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From a Travelling Bachelor

Letter IX


Montauk Point!1 how few Americans there are who have not heard of thee—although there are equally few who have seen thee with their bodily eyes, or trodden on thy green-sward. Most people possess an idea, (if they think at all about the matter,) that Montauk Point is a low stretch of land, poking its barren nose out toward the east, and hailing the sea-wearied mariner, as he approacheth our republican shores, with a sort of dry and sterile countenance. Not so is the fact. To its very extremest verge, Montauk is fertile and verdant. The soil is rich, the grass is green and plentiful; and the best patches of Indian corn and garden vegetables I saw last autumn, were within gun shot of the salt waves of the Atlantic, being just five deg. east longitude from Washington, and the very extremest terra firma of the good state of New York.

Nor is the land low in situation. It binds the shore generally in bluffs and elevations. The point where the lighthouse stands—and it is the extreme point—is quite a high hill; it was called by the Indians Wamponomon2—by modern folks Turtle-hill. The lighthouse here is a very substantial one of an old-fashioned sort, built in 1795; the lights are two hundred feet above the level of the sea.3 Sheltered in a little vale, near by, is the dwelling of the keeper and his family, the only comfortable residence for many miles. It is a tolerably roomy cottage—a sort of public house; and some inveterate sportsmen and lovers of nature in her wild aspects, come here during the summer and fall, and board awhile, and have fun.

I went out to the very edge of the cliff, and threw myself down on the grass, and tossed aside my slouchy wool hat, and looked to the eastward. The sea was in one of the calmest phases. A hoarse low roar, only, have some token of its fiercer vitality—a sort of living roar, it seemed to me, for it made me think of great storms, and wrecks; and the despairing and dying who had groaned erewhile upon those waters. In a former letter I have described the appearance of the catchers of blue-fish, darting about in their swallow-like boats and trailing their lines. It was upon these men and their maneuvers that I was now gazing

An invalid-looking man came slowly up the hill while my eyes were out upon the sea there. He seemed to be about nothing in the way of employment, and as he looked curiously and half-bashfully toward me, I called to him. He was a fisherman he told me, by occupation, and had come there to work with the rest.

"But I couldn't stand it," he continued, coughing in a bad hacking way, "went out in the water, and got pretty cold, I had a dead pain all over here," placing his broad hands over the regions of his stomach, lungs, and heart.

We got directly into conversations—which, by-and-by merged into an account of his life, fortunes, and sickness. He further confessed to me that he had for years been in the habit of eating large quantities of opium. He had also lost his appetite.

"Have you had no medical advice?" I asked.

"No"; he felt no faith in doctors; besides it was expensive and troublesome. Notwithstanding his ailments, however, he still continued his opium eating.

The man, at my request, showed me one of the globules which he was in the habit of taking daily. It was frightfully large! He was also becoming troubled frequently with a pain and swelling in one of his legs, which would ache and then remain torpid awhile, so that he could not walk, and then swell up to double its natural proportion. He was a large robust-sized man, of good original development, but very much emaciated in the face, and with bad stuff in his eye balls. He told me that he worked whenever he could, and liked well to come a-fishing, from which sport he was only deterred by the imperious suddenness of the before-mentioned pain in all the important vital organs, that followed his getting wet and chilled. He was better dressed than the ordinary fisherman and—probably gratified at the interest of a city stranger, and liking to talk over his troubles and be condoled—he told me that he had parents who lived toward the middle of the island, who were well off, and wished him to come home to them. He had married, years ago, and moved near Sag Harbor; though his wife was dead, and he had no family.

From the man's statement, it needed not much physiological knowledge, to tell that there was a general abstraction of the vital stimulus of the great organs,—the "dead pain" as he well-expressed it,—a lethargic slowness of the functions of the heart, stomach and liver. Besides he must have had some pulmonary affection; the cough signified a sorry state of things that way. Opium was a poison to him—and had undoubtedly brought him to the pass I saw, and was vitiating his blood, as instanced in the swelled and painful leg.

I advised him by all means to stop his fishing employments—for he expressed a design to stay until the party he was with went home, and meanwhile to go out with them whenever he felt well enough. I was at a loss to enjoin the cessation of the opium or not; but, laying before the poor frightened fellow the plain condition and probabilities, I told him by all means to get himself home to his old mother's nursing care, to lay by for a while, and to get the advice of a trusty physician, after stating all the symptoms and habits he had just related. And his accidental talk with me was the first rational colloquy the man had had with any living being on the subject.

We talk a great deal about "the intelligence of the age," and so on; but truly there is ignorance enough yet among the masses to grow up on mountains of sickness, destitution and vice.

