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Walt Whitman to the Editors of The Daily Crescent, 30 July 1848

Eds. Crescent

A Sunday morning in the city of New York, and in the heart of summer! Let me describe to you how it is. First of all, the dry, dead-warm air, is any thing else than pleasant. From a hundred thousand close yards, sinks, gutters, etc., come up exhalations that do not exactly remind one of those "perfumes of sweet flowers," which the deceptive Mr. Melnotte1 pourtrayed as in his palace gardens, "by the Lake of Como." Comparatively, all is quiet—for in New York we don't consider the rattling of a few hundred milk wagons, and the shrill cries from the army of news-boys, as of much account in the way of noise. The omnibusses, and the whole list of trading and pleasure vehicles, are put by; although some of the latter do come out in the afternoon ("Bowery boys" and young cartmen, are the most remorseless creatures toward horse-flesh in the world.)

During the hours from sunrise to 10 o'clock, this stillness, and the closedness of all the stores, give a peculiar appearance, and rather a dreary one, to our city. The fountains of vitality seem dried up. It is not a religious aspect—I have observed that in Protestant countries it is impossible to give such an aspect to cities. It is more of a constrained and uncomfortable look—one not from disposition, so much as fear. Still people buy and read the Sunday papers at a great rate; as that, during the morning, is the only amusement left them. It is a singular fact that the best paying newspaper establishments here, are those which issue on Sunday.

Towards 10 o'clock, more signs of liveliness are exhibited. Groups of young fellows, sometimes accompanied by the female members of their families, start out on excursions to the country, or on some of the steamboat trips up the North or East Rivers. Very many go for miles on foot, after crossing the ferry, either to Staten Island, Hoboken, Brooklyn, or Williamsburg. Half-grown lads, on these occasions, are "death" to any fruit trees that stand in their path—even green apples disappear before them with wondrous celerity, and many and many are the angry disputes that arise between these young insurgents and the farmers of the neighboring towns. A little after 10, people of a pious turn of mind, and many that are not, begin to wend their way churchward. That's the time to see the New York ladies! By hundreds and thousands—aye, by tens of thousands—they slowly fill the side-walks, and, as if conscious of their charms, eke out the time between starting from home and arriving at church, to its utmost dimensions. If you have courage enough (which many have not, who are as brave as lions in cases of personal peril,) to stem a continual tide of slowly-walking, well-dressed and curiously observant human beings—walking at them for square after square—you will behold something, now, worth seeing. What care has been evinced in their toilets! How bewitchingly the ladies' bonnets sit upon their heads! How proud look the very breast-pins reposing upon their bosoms! After all, can there be a work of Nature that will compare with a beautiful, tastefully dressed female, in whose face the good points of the sex are expressed, and who has no affectation?

From half-past 10 to 12, there is a lull again. If you pass by the churches, you will hear the vocal utterance of worship, in some of its various forms—prayer, song, or sermon. Occasionally, some powerful brother makes the air vibrate with his wrestlings and exhortings—then, elsewhere, the deep notes of some heavy organ shake the very ground under your feet. But why should we merely describe? Let us go forth and enter one of the temples.

Here we are in front of "Trinity." The brown marble rises above, in its elegant and grand proportions—the cross on the top of the spire glitters in the sun. Though it looks so little up there, it is, in reality, some fifteen feet in length. The spot on which we stand has been used, from the first settlement of the Island, for church purposes; it is one of the few historical spots yet preserved intact. This is the fourth temple erected on it—each being successively larger than the preceding one. Upon entering it, the eye is first struck by the immense window, of beautiful stained glass, in the rear, on which the Saviour and several of the Apostles are delineated, of the size of life. The colors are of the most brilliant description—almost painfully brilliant, unless one's eyes are strong. The roof, with its arches and hollows and sounding depths, is of the same solid marble as the walls. The columns, with their tracery and knotted work, are also of marble. The floor is of polished stone. Even the window frames are of similar lasting material. It is a grand place; the mind feels awed and hushed, and made serene, here.—Now the organ is touched. How it reverberates through the arches; and how the sound seems sent back from the roof above! The brilliants colors of the glass would seem gaudy under any other circumstances; but they are prevented from being so by the fact that all the rest is somber brown, the marble color, and no fancy hues of gilding anywhere. The pews are of dark oak, merely polished by rubbing—no varnish or paint.

Trinity is a free church, too; at least it is so to all intents and purposes. Some of the old pew-holders, and those who own rights there hereditary, still remain in possession; but the large majority of the worshippers are those who come "without money and without price." On every successive Sunday, you even behold many of the "lower orders" worshipping at Trinity. Old Mr. Berrian2 is still the rector; but the principal talent resides in, and most of the work is done by, two or three assistants. Rev. Mr. Berrian is not only aged, but his voice is not good—a serious defect in such a large place.

Very much of the interest connected with this church lies in the grave-yard which surrounds it. At the left hand of the entrance is the grave of Lawrence,3 the gallant captain, whose memory will ever be idolized in our Navy. Until a couple of years since, it was in an old dilapidated corner of the yard, on Rector street. Since the completion of the present church it has been removed. At the corners are four cannon, placed in the ground in a perpendicular manner, and serving as corner posts.

Soon after 12 o'clock, the churches begin pouring out their living tides. Then the flood is plentier than before. They block up the walks and impede each others' passage. For about half an hour, the streets are indeed "alive." Walk in through them, and beholding so many myriads, all dressed so well, and looking well, one might be excused for doubting whether there were any such thing as penury on Manhattan Island.—(He would make a great mistake, however, who should so doubt.)

During the afternoon and evening, the city presents a more varied aspect than in the morning. The more lazy ones, who have dawdled through the morning in a half dressed and half-awake condition, now come forth. Some of the Eastere4 avenues witness the fears of equestrians, and behold the presence not only of "three minuters," but of hacks and drudges, whose sinews are whipped to their utmost exertions.

Sundown and darkness do not close the scene; then the churches are filled again; and, particularly among the Methodists, an additional vigor seems infused through their spiritual tendencies. It is a creditable fact, that, though groups and parties, enjoying themselves as much as the day and circumstances will permit, continue in the streets and public places till a late hour, there is very rarely any disturbance that calls for the interference of the police.

So much for some of the features on the surface of a New York Sunday. Of course, the great volume of individual and family life rolls on beneath this, much as elsewhere. Whether on the Rhone, the Mississippi or the Hudson, the principal points of human nature are the same.



  • 1. Claude Melnotte is a character in the play The Lady of Lyons; or, Love and Pride, which was written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1838. The play was first performed in London's Convent Garden Theatre in the late-1830s, and it became the basis of several operas. [back]
  • 2. Reverend William Berrian (1787–1862) was a rector of New York's Trinity Church and the author of the book An Historical Sketch of Trinity Church (New York: Standford and Swords, 1847). [back]
  • 3. James Lawrence (1781–1813), a Naval Officer, was the commander of the USS Chesapeake during the War of 1812. Lawrence was mortally wounded and was buried in Nova Scotia; he was later re-interred at Trinity Church. [back]
  • 4. "Eastern" must have been intended. [back]
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