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The Little Sleighers. A Sketch of a Winter Morning on the Battery




JUST before noon, one day last winter, when the pavements were crusted plentifully with ice-patches, and the sun, though shining out very brightly by fits and starts, seemed incapable of conveying any warmth, I took my thick overcoat, and prepared to sally forth on a walk. The wind whistled as I shut the door behind me, and when I turned the corner it made the most ferocious demonstrations toward my hat, which I was able to keep on my head not without considerable effort. My flesh quivered with the bitter coldness of the air. My breath appeared steam. Qu-foo-o! how the gust swept along!

Coming out into Broadway, I wended along by the Park, St. Paul's church, and the icicle-tipped trees in Trinity grave-yard. Having by this time warmed myself into a nice glow, I grew more comfortable, and felt ready to do any deed of daring that might present itself—even to the defiance of the elements which were growling so snappishly around me.

When I arrived at Battery-place—at the crossing which leads from that antique, two story, corner house, to the massive iron gates on the opposite side—I must confess that I was for a moment in doubt whether I had not better, after all, turn and retrace my steps. The wind absolutely roared. I could hear the piteous creaking of the trees on the Battery as the branches grated against one another, and could see how they were bent down by the power of the blast. Out in the bay the waves were rolling and rising, and over the thick rails which line the shore-walk dashed showers of spray, which fell upon the flag stones and froze there.

But it was a glorious and inspiriting scene, with all its wildness. I gave an extra pull of my hat over my brows—a closer adjustment of my collar around my shoulders, and boldly ventured onward. I stepped over the crossing, and passed through the gate.

Ha! ha! Let the elements run riot! There is an exhilarating sensation—a most excellent and enviable fun—in steadily pushing forward against the stout winds!

The whole surface of the Battery was spread with snow. It seemed one mighty bride's couch, and was very brilliant, too, as though varnished with a clear and glassy wash. This huge, white sheet, glancing back a kind of impudent defiance to the sun, which shone sharply the while, was not, it seemed, to be left in its repose, or without an application to use and jollity. Many dozens of boys were there, with skates and small sleds—very busy. Oh, what a noisy and merry band!

The principal and choicest of the play tracks was in that avenue, the third from the water, known to summer idlers there as "Lovers' Walk." For nearly its whole length it was a continued expanse of polished ice, made so partly by the evenness of the surface and partly by the labor of the boys. This fact I found out to my cost; for, turning in it before being aware that it was so fully preoccupied and so slippery, I found it necessary to use the utmost caution or run the certainty of a fall.

"Pawny-guttah!" Gentle lady, (I must here remark,) or worthy gentleman, as the case may be, whose countenance bends over this page, and whose opportunities have never led you to know the use, meaning and import, conveyed in the term just quoted—call to your side some bright-eyed boy—a brother or a son, or a neighbor's son, and ask him.

"Pawny-guttah!" I stepped aside instinctively, and, with the speed of an arrow there came gliding along, lying prone upon a sled, one of the boyish troop. The polished steel runners of his little vehicle sped over the ice with a slightly grating noise, and he directed his course by touching the toe of either boot, behind him, upon the ice, as he wished to swerve to the right or left.

Who can help loving a wild, thoughtless, heedless, joyous boy? Oh, let us do what we can—we who are past the time—let us do what we may to aid their pleasures and their little delights, and heal up their petty griefs. Wise is he who is himself a child at times. A man may keep his heart fresh and his nature youthful, by mixing much with that which is fresh and youthful. Why should we, in our riper years, despise these little people, and allow ourselves to think them of no higher consequence than trifles and unimportant toys?


I know not a prettier custom than that said to be prevalent in some parts of the world, of covering the corpses of children with flowers. They pass away, frail and blooming, and the blossom of a day is indeed their fittest emblem. Their greatest and worst crimes were but children's follies, and the sorrow which we indulge for their death has a delicate refinement about it, flowing from ideas of their innocence, their simple prattle, and their affectionate conduct while living. Try to love children. It is purer, and more like that of angels than any other love.

Reflections somewhat after this cast were passing in my mind as I paused a moment and gazed upon those little sleighers. What a miniature, too, were they of the chase of life! Every one seemed intent upon his own puny objects—every one in pursuit of "fun."

The days will come and go, and the seasons roll on, and these young creatures must grow up and launch out in the world. Who can foretell their destinies? Some will die early and be laid away in their brown beds of earth, and thus escape the thousand throes, and frivolities, and temptations, and miserable fictions and mockeries which are interwoven with our journey here on earth. Some will plod onward in the path of gain—that great idol of the world's worship—and have no higher aspirations than for profit upon merchandize. Some will love, and have those they love look coldly upon them; and then, in their sickness of heart, curse their own birth-hour. But all, all will repose at last.

Why, what a sombre moralist I have become! Better were it to listen to the bell-like music of those children's voices; and, as I turn to wend my way homeward, imbue my fancy with a kindred glee and joyousness! Let me close these mottled reveries.


1. Thomas L. Brasher notes that, by the time this sketch was published in 1844, Whitman had been living in New York for nearly three years: see Brasher, ed., The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and the Fiction (New York: New York University Press, 1963), 254 n1. Whitman was very familiar with the route from Broadway to the Battery. The Battery or Battery Park was located along the southern shore of Manhattan Island, and it was a popular promenade long before and during Whitman's time. Whitman writes about his walks along this route, calling it "Gotham's glorious promenade" in an untitled article for The New York Aurora on April 6, 1842. For more on Whitman's story, which likely draws on his personal experience of this route, see "About 'The Little Sleighers.'" [back]

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