Seeing New York

In the 1820s city watching became a highly developed art form in Europe. Gentleman spectators sauntered the streets observing and recording impressions, then published amiable commentaries for coffeehouse and parlor readers that made bewildering, stressful cityscapes seem knowable and negotiable. One of the most popular of the genre was Life in London, or The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn Esq and his elegant friend Corinthian Tom, in their Rambles and Sprees through the Metropolis (1821). Written by Pierce Egan, an Irish-born London printer and journalist, and illustrated by the brothers Cruikshank, Life in London recounted the fictional peregrinations of two men-about-town. Tom and Jerry, though well-born, were equally at home in the West End or at gin parlors and cockfights—places respectable people didn’t go in person.

Over the next fifteen years, London’s slums attracted ever-increasing interest, penny papers commenced their Bow Street Police Court reporting, and Charles Dickens started evoking London’s lowlife. Sketches by Boz began appearing in December 1833, and soon, in Pickwick Papers(1836-37) and Oliver Twist (1839), Dickens had provided thousands of armchair Londoners with a guide to their city’s hidden terrains.

New Yorkers loved these European flaneurs. They bought American reprints of Egan’s Life in London, perused city sketches in the London Quarterly and Edinburgh Review, and devoured Dickens. Their own city, alas, was not deemed flaneurable. Lacking the spectacular variety of European metropoles, it didn’t seem worth perambulating for publication. Would-be urban spectators went abroad instead. They sent back dispatches on London’s immensity, on Paris’s complexity, on the power of great cities to induce disorientation—even insanity!—in unwary tourists. Washington Irving was an early American master of the form, and Nathaniel Parker Willis carried on the tradi­tion. In 1835, after he joined George Pope Morris as coeditor of the New-York Mirror, the dandyish Willis went abroad and sent back somewhat precious urban sketches done in a pun-filled style. But flaneurism made Willis New York’s first successful professional “magazinist.” (“My rubbish, such as it is, brings me a very high price.”)

In the 1830s the Sun and its penny press competitors began defining everyday life in New York as something worthy of coverage. Benjamin Day published a vivid account of a visit to the Five Points in 1834 (“they endure literally, a hell of horrors”), launched police court reporting, and paid episodic attention to everyday life. But it was in the 1840s that New York became fully flaneurable. As Manhattanites turned their attention homeward—newly enchanted (or appalled) by their city’s growing size and diversity, the kinetic flow of its crowds, and its flowering as a cultural center—street narratives by middle-class walkers became omnipresent.

Willis turned his practiced eye on Manhattan in “Daguerrotypes of the Present,” a series of urban essays for the New York Mirror, and bundled up another batch of sketches as Hurry-Graphs. Lewis Gaylord Clark and the Knickerbocker crowd filled their magazine with sketches like ” ‘Loaferina’ in New York,” which celebrated the immensity and diversity of the “London of America,” and their Young American rivals at Arc-turus provided equally urbane commentary on New York’s passing show. For Duyckinck’s circle, moreover, the shift of sensibility suggested a new frontier for American literature. Cornelius Mathews argued this thesis vigorously in an 1840 manifesto, declaring that writers should embrace “the crowded life of cities, the customs, habitudes, and actions of men dwelling in contact.” In 1842 Mathews took his own advice. His Career of Puffer Hopkins was the first fictional attempt to capture the color of New York, as its flaneurial hero wandered about from fancy shops to dingy alleys, exploring the city’s various worlds.


Much of this city scrutinizing zeroed in on particular features of urban life, and among the closely watched phenomena none seemed more fascinating than the “crowd.” “Crowd” had long been disturbingly interchangeable with “mob,” but now it evoked something benign: a vibrant street life, an exciting tempo, a flood of sensation. Charles Loring Brace, a young seminarian arriving to study at Union Theological Seminary after graduating Yale in 1846, was astonished by Broadway. “Faces and coats of all patterns, bright eyes, whiskers, spectacles, hats, bonnets, caps, all hurrying along in the most apparently inextricable confusion. One would think it a grand gala-day. And it’s rather overpowering to think of that rush and whirl being their regular every-day life.” Guidebooks trumpeted the sensuous excitement as a prime reason for visiting, with William Bobo’s Glimpses of New York (1852) typical in hailing “the throng upon the sidewalks” as “one grand kaleidoscope in perpetual motion.”

Natives might grumble at the rush and whirl’s impracticality—trying to cross Broadway was considered a risky business—but they too were taken with its poetry. One set of local enthusiasts—admittedly a committee of Broadway merchants—celebrated their chief thoroughfare’s bustle and color, its collisions and complexity. “The din, this driving, this omnibus-thunder, this squeezing, this jamming, crowding, and at times smashing, is the exhilerating [sic] music which charms the multitude and draws its thousands within the whirl. This is Broadway—this makes Broadway. Take from it those elements, the charm is gone.”

“Living in crowds,” the Times suggested in 1852, “gives to the business, the daily life, the whole character of great cities, such wonderful energy and vigor. Men in cities live and work constantly under high pressure. It is almost impossible to go on a walk on Broadway or Wall Street in business or pleasure; one naturally and unthinkingly quickens his pace to a run.” Living in crowds (the Times continued) gave a distinctively modern shape to the way people experienced life, in “gusts of passion and excitement.” Any “startling incident—the arrival of a steamer, the perpetration of a crime, the advent of a celebrity—anything at all calculated to stimulate curiosity or startle attention—comes upon half a million of people at once,” courtesy of the morning papers, and then “every man sees it in his neighbor’s face and hears it from his lips the moment he meets him.”1

Crowds offered more than mere sensation, it was believed; they fostered interactivity, hence progress. Tribune reporter George Foster argued in 1849 that “a great city is the highest result of human civilization,” the place where people’s energies could be developed “to their utmost power and excited to their highest state of activity by constant contact with countless other souls.”

Going hand in hand with this new metropolitan self-confidence was a brash disdain for rural life and people. The author of an 1859 treatise called Civilization in New York suggested that living in the country “stupefies rather than deepens character.” A “human being dwelling alone, or in sparsely settled districts, without any communication with cities, remains unacquainted with his own capabilities,” he explained, and thus “deteriorates in prejudice and ignorance.” New York banking authority J. S. Gibbons reported that “any one who has travelled among our country villages, out of the immediate influence of cities,” was struck by “the lack of energy, the rudeness of life and character, and the almost savage features of the common people”—but once urban institutions arrived “a less brutal and more intelligent spirit beams from their eyes.”

Ruralites responded with defensive counterassaults. An upstate doctor, Joel H. Ross, addressing his What I Saw in New York (1851) to the young men and women fleeing farms and villages, warned that city life consisted of “trials, losses, frowns, failures, pestilence, poverty, and hypocrisy.” Places like New York, he said, were “to dwellers in the country, very like what white lights at night are to flies—brilliant and attractive, but certain ruin.” But the destiny of America, metrophiles rebutted, lay less in taming the continental wilderness and creating independent homesteads and small towns than in establishing large cosmopolitan cities that harbored the greatest diversity of human types. By these lights, New York was in the vanguard of American development. As George Francis Train boasted in 1857, it was “the locomotive of these United States,” pulling the rest of the nation faster and faster into the future: “twenty miles an hour—thirty—forty”!2


Amid the din of celebratory oratory, some city-based critics could be heard suggesting that the crowded life had some distinct minuses, among them anonymity. Boosters, to be sure, relished it for facilitating the pursuit of private pleasures. New York City “is the most free and easy place conceivable,” wrote Thomas R. Gunn, author of a treatise on the city’s boardinghouses. “The right to do as you d———n please,” Gunn exulted, “is nowhere so universally recognized or less curbed by authority.” Others, however, observed that one woman’s liberation was another’s loneliness.

