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Fortunes of a Country-Boy; Incidents in Town—and His Adventure at the South


A Moral Tale.


Incidents in Town—and his Adventure at the South.


Upon resuming our journey, the same vivacity and fund of anecdote which had so agreeably entertained us from our companion on the back seat, was again in requisition. I don't know how it was, but I felt confident that the antiquary was more than he seemed. His manners were so simple, and at the same time so free from anything like coarseness, that I said to myself, if I should aspire to be a gentleman, here would be my model. There was nothing in his conduct from which it might be inferred that he wished to demand your respect; on the contrary, he was quite friendly, and talked about plain things in plain language. Yet he had the stamp of superior station, and an indescribable air of something which told us that he would have been quite as much at home, and quite as unassuming, in the parlors of the richest people of the land. In the course of conversation, it came to be mentioned by me, that I was going to the city for the first time since I was a little child, and that I intended making it my future residence. Whether the antiquary was interested in my remarks, or whether he merely spoke from his natural good-will, I do not know; but he addressed me somewhat after this fashion:

"You are taking a dangerous step, young man.—The place in which you are about to fix your abode, is very wicked, and as deceitful as it is wicked.—There will be a thousand vicious temptations besetting you on every side, which the simple method of your country life has led you to know nothing of.—Young men, in our cities, think much more of dress than they do of decent behavior. You will find, when you go among them, that whatever remains of integrity you have, will be laughed and ridiculed out of you. It is considered 'green' not to be up to all kinds of dissipation, and familiar with debauchery and intemperance. And it is the latter which will assail you on every side, and which, if you yield to it, will send you back from the city, a bloated and weak creature, to die among your country friends, and be laid in a premature grave; or which will too soon end your days in some miserable street in the city itself. It is indeed a dangerous step!"1

The kindness of the motives of the speaker, prevented any displeasure I might have felt at being thus addressed by a perfect stranger. Colby whispered to me, that the antiquary was undoubtedly a good fellow, but somewhat too sour in his judgments; which may have been the case, in truth.—The subsequent narration, however, will prove the wisdom of his warning.

As the afternoon waned, and the sun sank in the west, we drew nigher and nigher to our destination. The increasing number of carriages, the houses closer to one another, and the frequent sight of persons evidently just out from the city for a ride, admonished us that we were on the point of entering the great emporium of our western world.

When at last we came upon the paved streets, I was astonished at the mighty signs of life and business every where around. It was yet sometime ere sunset, and as the day was fine, numbers of people were out, some of them upon business, and many enjoying an afternoon saunter.

The place at which our conveyance stopped was in Brooklyn, near one of the ferries that led over to the opposite side of the river. We dismounted; glad enough to be at the end of our journey, and quite tired with its wearisomeness. Our passengers prepared to go to their several destinations. The antiquary took a little carpet bag in his hand, and politely bidding us adieu, made his way for the boat near by. Demaine was more lengthy in his arrangements. He had not much more to carry than the antiquary, but he called a porter, and engaged him to take it down to the landing. The country woman, also hurried away; eager, no doubt, with parental fondness, to see her child.

Before Colby left me, we spoke for several minutes together. Though we had never seen each other until the morning of that day, a kind of friendship had grown up between us; and as I was in a strange place, with hardly an acquaintance in all its wide limits, it may be imagined I felt in no disposition to dissolve the bands of that friendship. Colby gave me the street and number where I could find him. The place of his business was in Pearl-street; his boarding-house was further up town.

"I shall always be glad to see you," said he, "and as you seem to be unused to the town, perhaps you may find me of some advantage. Call and see me to-morrow."

"You may expect me," I answered, and we parted.

And now I was in the city. Here I had come to seek my fortune. What numbers had fallen in the same attempt!

It may not be amiss to let the reader into the few simple incidents of my former history. My father had been a mechanic, and died when I was some three or four years old only. My poor mother struggled on for a time—what few relations we had being too poor to assist us—and at the age of eleven, she had me apprenticed to a farmer on Long Island, my uncle. It may be imagined with what agony I heard, hardly twelve months after I went to live with my uncle, that the remaining parent had sickened and died also. The cold indifference of the strangers among whom she lived, allowed her to pass even the grim portals of death before they informed me of her illness. She died without the fond pressure of her son's hand, or the soothing of a look from one she loved.

