Walking Tour: Walt Whitman's SoHo Historic District in New York City
Estimated Walking Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Introduction: Going to Pfaff's
The starting point for this walk is at 645 Broadway, the site of a newly renovated building that originally was built as a hotel in 1850. In Whitman's time, it housed a basement cafe called Pfaff's, which the poet regularly visited in the years before the Civil War from 1858 to 1862. Here at Pfaff's, Whitman hobnobbed with a gang of New York Bohemians gathered around Henry Clapp, a writer, editor of The Saturday Press, and an admirer of Whitman's poems.
I used to go to Pfaff's nearly every night. . . after taking a bath and finishing the work of the day. When it began to grow dark, Pfaff would politely invite everybody who happened to be sitting in the cave he had under the sidewalk to some other part of the restaurant. There was a long table extending the length of this cave; and as soon as the Bohemians put in an appearance, Henry Clapp would take a seat at the head of the table. I think there was as good talk around that table as took place anywhere in the world. Clapp was a very witty man.
—from an interview with Walt Whitman, July II, 1866, The Brooklyn Eagle.
Along the way to Pfaff's as Whitman rode or walked he observed, explored and listened carefully. In the life of the New York streets and sidewalks were the materials he made into his prose, but which often came out later, somewhat "fermented," in his poems.
Before we trail some of Whitman's routes through the SoHo Historic District, let's backtrack in our imaginations to Brooklyn and accompany him on his daily jaunt to Pfaff's. In his old age he confessed to a liking for "bohemians and bummers." At Pfaff's he would find the bohemians, and on the way, the bummers. They might be deckhands on the Brooklyn Ferry, a butcher boy, omnibus drivers, whipsters, or almost anybody in work clothes.
The butcher-boy puts off his killing clothes, or
sharpens his knife at the stall in the market,
I loiter enjoying his repartee and his shuffle and
We would pick Whitman up at his mother's house on Ryerson Street, Brooklyn, and walk by foot about 2 miles to the East River—a walk Thoreau once shared. In bad weather perhaps he would jump aboard the Fulton and Myrtle Avenue horse-drawn car, but he had little money to spend. (As a free-lance writer he was barely earning $6 or $7 a month.) There at the base of Fulton Street, he sometimes would take his daily dip in the public bath, summer or winter. Glorying in a clean body, which he associated with health—"the full-noon trill. . . the song of me"—he was ready to step aboard the ferry boat. The trip a certain "Walter" takes across the river is described in one of Whitman's Lift Illustrated pieces. (Portraits of himself and his friends show up in his unsigned or pseudonymous articles.)
Walter crosses the Fulton Ferry as usual, views the waves and the sky as placidly, contemplates the forests of tall masts, the laboring tug-boats, the big ships bound in or out, and the details of that great picture, our busy bay, with the same studious and undazzled vision. Walter exchanges his accustomed joke with the deck hands, and winks to the pilot just the same as ever, and over at Pfaff's, where the convivial coteries of Bohemia are wont to congregate, no happier soul shines forth its radiance o'er the festive scene than Walter's.
On Fulton Street, Manhattan-side, ambling along in a lounging gait, Whitman would be easy to spot: an arresting-looking man wearing a carpenter's uniform who obviously is not a carpenter. A woman journalist picks out Whitman from the crowd of black-coated men and portrays him in a series she calls, "Peeps from Under a Parasol."
And speaking of books, here comes Walt Whitman, author of 'Leaves of Grass,' . . . His shirt collar is turned off from his muscular throat, and his shoulders are thrown back as if even in that fine, ample chest of his, his lungs had not sufficient play-room.
Her portrait agrees with one of Whitman's self-portraits, which appears in a gallery of Broadway types he anonymously wrote for Life Illustrated.
Tall, large, rough-looking man, in a journeyman carpenter's uniform. Coarse, sanguine, complexion; strong, bristly, grizzled beard; singular eyes, of a semi-transparent, indistinct light blue, and with that sleepy look that comes when the lid rests half way down over the pupil; careless, lounging gait. Walt Whitman, the sturdy, self-conscious microcosm, prose-poetical author of that incongruous hash of mud and gold, 'Leaves of Grass.'
"Swaggy in his walk, burying both hands in his outside pockets," Bronson Alcott described him after sauntering about Manhattan with Whitman. Louisa's father, like other New England intellectuals, had come down to investigate personally Emerson's discovery of a "wayward genius" living in Brooklyn. Alcott would not have recognized an earlier Whitman, the dapper, clean-shaven editor who would have blinked out among the other black-coated figures that made Broadway look like a funeral procession. White-collar conformity was no longer for him:
Washes and razors for foofoos. . . . for me freckles
and a bristling beard.
They who piddle and patter here in collars and
tailed coats. . . .
