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Seas and Lands, Chapter VI: Men and Cities




From Washington to Philadelphia is an easy run through the green country drained into Chesapeake Bay by many sylvan streams. Heavy rains had flooded the low-lying farmsteads around Baltimore and northward—so that many fields of maize, tomato, and melon were lying drowned in the too abundant tribute of the Delaware and its confluent channels. The negro population—which rapidly diminishes as you come north from Maryland— looked positively "blue-black" in the chilly weather and amongst the damp enclosures. There are plenty of coloured waiters and "helps," of course, at the north; but the sun-loving Sambo is evidently much dépaysé there, and naturally gravitates to the warmer States.

What will be the future of that vast dark alien population forms one of the great puzzling problems for the American Republic. From time to time sanguinary collisions between blacks and whites occur, and the diminishing number of half-breeds proves that "miscegenation" will never prevail to settle the matter. Immensely fecund among themselves, although unskilful in rearing children, the med_sm.00617_large.jpg sons of Ham are seriously multiplying in the South, where in some districts they quite swamp the white vote. Will they absorb and altogether possess certain regions? Will there some day happen a Black Exodus to Africa, or to mexico, or to South America? Free as birds, lazy as pigs, joyous as crickets, the negroes darken all the South with their political presence, and enliven it by their inborn cheerfulness. What an army another Toussaint l'Ouverture might raise among them with which to conquer an Ebony Kingdom on the Gold Coast!

Philadelphia is a truly splendid city, and covers more ground than New York, Chicago, or any of its greatest sisters. there are 950 miles of paved streets there, the busiest and longest being "Market," up and down which, while London is merely talking about "electric cars," those vehicles, silently and safely propelled by batteries, daily carry scores of thousands of citizens. Nor have we anywhere in England a Town Hall nearly as magnificent as the huge pile of white marble, reared in Renaissance style, which is called "The Public Buildings," and glorifies the corner of Broad and Market Streets. It contains the municipal offices, law courts, &c., and measures 486½ feet by 470 feet, being almost a square, while its tower when completed will be 535 feet high. It covers an area of about 4½ acres, without including the courtyard in the centre of 200 square feet. Girard College is another magnificent building of white marble, in the Corinthian style, imitating the Par- med_sm.00618_large.jpgthenon at Athens, erected out Stephen Girard's munificent gift of 2,000,000 dollars to provide gratuitous instruction and support for destitute orphans. Theology is rigorously excluded from its lectures, and no clergyman, priest, or missionary is allowed to set foot within it, according to the testamentary conditions of the founder.

In Lætitia Street is Penn's cottage, built before Penn's arrival in the settlement, and truly the historic Quaker might be proud of the city sprung up around it. In a court on the south side of Chestnut Street is Carpenters' Hall, the meetingplace of the first Congress of the United Colonies; but Independence Hall, between Fifth and Sixth Streets, is justly considered the most interesting building in Philadelphia. It has brilliant historical associations, and several of the rooms contain still the very furniture of the time when the Declaration of Independence was there made. In front of it stands Bailey's statue of Washington, and at the back is Independence Square, laid out as a small park.

All these, and many other notable sights in the Pennsylvania capital, we had the good fortune to study, under the auspices of one of the best known, as he is also one of the most public-spirited and liberal of Philadelphia citizens—Mr. G. W. Childs, proprietor of the Public Ledger, a journal eminent amid its contemporaries not alone for literary talent and political independence, but for a dignity and propriety in tone and in contents by no means universal among the American med_sm.00619_large.jpg press. For twenty years the bosom friend and neighbour of Ulysses S. Grant—the famous soldier President of the Republic—Mr. Childs enjoys an influence natural to his experience, wealth, and patriotism, and it was no secret that Mr. Wanamaker, now the Postmaster-General in President Harrison's Cabinet, and proprietor of the most immense "universal providing store" even in the States, owed his portfolio largely to this gentleman's recommendations. The astounding establishment of the Minister employs 4000 hands, covers 18½ acres of ground, and is worked by the most elaborate organisation. It must be almost a relaxation, indeed, after governing "Wanamaker's," at Philadelphia, to take in hand the business of conducting "Uncle Sam's" postal system.

