Title: Letters from a Travelling Bachelor
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: November 25, 1849
Publication information: New York Sunday Dispatch 25 November 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.00298
Contributors to digital file: Vince Moran, Jason Stacy, Gertrud Elisberg, Elizabeth Lorang, and Kenneth M. Price
cropped image 1
Letters from a Travelling Bachelor.
ABOUT SOME MATTERS NEARER HOME—THE CROTON RESERVOIR—WHAT OF IT A HUNDRED YEARS HENCE—THE GROUNDS AND HOUSES BELOW MURRAY'S HILL—UNION SQUARE AND ITS ARISTOCRACY—GRACE CHURCH—AN HOUR AMONG THE PICTURES OF THE INTERNATIONAL ART UNION
I have just been up paying one of my monthly visits to the lower Croton Reservoir,on 40th street.1 Of the latter part of an afternoon, it makes a delightful little jaunt to go out, (if on foot, so much the better,) and see the sunset, from the broad walk on the top of this reservoir. A hundred years hence, I often imagine, what an appearance that walk will present, on a fine summer afternoon!2 You and I, reader, and quite all the people who are now alive, won't be much thought of then; but the world will be just as jolly, and the sun will shine as bright, and the rivers off there—the Hudson on one side and the East on the other—will slap along their green waves, precisely as now; and other eyes will look upon them about the same as we do.
The walks on the battlements of the Croton Reservoir, a hundred years hence! Then these immense stretches of vacant ground below, will be covered with houses; the paved streets will clatter with innumerable carts and resound to deafening cries; and the promenaders here will look down upon them, perhaps, and away "up town," towards the quieter and more fashionable quarters, and see great changes—but off to the rivers and shores their eyes will go oftenest, and see not much difference from what we see now. Then New York will be more populous than London or Paris, and, it is to be hoped, as great a city as either of them—great in treasures of art and science, I mean, and in educational and charitable establishments. Even now, however, as one sweeps his glance from the top of the Reservoir, he can see some seven or eight splendid charities, wholly or partially under the umbrage of the State. Let them prosper and increase, say I. If the moneys of the people only go plentifully for the great purposes of Benevolence and Education, no matter how heavy the taxes or how large the loans. They will be like bread cast upon the waters, and we shall indeed find it again after many days.
Ages after ages, these Croton works will last, for they are more substantial than the old Roman aqueducts, which were mostly built on the surface of the ground. And crowds of busy feet will patter over this flagging, years hence, and here will be melancholy musings, and popping the question, and perhaps bargains and sales, long long after we of the present time are under the sod.
Coming down the hollow-echoing stone stairway, one stops a minute to read the large marble tablet, on which are inscribed the names of the Croton functionaries and contractors and master operatives. You learn that,
"The Aqueduct commences at the Croton river, five miles from the Hudson river, in Westchester county. The dam is 250 feet long, 70 feet wide at bottom, 7 at top, and 40 feet high, and built of stone and cement. It creates a pond five miles long, covering an extent of 400 acres, and contains 500,000,000 gallons of water. From the dam the Aqueduct proceeds, sometimes tunnelling through solid rocks, crossing valleys by embankments and brooks by culverts, until it reaches Harlem river, a distance of thirty-three miles. It is built of stone, brick and cement, arched over and under, 6 feet 9 inches wide at bottom, 7 feet 8 inches at top of the side walls, and 8 feet 5 inches high; it has a descent of 13 1/2 inches per mile, and will discharge 60,000,000 of gallons every twenty-four hours. It crosses the Harlem river on a magnificent bridge of stone, 1,450 feet in length, with 14 piers, 7 of them bearing arches of 80 feet span, and 7 others of 50 feet span, 114 feet above tide water at the top. The receiving reservoir at Eighty-sixth street, 38 miles from the Croton dam, covers 35 acres, and holds 150,000,000 of gallons. The distributing reservoir on Murray's Hill, in Fortieth street, covers 4 acres, and is constructed of stone and cement, 45 feet high above the street, and holds 20,000,000 of gallons. Thence the water is distributed over the city in iron pipes, laid sufficiently deep under ground to protect them from frost. The whole cost of the work has been about $13,000,000. The water is of the purest kind of river water. There are laid below the distributing reservoir in Fortieth street more than 170 miles of pipe, from 6 to 36 inches in diameter." 3
The elevated and stony grounds about here will cost their owners dearly to get them graded and paved in the monotonous style required by most of our American cities. I always think it a pity that greater favor is not given to the natural hills and slopes of the ground on the upper part of Manhattan Island. Our perpetual dead flat, and streets cutting each other at right angles, are certainly the last things in the world consistent with beauty of situation.
