Walking Tour: Walt Whitman's Printing House Square in New York City
It avails not, time nor place-distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd. . .
—"Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," 1856
This walk begins in front of St. Paul’s Chapel, between Vesey Street and Broadway. It will pick up Whitman’s trail left from his own newspaper accounts of his walks through the city in 1842. From St. Paul’s Chapel, the trail crosses Broadway, goes up Park Row to Printing House Square, dips into Nassau Street, then doubles back; next explores sections of the city around Chatham Square. Some buildings contemporaneous with young Whitman remain and will be noted along the way.
Before starting out, consider for a moment what New York in 1842 was like for a young journalist—as Whitman was—beginning his career. It was the first decade of "cheap journalism," made possible by the invention of the steam press (1835), which turned out printed sheets mechanically, replacing the old hand-cranked method. The convenience of mass production generated a penny press and mass consumption of sensational news. So many newspapers started as a result of the new mechanization—and so many failed—that Whitman commented in 1842: "It is almost impossible to calculate the number of papers that are printed in the city of New York." One guess is that there were about 25 at any given time, of which 12 could be considered stable.
Whitman’s estimate of the press in general was low. "Very few really good papers are published in New York. Most of them are bound up in partisanship, or prejudice, and are incapable of taking an enlarged and comprehensive view of matters and things." Whitman rated among the best the leading Democratic paper, William Cullen Bryant’s The Evening Post, that spoke with a fair and moderate voice; and several of the Whig papers, among them Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. Both the Tribune and the Post were two-penny papers.
Whitman’s paper, the Aurora, was a small four-page, two-penny Democratic newspaper with a circulation of 5,000—as compared to the Tribune’s 10,000. It was limited to a court and a police reporter and specialized in reporting social events bought from penny-a-liner correspondents. Sometimes a poem, reprints from other papers and social news filled the first page; on the second were the editor’s leader and comment. When its editor, Thomas Low Nichols, was fired in February of 1842, for writing a libelous story, Whitman was hired in his place sometime in early March. Whitman had contributed to the Aurora as a free-lance reporter. Imagine Whitman standing on this corner in front of St. Paul’s in early March, 1842, several months before his 23rd birthday, looking confidently across Broadway at Ann Street—where the "Ann street press" marked the beginning of New York’s formidable newspaper row and where only a year before he had been working as a printer. As recently appointed editor of the Aurora, he was prepared to measure himself against the outstanding editors of the Ann Street establishment. In a month the Aurora would proclaim: "Without vanity, we can say that the AURORA is by far the best newspaper in town . . . Its chief editor, and his coadjutors, are among the ablest writers of America; and each one ‘knows his part, and does it well.’"
Only a year ago Whitman had crossed the river from Brooklyn to make his New York career and find his first job as printer for Park Benjamin, publisher of the New World on Ann Street. Benjamin kept shifts of printers working through 24-hour periods in order to print overnight the popular English novels and magazines newly-arrived ships had brought in. Boys would then hawk them as "extras" the following day, thus beating other publishers to market. No doubt Whitman worked these shifts.
Pirating had become lucrative. Without the restraint of an international copyright law, American publishers were free to pirate a Charles Dickens novel, for example, without need to pay royalties. Whitman later would editorialize on behalf of international copyright as a way to protect American as well as British authors. Cheap, pirated English books undercut the market for native authors.
Despite his youth, Whitman had accumulated 10 years of experience in printing and newspaper writing. At the age of 12, he had begun an apprenticeship as printer’s devil under an exacting master. Having only grade school literacy, Whitman learned on the job to write fluently and to read good literature under the influence of men who were well-read and who gave him access to books. By the time he came to New York he had worked for several editors as printer and writer and had owned and printed his own country weekly in Huntington, Long Island.
From the age of 15 Whitman had published poems and stories in Brooklyn and Long Island newspapers. His Manhattan employer, Park Benjamin, recognizing his new printer as a writer, had published several of Whitman’s poems in the New World. The far more distinguished New York magazine, The Democratic Review, also had published one of Whitman’s stories, putting him in the company of such contributors as Hawthorne, Bryant and Whittier.