Lydia Maria Child had her rhapsodic moments as she rambled Manhattan compiling the “Letters from New York” she dispatched to the Boston Courier, and she regularly praised the city’s “many agreeable sights and sounds.” Overall, however, she had a most un-flaneur-like perspective on street life. “It is sad walking in the city,” Child reported. “For eight weary months, I have met in the crowded streets but two faces I have ever seen before.” She discovered that in the city, “the loneliness of the soul is deeper, and far more restless, than in the solitude of the mighty forest.” Confluence didn’t guarantee connection, and indeed could underscore its absence. Child encountered much human suffering on her walks, “hungry eyes, that look as if they had pleaded long for sympathy, and at last gone mute in still despair,” but “the busy throng, passing and repassing. . . offer no sympathy.”

Crowding brought vulnerability too, especially in an era of humbug and flimflam. City people had to size up a stranger’s character from externals, which, like paper money, were all too easy to counterfeit. In 1849 William Thompson, a man of “genteel appearance,” struck up conversation on Broadway with a well-dressed stranger, greeting him as an old acquaintance. After a short time Thompson asked affably: “Have you confidence in me to trust me with your watch until to-morrow?” The victim, embarrassed at having forgotten such an agreeable fellow, and reluctant to deny such a forthright request, handed over his timepiece, and Thompson faded away into the crowd. The city wasn’t yet vast enough to swallow him up forever, though, and when the mark happened upon Thompson a second time, he got him arrested, convicted, and sent to the Tombs.

A local journalist called Thompson a “confidence-man,” and the coinage achieved instant currency. New Yorkers’ reactions to Thompson were mixed. Some admired, even hailed his enterprise. But the phenomenon of the Confidence Man proved deeply worrying to many—it earned the longest entry in the National Police Gazette’s Rogue’s Lexicon—as it underscored the increasing difficulty city folk had in distinguishing benign stranger from malign trickster. Fortunately these were skills that could be improved with time. Those most vulnerable to being conned were newcomers, hayseeds, “greenhorns”—and innumerable guidebooks, pamphlets, and newspaper articles were published to alert such novices to the scams and scammers awaiting them in the big city. The really polished New Yorker, as editor Walter Whitman noted in an 1856 “Advice to Strangers” piece, was one who could coolly respond to a con man’s pitch by looking him in the eye and saying: “You’ve waked up the wrong passenger.”


Another worrisome feature of New York life was the very “fluctuation, and neverceasing change” so beloved by boosters. “Overturn, overturn, overturn! is the maxim of New York,” declared former mayor Hone in 1845. “The very bones of our ancestors are not permitted to lie quiet a quarter of a century, and one generation of men seem studious to remove all relics of those who precede them.” Putnam’s 1853 series “New York Daguerreotyped” fretted that the businesses spreading “with such astounding rapidity over the whole lower part of the city” were “prostrating and utterly obliterating every thing that is old and venerable, and leaving not a single land-mark, in token of the former position of the dwelling-places of our ancestors.” Manhattan was a “modern city of ruins,” agreed the New-York Mirror, where “no sooner is a fine building put up than it is torn down.”

The result, said Harper’s Monthly in 1856, was that “New York is notoriously the largest and least loved of any of our great cities. Why should it be loved as a city? It is never the same city for a dozen years together. A man born in New York forty years ago finds nothing, absolutely nothing, of the New York he knew.” The city’s relentless focus on the future was ravaging its past, undermining the sense that New York was a home, not just a grid of opportunities.3

The razing and rebuilding generated nostalgia for an older, quieter, more comprehensible city and fostered efforts at commemoration. James Miller’s guidebook, New York as It Is, lamented that the city had sacrificed “to the shrine of Mammon almost every relic of the oldentime” and offered as counterweight a walking tour of such historic sites as remained. A more thoroughgoing intervention got underway when David Thomas Valentine, clerk of the Common Council, began issuing Manuals of the Corpo-ration of the City of New York, an annual compilation published and widely distributed by the city between 1841 and 1866. Though mainly an assemblage of official data, the Manuals included woodcut and lithographic reproductions of old paintings, prints, drawings, maps, and documents that Valentine had rescued “from oblivion, to which they were hastening down the stream of time.” Nevertheless, Valentine worried in 1856, “the present rapid progress of the City” threatened “soon to obliterate all the natural landmarks of the island,” and he urged still greater efforts to preserve “for future generations” images of what remained.

Painters began tackling historical subjects: William Walcutt recalled Pulling Down the Statue of George III at Bowling Green (1857). Plays like Charlotte Temple and Jacob Leisler, or New York in 1690 became popular fare at the Bowery Theater. Autobiographies appeared lamenting the passing of the Knickerbocker era, such as Grant Thorborn’s Fifty Years Reminiscences of New York (1845). Evacuation Day was celebrated with fife-and-drum parades by ancient veterans in cocked hats and buff breeches and with full-scale reenactments of the British departure. And the New-York Historical Society took on nearly a thousand new members in the 1840s and 1850s, growing prosperous enough to erect a neo-classical headquarters at Second Avenue and nth Street, in genteel proximity to St. Mark’s Church.

This wave of looking backward also spurred historical scholarship. When E. Porter Belden researched his model of New York in the late 1840s, he reported in astonishment that “no history of the city had ever been published, and that no accurate descriptive work had been issued in the last twenty years.” He wasn’t far wrong, as remarkably little had been published since William Smith’s History of the Province of New-York back in 1757.

There was, however, much newly available raw material for would-be scholars, thanks to the state legislature. In 1839, following up a suggestion by the New-York Historical Society, Albany had authorized and paid for a “historical agent”—John Romeyn Brodhead—to spend several years in Dutch, French, and English archives, laboriously copying documents relating to New York’s colonial history. Brodhead’s eighty manuscript volumes were eventually brought out in eleven printed tomes edited by Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan, beginning in 1855, again with state support.

O’Callaghan, an expatriate Irish physician and activist in the Catholic emancipation movement, was chosen to compile Brodhead’s documents in part because he himself had published a pioneering History of New Netherland; or New York under the Dutch (D. Appleton, 1846-48). His two-volume study, which ended with the English conquest of 1664, drew on original documents and interviews with old Dutch families in Flatbush and Gravesend, and it came as a revelation to those who had incautiously assumed Irving’s satirical “history” was the real thing.

James Fenimore Cooper set out to follow O’Callaghan’s treatment with a more comprehensive study—oddly enough, given that Cooper’s 1820s enthusiasm for New York City had given way in the 1830s to caustic derogation. Perhaps it was because he believed that Manhattanites, in their infatuation with wealth, displayed an “intensity of selfishness which smothers all recollection of the past” that he began researching Towns of Manhattan, for publication by Putnam. In July 1851, however, with only eight chapters completed, doctors ordered the ailing Cooper to stop writing. He died that September, and the manuscript was later lost in a fire at Putnam’s.

John Romeyn Brodhead stepped into the breach, and Harpers brought out the first of his planned series of volumes in 1853. Brodhead too got only as far as 1664. He’d hoped to get down to 1702, he recalled, but had been tempted by the mass of original documents he’d unearthed, and the volume “in spite of laborious condensation” had “grown unfashionably large.” Daniel Curry’s New-York: A Historical Sketch of the Riseand Progress of the Metropolitan City of America (1853) told more of the tale, but only because his book (he admitted) made “no pretensions to originality, nor yet to deep and thorough research,” as doing so would “have swelled the work to ten times its present volume.” Curry’s study was nevertheless notable for being among the first to advance the Manhattan-as-melting-pot theme. “From whatever point the denizen of that city may have come, a residence in New-York surely and speedily makes him a NEW-YORKER,” Curry asserted, as “New-York energy acts as a solvent to fuse the motley masses that Europe is pouring upon our shores into a consistent body of valuable and happy freemen.”