From "Murray's Hill," on which the reservoir is built, you descend into the city, by any of these great wide avenues, or the Bloomingdale road. There are some very elegant houses out here; one Gothic affair, in particular, belonging I believe to Capt. Marshall, formerly of the Liverpool liners.
We get presently into the aristocratic neighborhood of Union Square. The fountain is playing, and so let us stroll about here a few minutes. Those tall and stately edifices, with their high marble stoops and iron balconies; the rich and glowing drapery inside the plate glass windows; here and there a private carriage waiting at the doors: these are the domiciles of what are called the "upper ten."4 Perhaps you fancy that this elevatedness of wealth and furniture, is significant of a like elevatedness of intellect, purpose, and heart, in the people. By no means. Here and there, among them, you find beautiful and sweet-souled women, and learned and chivalrous men; so you do among common people. But the great body of "fashionables" are vulgar, flippant and overweeningly selfish. Nine-tenths of the families residing in these noble dwellings, have "sprung from nothing," as the phrase is—by which is intended that their parents were hucksters, laborers, waiters, and so on; which made the said parents not a whit the worse, but, on the contrary, they were perhaps more sensible and respectable than the children who would burn with shame if their daddies or granddaddies were to start up before them, like Hamlet's, in their habits as they lived.
Whoever "keeps" Union Park, deserves a good word in the papers. For a cleaner, more trimly swept place, with better arranged shrubbery and flowers, we know not of in any city. The fountain here plays more frequently than any of the other fountains—at least it is always playing when I visit the Park.
Coming out of the lower gate of Union Square, (these oval or triangular spaces are always called squares) the eye is attracted by several palace-like residences, one on the corner of Broadway; and by the Church of the Holy Innocents on University Place.
Grace Church, somehow, fails to impress the mind at once with a character of beauty, or any quality synonymous with its name.5 The tall white spire, the prolific tracery and ornament, and fret-work, make one wonder and ask how much it all cost, and so on; but the subtle sense of the beautiful is not satisfied. You are painfully impressed with the notion of a rich, showy and tasteless congregation, who "tried to do something, and couldn't." The mellowing and sanctifying influence of time, may perhaps do something for this church. We hope so, for there is yet a disagreeably garish and flaunting air about it.
Coming down Broadway, one must not overlook the exhibitions of pictures, in the rooms of the American and International Art Unions.6 The former is "noticed" in so many prints, that we give what little space we have remaining for this letter to a few lines about the International. Never before has any art exhibition in America contained pieces or work of such high order as this. Long, long half hours have I passed looking at "The Dead Christ," by Ary Scheffer.7 It has grown into my very soul. The face and breast of the Saviour are exhibited, with the grave clothes raised from them, and the prostrate head of his mother on his breast. There are three other female figures, whose faces exhibit different developments of grief. The countenance of the Sacred Corpse is beyond all description; he or she who can look upon it without the deepest emotion must be insensible to the great achievements of art. Yet the painting is entirely free from any strained effect, any daring attempt at wonderful things: it is after the severest forms of simplicity and spirituality. The serene grief, too great for words, of the female at the left is beautifully expressed—and the bitter wailing of the aged woman more in the background almost touches the ear—but the face of the mother is too intense for depicting, and it is bowed and hidden on the cold bosom of Christ. No tricks of ambitious color, or "warm light," or any thing of that sort, mar this great picture.
"The Christian Maiden converting her Betrothed," is a large and rich painting by Gendron, and was presented to the International by the French Republic.8 A young man, seated, is instructed in religious matters by a beautiful female who stands behind him, and pointing over his shoulder, to the open book in front, rests her neck confidingly against his head. The picture is highly finished, and its adjuncts are all complete, and well delineated.
"The Republic," also a donation from France, is a large sized painting—a female figure, emblematical of a Free Government. There is nothing particularly new or striking about it. The attitude of the female, and the expression in her face, are serene and majestical; her ample form is clothed in classically flowing drapery, and her head is surrounded by laurel.
Perhaps the most attractive and popular pictures, however, are "Children leaving School," "The Convalescence," and "The Grandfather's Festival," by Waldmuller.9 The first named is certainly one of the most remarkable paintings ever produced. Its variety of scene and expression, all comprised in a small compass, and without violent contrasts, is beyond that of any picture I ever saw. A score and more of children are just tumbling out of school, and there they are with all the vivacity and gleesomeness of their age. One has received a medal, a little girl is laughing in her pleasure at examining it; another is reaching her hand out over the crowd, for her grandfather, who has come after her; one little fellow appears to have the toothache; one is going to strike a young foe, but is restrained by the sister—and so on. It is incomparable! The expression of the old man, in "The Convalescence," is solemnly beautiful gratitude; he has recovered from illness, and as the spring warms the cherry blossoms, he is helped through the door of the cottage into the open air.
