back]
5. Actor and manager William ("Billy") Mitchell (1798-1856) popularized the burlesque theater (also known as travesties or, sometimes, extravaganzas) in New York in the 1840's and beyond. The theatrical burlesques were usually humorous parodies of classical literary works, often in musical form, hence Whitman's comment about the minister "burlesquing the sermon." Henry Placide (1799-1870) was a well-known comedian and burlesque actor (Robert Clyde Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture [North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1991], 102-103). [back]
6. Mrs. Malaprop is a character from the 1775 British comedy-of-errors The Rivals, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. [back]
7. Whitman alludes to the California Gold Rush of 1849, where the discovery of gold in the American River near Sacramento in January 1848 initiated a mass migration to California, which had been recently acquired from Mexico in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). [back]