It was left to Mary Louise Booth to produce the first comprehensive study written in the nineteenth century, A History of the City of New York (1859). Formerly a Williamsburg schoolteacher like her father, Booth had been drawn, at age eighteen, to a literary career, and she moved to Manhattan to be nearer its newspapers and libraries. For several years Booth worked by day as a vestmaker while studying at night and writing without pay for educational and literary journals. Finally she was engaged by the New York Times as a piece-rate reporter on educational and women’s topics.

Booth was commissioned by a group of merchants to write a city history that would combat New Englanders’ denigration of New Yorkers as crassly commercial, while contesting their arrogation of the nation’s historical narrative. She produced an eighthundred-plus-page study; even so, it left out many “curious and interesting events of the past” (she apologized), as their inclusion would have swollen the volumes “to so formidable a size that they would terrify the public.”

Booth argued that pluralistic New York, not provincial New England, best embodied the nation’s history. She hailed Manhattan’s “cosmopolitan character,” so evident “in its freedom from exclusiveness, in its religious tolerance, and in its extended views of men and things,” and she traced these admirable traits to the “genial hospitable nature ingrafted on the city by its early settlers” and the subsequent arrival of “all the races of the earth.” In New England, one stock of settlers predominated, but Manhattan’s populace “is blended with all the races of the earth; and if it be true, as one of our most eminent philosophers asserts, that a mixture of many materials makes the best mortar, there is no reason to regret it.”


None of the misgivings about the isolation or the chicanery or the rootlessness or the ahistoricism of New York life did much to cloud the prevailing sunny optimism. But a much harsher take on the city was emerging in these years, promoted by a host of popular journalists and urban fiction writers. This genre dismissed the showier aspects of New York’s street life as inconsequential froth and proposed a troubling thesis. The real essence of metropolitan life was a stark, indeed shocking, contrast between two new social classes: a monied aristocracy of debauched nouveaux riches and a threatening mass of degenerate immigrants. These critics offered a darker way for New Yorkers to see, and evaluate, the new urban scene, a perspective summarized with brutal succinctness by Harper’s in 1857: “What was then [1827] a decent and orderly town of moderate size, has been converted into a huge semi-barbarous metropolis—one half as luxurious and artistic as Paris, the other half as savage as Cairo or Constantinople—not wellgoverned nor ill-governed, but simply not governed at all.”

This perceptual framework, like flaneurism an import, was first formulated by writers in Paris and London. In 1842-43, Eugene Sue serialized his Mysteries of Paris in the popular French press, a work that exposed two shadowy and corrupt worlds, one of the criminal underground, the other of a decadent elite. Sue’s Mysteries was widely pirated and reprinted in England and on the Continent—it appealed greatly to artisans and became the sensational reading of Chartists and the revolutionaries of 1848—and in New York Mike Walsh brought out excerpts in his Subterranean.

A still more influential lesson in how to read the contemporary city was delivered to Manhattan, in person, by Charles Dickens. His books had depicted a London where the center no longer held, where a well-ordered and harmonious world had split into realms of squalor and splendor, of civilization and barbarism. The depraved paupers and grasping nouveaux riches responsible for these appalling changes merited and received condemnation in his pages, but they were also fascinating in their very repulsiveness. Part of Dickens’s phenomenal popularity was the opportunity he afforded readers of feeling simultaneously superior to, and enthralled by, villains of the upper and lower registers.

New Yorkers were thrilled when Dickens arrived in the city in January 1842, partly for sightseeing, partly in a fruitless attempt to promote an international copyright law that would require Americans to pay for the pleasure of reading him. New York’s elite threw a Boz Ball in the Park Theater for twenty-five hundred people—“the greatest affair of modern times,” said Philip Hone—and in an encore, Washington Irving presided over a feast for 230 diners at the City Hotel.

Later that year New Yorkers had the additional pleasure of being able to pick up American Notes (in a pirated twelve-and-a-half-cent edition Harpers brought out in November 1842) and find out how Dickens applied his way of seeing to their very own city. On the whole, his account of “the beautiful metropolis of America”—in a book whose revenues Dickens counted on to cover his travel costs—was quite flattering. Dickens had nice words for Broadway, the city’s pride, apart from some catty remarks about its pigs—“two portly sows are trotting up behind this carriage, and a select party of half a dozen gentlemen hogs have just now turned the corner”—which called embarrassing attention to Broadway denizens routinely excised from boosterish lithographs. More delightfully, New Yorkers discovered, through Dickens’s account of an expedition to the Bowery, that Oliver Twist was alive and well in their very own city.

On leaving Broadway, “the lively whirl of carriages is exchanged for the deep rumble of carts and wagons,” Dickens noted. “The stores are poorer here, the passengers less gay. Clothes ready made, and meat ready cooked.” Then, with two police escorts, he plunged into the dark heart of the Five Points, along “narrow ways, diverting to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth,” passing “coarse and bloated faces.” Now, deeper still, through “lanes and alleys, paved with mud knee-deep,” past “hideous tenements which take their name from robbery and murder”; groping down pitch-dark rickety stairs, past rooms where “some figure crawls half awakened, as if the judgment hour were near at hand, and every obscene grave were giving up its dead,” past rooms from which “vapors issue forth that blind and suffocate,” culminating at “underground chambers” at the bottom of “the world of vice and misery” where blacks and whites “dance and game” together. A final judgment: “All that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here.”4

From this rich storehouse of ready-to-wear metaphors, some popular New York authors drew heavily—and heavy-handedly, being far less talented than Dickens or Sue. In 1848 E. Z. C. Judson, better known by his nom de plume of Ned Buntline, penned the mammoth Mysteries and Miseries of New York. In it, he promised, he would provide “a perfect daguerreotype of this great city” from “above Bleecker” to the “horrors of the Five Points.” Advertising himself as a “Friend of the Working Man,” Buntline dwelt in lascivious detail on the plutocratic lifestyle of the city’s rich, and his hero also visited an underground nightclub—remarkably similar to the one described by Dickens—where, again, all is dirt and chaos and where blacks frolic with whites. In the manner of the Police Gazette, Buntline offered statistics on urban crime and provided a fourpage glossary of underworld argot. Mysteries and Miseries proved enormously successful. First serialized in popular journals, it was reprinted in the Harpers Family Library series, and the firm promoted it heavily in small-town and rural America as a testament to urban wickedness. It sold perhaps a hundred thousand volumes in all and helped mold perceptions of the metropolis.

With the public devouring Buntline’s Mystery, George Foster, who covered the city beat for Greeley’s Tribune, decided to collect his columns in book form. Foster, one of the first professional flaneurs, had long walked about the city, “eating with his eyes” and boasting of the “varieties of human nature” he encountered in New York: “Every face you meet is a character, every scene affords a piquant contrast. Talk of your Eastern bazaars and Parisian arcades!” Yet his articles also drew heavily on the conventions of urban sensationalism. Foster promised to get beneath the tall spires, commercial palaces, and princely mansions “where life flows so brightly and so gaily” to explore the profoundest recesses of the “deep, dark, sullen ocean of poverty, crime and despair” and “bring to light of day the horrid monsters that live and gender in its oozy depths.”