I am aware who they are. . . and that they are
not worms or fleas,
I acknowledge the duplicates of myself under all
the scrape-lipped and pipe-legged conceal-
"Nothing could surpass the blending of insouciance with active observation in his manner as he strolled along the streets," reported another friend of Emerson, the Boston writer, Moncure D. Conway, also down to investigate the Brooklyn poet. Alcott reported that Whitman "rode sometimes a-top of an omnibus up and down Broadway from morning till night beside the driver and dined afterwards with whipsters, frequented the opera during the season, and 'lived to make poems, and for nothing else in particular.'"
Readers of Life Illustrated learned how a certain poet, Walt Whitman, rode the omnibuses, but they were not aware that Whitman the journalist had written the piece. The unsigned article starts on a "fine, warmish afternoon" on Broadway "in the full flow of its Gulf-stream of fashion, crush, handsome women, fops, celebrities, hubbub, countless and well-dressed nobodies. . . . and the hoarse and heavy roar of omnibuses."
"Omnibuses!" exclaims the writer and appeals to his readers, "dear Sir or Madam," have they noticed how fascinating the study of omnibuses can be? He points out "one lounging man who appears to think so. Do you mind him, as the driver of that handsome Fifth Avenue pulls up, casting at the lounger a friendly and enquiring glance, as much to say, come take a ride, Walt Whitman?"
For none other than Walt is it who, in response, turns up with springing and elastic motion, and lights on the off side top of the stage with his hips held against the rod as quietly as a hawk swoops to its nest. . . As onward speeds the stage, mark his nonchalant air, seated aslant, and quite at home. —Our million-hued and ever changing panorama of Broadway moves steadily down; he, going up sees it all, as a kind of half dream. —Mark the salute of four out of five of the drivers, downward salutes which lie silently returns in the same maner—the raised arm, and the upright hand.—
The old Whitman said: "I suppose the critics will laugh heartily, but the influence of those Broadway omnibus jaunts and drivers and declamations and escapades undoubtedly entered into the gestation of 'Leaves of Grass.'"
Whitman would have dropped off the Fifth Avenue near Bond Street and then strolled over to Broadway, heading for Pfaff's. Past Bond Street on Broadway he would go by a line of newly-built hotels, theaters, and institutions as the new entertainment district had moved to "upper Broadway," going up as far as Fourteenth Street. At No. 677 Broadway on the west side stood the Metropolitan Hall, rebuilt and renamed after fire had destroyed it along with a companion building in 1854. (The companion building was renamed the New York Theater and Metropolitan Opera House.) At No. 659 was the Egyptian Museum, housing a private collection owned by a scholarly Englishman, Dr. Abbott, with whom Whitman spent many hours and who inspired the poet to read books on Egyptology and other ancient civilizations and religions.
645 Broadway: Pfaff's Cafe (now Han's Deli & Grocery)
Charles Pfaff, owner; established 1856. Beer (new to New York), German wines, beefsteaks and pfanne-kuchen. In Whitman's time, glassed-over vaults in the sidewalks allowed light to filter into Pfaff's cave.
The vault at Pfaffs where the drinkers and
laughters meet to eat and drink and carouse,
While on the walk immediately overhead, pass the
myriad feet of Broadway
As the dead in their graves, are underfoot hidden
And the living pass over them, recking not of
them, . . .
Unfinished poem by Walt Whitman, from Walt Whitman in Camden by Horace Traubel
Whitman began dropping into Pfaff's sometime during 1859, following a stint of editing The Brooklyn Times for about a year and a half. It had left him no time for writing poems. Fowler & Wells had brought out the 1856 (second) edition of Leaves of Grass to an utter blank of critical response except for Henry Clapp's enthusiasm for the poems. Clapp was editor and founder of a distinguished new literary magazine, The Saturday Press. In his old age, Whitman told a biographer that his "own history could not be written with Henry left out."
Clapp's nightly reign at Pfaff's as "King of Bohemia" over a table surrounded by young writers, painters, actors, some actresses, and journalists probably drew Whitman to Pfaff's. The Pfaff's crowd, all very poor, lived by their wits and qualified as "Bohemians" as defined by a French writer on Parisian Bohemian life. Anyone who wants to enter "into the arts, without other means of existence than the arts, will have to pass along the paths of Bohemia." The New York Bohemians had quickly adapted this 19th century French invention to their own use as a defense against poverty, American piety and cultural indifference.
Clapp, the iconoclast, loved to drink and ridicule and surround himself with young wits. The table crackled with rapid-fire repartee. Whitman, slow to talk, remained an observer. "My own greatest pleasure at Pfaff's was to look on—to see, talk little, absorb."
To the bourgeois world, "Bohemianism" signified foreign license and immorality. In the view of a commentator, who ignored the reasons for their poverty, the young writers seemed willfully to degrade themselves by
running from boarding houses at midnight, dodging indignant washerwomen at street corners . . . often presenting outward evidence of pinching want.