Yet it was not to any superb public edifice, or to any famed historical spot, or even to Wanamaker's, the mighty and manifold—where a whole hall, full of revolving wheels and flying wires, was buzzing with countless cartridges of money coming up, and of endless change going down—to none of these were my earliest steps bent on arriving in Philadelphia. In a superb city, called Camden, beyond the broad Delaware, which, with the Schuylkill, or "Hidden Stream," bathes her long wharfs, resides that original and grandly gifted poet, Walt Whitman, assuredly one of the chief personages of American literature in his own strange and unrestrained, albeit most musical and majestic style. It is held, no doubt, in some quarters an eccentricity to admire Walt Whitman; in others even an im- med_sm.00620_large.jpgpropriety; but it may be doubted if those who so lightly dub this Tyrtæus of America "rugged" or "immoral" have really read, with close and due study, his remarkable pages, or are competent to judge of the finest and most daring ranges of poetic art. To him who writes these words, the Poet of "Drum-Taps" and of "The Voyage to India" has long seemed a singer nobly and perfectly native to the New World, profoundly philosophical, and one to be certainly regarded with reverence and affection, for his humanity, his insight, his faith, his courage, and the clear, sonorous, and ofttimes exquisite melody of his rhymeless, but never unrhythmical, dithyrambs. No living singer has ever composed any English lines more divinely musical than those of the "Invocation," which begin, "Come, lovely and soothing Death." No poet-philosopher has ever proclaimed loftier veracities of life and religion than could be gleaned, thickly and richly, from "The Leaves of Grass;" and, as to the charge of impropriety, it is often made by people who have not understood his main thesis and statement, "I swear I am no more ashamed of the body than I am ashamed of the soul."

At all events, for me Walt Whitman has long appeared the embodiment of the spirit of American growth and glory—the natural minstrel of her splendid youth—the chief modern perceiver of the joy and gladness in existence too long forgotten or forbidden; and, of all men in Philadelphia, he it was whom I most desired to see and to thank for my own share, at least, in the comfort and wisdom med_sm.00621_large.jpg of his verse, which, for one who can read it with sympathy, has the freshness of the morning wind blowing in the pines, the sweetness of the sea-air tumbling the wave-crests.

You go down the long Market Street in an electric car, which is driven from a wire overhead, the connector-rod and the wheels emitting flashes of blue fire all the way, which seem, however, to do nobody any harm. These novel tramcars are checked, stopped, and started again with the utmost certainty by a button and a string, and the overhead wire illuminates the vehicle as well as drives it.

Arrived at the edge of the Delaware River by the aid of this yoked and tamed lightning, a prodigious ferry-steamer receives passengers, carts, waggons—anything and everything—and puffs across to the other bank, amid multitudinous small and large craft. Here is New Jersey, where, for a while, nobody could be found who knew the habitat of America's lyric veteran. But, at last, an ancient flyman was discovered who was acquainted with the abode of "the old poet," and many a winding way and devious plank-road brought us in the end to an obscure street, where our modern Tyrtæus resided. The humble tenement which represented the poet's "bower" stood between two retail stores, and was about the most unlikely spot in the world to search in for a bard. Yet a sweet-faced woman, darning stockings and swinging too and fro in a rocking-chair, assured me that "Mr. Whitman" was truly within, and a very handsome brown-faced med_sm.00622_large.jpg boy of nineteen in shirt-sleeves volunteered to call him. Soon the famous dithyrambist descended the stairs, clad in a light Holland coat, with open shirt ruffled in the neck, walking very lamely with the help of a stick, but certainly one of the most beautiful old men every beheld, with his clear keen eyes, sculptured profile, flowing silver hair and beard, and mien of lofty content and independence. In a very few minutes, I may venture to say, we were like old friends. I told him how he was honoured and comprehended by many and many an Englishman, who knew how to distinguish great work from little, in ancient or modern tongues. I told him how many among us found the freedom of the broad prairie and the freshness of the sea in his pages, and loved them for their large humanity and superb forecasts of human development. The handsome youth fetched down the "Leaves of Grass" from upstairs, and we read together some of the lines most in mind, the book lying upon the bold poet's knee, his large and shapely hand resting on mine. The sweet voiced woman dropped her darning needle to join in the lyrical and amicable chat, the handsome boy lounged and listened at the doorway, a big setter laid his soft muzzle on the master's arm, and the afternoon grew to evening in pleasant interchange of thoughts and feelings. He laughed joyously at the vastness and vitality of this Republic, of which I admiringly spoke, and said, "Yes, we are truly—as they say West—very 'numerious.'"

"But have you reverence enough among your med_sm.00623_large.jpg people?" I asked. "Do the American children respect and obey their parents sufficiently, and are the common people grateful enough to their best men, their statesmen, leaders, teachers, poets, and 'betters' generally?"

"Allons, comrade!" Walt Whitman replied; "your old world has been soaked and saturated in reverentiality. We are laying here in America the basements and foundation rooms of a new era. And we are doing it, on the whole, pretty well and substantially. By-and-by, when that job is through, we will look after the steeples and pinnacles."

He bade me "give his love to the boys in London," such as cared for him. Some of them, he said, had been "very good to him in past days, and had pulled him out of a quagmire." But there was no tone of complaint in his cheery manliness, and he looked the picture of self-content and happy old age. In a strong round hand he inscribed my name in the volume we had discussed, gave me some precious pictures of himself at different epochs of his life, and bade me farewell with an affectionate warmth which will never be forgotten.

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