Title: Letters from a Travelling Bachelor
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: November 4, 1849
Publication information: New York Sunday Dispatch 4 November 1849: .
Source: Original issue held at the Library of Congress. Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue. For a passage that was illegible in the digital image, we consulted Joseph Jay Rubin, The Historic Whitman (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1973), 324.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00295
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.
LONG ISLAND PLACES—BROOKLYN—BEDFORD—EAST NEW YORK—JAMAICA—UNHEALTHINESS OF TOO MUCH SHRUBBERY—HEMPSTEAD—"THE PLAINS," AN ILLUSTRATION OF THE BEAUTIES OF LAND MONOPOLY—SETTLEMENTS ALONG THE LINE OF THE LONG ISLAND RAILROAD—FARMINGDALE—"THE BRUSH"—A HINT TO CARPET DESIGNERS
We left the roofed and roomy Depot—one might almost call it grounds—of the Long Island Railroad, at the South Ferry, just five minutes after the "half past nine" which is advertised as the starting time; an allowance of grace which I recommend to all other lines, for it is very customary and very provoking, as the last moments approach, to be under the necessity either of losing your wind or losing your journey. For my own part, I have more than once chosen the latter alternative. Besides, what is more ridiculous than a man, red-faced and sweaty, running after the steamboat or the cars? How such an unfortunate wishes he could sink into the earth, when he has shrieked out for the engineer or the pilot to "hold on!" and they heed him no more than the dead—and the passengers all look back and smile!
It is a noticeable fact, now, on the Long Island Railroad, that hardly anybody will sit in the car that immediately follows the locomotive; it never becomes occupied till all the other places are taken. That a collision occurred some ten or twelve months ago, in which the forward car and its inhabitants suffered most, is the reason why.1 How careful we are of our precious lives!
The bell rings, and winds off with that sort of twirl or gulp, (if you can imagine a bell gulping) which expresses the last call, and no more afterwards: then off we go. Every person attached to the road jumps on from the ground or some of the various platforms, after the train starts—which, (so imitative an animal is man) sets a fine example for greenhorns or careless people at some future time to fix themselves off with broken legs or perhaps mangled bodies. The orange women, the newsboys, and the limping young man with long-lived cakes, look in at the windows with an expression that says very plainly, "We'll run alongside, and risk all the danger, while you find the change." The smoke with a greasy smell comes drifting along, and you whisk into the tunnel.2
The tunnel: dark as the grave, cold, damp, and silent. How beautiful look Earth and Heaven again, as we emerge from the gloom! It might not be unprofitable, now and then, to send us mortals—the dissatisfied ones, at least, and that's a large proportion—into some tunnel of several days' journey. We'd perhaps grumble less, afterward, at God's handiwork.
Even rattling along after the steam-engine, people get a consciousness of the unrivalled beauties of Brooklyn's situation. We see the line of the new Fifth Avenue, and the hills of Greenwood, and swelling slopes that rise up from the shore, Gowanus-ward. Also the little cove that makes in by Freeks's mill, and the meadows to the south of Penny Bridge, and the green knolls and the sedgy places below the aforesaid Fifth Avenue, and toward Bergen Hill.
Brooklyn! Brooklyn! thou art indeed a Dame Beautiful. But thou canst never have a fresh face, and clean stockings, till those Water Commissioners are appointed, and have done their duty.
Bedford is the first stopping-place. Rich and moist land, here, gives a deep hue to the plentiful vegetation, but unfortunately puts a taint of fever and ague in the air, at the same time. With such a state of things it is by no means the wisest idea in the world to nearly smother one's dwelling in trees and shrubbery, as is the practice with divers of the Bedfordians. To the north of the railroad several new streets and avenues have lately been opened, and modicums of ground facing thereon are in the market. I noticed a group of gentlemen up there, most of whom had the prying appearance of examiners and purchasers, and one of whom showed speculation in his eyes as sure as ever an auctioneer bawled in Wall street.
East New York, spread out as flat as a pancake—Cypress Hills Cemetery, with its white-painted tower, (looking like some solitary bachelor,)—and then Union Race Course. An unusually long halt here, and the getting out of divers people—among others some gents possessing the unmistakeable look, with fancy-colored broadcloth and plenitude of jewelry, that help one to identify the blackleg.3 For there was to be a race there that day, and another train, two hours later, was to bring the mass of the company.
As far as we had come, and onward to Jamaica, the ground on both sides of the road presented a pleasing appearance. Partly-reaped cornfields, buckwheat, cabbages, turnips, and potatoes—apple orchards with yellow fruit—farms and farm-yards, and farm operations, and cattle—were to be enjoyed; for it was really enjoyment to look at them. I never know the crops on Long Island to yield better or show better, take them in the lump, than this fall and the past summer.