E. C. Stedman, a Wall Street broker and literary aspirant, who dropped in occasionally at Pfaff's for writers' talk, mused in his old age on the Bohemians: "They were all my friends. they were a clever, hard-working set—some of them brilliant fellows. . ."
There was not much of a literary market at the time. Newspaper salaries were very low. There were few magazines, and' scarcely anything but Harper's and the Atlantic paid much of anything. New York itself was not literary and looked with distrust, if not contempt upon working writers. These people were mostly from the country. They had scarcely any acquaintance in the city outside of their profession. You can easily see that they were thrown back upon themselves and made the most of that artistic, happy-go-lucky bonhomie and comradeship.
(Stedman, an honorary pallbearer at Whitman's funeral, met him first at Pfaff's. Several decades later he included Whitman's poems and a critical essay on Whitman's poetry in his anthology, Library of American Literature. Whitman had never before received so much attention from a conventional source. The anthologist was criticized for giving Whitman thirteen pages, ten more than any other poet got.)
I have heard what the talkers were talking. . .
Sometimes as many as thirty crowded around the table. Whitman, somewhat on the outskirts, although accepted as a member of the inner circle, remembered that:
It took hard work and merit to have full membership. The top lights recognized themselves, and made a bit of an inside clique or cabal.
Two women, Ada Clare and Adah Isaacs Menken, belonged to the inner clique. Both Adas were fond or Whitman and strong supporters of his poetry. ("Very curious that the girls have been my sturdiest defenders.") He reciprocated their friendship, especially that of Ada Clare, who appeared in his gallery of Broadway types.
A lady-slender and elegant-in black from head to foot; pure white complexion, pale, striking chiseled features, perfect profile, abundant fair hair, abstracted look. . . called by many a perfect beauty. . . one about whom many interesting stories might be told. . .
One interesting story concerned her acknowledged illegitimate son, whose father was Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a well-known pianist and composer, who deserted her in Paris. Ada Clare wrote an autobiographical novel, did some acting and some freelance writing, but she was well-provided with money from a wealthy family. Known as "Queen of Bohemia," Ada Clare, said Whitman, led "a gay, easy free loose, but not ungood life."
Whitman's other "girl," Adah Isaacs Menken, charmed an editor, Robert Henry Newell of the Sunday Mercury, into printing her review of the 1860 Leaves of Grass. It claimed that Whitman was "Centuries ahead of his contemporaries."
Parodies on Whitman's poems had begun appearing, one or two serious, most comic. The gang at Pfaff's neither spared him nor each other. The parody and a cartoon of Whitman they put in Vanity Fair will come up later in the walk.
News of Pfaff's and the Bohemians travelled over the country, stirring ambition in young writers. William Dean Howells recalled how he felt as a young man in Ohio about The Saturday Press and its associates.
. . . that paper really embodied the new literary life of the city. It was clever, and full of the wit that tries its teeth upon everything. It attacked all literary shams but its own, and it made itself felt and feared. The young writers throughout the country were ambitious to be seen in it, and they gave their best to it. . . . It is not too much to say that it was very nearly as well for one to be accepted by the Press as to be accepted by the Atlantic, and for the time there was no literary comparison. To be in it was to be in the company of . . . whoever else was liveliest in prose or loveliest in verse at that day in New York. It was a power.
Howells visited Pfaff's one August evening in 1860 on a literary pilgrimage east. Clapp twitted him on his reverence for the Boston literati, asking how he had "got on with Hawthorne."
. . . and I began to say that he was very shy and I was rather shy, and the king of Bohemia took his pipe out to break in upon me with 'oh, a couple of shysters!' and the rest laughed.
"Nothing of their talk remains with me, but the impression remains that it was not so good talk as I had heard in Boston." Before Howells left, somebody escorted him over to Whitman, who made so vivid an impression that forty years later Howells recalled it in detail:
how he leaned back in his chair, and reached out his great hand to me, as if he were going to give it to me for good and all. He had a fine head, with a cloud of Jovian hair upon it, and a branching beard and mustache, and gentle eyes that looked most kindly into mine, and seemed to wish the liking which I instantly gave him, though we hardly passed a word, and our acquaintance was summed up in that glance and the grasp of his mighty fist upon my hand.
The abstemious Howells probably noticed that Whitman sparingly drank his beer, while the others got tipsy.
By 1862 The Saturday Press had failed. Henry Clapp, Ada Clare, and the rest of the group were writing for the Leader.
Years later Whitman said to a biographer:
I can recall it all now, and, through a vista of cigar and pipe smoke and dim gaslight, see the scores of kindly faces peering at me, some in love; some in question, but all friendly enough; for, while 'Bohemia' might differ as to a man's work or its results, she usually, once he was in, accepted the man, idiosyncracies and all. 'Bohemia' comes but once in one's life. Let's treasure even its memory.