By the by, this opium eating, may be more prevalent in county districts than one would think.4 At Southold not many days before, I had come across a man, who, from the same practice, achieved himself into a helpless state, and a painful swelling of the limbs. For many years, he had supported himself and family, by fishing, gunning, and light jobs; but out of his narrow income he must invariably get the little monthly box of opium! The day I saw him at Southold, he was going to the alms house, and there the poor helpless fellow is at this moment.

As every man was master of his time between our arrival, and the period of dinner, I took a good long ramble for several miles to and fro. To a mineralogist, I fancy Montauk Point must be a perpetual feast. Even to my unscientific eyes there were innumerable wonders and beauties all along the shore, and the edges of the cliffs. There were earths of all colors, and stones of every conceivable shape, hue, and density, with shells, large boulders or a pure white substance, and layers of those smooth round pebbles called "mild-stones" by the country children. There were some of them tinged with pale green, blue, or yellow—some streaked with various colors—and so on.

We rambled up the hills to the top of the highest—we ran races down—we scampered along the shore, jumping from rock to rock—we declaimed all the violent appeals and defiances we could remember, commencing with "Celestial states, immortal powers, give ear!"5 away on the ending which announced that Richard had almost lost his wind by dint of calling Richmond to arms.6 I doubt whether those astonished echos ever before vibrated with such terrible ado. Then we pranced forth again, like mad kine—we threw our hats in the air—aimed stones at the shrieking sea-gulls, mocked the wind, and imitated the cries of various animals in a style that beat nature all out! We challenged each other to the most deadly combats—we tore various passions into tatters—made love to the girls, in the divine words of Shakespeare and other poets, whereat the said girls had the rudeness to laugh till the tears ran down their cheeks in great torrents. We indulged in some impromptu quadrilles, of which the "chasez" took each participant couple so far away from the other that they were like never to get back. We hopped like crows; we pivoted like Indian dervishes; we went through the trial dance of La Bayadere7 with wonderful vigor; and some one of our party came nigh dislocating his neck through volunteering to turn somersets like a circus fellow. Every body caught the contagion, and there was not a sensible behaved creature among us, to rebuke our mad antics by comparison.

Most appalling news met us on returning from this nice exercise! Our master of the revels had utterly failed to negotiate a dinner for us at the cottage! Three several parties had been in advance of ours, that day, and had eaten up the last crumb in the house! Wasn't this enough to make Rome howl?

But it was no time to howl any more—we had already sharpened our appetites quite enough by that sort of sport. Something must be done, and quickly. A very fat, tender, plump-looking young woman, was already trying to hide herself from the ravenous looks of two or three of the most alimentively8 developed of our party—when we luckily spied a flock of well grown chickens feeding near the cottage door. We had still lots of bread and butter aboard the sloop. Moreover, were there not the freshest and finest fish to be bought within stone-throw? And couldn't we get potatoes from that garden, and onions likewise? And what was better than chowder?

Our almost collapsed hearts now bounded up again like young colts. We proceeded in solid phalanx to the landlady,—the Mrs. Lighthouse-Keeper—and with an air which showed we were not going to stand on trifles, gave voice to our ultimatum. The landlady attempted to demur, but the major domo loudly proposed that if all else failed, we should eat the landlady herself; and this motion being passed by acclamation, the good woman gave in.

Six fat pullets had their heads off in as many minutes—and shortly afterwards we made a solemn procession down to the water, each man carrying a part of the provender, in its raw state. For we determined to cook our meal on board the sloop, and owe no thanks to those inhospitable shores. Our faithful major at the head, carried a large sea-bass; next followed the young sailor with the six headless chickens, whose necks (like Pompey's statue,) all the while ran blood;9 next the fat girl with a splendid head of cabbage—behind whom marched the continuation of us, each furnished with something to make up the feast. Toward the rear came I, possessed of a stew-pan, purchased at a great price, and borne by me, I hope, with appropriate dignity.

All worked to a charm. Amid laughter, glee, and much good sport, (though I and the fat girl cried bitterly, peeling onions,) we cooked that dinner. And o ye Heavens, and O thou sun, that looked'st upon that dinner with a glow just as though wast dipping thy red face below the western horizon—didn't we enjoy it? The very waters were as quiet as a stone floor, and we made a table by placing three boards on some barrels, and seats by other boards, on half barrels. But the strongest part of all is that when we got through there were fragments enough to rival the miraculous remains of the feast of the five loaves and two fishes. I shall remember that dinner to my dying day.

We pulled up stakes, and put for home. But we had overstaid our time, and the tide too.—Night came on. It was calm, clear and beautiful. The stars sparkled, and the delicate figure of the new moon moved down the west like a timid bride. I spread a huge bear-skin on the deck, and lay flat on it, and spoke not a word, but looked at the sky and listened to the talk around me. They told love stories, and ghost stories, and sang country ditties; but the night and the scene mellowed all, and it came to my ears through a sort of moral distillation; for I fear, under any circumstances, 'twould have appeared stale and flippant to me. But it did not then; indeed quite the contrary.