Imagine him, then, a young man, slim, six-foot tall, wearing a proper black coat, hat and boots, a trimmed beard, a boutonniere, carrying a cane—as natty as any nabob in the fashionable throng about him—standing on this corner, which must have felt like the center of the world, and ready to take it on.
Wasn’t it brave! And didn’t we laugh (not outwardly—that would have been vulgar; but in the inward soul’s chamber) with the very excess of delight and gladness? O, it is a beautiful world we live in, after all.
We are almost ready to join him in his walk. He would have ambled up Broadway from his downtown boarding house, come abreast of Brady’s Daguerrotype Saloon, a block below St. Paul’s—"The camera and plate are prepared, the lady must sit for her daguerrotype." —And he would have kept his reporter’s eye on Astor House (across Vesey, on the opposite corner from St. Paul’s) for sight of notables. All the world seemed to pass in or out of New York’s most de luxe hotel:
Here I saw, during those times Andrew Jackson, Daniel Webster, Clay, Seward, Martin Van Buren, filibuster Walker, Kossuth, Fitz Green Halleck, Bryant, the Prince of Wales, Charles Dickens. . .
(Charles Dickens and his wife were stopping at Carlton house, several blocks up Broadway, which was cheaper by $1.00 a day than the Astor. Dickens had come to America to plead for support for an international copyright agreement.)
Shoulder your duds, and I will mine and we will hasten forth.
St. Paul’s Chapel
Between Vesey Street and Broadway
Our walk now begins over a trail delineated by the young editor in his Aurora columns:
. . . you come to where the Park thrusts out as a kind of wedge between Broadway and the beginning of Park Row. If you take the left, you have to make your way against a great current of fashion, idleness, and foppery. Suppose you turn right.
Paying heed to these directions, begin the walk by crossing Broadway to Park Row.
Down you walk—first stopping to gaze a moment at St. Paul’s which, with its steeple the other way, seems as if it wanted to walk off from amid so much tumult and din—and at that very respectable small city, Astor House.
(On Park Row stop halfway to let Whitman tell about the Park Theatre, a renowned former occupant of this space.)
A few rods, and you are in front of an ambiguous structure, of a dirty white color, and which you internally set down in your mind as the most villainous specimen of architecture ever beheld. This is the Park theatre or, as some of our people, with a very untasty habit of copying whatever is foreign, would term it, the Old Drury.
(The Park dated back to 1783, and after a succession of disastrous burnings and rebuildings, finally burned down in 1848.)
When still a teen-age apprentice, Whitman regularly attended the Park and other Manhattan theatres, taking his place among an audience of "full-blooded young and middle-aged men" who "packed the theatre from ceiling to pit." He took this spectacle for granted, unlike Mrs. Trollope who was revolted by the sight of shirt-sleeves and constant spitting. As Dickens put it, American tobacco-chewers were "good and bad tobacco shots," some hitting the spittoons, others the carpet. The youthful Whitman, neither a smoker nor a chewer, focused on the plays:
All through these years, off and on, I frequented the old Park, the Bowery, Broadway and Chatham-square theatres, and the Italian operas on Chambers-street, Astor-place or the Battery-many seasons was on the free list, writing for papers even as quite a youth. The old Park theatre—what names, reminiscences, the words bring back! . . . singers, tragedians, comedians, What perfect acting! . . .
As a boy or young man I had seen, (reading them carefully the day beforehand), quite all Shakespeare’s acting dramas, played wonderfully well.
On February 14, 1842, the city converted the Park into a ballroom, flooring over the stage and pit, to honor Mr. and Mrs. Charles Dickens with a ball. Two thousand five hundred persons attended, and unused tickets were black-marketed at $40 each. Whitman apparently was not a guest. Nor did he pay attention to the copy of his penny-a-liners who reported on balls for the Aurora, as is obvious in this editor’s note:
We wish that those who favor us with accounts of balls, or any other public ‘doings,’ would make it an imperative rule to exclude anything in the shape of ill nature, or that may have the appearance of vindictiveness. . . Amid the multiplicity of our duties, we, of course, cannot carefully revise the MSS. of correspondents; of course, therefore, many things creep in that we would gladly exclude.