"The Fish market," by Duval le Carmus,10 "Head of our Saviour," by Paul Delaroche,11 a female head by Court, "Rigolette and her Family," by the same, and one or two others are the remaining choice pieces of the exhibition.12
We think highly of the effect of works of art on the minds and characters of the people, and warmly hope that both Art Unions, and more associations of the same kind which may come in future, will flourish well, and continue to send out among the masses of the people, the seeds of a love for beauty as it is embodied in Art. The unavoidable progress of such institutions is toward a better and higher standard of excellence every year. But the International seems to leap at once, like Minerva, into mature fulness, as respects the standard of excellence in its pictures.13 We doubt whether any exhibition of similar size in any city of Europe, has contained a better average of merit than this. There are, it is true, plenty of other pictures, of as extraordinary worth—but a dozen pictures of the very first class have never yet been collected at the same place in America before.
1. The Croton Reservoir, at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue, was opened on July 4, 1842 and was the first large-scale water distribution system to supply water to New York City (John Bloomfield Jervis, Description of the Croton Aqueduct, [New York: Slamm and Guion, 1842], 5, 31). [back]
2. The Croton Reservoir was demolished in 1899 and replaced by the New York Public Library in 1911 (William Hayes, City in Time: New York [New York: Sterling Publishing Co, 2007], 88). [back]
3. Whitman quotes here from John Doggett, Jr., The Great Metropolis: Or New York in 1845 (New York: S.W. Benedict, 1845), 57-58. [back]
4. This phrase signifies the "upper ten thousand," or upper classes of major American cities and is usually ascribed to author and critic Nathaniel Parker Willis (1806–1867). [back]
5. According to Philip Hone, pews in Grace Church sold for up to $1400 each, and to rent cost "three dollars every Sunday" to worship God there (see Philip Hone, The Diary of Philip Hone, 1828-1851 [Carlisle, MA: Applewood Books, 2009], 269, 213). [back]
6. The American Art Union (AAU), at 497 Brodway, offered a novel approach for bringing art to the masses. According to the 1849 "Bulletin of the American Art Union," "The American Art Union . . . was incorporated by the Legislature of the State of New York for the promotion of the Fine Arts in the United States . . . . To accomplish a truly national object uniting great public good with private gratification at small individual expense in a manner best suited to the situation and institutions of our country and the wants habits and tastes of our people, the Committee have adopted the following plan. Every subscriber of five dollars is a member of the Art Union for the year and is entitled to all its privileges . . . . The . . . Works of Art are publicly exhibited at the Gallery of the Art Union till the annual meeting in December when they are publicly distributed by lot among the members, each member having one share for every five dollars paid by him. Each member is thus certain of receiving in return at least the value of the five dollars paid and may also receive a painting or other Work of Art of great value" (13). The American Art Union was declared an illegal form of gambling by the New York State Supreme Court in 1852 ("The American Art Union," The New York Times, June 12, 1852). The International Art Union, which likewise functioned by lottery, displayed works by non-American artists. [back]
7. The Dead Christ, by Dutch artist Ary Scheffer (1795-1858), was described by the Atlantic Monthly in this way: "The deathly pallor of the corpse was in strange harmony with the face of the mother which bent over it, her whole being dissolved in grief and love.... The cold, wan color of the whole scene seems like that gray pall which a public grief will draw across the sky, even when the meridian sun is shining in its glory" (4 , 276). [back]
8. French painter Auguste Gendron (1817–1881). [back]
9. Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller (1793–1865) was an Austrian-born artist of the Biedermeier period in Central Europe, when, approximately between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the revolutions of 1848, artists turned to bourgeois subjects like homelife and children (Christopher John Murray, Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850 [New York: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2004], 89). [back]
10. Pierre Duval Le Camus, French painter (1790–1854). See Clara Cornelia Harrison Stranahan, A History of French Painting from its Earliest to its Latest Practice (New York: Charles Scribner and Sons, 1902), 358. [back]
11. Hippolyte De La Roche (1797–1856) was a French artist who specialized in historical and religious paintings. [back]
12. Joseph Court (1797–1865), French painter. Court produced at least one other painting of Rigolette, titled Rigolette et sa travail ["Rigolette and Her Work"]. The model posing for the portrait was Delphine Delamare, who is said to have been the inspiration for the main character in Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1856). See "En Marge de Madame Bovary: Les Tableaux de Joseph Court," Les Amis de Flaubert 11 (1956), 36. [back]
13. Minerva was the Roman version of the Greek goddess Athena, who sprung fully armored from her father Zeus's head. [back]