Walk down Broadway to Houston Street.
We are approaching SoHo, the Cast Iron Historic District, which is bounded on the north by West and East Houston Streets; on the east by Crosby; on the west by West Broadway and on the south by Spring Street. Cross to the south side of Houston Street. This is in the historical district, but the south side lost its early houses in 1963 when Houston Street was widened. The name "Houston" is thought to have derived from the Dutch "huis tuijn," which means "house garden." Note: All comments on this district are taken from the SoHo Cast Iron Historic District, a publication of the New York Landmarks Commission.
Proceed west on Houston Street to Mercer Street. Turn left on the east side of Mercer. Proceed to 160 Mercer. Note in passing Nos. 166, 164-162, now home to several bars and lounges. They are reminiscent of the mercantile styles in vogue from the 1860s to the 1880s. Whitman would have witnessed the construction of these buildings, all of which go through to Broadway and which represent the beginning encroachment of the commercial upon a residential district.
Our destination is a Firehouse on the west side of Mercer Street—now a dance and art studio, though it retains its firehouse facade. We will approach it from the east side in order to see it better.
The fireman's hall, now stripped of its ornamentation, housed the hand-drawn engines which volunteers rushed to man when alarms sounded. This is the last volunteer firehouse to be built in the city.
A question to consider is: why did Whitman take Emerson, a person of such importance to him, to so inappropriate a place? Although the firehouse was an elegant, newly built building (1854), its social hall would be filled with the din of rowdies and bummers, making conversation impossible. Whitman brought Emerson to the new firehouse for a glass of beer in December, 1855, Emerson's first visit to the city after Leaves of Grass had been published.
Whitman must have felt a deep obligation to Emerson. The famous New Englander's praise had made Leaves of Grass known to an elite group on both sides of the Atlantic. The obscure book, lacking a publisher and peddled by a health-fad agency, could not have attracted so much immediate attention on its own. Emerson was then 52 and Whitman 36. It wasn't the first time Whitman had listened to the other's "low, sweet voice." In the forties, the young Whitman heard Emerson lecture and wrote up an account for his newspaper. In the fifties, as editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, he had reviewed Emerson's essays; and during the short period he helped his father build houses, he packed Emerson's essays in his lunch pail.
I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil.
Whitman may never have had the experience of talking about his poetry, or poetry in general, with a fellow poet until he dined with Emerson. (He had gone on long walks with Bryant, whom he venerated, and the two editors might have discoursed on poetry, but not as fellow poets.) But Emerson offered a kindred sensibility for the appreciation of his poems. Perhaps intoxicated by the older poet's understanding, Whitman felt it appropriate to take him to the firehouse hall to hear the roar of male energy, the human voice, "a sound I love." It is as though Whitman said, "If you like my poems, then here is a place they come from."
I have perceived that to be with those I like is
To stop in company with the rest at evening is
To be surrounded by beautiful curious breathing
laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them. . . to touch anyone. . . to
rest my arm even so lightly round his or her
neck for a moment. . . what is this then?
I do not ask any more delight. . . . I swim in it as
in the sea.
Now walk down Mercer Street, following Whitman's route when he escorted Emerson to the hotel.
149 Mercer (east side)
Originally a family dwelling, this house may well have become a brothel, as such listed in the City Directory as the abode of a "seamstress."
Whitman's reporter's eyes would have recognized it. He had editorialized on the disintegration of this middle-class neighborhood into a red-light district and had accused landlords of raising the rents because they knew prostitutes would pay them.
Whole hosts of these [women] have been advancing up town of later years, and outbidding the workingmen on the question of rent, although leaving to him the complainings on the score of repairs, etc.
Emerson and Whitman might have run into one of the women he puts in his gallery of Broadway types:
Dirty finery, excessively plentiful paint, both red and white; draggle-tailed dress, ill-fitting; coarse features, unintelligent; bold glance, questioning, shameless, perceptively anxious; hideous croaks or dry, brazen ring in voice; affected, but awkward, mincing, waggling gait. Harlot.
(A guide book to Mercer Street brothels was published and sold in New York.)
As an editor, Whitman had broken through the genteel silence veiling New York's prostitution, saying that people were ignorant of
how large a proportion of the business men and active male population of the city generally, under the age of twenty-five years, are either in the constant practice of visiting houses of ill-fame or are living in a quasi household with a kept mistress.
The poet commiserated:
The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnet
bobs on her tipsy and pimpled neck,
The crowd laugh at her blackguard oaths, the
men jeer and wink to each other,
(Miserable! I do not laugh at your oaths nor jeer
Turn left on Prince Street and proceed to Broadway.