Foster’s city was as polarized as Buntline’s. Above, the deceitful parvenus—“pompous without dignity, gaudy without magnificence, lavish without taste, and aristocratic without good manners.” Below, a degraded underclass of drunken Irishmen, grasping Jews, and black men who danced (in the same old underground dance halls reached via the same old labyrinthine passageways) with “sluttishly-dressed women, in whose faces drunkenness and debauchery have destroyed every vestige of all we expect in the countenance of women, and even almost every trace of human expression.”

Foster’s New York in Slices (1849) did well. A second series, published in 1850 as New York by Gas Light, surpassed his own record (and Buntline’s too), eventually selling about two hundred thousand copies. He followed this up with Fifteen Minutes Around New York (a guide book for Crystal Palace visitors) and a last effort, New York Naked m 1854.

Foster and Buntline believed that the metropolitan transformation of the 1840s and 1850s had destroyed the old republican town. New York was now a segmented city of poor and rich, each with their own territorial strongholds from which they issued forth to prey upon the other. Those in the middle ground—the assumed audience for this literature—were addressed but not described, and the result was a chiaroscuro portrait of pools of light and darkness, resembling the way radiance from gas-lit street lamps was swallowed up by surrounding blackness.

This noir-ish city was a far cry from the clearly legible one sketched by the flaneur, praised by the guidebooks, and portrayed in the bird’s-eye views. Those official New Yorks were civic spirited, filled with noble vistas. This New York was jumbled and anarchic, an incoherent labyrinth, a polarized city ruled by rapacity. It was not a site of civilizing encounters: it was a battleground, fractured along lines of class and sex.

The mysteries’ New York was peopled with dangerous and endangered women. Harlots lured victims to their dens, notably in the Five Points, where “squalid females,” or so William Bobo claimed in Glimpses of New York (1852), perched “about the windows, stoops and cellar doors, like buzzards on dead trees.” Conversely, beautiful innocent females routinely fell into the clutches of sinister monied men against whom their virtue was no defense. Tales of sex and murder based on real-life incidents were particularly popular. George Wilkes of the Police Gazette vividly recounted The Lives of Helen Jewett and Richard P. Robinson, and the prolific Joseph Holt Ingraham was but one of many who recycled the Mary Rogers murder in his La Bonita Cigarera, or The Beautiful Cigar Vender.

Thus was born the sunshine-and-shadow tradition, a way of seeing New York that became the era’s central cliché about the city. Countless writers were forced to grope for new and fresh ways to describe stark juxtapositions, usually without success. “It is but a step from the mansion where wealth gathers its luxuries,” declared an anonymous clergyman in Life in New York (1847), “to the cellar or garret where hunger gnaws and cold pinches.” Joel Ross spoke of “success and defeat, health and disease, wealth and poverty, comforts and misery, plenty and beggary.” George Lippard, in New York: Its Upper Ten and Lower Million (1853), went with “empire of palaces and hovels, garlands and chains, churches and jails.” Lydia Maria Child commented drily on the rage for “vituperative alliterations such as magnificence and mud, finery and filth, diamonds and dirt, bullion and brass-tape, &c. &c.”

Much of this language was clearly formulaic, rhetorical, overblown. The writers, journalists, clergymen, and public officials who wielded it exaggerated the declension from the old order. But the melodramatic prose was a response to new realities: the transformation of public space and the transmutation of class and gender cultures and relationships. Sunshine-and-shadow hyperbole was reductive, but not ridiculous. When a trio of great writers turned their attention to metropolitan life, they incorporated these metaphors of popular culture in their poetry and prose, even while transcending them.


In April 1844 Edgar Allan Poe arrived in New York—dead broke but still optimistic that even at age thirty-five he could reestablish his career as a “magazinist.” Poe had done well in Philadelphia editing Graham’s Magazine but, sick of “fashion-plates” and “love-tales,” he’d resigned, hoping to launch a serious literary journal. Having failed to raise the capital—due, he was sure, to the machinations of a Philadelphia clique—Poe headed for Manhattan, accompanied by his tubercular wife, Virginia, and a reputation for drunken irresponsible conduct.

Poe found New York hard to afford and hard to take. He perched briefly in a Greenwich Street boardinghouse but was soon complaining about “insufferably dirty” streets and the din of clam-and-catfish vendors—“intolerably a nuisance.” Seeking more salubrious surroundings, the Poes moved to Patrick and Mary Brennan’s two-hundred-acre working farm, five miles outside town, just off the Bloomingdale Road near 84th Street. Here they would board until early 1845.

Poe was no fan of cities. They connoted heartless commercialism, poverty, pollution, and crime. He loved upper Manhattan and often rambled its woods and streams but believed the area “doomed.” Soon it would be withered by the “acrid breath” of “the spirit of Improvement,” its waterfronts lined with “nothing more romantic than shipping, warehouses, and wharves.”

Disdainful but needy, Poe plunged into New York’s expanding publishing world. Soon after arriving, he sold Moses Beach’s Sun a hoax he’d concocted about an Atlantic balloon crossing. Then he landed a spot at the Evening Mirror run by Willis and Morris. Hiking each day from the farm to Nassau Street, he scribbled anonymous filler for fifteen dollars a week, helping turn out a magazine he thought “frivolous and fashionable.” He did hackwork for other presses too, including a “Doings of Gotham” series for a small-town Pennsylvania paper.

In his tales, however, Poe was forging new ways to read the city. “The Man of the Crowd,” published in Graham’s Magazine in 1840, recounted the story of a balked flaneur. The narrator lounges in a London coffeehouse, observing the street scene, sorting passersby into familiar categories. Suddenly he sees an old man whom he can’t place, whose behavior challenges his ability to read and interpret the crowd. Leaping up, he follows his quarry through the metropolis, without stopping, for over twenty-four hours. He discovers that the old man drives himself ceaselessly through the streets out of terror that if he stopped he would have to confront his own emptiness. The flaneur’s confidence in civic legibility, Poe suggests, is shallow and misplaced. Crowds and cities are indecipherable.

A subsequent trio of tales, published in Philadelphia magazines between 1841 and 1843, extended and deepened this approach. “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” and “The Purloined Letter” all presented cities teeming with activity and possibility (as did the flaneurs) yet shot through with crime and random violence (as did the mysteries). “Marie Rogêt,” putatively set in a Paris described as “odious” and a “sink of pollution,” was in fact based on the death of Mary Rogers in New York City. Rogers’s fate symbolized for Poe the vulnerability of city folk, how easily one could go missing and turn up a brutalized corpse. Yet Poe solved Marie’s “mystery” by introducing an analytical investigator, C. Auguste Dupin, who acknowledged what flaneurs denied: that the city was hard to read, dangerous, even terrifying. Dupin is no amateur idler but a credentialed specialist, a master of the skills of decoding a cityscape. Poe had invented a genre—the detective story—that played upon but in the end relieved his readers’ urban anxieties. Social order was possible after all, Poe implied, if authorities adopted scientific methods of investigation and control. The detective, embodiment of this reassuring message, became a fixture on the urban literary scene.

So did Poe. Hoping to improve his chances of starting a magazine, he tried to get Harpers to publish his tales, but it turned him down. Then, in “the bleak December” of 1844, he wrote “The Raven,” a shivery poem ideal for reading aloud, which Willis published in January 1845 to uproarious acclaim. Buoyed by overnight fame, Poe renewed his efforts to launch a journal. He moved back to the city in early 1845 and perched, variously, on Greenwich Street, East Broadway, and Amity Street near Washington Square during the coming year.

Poe wrote a piece, which Willis published, called “WHY HAVE THE NEW YORKERS NOREVIEW?” In it, he proposed establishing a “proper indigenous vehicle” for rallying Manhattan’s literati against derisive Boston intellectuals. Charles Briggs did just that by launching the Broadway Journal, a literary review with a strong focus on the cultural life of New York City. Citing Poe’s celebrity—everybody was “raven-mad about his last poem”—Briggs took him on as junior partner.