Proceed along Park Row until "By and by, you are at an open space. . . ."
This "open space" was named "Printing House Square" for the many Democratic presses that clustered here in the vicinity of Tammany Hall, Democratic Headquarters. Facing the park, Whitman’s eye would have taken in on the left the Brick Presbyterian Church (corner Nassau and Park Row), whose clock tower gave time high over city roofs. The park was the chosen place for political rallies and protest meetings. Within two months of his arrival, Whitman had introduced himself to Manhattan Democrats at a park rally, giving a speech dealing only in general principles. But it was quoted at length in The New Era, the official Tammany paper, and, more to Whitman’s credit, in Bryant’s Evening Post. At 23 Whitman had begun to make himself known.
Turn into Nassau Street and walk to No. 162.
. . . .if you look sharp, you will behold one of the wonders of the city-that is, the ‘New York Aurora.’ In all probability, your ears will be greeted with the discordant notes of the newsboys, who generally muster here with great force.
162 Nassau Street
The New York Aurora: Walt Whitman, Editor
Whitman’s day began at 11 or 12 in the morning. Taking several hours off between 1 and 3 for lunch and a stroll, he would then return and work into the night until he had put together the paper.
Most of the principal articles are concocted by one Whitman, whilom little known in these diggings. . . It requires no great stretch of ingenuity to suppose that in order to keep some eight or ten compositors employed, a man’s pen might fly glibly. . .
The consciousness that several thousand people will look for their Aurora as regularly as for their breakfasts, and that they expect to find it an intellectual repast—something piquant, and something solid, and something sentimental, and something humorous—and all dished up in ‘our own peculiar way’—that consciousness, we say, implies no small responsibility upon a man.
Within several months, the Aurora’s publishers had fired Whitman, possibly for the same reason they hired him, because—as they had announced—he was a "bold, energetic and original writer." He and they quarreled apparently over his refusal to "tone" down his leaders. Later they accused him of laziness: "There is a man about our office so lazy that it takes two men to open his jaws when he speaks. . ." Whitman’s ouster was not unusual. Editorial work, dependent upon the publishers’ whims, was notoriously short-term except in such cases as Bryant’s and Greeley’s: these editors owned their papers. In a few months, Whitman had picked up another—but short term—job on Ann Street.
Proceed down Nassau toward Ann Street, where we will start a short detour into "Newspaper Row."
The Democratic Review: John O’Sullivan, Editor
O’Sullivan published the works of brilliant young American writers, many for the first time, even though such a policy was financially ruinous. The "firsts" in The Democratic Review now dazzle us for their prescience. He printed 5 of Whitman’s stories between January and September, 1842. Perhaps O’Sullivan detected some glimmer of "native genius" in the young writer beyond anything revealed in the writing, which imitated the sentimental modes of the day. O’Sullivan passionately believed that a genius would flower out of the new American democracy who would speak in the unique voice of democratic man. It was the credo of an idealistic group of young Democrats, who called themselves "Young America" and as literary nationalists agitated for an international copyright agreement. Whitman later on would advance similar arguments in his newspaper editorials.
Fowler’s Phrenological Cabinet
"The phrenological rooms, were a very small office in Nassau Street, with a dark closet attached to it. There was a little cupboard in one corner, filled with plaster busts, and most hideous looking skulls," wrote a contemporary novelist, Charles Briggs.
Whitman visited the Cabinet to discover what secrets within himself the popular pseudo-science could reveal. His analyst, Lorenzo Fowler, assured him of possessing "leading traits of character" such as "Friendship, Sympathy, Sublimity, and Self-Esteem," but such faults as "Indolence and a tendency to the pleasures of Voluptuousness. . ." Whitman carried over some of the phrenological jargon for erotic love into his poems.
The Phrenological Cabinet prospered enough to move twice to larger quarters within a decade. In 1855 the Cabinet displayed Whitman’s Leaves of Grass among its own publications in its sumptuous new Broadway store.
Note: Down Nassau Street was The American Whig Review. In 1845 it published Whitman’s story, "Richard Parker’s Widow," which he had derived from an account of mutiny in the British Navy, the same incident Melville later used as the basis for Billy Budd.