Take note of No. 568-578 on the northeast corner of Prince Street. This was the site of the fashionable Metropolitan Hotel. Through its Broadway entrance, theater-goers could pass to the theater in the famous Niblo's Gardens—opened July 4, 1848. It was here that Whitman learned that the "War of Secession" had begun:
News of the attack on Fort Sumter and the flag at Charleston harbor, S.C., was receiv'd in New York city late at night (13th April, 1861,) and was immediately sent out in extras of the newspapers. I had been to the opera in Fourteenth street that night, and after the performance was walking down Broadway toward twelve o'clock, on my way to Brooklyn, when I heard in the distance the loud cries of the newsboys, who came presently tearing and yelling up the street, rushing from side to side even more furiously than usual. I bought an extra and cross'd to the Metropolitan Hotel (Niblo's) where the great lamps were still brightly blazing, and, with a crowd of others, who gather'd impromptu, read the news, which was evidently authentic. For the benefit of some who had no papers, one of us read the telegram aloud while all listn't silently and attentively. No remark was made by any of the crowd, which had increas'd to thirty or forty, but all stood a minute or two, I remember, before they dispers'd. I can almost see them there now, under the lamps at midnight again.
War, red war is my song through your streets,
Cross to the east side of Broadway and continue south in order to better see the buildings on the west side of the street.
567 Broadway (southwest comer, Prince Street)
This is a building Whitman would have seen constructed. It was commenced in 1859, completed in 1860. James Fenimore Cooper once lived on this site in a modest brick house.
Walk down Broadway.
The present building displaces a structure that in Whitman's time attracted crowds-and newspaper notoriety. On the ground floor a "saloon" opened to a constant flow of patrons and on the very top floor were club quarters for an avante-garde group who called themselves "The League for Free Love." In between, lofts used for storage insulated top-floor activities from the ground floor.
The ground floor of No. 555 housed Taylor's Saloon, a glittering place where Whitman liked to take visitors and where he and Bronson Alcott lunched. A young British visitor gives us an idea of what Taylor's Saloon was like:
It combines Eastern magnificence with Parisian taste, and strangers are always expected to visit it. It is a room about 100ft. in length, by 22 in height, the roof and cornices richly carved and gilded, the walls ornamented by superb mirrors, separated by white marble. The floor is marble, and a row of fluted and polished marble pillars runs down each side. It is a perfect blaze of decoration. There is an alcove at one end of the apartment, filled with orange-trees, and the air is kept refreshingly cool by a crystal fountain. Any meal may be obtained here at any hour. On the day I visited it, the one hundred marble tables which it contains were nearly all occupied; a double row of equipages lined the street at the door. . . ."
Ten or twelve years ago, there came into favor here the twin abominations, Free Love and Bohemianism-the feculent product of Parisian low life.
—The Round Table, 1864.
Much as the Bohemians amused and pleased Whitman, so the "free lovers" displeased him. "Anything like free love was repugnant to his mind," wrote a Whitman admirer, so it is fair to guess that he never mounted the "three pairs of dingy stair cases" that took the curious "up-up-up" (according to a Times reporter) to the top-floor quarters of the "Club." "All the mental deformities and intellectual monstrosities of the Union were collected," wrote Whitman in an editorial, "in the 1857 Free Love Convention." Because the "free love" banner attracted a sizeable lunatic fringe, it scared away the leading feminists, but the issue that gave impulse to the movement concerned women's marital rights, not sexual license. Some "free lovers" even preached sexual continence—except for reasons of procreation—but they didn't get the newspaper headlines.
Whitman had supported Margaret Fuller's stand on women's rights and had defended an earlier champion, Frances Wright. But he wasn't interested in theories about sex nor in the "antimarriage" cast to the Free Love movement, being incurious as to marriage. It is ironical that two of his editors, one no other than Henry Clapp, brought him briefly into a passing association with the "free lovers."
On October 19, 1855, the Times printed these headlines:
A RICH DEVELOPMENT
Free Love Nowhere
The 'Club' Broken up by the Police
Albert Brisbane in Prison
Three Others Keeping Him Company
A series of Speeches that made a Serious Row
Full Details of the Exposition
The police had staged a raid on the top quarters of No. 555, whipped into a stance of moral outrage by a piece in the Times snickering about the "free love" tenants. This was reprinted in the Herald. To the delight of the Times reporter (who coincidentally happened to be on the scene, pencil in hand), the police netted Albert Brisbane, a noted Tribune editor and dabbler in reformist movements. It also caught Henry Clapp, whom the reporter characterized as a "prominent socialist." The Times congratulated the police for putting a stop to top-floor "orgies" (whist, backgammon, lectures, some dancing), but accused Clapp and Brisbane-of "incautious, injudicious and grossly offensive addresses" which incited the arrests.
The Times gave some examples of Clapp's "inflammatory" speech. When Albert Brisbane's turn came he declared that:
New York was nothing else than a Great Free Love Club! Men came here from abroad because it is so. Mercer Street is full of Free Love Clubs: without them New York would not be what it is.