In 1845, at the behest of Duyckinck (whose Arcturus Poe had praised lavishly), Wiley and Putnam published editions of Poe’s tales and poems in the Library of American Books. Social success followed commercial success. Poe was welcomed to literary salons sponsored by wealthy New York women determined to repudiate the city’s money-grubbing reputation. He was often found at Anne Charlotte Lynch’s Saturday evening “conversaziones,” which attracted the likes of Irving, Bryant, Emerson, and Fuller to Lynch’s Waverly Place drawing room.

Poe worked fourteen-hour days at the Broadway Journal, but in the brutally competitive magazine world it failed to make money. A disenchanted Briggs turned it over to Poe’s exclusive management. Poe finally had his own magazine, but not the resources to promote it. He borrowed. He ran every aspect of the journal himself and wrote for it as well. Circulation kept falling, and in January 1846 it collapsed, leaving Poe destitute.

To bring in funds and to revenge himself on real and fancied enemies, he began writing “The Literati of New York City,” a series of thirty-eight sketches published between May and October of 1846 in a Philadelphia magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book. The pieces mixed brilliant if vitriolic criticism with venomous vignettes about local authors, gossip he’d picked up at salons. For all its pettiness, the series had an underlying ambition: to rid New York—which he considered “the focus of American letters”—of the curse of amateur writers. Poe, like Duyckinck and the Young Americans, had long railed against Lewis Gaylord Clark and his Knickerbocker puffery. He denounced the ability of “coteries in New York” to “manufacture, as required from time to time, a pseudo-public opinion by wholesale.” Puffery impeded America’s literary development by subordinating independent professionals to established cliques of privileged gentlemen.

These sallies precipitated full-scale war. Clark accused Poe of duplicity and drunkenness, impotence and cowardice. Poe sued for libel and won but was nevertheless banished from literary circles. Increasingly depressed and erratic, he raged at his foes from a cottage in Fordham, thirteen miles out of town amid hills and heavy foliage, where he had moved in hopes that country air would aid his failing wife. It did not: she died in January 1847, their first winter there.

Poe hung on a while longer. He took long walks atop the Croton Aqueduct, visited Jesuit faculty friends at St. John’s College, and did some writing (with mixed success), including “Mellonta Tauta,” a tale that imagined the future destruction of New York City by earthquake. By 1849, having concluded that the entire northern literary establishment was conspiring to thwart him, Poe decided to move south. Two weeks after Mathew Brady took his photograph, he set off to explore Richmond. On his way back, he stopped off in Baltimore, where in 1849, drunk and delirious, he died, aged forty, in a public house.


Herman Melville had a bleaker yet more complex view of New York City than did Poe. Melville appreciated his hometown’s energy and diversity, but he could never forget that Manhattan’s marketplace had destroyed his father and stripped his family of its social position. Herman’s mother, Maria Gansevoort, traced her family to Hudson Valley Dutch aristocrats, and his father, Allan Melvill [sic], a descendant of Scottish nobility, had been educated as a gentleman. Allan, a successful Boston merchant, became convinced that New York was “destined to become the Commercial Emporium of our Country” and relocated there in 1818. Setting up as an importer of French luxury goods, he quartered his family in an elegant house on Pearl Street near the Battery.

Maria Melvill craved social distinction—she was thrilled when the mayor’s wife paid a welcome call—and soon after Herman was born in 1819 the family began a rapid ascent. Within two years they were ensconced in finer accommodations on Courtlandt Street, along with a housekeeper, cook, nurse, and waiter. In 1824 they climbed farther up-island to 33 Bleecker, whose proximity to “our Stylish Neighbours in Bond Street” delighted Maria. In 1828 the Melvills reached the pinnacle, a spacious house on Broadway, between Great Jones and Bond Street itself. Along the way, Maria gave her children the skills and graces appropriate to their would-be station. She taught them eti­quette herself and sent Herman and his elder brother, Gansevoort, to the New-York Male High School, Mrs. Whieldon’s dancing school, and the prestigious Columbia Grammar School, attended by pupils from the finest families.

Then catastrophe struck. Hard-pressed to compete with New York’s auctioneers, and dangerously overextended, Allan entered secretly into a speculative scheme that went sour. Maria’s wealthy brother reluctantly bailed him out, but Melvill was soon on the skids again, sliding toward an 1830 bankruptcy. The family fled to Albany, where they lived, humiliatingly, on the charity of relatives and where Allan, broken, died in 1832. Maria, hoping to give her children a fresh start, added an aristocratic e to their name, and for a time it seemed Gansevoort would make a go of his fur-and-cap business. But the Panic of 1837 wiped him out, plunging the Melvilles into indigence.

With the depression dragging on, Herman shipped out in 1839 as cabin boy on a square-rigger to Liverpool. In 1841 he signed up for a four-year cruise on a “blubberhunter” but jumped ship in the Marquesas, drifted about the South Pacific for a year, then returned and wrote up his recent adventures in a narrative that he submitted to Harpers. The firm turned him down, believing the tale untrue, but after his brother Gansevoort sold the work to an English company, Wiley and Putnam brought it out in New York, published, under the direction of Evert Duyckinck, as Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846).

Melville’s “peep” proved popular. His account of swimming nude with savage damsels was titillating yet not vulgar. His favorable comparison of Polynesian women’s free and uncomplicated sexuality to the “stiffness, formality and affectation” of Victorian ladies back home struck a chord. So did his sympathy for the South Sea natives, whom arrogant American missionaries had “evangelised into beasts of burden.” Irate religious papers assailed the sailor-author, but Margaret Fuller reviewed Typee favorably for the Tribune, and Harpers grabbed his next book—Omoo: A Narrative of Adventures in the South Seas—which came out in 1847 to good reviews and further fierce attacks.

Now a celebrated author, Melville moved to New York City with his new bride, Elizabeth Shaw. Pooling resources with his lawyer-brother, Allan, they bought a brownstone on Fourth Avenue, just behind Grace Church, a short walk to Barnum’s Museum and Astor House and a few blocks away from Duyckinck. The critic championed Melville against the religious press (an Episcopalian, Duyckinck had little sympathy for Methodist evangelists) and became his patron and mentor, inducting him into the ranks of Young America and guiding him into literary society.

Melville thrived in New York. Salon hostesses sought him out much as they had Poe. He read voraciously, borrowing from the New York Society Library and burrowing happily in Duyckinck’s massive book collection. He loved Duyckinck’s Saturday night suppers, where the Young America set debated literature, democracy, philosophy, and art over brandy and cigars. Embracing their cultural program, he rejected the Knicker-bocker gentry (as had Poe) and luxuriated in metropolitan sensations (as he was sure the Bard would have: “I would to God Shakspeare [sic] had lived later,” he wrote Duyckinck in 1849, “ & promenaded in Broadway”).

He wasn’t making much money, however, a situation that worsened after his next book, Mardi, departed from his established format and turned off reviewers and readers alike. Melville now reluctantly tailored his output to the marketplace, turning out two adventure stories, Redburn(1849) and White-Jacket (1850). “They are two jobs,” he complained, “which I have done for money—being forced to it, as other men are to sawing wood.”

Melville broke free again with Moby-Dick, not only from literary conventions but from New York City, the “insular city of the Manhattoes” whose citizens he characterized as “tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks.” In 1850 Melville moved to a 160-acre farm near Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He continued to make trips to Manhattan to visit friends and publishers, but his disenchantment with the city and its literary marketplace grew stronger. “Dollars damn me,” he wrote Hawthorne in 1851. “What I feel most moved to write, that is banned,—it will not pay.”