Turn left on Ann Street.
30 Ann Street
The New York Tribune: Horace Greeley, Editor, Publisher
The Tribune had occasionally printed or reprinted Whitman’s poems but otherwise the poet had little connection with the paper. Horace Greeley had founded the Tribune in 1841, the year of the Aurora’s founding. "A tolerable paper," conceded Whitman, "conducted with much fairness and ability."
Yet, . . . we question whether a man in the empire state entertains so many absurd tenets in a religion, such fallacious opinions of government . . .-as this same Horace Greeley!
Whitman’s criticism of the Whig editor was mild in comparison to Bryant’s reaction; Bryant turned his back and would not speak to Greeley. James Fenimore Cooper wrote him off as a vulgarian. Fellow Whigs felt queasy over Greeley’s reformist tendencies. Nevertheless, the Tribune had become one of the most influential newspapers in the country.
27 Ann Street
The Evening Tattler: Walt Whitman, Editor (May-September, 1842)
When booted out of the Aurora, Whitman landed in this small "obscure daily," where he worked for a short time, long enough to retaliate against his former Aurora employers. Whitman reprinted a charge from another paper accusing the publishers of being deadbeats and added his own postscript:
There is in this city a trashy, scurrilous, and obscene daily paper, under charge of two as dirty fellows, as ever were able by the force of brass, ignorance of their own ignorance, and a coarse manner of familiarity, to push themselves among gentlemen. . .
The Aurora replied that ". . . We were fine fellows as long as we consented to pay him for loafing about our office. . ." Here the feud ended.
26 Ann Street
The New World: Park Benjamin, Editor, Publisher
From his eminence on the Aurora, Whitman lashed out at Park Benjamin, calling his former employer a literary quack:
. . . the great Ann Street Bamboozle, Park Benjamin, editor of the New World newspaper. He is one of the most vain, pragmatical nincompoops in creation—sets himself up for a poet! and has lately perpetrated a mass of trash which he calls a comedy!
Park Benjamin, toughened by years of hurling and receiving brickbats, may have shrugged off Whitman’s attack. He offered and Whitman accepted a contract for a temperance novel. It ran in the November 1842 New World, billed as Franklin Evans, or the Inebriate, "A Tale of the Times.—By a Popular American Author." It was so embarrassingly bad that Whitman hated to own up to authorship.
19 Ann Street
Period building: Originally it had living quarters on the second floor, above the store. Note "Theatre Alley" at the corner-so named because of its proximity to the Park.
4 Ann Street
The Evening Mirror: George P. Morris and Nathaniel Parker Willis, Editors and Publishers
This was an established, popular newspaper, edited by two prominent writers. At 15 years of age, Whitman had the pleasure of seeing several of his poems published in the Mirror. They were unsigned, as was customary, but sight of them was a big event for the boy:
I remember with what half-suppressed excitement I used to watch for the big, fat, red-faced, slow-moving very old English carrier who distributed the Mirror in Brooklyn; and when I got one, opening and cutting the leaves with trembling fingers. How it made my heart double-beat to see my piece on the pretty white paper in nice type.
Whitman worked briefly on the Mirror in 1844, as did Edgar Allan Poe in 1845.
Now double back to Printing House Square, or if you can tolerate squalor, take a short-cut through Theatre Alley. (In Whitman’s time it was also rat-infested and dirty, but more rewarding because it led to a grog shop and the Park’s backstage entrance.)
We are now returning to the Aurora’s pages and resuming the walk the young editor had laid out in his accounts of meanderings around New York.
Printing House Square
First try to visualize Printing House Square as it looked to Whitman. When he spoke of this "open place"—the conjunction of Park Row, Nassau and Spruce Streets—he had in mind a far more enclosed area than we see today. No Brooklyn Bridge and no double-highway access to it existed. Pace College Plaza did not exist. Along the east side of Park Row ran a wall of buildings pierced by intersecting streets. The contrast between enclosed and open space—as seen in old photographs—makes the "square" seem larger then than it looks today. Now imagine a four-story, high-ceilinged building from the 1820s, looking like an elegant town house on the corner of Frankfort and Park Row. This would have been Tammany Hall, and around the corner on Frankfort Street was another meeting place for Democrats, "The Pewter mug." In the Aurora Whitman first declared Tammany to be
. . . the Mecca of democracy—the time-honored soul—endeared holy of holies, to all who go for anti-monopoly and the largest freedom of the largest number.