Having thus brought arrest upon themselves, Brisbane and Clapp were jailed. (The judge dismissed the charges.) Clapp, who called himself a "non-organizationist" happened to be present but did not belong to the Club.
In 1860, Clapp printed a letter praising Whitman's new edition of Leaves of Grass. It could not have made Whitman happy. The writer signed herself by her pen name, Mary A. Chilton. She was one of the free love activists who lived in the notorious "Modern Times" community—now Brentwood, Long Island—and she singled out the sexual allusions in the poems for praise.
Cross to the east side of Broadway. Proceed to Broome Street. Note, as you pass, the buildings contemporaneous with Whitman. Pause for a moment and look up and down Broadway, New York's most fashionable street before the Civil War.
Whitman rejoiced in Broadway, the "myriadfooted." In his musically-sensitive imagination, Broadway resounded like an orchestra of complex instruments: "The heavy bass, the great hum and harshness, composite and musical."
The blab of the pave. . . the tires of carts and
sluff of bootsoles and talk of the promenaders,
The heavy omnibus, the driver with his
interrogating thumb, the clank of shod horses
on granite floor.
His perceptions of Broadway kept changing. Once he described it as an inland sea, with Grace Church at the corner of 10th street
so adroitly placed that its tall, tapering spire shows down the very center of the busiest three miles of Broadway, like a ghostly lighthouse looming up over the porpoise-backs of the omnibuses, as they lift and dive in that unquiet sea, and over the tossing spray of ribbons and plumes that give back rainbows to the eyes of him that gazes on the living waves
Broadway could suggest an Oriental "way" over which a stream of human beings, all sorts, differently dressed, afoot or on wheels, moved together.
Within this straight and confined stretch of narrow street, surges to and fro, all day, all night, year in and year out, absolutely without intermission, an endless procession, which might furnish no bad representative of the vast procession of humanity.
"Come," Whitman invites, "and walk New York streets, or sit in a restaurant; we will detect some people for you. . ."
Remaining on the east side of Broadway, walk past Spring Street. Pause when you see No. 523-521 on the west side. This is the remnant of the magnificent St. Nicholas Hotel at No. 523-521, one of Broadway's finest hotels in 1853, famous for its size (1,000 beds) and its luxury: "looking glasses. . . worthy of Windsor Castle." It served as War Headquarters during the Civil War. The windows of No. 523 have been shaved but those of No. 521 retain some hint of the original style of ornamentation. "Its white marble front forms one of the greatest ornaments of Broadway," wrote a British traveller. The well-known restaurant, Delmonico's, had moved next door from its original downtown site. "We are sitting," wrote Whitman, "or we will suppose, in the St. Nicholas front windows, or standing in front of Delmonico's, or anywhere in a thoroughfare. The crowd flows by . . ."
This is the city. . . and I am one of its citizens;
Whatever interests the real interests me . . .
politics, churches, newspapers, schools,
Benevolent societies, improvements, banks, tariffs,
steamships, factories, markets,
Stocks and stores and real estate and personal
Remaining on the east side of Broadway, walk south toward Broome Street, keeping an eye out as you pass by the buildings that remain on this block (as noted) from the 1850s and 1860s.
Here on Broadway and the side-streets we find some of the store and loft buildings still remaining that had converted this section into the city's drygoods center during the 1850s and l860s. One of Whitman's anonymous pieces on New York warns newcomers that "Broadway prices for dry goods, etc., are probably six to ten percent higher than elsewhere for the same qualities." These fashionable shops hired male clerks or "counter-jumpers." The chalky-faced clerks whose hair was "all soaked and 'slickery' with sickening oils" offended Whitman, but the Vanity Fair gang of writers at Pfaff's could not abide their affectations, especially when displaying shawls and cloaks to female customers. Vanity Fair launched a campaign against them. The writers accused the clerks of taking legitimate work away from women, thus forcing them into the streets. Then the Vanity Fair wits used parodies on various poets (including Whitman and Tennyson) to ridicule counter-jumpers. The Whitman take-off reads:
Counter-Jumps. A Poemettina.—
After Walt Whitman
I loaf and invite the Buyer
I am the essence of retail. The sum and the result
of small profits and quick returns
All these things are of me, and many more also
For I am the shop, and the counter, and the
Till But particularly the last.
And I explore and rummage the Till, and am at
home in it . . .
From this point our walk proceeds rapidly down Broadway through a cityscape that mingles modern nondescript with Civil War building and some buildings (as noted) from Whitman's time. Here on the sidestreets a stranger still might prudently heed the poet's warning:
Don't go wandering about the streets or parks unnecessarily in the evening. The degrading confession and warning is necessary, that New York is one of the most crime-haunted and dangerous cities in Christendom. . . There are hundreds—thousands—of infernal rascals among our floating population: street boys, grown up into rowdies. . . shoulder hitters and thieves, expelled, some of them, from distant San Francisco, vomited back among us to practice their criminal occupations, who will sneak up behind you, or pretend drunkenness and run against you, or inquire the way, or the hour, and snatch your watch, or take you unawares. . . knock you on the head, and rob. . .