Jamaica is embowered in the same deep dead green, indicating the sort of rich loam, aforementioned, favorable to the disease which makes quinine a drug that is no drug. Trees and shrubbery add to the prettiness of any house, and, indeed, are indispensable; but sunshine is indispensable too. A reasonable amount of trees, ye people with country cottages! but let no window in your houses, nor square foot of ground around them be without the wholesome rays of the sun at some period of the day.
Jamaica is composed mostly of one long street, which is nothing else but the turnpike. It is lined closely by trees, which again have an inner lining of the same, sprinkled shrubbery. As you enter the village you pass a pretty place some years since owned and occupied by Hackett the actor; more lately by Mr. Judd, a retired New Yorker.4 Then there is John A. King's residence, unseeable from the road, through the impervious trees. I saw Mr. K. just return from an agricultural fair, somewhere east. He holds his years well. He is in Congress, you know, for the two winters to come.5
Old Dominie Schoonmaker still flourishes in Jamaica. He used to preach oftener in Dutch than English—and was halved between two congregations; but that was long ago. Of late years his flock have built a large handsome church, and otherwise given in to the vanities of the world; but I guess that Dominie still lives in his old parsonage, and can talk Dutch and toss off a joke, or a glass of wine, as well as forty years ago.6
As you walk through the street of Jamaica, every house seems either a store or a tavern. There are two newspapers, one by Mr. Brenton, otherwise "Dr. Franklin," a good soul; and the Long Island Farmer, by Mr. Willis.7 Charley Watrous, I see, has retired from the dignities of the printing office, having probably made an "independent fortune," as that is so common a sequence of publishing a newspaper.8 Jamaica has a large old established Academy for Boys, "Union Hall," and a more lately commenced Academy for Girls; the former is in charge, these many years, of Henry Onderdonk, an accomplished man of letter, whose interesting work on the Revolutionary Incidents of Long Island will hold a standard place in all our complete libraries.9 The infinitude of Jamaica stores and public houses allows an inference, which is the truth, viz: that farmers, travellers, marketmen, and other passengers on the turnpike through the village, give it all its trade and retain business. It has no manufactories, and has not been what is called a "growing place" for many years, and probably will not be.
After leaving Jamaica, and Brushville which is three miles, east, we stretch out pretty soon upon "the Plains," that prairie-like and comparatively profitless expanse of land. The character of the country now becomes flat, and bare of trees; the houses are far from each other, and there is an uncomfortably naked and shrubless look about them. As the locomotive whisks us along, we see to a great distance on both sides, north and south—and see, mostly, large square fields, a great portion of which is devoted to pasturage.
The "Branch," or turning off place for Hempstead, is about eighteen miles from Brooklyn. A cluster of houses has been built up here, in the midst of wide expanse, and a tolerable degree of traffic is carried on; of course all derives its life-blood from the Railroad. Hempstead, otherwise "Clamtown," otherwise "Old Blue," is some two miles to the south; which two miles you pass over on a railway, in cars drawn by horses that crows, as they fly overhead, must feel astonished at not having got, some time before. The village is rather a pleasant one, of perhaps 1400 inhabitants. It hath a Presbyterian tinge, of the deepest cerulean; and in one of its graveyards is buried Henry Eckford, the naval architect, who once held the office of chief constructor at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and built that noble piece of seacraft the ship of the line Ohio. Branching out from Hempstead, in a south-easternly direction is the fine south turnpike, that leads along through (among other places,) Merrick, Babylon, Patchogue, Speonk, Good-Ground, away east to the Hamptons.
For some miles east of the Branch, there is little but a mighty stretch of these uncultivated Plains. True, there are some patches enclosed alongside of the railroad, here and there.—Around Hicksville, there is quite a group of these small settlings. Hicksville! that place of vanished greatness! O, what a cutting up of lots, and selling them off at high prices, there was here, in "the time of the great speculations," years ago! An immense city was sure to be that same Hicksville: now its sovereign sway enfolds a large unoccupied tavern, a few pig-pens, a very few scattered houses and aforesaid little enclosures. But joking not, I shouldn't wonder to see Hicksville gradually pick up, and be a tidy, little hamlet, in the course of five or six years.10
The great obstacle of improvement, all about here, is the monopoly of most of this immense tract of plains, by the town of Hempstead, the people whereof will not sell, nor divide it among themselves even, as was proposed a few years ago. If they would consent to sell, the town treasury would be prodigiously the gainer; and, cut up in strips, the land would be cultivated, adding to the looks of that region, to productiveness and human comfort, to the wealth of the town of Hempstead, and consequently decreasing the rate of its taxes. Some portions of the Plains, belonging to the town of Oysterbay, have been sold; and are taken up and settled on immediately.
Land Monopoly shows one of its beauties, most pointedly, in this matter. I don't know, indeed, where one could go for a more glaring and unanswerable argument of its evils. Here is good land, capable of ministering to the existence and happiness of thousands upon thousands of human beings, all lying unproductive, within thirty miles of New York city, because it is monopolised by one principal owner! I know the people have the right of pasturing their cattle, horses, and sheep, on the plains—but that privilege, however widely used, does not develope one twentieth of the natural resources of the land. Thousand of acres of it are covered with nothing but "kill-calf," and other thousands, where nothing grows, could be redeemed by two or three seasons' cultivation and manuring.