I made my bed in the furled sail, watching the stars as they twinkled, and falling asleep so. A stately and solemn night, that, to me—for I was awake much and saw the countless armies of heaven marching stilly in the space up there—marching stilly and slowly on, and others coming up out of the east to take their places. Not a sound, not an insect, interrupted the exquisite silence,—nothing but the ripple of the water against the sides of the vessel. An indescribable serenity pervaded my mind—a delicious abnegation of the ties of the body. I fancied myself leaping forward into the extent of the space, springing as it were from star to star. Thoughts of the boundless Creation must have expanded my mind, for it certainly played the most unconscionable pranks from its tabernacle lying there in those fields of hempen duck.

Sunrise found us alive and stirring. We he-creatues departed for an island by, on whose sedgy creeks there was the look of wild birds. Over the sand, here, we issued a second edition of the proceedings on the hills and shores of Montauk. But, owing to the absence of the terraqueous girls, we didn't have as good a time. After all, what a place this wretched earth would be without the petticoats!

A plentiful breakfast was ready when we returned: the Lord only knows whence came all the viands, for they appeared to rise, like Venus, from the froth of the sea. However, I asked no questions, but ate thankfully.

Up sails, then, and away!—a clear sky still overhead, and a dry, mild wind to carry us before it. I was astonished at the amount of vitality that resides in man, and woman too. One would have thought the exertions and outpourings we had performed within the last twenty hours, should have left us cooled down a little. Angels bless you, sir! 'twas no such thing. Fast and loud rose the voices again, the clear upper notes of the girls, and laughter and singing. We knew we should soon be home—down amid the clouds and commonplaces—and we determined to make the most of it. And we did.

Ah, my dear friend, I despair of putting upon paper any true description of that condensed Babel. Our shouts transpierced the wounded air. Even the dullest of us seemed filled with mental quicksilver which rose higher and higher, until there seemed some chance of not enough being left in our heels to anchor us fast upon earth. Truly those were wonderful hours!

We hove in sight of the steeples and white-paint of home, and soon after, the spirits we had served deserted us. (There was no brandy aboard, mind, and hadn't been.) We landed at the dock, and went up to the village, and felt the tameness of respectable society setting around us again. Doubtless it was all right; but as for me, I fancied I felt the mercury dwindling down, down, down into the very calves of my legs.


1. In "Letter From a Travelling Bachelor, Letter I," Whitman mentions Montauk Point and promises to write "an account one of these days" of the place. Whitman also wrote an editorial on Montauk Point called "East Long Island Correspondence, Letter III," which he published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle of September 20, 1847. [back]

2. From "wampum," which was used by Algonquin native peoples as a form of currency. It was a small, white shell. [back]

3. Montauk Point Light, finished in in 1797 and not 1795, as Whitman writes, was designed by the architect John McComb (1763–1853). The light stands 160 feet above sea level. See Francis Ross Holland, America's Lighthouses: An Illustrated History [Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1972], 83. [back]

4. J. Hector St John de Crevecoeur (1735–1813) claimed, in Letters from an American Farmer, that Nantucket residents ingested a dose of opium each morning ([Fox, Duffield, and Co, 1904, originally published in 1782], 211). The image of the opium addict was popularized in the 19th century by Confessions of an Opium Eater (1822) by Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859). For a discussion of American involvement in the opium trade, see Thomas N. Layton, The Voyage of the "Frolic": New England Merchants and the Opium Trade (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997). As the opium trade with China rose, the drug increasingly entered the popular consciousness. [back]

5. Taken from Alexander Pope's translation of the Iliad, "Celestial states, immortal gods! Give ear, / Hear our decree, and reverence what ye hear; / The fix'd decree which not all heaven can move; / Thou, Fate! fulfil it: and, ye powers! approve!" (Book III). [back]

6. From Shakespeare, Richard III, Act IV, Scene 2: "Richmond! When last I was at Exeter, / The mayor in courtesy show'd me the castle, / And call'd it Rougemont: at which name I started, / Because a bard of Ireland told me once / I should not live long after I saw Richmond." [back]

7. Perhaps Whitman is referring to French composer Daniel-François-Esprit Auber's (1782–1871) Le Dieu et la Bayadere [God and the Bayadere] (1830), a popular ballet and one of the first to examine the mythical and exotic tradition of the female Indian bayadere dancer in a Western production. For a discussion on the American reception of Le Dieu et la Bayadere and other European ballet/pantomime performances circa 1840–1860, see William A. Everett and Paul R. Laird, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Musical (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 14-15. [back]

8. Whitman used phrenological terms throughout his earliest editions of Leaves of Grass. This term refers to an individual's propensity to eat. [back]

9. In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Pompey's statue becomes covered in Caesar's blood during his assassination (Act III, Scene II). [back]

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