Proceed down Broadway until you reach the comer of Thomas Street.
Note these buildings. From Broome to Grand Street: No. 481 (1855) and No. 471 (1855); from Grand to Canal Street: No. 459-61 (1854), No. 449 (1855-60); No. 456 (1854); No. 447 (1860) and No. 443-445 (1860).
At Thomas Street, turn right. Pause a moment in the newly paved area next to the telephone company.
In Whitman's time, New York Hospital stood where we now have Thomas Street, in the center of a block bounded by Broadway, Church, Anthony (now Worth) and Duane Streets. It was set back behind an extensive lawn that stretched to Broadway and which various societies, firemen's and the like, used as an assembly-ground for parades. Whitman's connections with New York Hospital came about through his interest in the Broadway stage drivers, that "strange, natural, quick-eyed, and wondrous race. . ."
. . . how well I remember them. .. How many hours, forenoons and afternoons—how many exhilarating night-times have I had—perhaps June or July, in cooler air—riding the whole length of Broadway, listening to some yarn. . . or perhaps declaiming some stormy passage from Julius Caesar or Richard, (you could roar as loudly as you chose in the heavy, dense, uninterrupted street-bass.) Yes, I knew all the drivers then, Broadway Jack, Dressmaker, Young Elephant (who came afterward,). Tippy, Pop Rice, . . . and dozens more; for there were hundreds. They had immense qualities, largely animal—eating, drinking, women—great personal pride, in their way—perhaps a few slouches here and there, but I should have trusted the general run of them, in their simple good will and honor, under all circumstances. Not only for comradeship, and sometimes affection—great studies I found them also.
The drivers were farm boys who had learned in the fields how to handle horses. Despite their skill, the dangers of Broadway traffic—mainly collisions—landed the drivers in New York Hospital, where Whitman visited them.
The flap of the curtained litter—the sick man
inside, borne to the hospital, . . .
The ambulanza slowly passing and trailing its red
drip. . .
The doctors recognized Whitman as the driver's companion, often glimpsed on the seat beside them, who sometimes assisted in collecting fares. "Whitman appeared to be about forty years of age at that time," recalled Dr. D. B. St. John Rosa, a resident physician at the time, in an interview many years later. "He was always dressed in a blue flannel coat and vest, with gray and baggy trousers. . . ."
. . . his personality was extremely pleasing. Why this was so it would be hard to say. It must have been from the gentle and refined cast of his features, which were rather rude but noble. No one could see him sitting by the bed side of a suffering stage driver without soon learning that he had a sincere and profound sympathy for this order of men. Closer observation of their lives at that time would convince one that they endured hardships, which naturally invited the sympathy of a great nature. When we found Walt Whitman was anxious to visit sick stage drivers, the house staff gave him the largest liberty of entrance. . . .
Whitman tended the wounded in Washington, D.C. hospitals during the Civil War, distributing gifts, writing letters for them, taking notes, writing articles about them, and poems.
The hurt and the wounded I pacify with soothing
I sit by the restless all the dark night...
— from Drum Taps
Proceed back to Broadway; cross to the east side and walk south. Note as you approach Duane Street the white office building on the southeastern corner. This is the former A. T. Stewart Department store, a six-story white marble palace built in the 1840s—one of the wonders of Broadway.
308 Broadway: Fowler & Well's Phrenological Cabinet
Whitman's relationship with the phrenologists started when he was given his first phrenological analysis. It revealed a way to self-knowledge that exhilarated him, and it also led to friendship with his analyst, Lorenzo Fowler. Eventually Fowler & Wells offered to act as agent for the first edition of Leaves of Grass. The green cloth-covered book with its gold-stamped title twined with sprouting gold leaves went on display in the New York Cabinet shortly after July 4, 1855, and later in the Philadelphia and Boston Cabinets.
The New York Cabinet was a Broadway Health Palace visited by hundreds of persons each day from all over the country, but not those on the lookout for a book of poems. Fowler & Wells published books catering to the mid-19th century reformist movements in health and medicine. Leaves of Grass took its place among treatises on hydropathy, mesmerism, hygiene, women's rights, vegetarian and "Grahamite" (whole wheat flour) cookbooks; anti-tobacco and temperance tracts; "how-to-books," including how to succeed in business and instruction in shorthand; paraphernalia for preserving fruit, etc. Fowler & Wells published anonymously the 1856 (second) edition of Leaves of Grass, which went on display in the New York Cabinet and branches. But in 1857, Whitman was complaining:
Fowler & Wells are bad persons for me. They retard my book very much.—It is worse than ever.—I wish now to bring out a third edition—I have now a hundred poems ready (the last edition had thirty-two )—and shall endeavor to make an arrangement with some publisher here to take the plates from F. & W. and make the additions needed, and so bring out the third edition.—F & W. are very willing to give up the plates—they want the thing off their hands.