But the young editor changed his tune into violent denunciation in the spring of 1842 when Tammany backed Bishop John Hughes’s campaign to get public school funds for the support of parochial schools. The issue split the Democrats: Whitman joined the opposition.
The number of Irish immigrants in the city had grown to 70,000—in a population of 350,000—and each year was expected to bring more. Tammany had pledged support to Bishop Hughes in recognition of a potential voting force.
Whitman abused Tammany and Bishop Hughes in column after column. A disapproving correspondent wrote him: "I question whether the English language affords superlatives more superlative than you have piled on, mountains high, upon the heads of certain individuals whose conduct you disapprove." (Whitman published the letter but did not identify the writer.) For a while Whitman’s angry editorials seemed to put him in the camp of the Native American Party, made up of "Nativists" who had formed an anti-Catholic movement and were to elect a mayor, James Harper, the publisher, in 1844. The newspaper Yesterday’s Mercury commented upon Whitman’s apparent drift toward Nativist sympathies:
The Aurora has been roaring very loudly and ably though somewhat savagely, on behalf of the Native Americans, during the past week. The roar is a pleasant one and sounds like an honest one. But the ‘rora has a bad habit of calling people names. Oh fie!—Yesterday’s Mercury.
But Whitman took pains to dissociate himself from the Native American position. He made clear that his bias did not stem from hostility to a religion or a people, but from his belief in the Jeffersonian principle of separation of church and state.
Yet with all our antipathy for every thing that may tend to assimilate our country to the kingdoms of Europe, we repudiate such doctrines as have characterized the ‘Native American’ party. We could see no man disfranchised, because he happened to be born three thousand miles off. . .
. . .
As Americans we shall ever oppose religious politics, be they introduced by Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist or Catholic . . . We go for the letter of the constitution.
At 25 Park Row stood another wing of the Democratic establishment, The Empire Club, a center for gangs and gang leaders from Five Points, the worst slum area of New York. Isaiah Rynders, a rich gambler, had organized the Empire Club into a political unit that he used to gain control of Tammany. Rynder’s gangs roamed the city during elections, terrorizing the other wards.
The Aurora editor had discovered quickly that, although a Democrat, he was not a party man. Some years later Whitman sacrificed his editorial post in Brooklyn by opposing party regulars on the issue of "free soil." (Whitman’s stand against the extension of slavery into new states eventually determined his support of Lincoln.)
We must next cut through a section of contemporary New York in order to get back into Whitman territory:
Take the subway stairs on Frankfort Street and Pace Plaza and enter the pedestrian tunnel. Follow signs indicating "North to Municipal Bldg." Take the last staircase on the right.
Upstairs you will find yourself behind the Municipal Building. Follow the walk toward St. Andrews Church, then turn right at the sculpture. Follow the walk until you reach the Police Department Plaza. Veer left and descend the stairs to the street.
You will be on Madison Street. Cross to the opposite side and follow Madison to the intersection with Pearl. Cross Pearl. Continue on Madison to St. James through the traffic triangle again to St. James. Walk forward to James Street. At the corner, stop and look in at the church, which Whitman must have seen marry times.
33 James Street
Between St. James Place and Madison Street: St. James Church, 1837
Cross James Street and proceed along St. James Place. Here we pick up Whitman’s trail again.
55 St. James Place
Between James and Oliver Streets: The first Shearith Israel Graveyard, one of three Manhattan graveyards retained by the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue. This one dates from 1683. Whitman twice attended services at the (Crosby Street) Shearith Israel Synagogue and wrote up his impressions in two Aurora leaders.
The whole scene was entirely new: never had we beheld anything of a similar description before. . . The heart within us felt awed as in the presence of memorials from an age that had passed away centuries ago. The strange and discordant tongue—the mystery, and all the associations that crowded themselves in troops upon our mind—made a thrilling sensation to creep through every nerve. . .