I continued to labor hard, and fare so too; for my uncle was a poor man and his family was large. In the winters, as is customary in that part of the island, I attended school, and thus picked up a scanty of education. The teachers were, however, by no means overburthened with learning themselves; and my acquirements were not such as might make any one envious.

As I approached my nineteenth year, my uncle, who was an honest and worthy man, evidently felt that he was hardly justifiable in keeping me at work in an obscure country town, to the detriment of my future prospects in life. With a liberality therefore, of which many a richer person might be glad to be able to boast, he gave up the two last years of my apprenticeship—and the very two, which perhaps, would have been of more value to him than all the others. He called me to him one day, and addressing me in the kindest terms, informed me, what he felt he ought to do for his brother's child—but which his poverty prevented him from doing. He gave me my choice—whether to go to New York, and see what I could do there for a living, or to remain a while longer with him; not to labor, but to attend school, and perfect myself in some more valuable parts of education. Probably, it would have been far better had I chosen the latter of the two alternatives. But with the anxious and ambitious heart of youth, I immediately d termined upon the former.

The matter thus settled, arrangements were soon made; my little stock of clothes packed up in the old valise already introduced to the reader—and receiving with thankfulness from my uncle a small sum of money, which I felt sure he must have cramped himself to bestow on me, I made my adieus to my aunt and sorrowful cousins, and went my way.—The first day of my leaving home, found me at evening, the reader knows, on the borders of that great city where I was to take up my abode.

Yes, here I had come to seek my fortune! A mere boy, friendless, unprotected, innocent of the ways of the world—without wealth, favor, or wisdom—here I stood at the entrance of the mighty labyrinth, and with hardly any consciousness of the temptations, doubts, and dangers that awaited me there. Thousands had gone before me, and thousands were coming still. Some had attained the envied honors—had reaped distinction—and won princely estate; but how few were they, compared with the numbers of failures! How many had entered on the race, as I now was entering, and in the course of years, faint, tired, and sick at heart, had drawn themselves out, aside from the track, seeking no further bliss than to die. To die! The word is too hard a one for the lip of youth and hope. Let us rather think of those who, bravely stemming the tide, and bearing up nobly against all opposition, have proudly come off victorious—waving in their hands at last, the symbol of triumph and glory.

What should be my fate? Should I be one of the fortunate few? Were not the chances much more against me than they had been against a thousand others, who were the most laggard in the contest? What probability was there, that amid the countless multitude, all striving for the few prizes which Fortune has to bestow, my inexperienced arm should get the better of a million others?

Oh, how good a thing it is that the great God who has placed us in this world—where amid so much that is beautiful, there still exists vast bestowal among men of grief, disappointment, and agony—has planted in our bosoms the great impression, Hope! In the olden years, as we look back to our former life, we feel indeed how vain would have been our strife without the support of this benignant spirit.

To be sure, thousands had gone before me, in the struggle for the envied things of existence, and failed. But many others had met with success. A stout heart, and an active arm where the great levers that might raise up fortune, even for the poor and unfriended Franklin Evans. In our glorious republic, the road was open to all; and, my chance at least, was as good as that of some of those who had began with no better prospects.

To be continued.2


1. Although Whitman's notebooks and his later poetry often celebrate the city and urban life, Franklin Evans and "Fortunes of a Country-Boy" reveal some anti-urban sentiments, which were characteristic of temperance fiction. Other early fiction titles by Whitman that compare urban and rural living or express uncertainty about the vices or the rapid growth associated with urban areas include "The Tomb-Blossoms," "The Boy-Lover," and "Dumb Kate.—An Early Death." For an explanation of anti-urbanism and the expansion of Whitman's New York in the 1840s, see Christopher Castiglia and Glenn Hendler's introduction to Franklin Evans, or The Inebriate: A Tale of the Times (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2007), xiii–xxiv. [back]

2. Click here for the next installment of "Fortunes of a Country-Boy." [back]

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