Even in his old age, Whitman couldn't discredit his early dependence on phrenology.
I know what [Oliver Wendell] Holmes said about phrenology—that you might easily tell how much money is in a safe feeling the knob and the door as to tell how much brain a man has by feeling the bumps on his head; and I guess most of my friends distrust it—but then you see I am very old-fashioned—I probably have not got by the phrenology stage yet.
308 Broadway is now part of Federal Plaza.
Walk down Broadway to City Hall Park. On February 18, 1860, Whitman saw Abraham Lincoln alight from his barouche in front of Astor House, the famous hotel on the northwest corner of Ann Street, opposite St. Paul's Chapel. New York's corrupt mayor, Fernando Wood (whom Whitman had opposed), and much of the city's laboring population were hostile to Lincoln, sympathetic with the South. Whitman described the silent, curious, hostile crowd that pressed closed to Lincoln's barouche.
But on this occasion, not a voice—not a sound. From the top of an omnibus (driven up to one side, close by, and block'd by the curbstone and the crowds,) I had. . . . a capital view of it all, and especially of Mr. Lincoln, his look and gait—his perfect composure and coolness—his unusual and uncouth height, his dress of complete black, stovepipe hat push'd back on the head, dark-brown complexion, seam'd and wrinkled yet canny-looking face, black, busy head of hair, disproportionately long neck, and his hands held behind as he stood observing the people. He look'd with curiosity upon that immense sea of faces, and the sea of faces return'd the look with similar curiosity. In both there was a dash of comedy, almost farce, such as Shakespeare puts in his blackest tragedies. The crowd that hemm'd around consisted I should think of thirty to forty thousand men, not a single one his personal friend-while I have no doubt (so frenzied were the ferments of the time), many an assassin's knife and pistol lurk'd in hip or breast-pocket there, ready, soon as break and riot came.
But no break or riot came. The tall figure gave another relieving stretch or two of arms and legs; then with moderate pace, and accompanied by a few unknown-looking persons, ascended the portico-steps of the Astor House, disappear'd through its broad entrance-and the dumb-show ended.
On April 25, 1865, Whitman stood among the crowd in front of City Hall where Lincoln's body had lain in state. City Hall was draped in black, its flag flew at half-mast, and a sign over the steps read, "The Nation Mourns." The funeral procession moved up Broadway on its way to the Hudson River Railroad Depot.
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,
And the great star early droop'd
in the western sky in the night,
I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure
to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
Lo, body and soul—this land,
My own Manhattan with spires, and the
sparkling and hurrying tides,
and the ships. . .
Passing, I leave thee lilac with
I leave thee there in the door-yard,
blooming, returning with spring.
The Walt Whitman walking tour of New York City's SoHo district comes from the archives of the Academy of American Poets. With the generous support of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the guide was digitized, edited, and updated in summer 2005 to mark the 150th anniversary of Whitman's Leaves of Grass.
Quotations from Whitman's poetry are derived from the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, unless otherwise dated.
These are some of the books that were used in compiling this brochure.
The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. By Gay Wilson Allen, New York, 1967.
The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman. General Editors, Gay Wilson Allen and Sculley Bradley. New York, 1963-73.
Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition. Edited with an Introduction, by Malcolm Cowley. New York, 1959.
New York Dissected. A Sheaf of Recently Discovered Newspaper Articles by the author of Leaves of Grass. Introduction and Notes by Emory Holloway and Ralph Adimari. New York, 1936.
The Historic Whitman by Joseph Jay Rubin. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1973.
Life and Letters of Edmund Clarence Stedman by Laura Stedman and George M. Gould. New York, 1910.
Free Love In America by Taylor Stoehr. New York, 1979.
The Portable Walt Whitman. Revised and enlarged edition. Edited by Mark Van Doren (revised by Malcolm Cowley). Introduction by Mark Van Doren. "A Note on the New Edition" by Malcolm Cowley. Chronology and Bibliographical Check List by Gay Wilson Allen. New York, 1974.
Special thanks are due David Ignatow and James T. Dillon, Advisors, and to members of the staff of The Academy of American Poets: Gigi Bradford, Henri Cole and John Drury.
The research for this guide and its printing was 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. For the use of an early map, we wish to thank the New York Public Library, and for a modern map, the N.Y.C. Mayor's Office of Development and the Department of City Planning.
Copyright © The Academy of American Poets 1981-2005. Photos by Billy Merrell and Stephanie Anderson.