After Moby-Dick came out to cursory reviews and limited sales, Melville began to see readers as adversaries. Most enraging of all, his Young America allies at the Demo-cratic Review published a devastating critique, and his mentor Duyckinck, discomfited by the book (and perhaps by the fact that Harpers had published it), gave it a tepid review in the Literary World.

In Pierre (1852) Melville purged his anger with lacerating indictments of, among other things, New York City and its literati. The book’s doomed hero, Pierre Glendinning, cast out of his pastoral upstate world, comes to Manhattan, intending to support his Isabel by writing. In the end, however, both sink into urban depths as black as any in the city mystery genre. From their first arrival by coach at night, jounced along on cobblestones as hard as “the buried hearts of some dead citizens,” Melville depicts a menacing city, where money rules and the poor can expect no pity. He now disdains Broadway’s “proud-rustling promenaders” as “drooping trains of rival peacocks”—peacocks, moreover, who little realized how close pavement was to gutter in a city where (and here Melville spoke from experience) families “rise and burst like bubbles in a vat.” As for denizens of the gutter itself—“diseased-looking men and women of all colors”—they seemed to have been “poured out upon earth through the vile vomitory of some unmentionable cellar.” In the end Pierre falls into the city’s very bowels, the Tombs, where he commits suicide.

Pierre was a monumental failure—condemned (as the American Whig Review put it) for morals “repulsive to a well constituted mind”—with the critical establishment’s fury no doubt exacerbated by Melville’s having singled them out in the book as monsters. Now a literary outlaw, Melville was in desperate financial straits when Charles Briggs, Poe’s former partner at the Broadway Journal and now editor of Putnam’s Mag-azine, courageously solicited his work. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine followed suit, and the author soon gained greater success as a magazine writer than he ever had as a novelist.

Melville continued to blast away at the city as the apotheosis of America’s moneymad society, a place of deceit and despair. In 1853 Putnam’s brought out “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street,” about a clerk in the office of an elderly Episcopalian lawyer who does a “snug business among rich men’s bonds, and mortgages, and titledeeds.” Bartleby—“pallidly neat, pitiably respectable, incurably forlorn”—copies legal documents “by sun-light and by candle-light,” working “silently, palely, mechanically” in his cubbyhole, until the day he politely but firmly responds to the lawyer’s assignments with “I would prefer not to,” eventually declining all duties. Fired, he refuses to leave, and indeed moves in. His baffled employer, by turns concerned and furious, abandons the office to a new landlord, who has Bartleby thrown into the Tombs. There the inscrutable scrivener—more unknowable even than Poe’s Man of the Crowd—starves himself to death, declining life itself.

Melville also explored the sunshine-and-shadow mode. Harper’s published his “Poor Man’s Pudding and Rich Man’s Crumbs,” which excoriated the hypocritical wealthy, particularly “the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.” “The Two Temples,” which decried the snobbish atmosphere at a fictionalized Grace Church, proved too hot to print; even Briggs feared it “would sway against us the whole power of the pulpit.”

The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, Melville’s ferocious judgment on marketplace civilization, was brought out in 1857 by a small New York house that folded shortly thereafter. The title borrowed the label affixed to swindler William Thompson, and many of its characters were modeled on New Yorkers. More to the point, The Con-fidence-Man was set on a symbolic Mississippi riverboat, which represented a commodity culture, peopled by highly mobile strangers, of which Manhattan was the epitome (in “Bartleby” Melville referred to “the Mississippi of Broadway”). One trickster after another peddles bogus products—stocks, patent medicines, plots in a real estate development called “the New Jerusalem”—in a sardonic satire on the prevailing chicanery and manipulation of urban encounters. More darkly still, Melville indicts a civilization where all human exchange, including language itself, has become deeply corrupted.

Moody, depressed, and increasingly dependent on drink, Melville took a trip abroad. On his return he tried lecturing to make money. He first proposed a sarcastic talk on the “daily progress of man towards a state of intellectual & moral perfection, as evidenced in the history of 5th Avenue & 5 Points,” but in the end opted for safer subjects like the South Sea islands. Abandoning prose altogether, Melville tried poetry, only to have Charles Scribner decline to publish his poems on the grounds they wouldn’t pay. As the 1850s wound down, the frustrated professional writer, largely dependent on Elizabeth’s family, began casting about for a job in the New York Custom House. His long slow slide into obscurity had begun.


Both Walt Whitman and Herman Melville spent many hours standing in the Battery, gazing at the bay, but apparently they never met. Nor did the two men, though exact contemporaries, see their city the same way. Melville, a patrician on the way down, regarded it with an embittered eye, while Whitman, an artisan on the way up, became its exuberant celebrant.

Walter Whitman was born in 1819, two months before Herman Melville, in West Hills, Long Island. The Whitmans, English Quakers, had long been substantial farmers and landholders. So were the Dutch Van Velsors, and as a boy Walter often accompanied his maternal grandfather delivering produce to Brooklyn, a forty-mile wagon ride over tortuous roads. Walter’s father, apprenticed as a carpenter, raised houses as well as crops, and in 1823 he took his pregnant wife, Louisa, and their three children to seek his fortune in booming Brooklyn. He fared poorly. An old-fashioned artisan, he was shunted aside by contractors who hired unskilled and poorly paid laborers to throw up prefabricated dwellings. Over the next decade, the hard-pressed family shuttled repeatedly around the Brooklyn waterfront in search of affordable housing.

Young Walter was occasionally sent to Saint Ann’s Sunday school, but mainly for its free lunch, the elder Whitman having been a friend of Tom Paine and a follower of Fanny Wright. From 1825 to 1830 Walter attended Brooklyn’s only public school, on Adams and Concord, until family finances forced him, at age eleven, to seek employment. He worked for a time as an office boy at a Fulton Street law firm, then was apprenticed as a printer to the editor of the Long Island Patriot. In 1833 his family, defeated by the city, moved back to farm country. Walter stayed on, learning his trade, exploring Brooklyn, ferrying across to New York’s theaters.

In 1835, now a journeyman printer, Whitman moved to Manhattan. After a year spent in setting type, he too retreated to Long Island in the difficult aftermath of the Great Fire. Between 1836 and 1841 he started up and sold offa penny paper, set type for a Jamaica weekly, participated in politics as a Loco Foco Democrat, and taught school. In 1841 Walter plunged back into the world of Manhattan journalism, where, despite the ongoing depression, the mammoth weeklies and penny dailies offered opportunities for would-be writers and editors. Whitman worked awhile as a printer for Park Benjamin’s New World. He also wrote poems and stories and published some in the New World, its rival Brother Jonathan, and John O’Sullivan’s Democratic Review. In the spring of 1842, just shy of his twenty-third birthday, Whitman was hired to edit a recently established twopennny paper, the New York Aurora, completing his transformation from artisan printer to Grub Street professional.

Assuming a flaneuresque persona, the Aurora’s editor promised his readers a regular reckoning with “this great, dirty, blustering, glorious, ill-lighted, aristocratic, squalid, rich, wicked, and magnificent metropolis.” Duding himself up—his daguerreotypes depict a sophisticated dandy in frock coat and fashionable hat—he strolled around town, sporting a polished cane, absorbing scenes and characters. Whitman particularly explored the plebeian world of popular culture, visiting fire companies, gambling dens, whorehouses, and theaters, and he wrote up richly detailed sketches of newsboys, pawnbrokers, stage drivers, salesclerks, and butchers. He also captured the excitement of being on Broadway, reporting from atop a mobbed Yellow Bird omnibus or from a pavement crammed with enough people “to make one continued, ceaseless, devilish provoking, delicious, glorious jam!”