"This synagogue," wrote Charles E. Haswell, the "Octogenarian" in his reminiscences of early New York, "possesses four graveyards, the continued retention of which, in view of the readiness with which some Christian churches have sold theirs, has evoked much comment." Haswell’s wry aside explains the reason for the scarcity of old graveyards in New York City. As the city expanded northward, congregations migrated uptown, abandoning their dead to the exigencies of real estate speculation.
The following newspaper piece had alerted Whitman to one graveyard’s flimsy hold on Manhattan’s soil:
On stepping into the corner of Crystie and Delancey streets, we found a woman armed with a pistol, guarding the graves of her husband and children.
Whitman’s investigations disclosed that an insurance company had bought the Baptist cemetery as ground for house lots. Workmen, arriving to dig up the graves, had been stopped by a crowd of well over one hundred persons, mostly women. Police were called to protect the workmen. A protest meeting was scheduled for City Hall Park that evening. Whitman’s editorials thundered on the "disgraceful proceedings":
But it has been reserved for our city to put the damning climax to these deeds that disgrace humanity. . . . A set of miserable wretches have rendered themselves infamous by desecrating the very grave in order to add something to their ill won heaps of gold. . . Fleshless bones and ghastly skeletons, and skulls with the hair still attached to them. . . and forms of once beautiful maidens now putrid with corruption—all these, fearful and sickening, and making the very heart of the looker-on to thrill with horror—were struck in by the cold steel, and pitched to and fro, as loafers pitch pennies upon the dock.
Neither Whitman’s editorials nor protest meetings stopped the practice of digging up cemeteries, carting exposed corpses and bones off to be dumped.
Now for a short detour from Whitman’s route to pass by some of the old buildings still remaining in this section that he would have seen. Go to Oliver Street; turn right on Oliver.
2 Oliver Street
Between St. James Place & Henry Street: Mariner’s Temple / Baptist Meeting House, 1842
48-50 Henry Street, between Catherine and Market Streets: St. Christopher’s Chapel, 1830 Northwest corner, Henry & Market Streets: Sea and Land Church and the First Chinese Presbyterian Church, 1817
Turn right on Market Street.
51 Market Street
William Clark House, 1824
To pick up Whitman’s trail, walk back up Market Street to East Broadway. Turn left and proceed to Chatham Square. Here we come to a part of New York that fascinated him:
. . . you are in the large triangle which people call Chatham Square. In the middle are dray carts, coaches, and cabs; on the right loom up small hills of furniture, of every quality, with here and there an auctioneer, standing on a table or barrel top, and crying out to the crowd around him, the merits of the articles, and the bids made for them. . .
At a little before sunrise, if you are an early riser, you may behold a slight human stream . . . The milkmen’s carts, and occasionally a carriage from one of the landings where steamboats arrive early in the morning, dash hastily along the street. The pedestrians are nearly all workmen, going to their daily toil, and most of them carrying little tin kettles containing their dinner; newsmen, also, with bundles of the damp morning papers strapped to their sides. . .
Heeding Whitman’s invitation—"If you turn to the right, you will come into some of the dirtiest looking places in New York—," we will head right for what used to be the notorious slum of Five Points.
Cross Chatham Square at the intersection of East Broadway and the Bowery. Proceed on East Broadway (it changes to Worth) to Mott Street. Cross and turn right on Mott. Keep to the left side of Mott and proceed until Park Street. Turn left and go to Mulberry.
Park Street gives you an idea of the narrow, dark ways that once interlaced this region. The trees and playgrounds of Columbus Park, which meet you at the end of the street, replace the tumbledown shacks that once held domain here.
Turn left and walk down to Worth; cross Mulberry and walk to the next corner. Here in the 19th century, Park, Worth, and Baxter Streets converged to make 5 points, which gave the quarter its name. The streets have been widened and renamed.
Whitman knew these "dirty, narrow thoroughfares" and had witnessed the quarter’s "bleak poverty and the worst traits of destitution."
The arrests of criminals, slights, adulterous offers made, acceptance,
with convex lips
I mind them or the resonance of them . . .