At Farmingdale, anciently known under the appellation of "Hardscrabble," you begin to come among the more peculiar specimens of humanity which good old Long Island produces. (Though I ought not to have overlooked the goodly village of Jericho, two miles north of Hicksville—a Quaker place, with stiff old farmers, and the native spot of Elias Hicks.) Farmingdale rears its towers in the midst of "the brush," and is one of the numerous offspring of the Railroad, deriving no inconsiderable portion of its importance from the fact that the train stops here for the passengers to get pie, coffee, and sandwiches.
We are now in the midst of the aforementioned "brush," a growth of pine and scruboak, mostly, though interspersed with birch, sumach, and other modest-sized trees. But at this time it is beautiful exceedingly! I can sit and gaze admiringly for miles and miles, at those colors that the chemistry of the autumn has profusely dyed every leaf withal. Deep and pale red, the green of the pines, the bright yellow of the hickory, are the prevailing hues, in numberless lovely combinations. I have often thought that those who make designs for carpets could get most excellent hints from these autumn garnishings. How pleasing and graceful would be a carpet patter, richly covered with figures and colors, closely imitated from what one sees here—how much better than the tasteless, meaningless, and every way unartistical diagrams that we walk over, now, in the most fashionably carpeted parlors.
In my next letter, I shall take the reader 'way to the jumping off place of the island.
1. A collision occurred on the Long Island Railroad on August 17, 1848 around Southold, on the Northeastern tip of North Fork, Long Island, which is probably the collision Whitman refers to here (The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, August 17, 1848). [back]
2. Cobble Hill Tunnel, also known as Atlantic Avenue Tunnel, opened in December 1844 and was the first railway tunnel dug underneath a city street in the United States. It serviced the Long Island Rail Road until 1861, when the tunnel was sealed off and abandoned. Whitman wrote about the tunnel in the Brooklyn Standard on September 20, 1862. [back]
3. Blackleg; gambler, swindler. [back]
4. James Henry Hackett (1800-1871), dramatic actor and native of Jamaica, Long Island (Francis Hodge, "Yankee in England: James Henry Hackett and the Debut of American Comedy," Quarterly Journal of Speech 45 (1959), 381-390. [back]
5. John Alsop King, another Jamaica native, served as congressman for New York 1849-51. He later became governor of New York, in 1857-58 (Biographical Directory of the United States Congress). [back]
6. Dominie Schoonmaker (d. 1852), a minister and member of the Protestant Reformed Dutch Church, conducted his sermons in the Dutch language to several congregations around Flatbush and Jamaica for several decades after the Revolutionary War. For a satirical piece on his life and religious work, see "The Dominie's Ride With the Devil," Brooklyn Monthly 1 (March 1869), 39-42. A decidedly more hagiographic description of Schoonmaker's career can be found in Joseph H. Whitehead, ed., A History of the Classis of Paramus of the Reformed Church in America (New York: The Board of Publication, R.C.A., 1902), 180-184. [back]
7. James J. Brenton, founder of the Long Island Democrat (1835), for which Whitman wrote several poems and prose pieces, most notably the "Sun-Down Papers—From the Desk of a School-Master" (also published in other periodicals). Whitman worked for Brenton as a typesetter for a few months in 1839, before returning to teaching. Benjamin H. Willis was editor and proprietor of the Long Island Farmer at the time of Whitman's writing. See David A. Reynolds, ed., A Historical Guide to Walt Whitman (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 20-22. [back]
8. Charles S. Waltrous, former editor and proprietor (from 1840) of the Long Island Farmer. [back]
9. Henry Onderdonk (1804-1886), a historian of Long Island and an educator, served as principal of Union Hall Academy in Jamaica, Long Island, from 1832 to 1865. He also founded the Long Island Historical Society in 1863 (The New York Times, June 24,1886). [back]
10. There is an ongoing controversy as to whether Hicksville is named after Long Island notable Elias Hicks (1748-1830), Quaker preacher and abolitionist from Hempstead, Long Island, or his son-in-law Valentine Hicks (1782-1850), who was elected Long Island Rail Road president in 1837 and instrumental in establishing railroad service to the village in 1844. (Whitman alludes to the former as the town's namesake in a later paragraph.) Covering a local vote on a possible name change in 1926, the New York Times wrote: "Hicksville, according to best local authority, was named after Elias Hicks, who settled there long ago. The historians were hazy on the dates. Then there was found in musty files a record of how the village paraded to the station behind a brass band to meet Valentine Hicks, President of the Long Island Rail Road… But whatever the naming…Hicksville is proud of its heritage" ("Hicksville Defies Scoffers and Keeps Its Name; Voters Hold Founder's Glory Transcends Gibes," The New York Times, May 27, 1926). [back]