As a New York booster, Whitman was hard to top. Manhattan, he wrote, was “the great place of the Western Continent, the heart, the brain, the focus, the main spring, the pinnacle, the extremity, the no more beyond of the new world.” Yet he was not blind to its negatives. Whitman worried particularly about the city’s obliteration of its past, its “rabid, feverish, itching for change.” At one point he recounted the efforts of a large crowd of women to block workmen from digging up a Baptist cemetery at Crystie and Delancey, noting that in the end the speculators—“a set of miserable wretches” who wanted the land for house lots—succeeded in “desecrating the very grave in order to add something to their ill won heaps of gold.”

Dismissed from the Aurora, Whitman leapt nimbly from job to job. He worked as a penny-a-liner for the Daily Plebeian, run by Loco Foco Levi Slamm. He knocked out a popular temperance novel, Franklin Evans the Inebriate, admixing praise for the Washingtonian temperancites with sensational descriptions of miscegenation and murder (“damned rot,” he’d later say). He covered the courts and prison for Beach’s Sun (he would write a piece on jailhouse lawyers called “Tomb Shysters of Gotham”), contributed to Willis and Morris’s New-York Mirror, edited the Democrat(a party paper), and wrote for the Broadway Journal, where he met Poe when picking up his pay and found him “very kindly and human” if “perhaps a little jaded.” Clearly Whitman had mastered the art—better than had Poe—of staying afloat in a quicksilver literary marketplace.

Whitman’s housing arrangements were equally peripatetic. He moved repeatedly between boardinghouses on Spring, John, Vesey, and Duane streets until 1845. Then, after four years in Manhattan’s fast lane, dismayed to be still earning less than five dollars a week in an ever more viciously competitive industry, he returned to slower-paced Brooklyn, where his parents and five siblings had come to take another stab at housebuilding and where he would stay for the next seventeen years.

In March 1846 Whitman became editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. In the morning he penned editorials in his Fulton Street office, which commanded a good view of the ferry landing, then set out in search of stories. He might take a stagecoach to Fort Greene or Green-Wood Cemetery, attend a Sunday school picnic in Jamaica, drop in on sermons by Brooklyn preachers, or head south to Coney Island for a swim in its “beautiful, pure, sparkling, sea-water!”

Whitman was now a Brooklyn booster—he began referring to New York as “the Gomorrah across the river”—but didn’t shy from pointing out its downsides. He ran stories about crime and violence. He complained about filthy, ill-paved, and unlit streets. He criticized real estate developers for their “pull-down-and-build-over-again spirit” and sought to strengthen Brooklynites’ historical sensibilities by campaigning to commemorate the Prison Ship Martyrs. He even chided the crowds heedlessly rushing on and off the Brooklyn ferry and sighed: “How it deadens one’s sympathies, this living in a city!”

The Eagle was a Democratic paper, and Whitman was a vigorous party supporter. He also considered himself a foot soldier in Young America’s ranks, though he didn’t move in their social circles, and applauded projects O’Sullivan advanced in the Democ-ratic Review, seconded Duyckinck’s efforts to foster a national literature, and hailed Melville’s Typee. But in 1848, with the Democrats split into radical and conservative wings, the radical Whitman found himself at odds with the Eagle’s conservative owners and, once again, out of a job.

In the 1850s Whitman drifted away from journalism. He joined his brothers in speculative building ventures—purchasing lots, then erecting and selling frame houses. He abandoned his foppish dandy’s outfit for a workingman’s slouch hat, checked shirt, and baggy pants. But he never stopped his urban peregrinations. Whitman explored the two cities from end to end. Tuning his ear to the “superb music” of the streets and worksites, he jotted down slang expressions (among them “cave in,” “dry up,” “bully for you,” “that’s rough,” and “the New York Bowery boy—’Sa-a-a-y! What-a-t?’”). He loved the voices of “workmen and apprentices in the spar-yards, on piers, caulkers on the ship-scaffolds, workmen in iron, mechanics to or from their shops, drivers calling to their horses.” He dropped in often at Brady’s daguerreotype gallery (and called an essay series in the New York Leader “City Photographs”). Entranced by the Crystal Palace, he returned so often that officials assigned detectives to shadow the tall and roughly garbed man.

In 1854 a recession halted Brooklyn’s building boom. Unemployed, Walter returned to professional writing. On completing a dozen poems, he took them to a friend’s printshop (setting some himself) had himself daguerreotyped wearing an open-collared shirt, rumpled pants, and tilted round hat, adopted a new name (“Walt”), and by Independence Day of 1855 had eight hundred copies of Leaves of Grass ready for sale.


In 1854, Whitman posed as a New York rough for the Brooklyn daguerreotypist Gabriel Harrison, who specialized in the images of workingmen that were known as “occupationals.” The daguerreotype was then copied onto a lithographic plate and used as the frontispiece for Leaves of Grass (1855). (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

An ode to New York, Leaves was perhaps the first great urban epic. English poets had flinched from London. Poe and Melville found only alienation in the New York milieu. But Walt Whitman was gloriously at home in the city. Indeed, Whitman mas the city. No aloof, flaneurial observer, he incorporated into himself the masses crossing Brooklyn’s ferry or thronging New York’s streets. “When million-footed Manhattan unpent descends to her pavements,” he wrote, “I too arising, answering, descend to the pavements, merge with the crowd, and gaze with them.”

Yet Whitman maintained his individuality. Immersed in “Manhattan crowds, with their turbulent musical chorus!” he experienced not dissolution or isolation but sensuous delight. “Give me interminable eyes—give me women—give me comrades and lovers by the thousand!” he cried. “The life of the theatre, bar-room, huge hotel, for me!” he exulted. “Give me the streets of Manhattan!”

The crowd’s “million hued and ever changing panorama” inspired him to new metaphors with which to capture its sounds—“the blab of the pave, tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles, talk of the promenaders”—and its range of movement. Grace Church became a “ghostly light-house looming up over the porpoise-backs of the omnibuses, as they lift and toss in that unquiet sea.”

Whitman’s omnivorous curiosity embraced far more than crowds and streets. “This is the city and I am one of the citizens,” he declared. “Whatever interests the rest interests me, politics, wars, markets, newspapers, schools, / The mayor and councils, banks, tariffs, steamships, factories, stocks, stores, real estate and personal estate.” He hailed its industry: “On the neighboring shore, the fires from the foundry chimneys burning high and glaringly into the night, / Casting their flicker of black, contrasted with wild red and yellow light, and down into the clefts of streets.” He cherished its multiplicity: “city of the world! For all races are here; all the lands of the earth make contributions here.” He revered its superb shoreline—“hemm’d thick all around with sailships and steamships”—and its “high growth of iron, slender, strong, light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies.” “City of hurried and sparkling waters! city of spires and masts!” he exclaimed. “City nested in bays! my city!”

Yet in all this the poet was protesting a bit too much. The dazzling perfection of his “Manahatta” seems strangely distant from Manhattan, the city of grime and crime that journalist Whitman knew. “Manahatta” was Manhattan without a dark side, Manhattan with its contradictions resolved, dissolved. Broadway had become a metaphor—the highway of equal souls—and New York City the symbol of egalitarian and democratic community.