But momentarily let us listen to Charles Dickens, who had investigated the Five Points.
We are going to cross here. Take care of the pigs. Poverty, wretchedness, and vice are rife enough where we are going now.
What place is this, to which the squalid street conducts us? A kind of square of leprous houses, some of which are attainable only by crazy wooden stairs without. . . Here too are lanes and alleys, paved with mud knee-deep, underground chambers, where they dance and game. . . hideous tenements which take their name from robbery and murder; all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here.
On his return to England, Dickens had published notes on the democratic squalor he had witnessed at such places as the Points. An uproar arose on this side of the Atlantic: what kind of gratitude was this? Americans had given Dickens parties, dinners, balls and adulation. Whitman defended the author. Americans had ignored Dickens’s legitimate plea for ratification of an international copyright agreement, which is why he came to this country. Instead they had proceeded "to pet and caress a foreign lion," which had showed its teeth.
From here we continue on Worth Street to Broadway, which is straight ahead.
Of this section Whitman wrote: "if you wind your steps leftward, you will have a chance of promenading to suit any taste you may be possessed of. You can lead off into some of the most aristocratic thorough—fares, or some of the lowest, or some of a medium between both." You can run into these same mixtures today.
Although this walk physically ends at Broadway, imagine it to extend as far uptown as New York University, then on to Waverly Place. From 1841 to 1842, The New York Historical Society was lodged in quarters belonging to the university, and it was there that Whitman first heard Emerson lecture. He published his impressions in the Aurora.
This lecture was on the ‘Poetry of the Times.’ He said that the first man who called another an ass was a poet. Because the business of the poet is expression—the giving utterance to the emotions and sentiments of the soul; and metaphors. But it would do the lecturer great injustice to attempt anything like a sketch of his ideas. Suffice it to say, the lecture was one of the richest and most beautiful compositions, both for its matter and style, we have ever heard anywhere, at any time.
Whitman went on to read Emerson’s essays and poems, and they worked powerfully on him during the "gestation" process in which he transformed himself into the author of Leaves of Grass. He left Manhattan in 1849 to resume a newspaper career in Brooklyn. In this period he consciously had entered that "long foreground" that the discerning Emerson remarked upon in a letter thanking Whitman for sending him Leaves of Grass (first edition):
I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start.
Quotations from Whitman’s poetry are derived from the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, unless otherwise dated.
Quotations from Whitman’s prose are taken from Walt Whitman of the Aurora by Joseph Jay Rubin and Charles F. Brown.
This Guide has depended upon the following books (among other sources) and we recommend them for a fuller reading of this period of Whitman’s life:
The Solitary Singer by Gay Wilson Allen (New York, 1955 ).
American Notes by Charles Dickens (New York, 1842).
A History of American Journalism in the United States Through 250 Years, 1690 to 1940 by Frank Luther Mott (New York, 1941).
Walt Whitman of the Aurora by Joseph Jay Rubin and Charles F. Brown. (State College, Pennsylvania, 1950).
Domestic Manners of the Americans by Frances Trollope (New York, 1839).
Autobiographia, or The Story of a Life, Selected from his Prose Writings by Walt Whitman (New York, 1892).
AIA Guide to New York City by Norval White and Elliot Willensky (New York, 1968).
We recommend for further reading:
Walt Whitman by Justin Kaplan (New York, 1981).
The Portable Walt Whitman: Selected and with Notes by Mark Van Doren; Revised by Malcolm Cowley, with a Chronology and a Bibliographical Check List by Gay Wilson Allen (New York, 1976).
The research and printing for the original guide (1981) were made possible by the New York Council for the Humanities, the J.M. Kaplan Fund, Inc., the Anne S. Richardson Fund, Consolidated Edison Co. of New York, Inc., and Exxon Corporation. Special thanks to Gigi Bradford, Henri Cole, and John Drury.
The updating and reproduction of the current guide (2006) were made possible, in part, by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. Special thanks for research and photography to Stephanie Anderson, Jocelyn (Josie) Casey-Whiteman, C.J. Evans, and Billy Merrell.
Copyright © The Academy of American Poets 1981–2006.