Whitman’s poetry finessed social and class tensions of which he was only too aware, which he himself embodied. It was, to be sure, saturated with a workingman’s sensibility. He was “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs,” “one who does not associate with literary people—a man never called upon to make speeches at public dinners . . . rather down in the bay with pilots in their pilot-boat. . . or riding on a Broadway omnibus, side by side with the driver.” And he could be severe with the “upper ten,” referring in “Song of Myself” to the “many sweating” and the “few idly owning” (in his notebooks he denounced the “vast ganglions of bankers and merchant princes”). He disliked posh Grace Church even more than Melville did, and on one occasion, when an overzealous usher removed Whitman’s hat, he grabbed it back, beat the man over the head with it, and swept out in a fury.

Yet Whitman didn’t grapple with the transformations these classes were undergoing. He rhapsodized the city’s growth and progress as if it came without cost, as if skilled artisans like his father were not plummeting in status and income. Nowhere were such changes more pronounced and more obvious than in the world of printing and publishing, where Harpers and the penny press were crowding out small artisanal publishers and one-man newspapers. Whitman himself had abandoned the compositor’s trade and sustained his artisanal journalism and artisanal authorship by moving to Brooklyn, where older ways remained viable. But if Whitman the journalist expressed dismay over aspects of modern publishing, Whitman the poet elided such concerns with a rapid-fire cataloging of the undoubted marvels that world had wrought: the “story papers, various, full of strong-flavored romances, widely circulated . . . the onecent and two-cent journals—the political ones, no matter what side—the weeklies in the country—the sporting and pictorial papers—the monthly magazines, with plentiful imported feed—the sentimental novels, numberless copies of them—the low-priced flaring tales, adventures, biographies—all are prophetic; all waft rapidly on . . . swell wide .. . What a progress popular reading and writing has made in fifty years! What a progress fifty years hence!”

There was little sense in Leaves that the artisanal and republican city was passing and ushering in the metropolis of slums and mansions to which the urban mysteries were calling relentless attention. Whitman didn’t see the imperiled city Melville did, perhaps because he had been relatively successful at negotiating his way in the new order. Or perhaps he hoped to suspend those changes, to freeze the present moment with the power of his poetry, thus holding in suspended animation the baleful metamorphosis against which Melville and Poe ineffectually railed.

Whatever its evasions, his masterpiece was an astonishing—and ironic—development. Here was the powerful urban voice Young America had long been calling for, yet the survivors of that movement never noticed its coming. They had not expected their literary messiah to be a half-educated carpenter’s son, a political journalist who consorted with b’hoys and coachmen. They’d been expecting the Great American Poem to issue from the parlor. Instead it bubbled up from the streets.

Whitman’s language threw them too. Young America sought a literary democracy but shied away from the country’s ruder idioms. Cornelius Mathews insisted it be American in the “purest, highest, broadest sense. Not such as is declaimed in taverns, ranted off in Congress.” In Pierre, a disillusioned Melville had warned Young Americans they would never produce a native literature because “vulgarity and vigor—two inseparable adjuncts” were denied them. What, then, were they to make of a poet whose work drew sustenance from minstrel shows, blood-and-thunder romances, and the penny press, who boasted that “copulation is no more rank to me than death is” and proclaimed “the scent of these arm-pits is aroma finer than prayer”?

Much of polite New York shuddered at Leaves of Grass, reviling Whitman as a disgusting barbarian, but not all the reviews were bad. Whitman the journalist had many friends in the press—Charles A. Dana said nice things in the Tribune, Fanny Fern applauded him in Bonner’s Ledger—and besides, Whitman had taken the precaution of publishing three glowing reviews himself. New Englanders, curiously, were the most supportive, perhaps because, with Charles Eliot Norton, they saw Whitman as fusing “yankee transcendentalism and New York rowdyism.” Emerson sent a splendid salutation and came to pay respects (Whitman took him to a rowdy Mercer Street firehouse for a glass of beer). Bronson Alcott made a pilgrimage to Whitman’s home on Classon Avenue, then came again with Thoreau in tow. Not all Yankee intellectuals were taken with Leaves of Grass, however: James Russell Lowell threw his copy in the fire and warned off a foreign visitor by declaiming, “Whitman is a rowdy, a New York tough, a loafer, a frequenter of low places, a friend of cab drivers!” But cab drivers didn’t buy the book either. Despite the workingman-poet’s strenuous efforts to reach a wider audience, he sold only several hundred copies.

Like Melville, Whitman had failed to get the hearing he wanted. Unlike Melville, Whitman didn’t fade away. Instead he went underground, joining the bohemians, New York’s first self-declared counterculture.

“Bohemians” was the French term for gypsies, based on the erroneous assumption that Bohemia was their original homeland. In the 1840s the name was affixed to the poor artists of Paris’s Latin Quarter—first in derision, then in fascination. Henry Murger’s romantic tales about the left bank’s denizens, serialized between 1845 and 1846, then published as Scenes de la vie de boheme in 1851, presented them as principled people who repudiated middle-class morality, held money in contempt, and adopted alternative work habits and domestic arrangements. The French bourgeoisie, initially scornful, became intrigued by their lifestyle, and some of the affluent adopted or affected their ways.

The apostle who brought the boho gospel to New York City was a Nantucket-born journalist and theatrical critic named Henry Clapp Jr. After several years’ residence in Paris, Clapp moved to Manhattan in the mid-fifties and gathered a like-minded group around him. Its members included Fitz-Hugh Ludlow, who would write The Hashish Eater about his drug experiences, and Ada Clare, the Charleston-born and independently wealthy writer who scandalized respectable New York by publishing torrid love poems and flaunting her illegitimate son. Bohemia also attracted writers, actors, artists, and students from the now sizable class of professional cultural workers, many of whom felt insufficiently remunerated or attended to.

Clapp’s circle found a home in 1855 when Charles Pfaff, a rotund German Swiss, opened a basement beer hall on Broadway, just north of Bleecker Street. Modeled on the rathskellers and underground grottos becoming popular in Europe, Pfaff’s offered the best coffee in town along with rich German beers, fine wines, and cheeses. At the cellar’s far end, extending beneath the sidewalk upon which Broadway’s endless crowds promenaded, was a vaulted “cave.” Here Pfaff reserved a long table for Clapp’s crew, who would filter in by late afternoon and again after an evening at the theater, to eat, drink, and inveigh against dull, respectable Manhattanites.

The bohemians adopted the departed Poe as their patron saint, attracted by his morbid writings, but they made Walt Whitman their reigning luminary. Even if he was not the most loquacious of the regulars (“my own greatest pleasure at Pfaff’s,” Whitman recalled, “was to look on—to see, talk little, absorb”) he nevertheless spread the tavern’s fame by writing of “The vault at Pfaff’s where the drinkers and laughers / meet to eat and drink and carouse / While on the walk immediately overhead pass the myriad / feet of Broadway.” By decades end, Pfaff’s vied with Castle Garden, Tammany Hall, and Barnum’s Museum as a New York City landmark.

The bohemians, in turn, promoted Walt’s reputation. In 1858 Clapp founded the New York Saturday Press, an irreverent weekly with radical perspectives on art and politics that showcased new American writing, especially Whitman’s. In distant Ohio, the youthful William Dean Howells was so impressed by the journal—it “really embodied the new literary life of the city”—that he made a pilgrimage to Pfaff’s in 1860 to visit its resident poet.

None of this paid Whitman’s bills. Having failed to support himself as a free-lance writer, he had returned to full-time journalism in 1857, becoming editor of the Brook-lyn Daily Times. His poetry had dried up too (though shortly to reflower), perhaps because he had exhausted the material he’d been ingesting for years. Leaves of Grass, he would later say, “arose out of my life in Brooklyn and New York from 1838 to 1853, absorbing a million people, for fifteen years, with an intimacy, an eagerness, an abandon, probably never equalled.”

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