“I am large, I contain multitudes.” We continue to remember that self-declared truth about Walt Whitman in this, his 200th birth year. In our American and New York imaginations, he does loom so much larger than simply poet and journalist. We have, in the past, explored on this blog his service as a comforter and nurse to wounded soldiers in the Civil War, his curiosity about the ancient world, and his brief, handwritten rule of poetry.
Walt Whitman’s journalism took him several places, but his heart was in Manhattan and Brooklyn. In the Civil War years before he left for Washington, D.C., he wrote as a historian of Brooklyn and as an observer of physicians in the New York hospitals (all of this material has been heroically compiled and made available in the Whitman Archive). In a few somewhat ambling pieces in the New York Leader in the spring of 1862, the writer walks the Bowery, embracing and remembering. It was only in the twentieth century that this pseudonymous writer, “Velsor Brush,” was identified as Whitman, a reminder that Walt still leaves us much to discover:
I had such a pleasant time strolling last Monday afternoon, enveloped on all sides with hubbub, haste, and countless thousands of people—I must here resume the thing, after a fashion, and tuck you, reader, under my arm. Then the reminiscences that flit around us as we stroll—we will arrest them too.”
“Velsor Brush” even calls the series “City Photographs,” allowing us twenty-first century readers to pause and recall that photography was still quite new in 1862, especially in depicting the street scenes that Whitman reveled in. Newspapers of the day did not carry photographs, and thus Whitman’s prose came to the reader looking like this:
Even the images we supply here can seem still and stale compared to the writer’s vibrant observations and memories.
“The Bowery” refers to the old Dutch word for farmland, but it is hardly bucolic in 1862:
The Bowery! Pleasing phrase or name, of arboricultural assumptions, which I am in favor of retaining now and forever; but it must be confessed the verdure of the place is at present very bogus. A brown and faded cedar branch or two, nailed on top of an awning-post—the puny flower-pots of the ‘Apollo summer garten,’ and the drab and brown collections in ‘the old herb root store,’ are the sole remains of this once so copiously rural, shrubby, viny, orchardy, cabbagey road.”
When compared to Broadway,
The scale here is conventionally lower, but it is more pungent. Things are in their working-day clothes, more democratic, with a broader, jauntier swing, and in a more direct contact with vulgar life.”
The Bowery hotels are hardly as fancy, being the preference of the less sophisticated men from the country:
In the groups at the doors, in the dining rooms, at the bars, you smell the fresh smell of market wagons, cattle on the hoof, the well-loaded schooner or hay-boat, and also smell money in the pocket, besides.”
But these farmers and mariners are warned not to be naïve about what could happen to that money:
Yet the complexion of this part of the Bowery is not invariably that of conscious innocence. Nay, it must be said that the pocket-books just alluded to sometimes go home shorn of their good proportions by methods that are not pastoral.”
The Bowery especially elicits memories from a teen-aged lover of novels and theater:
Let me confess how I crammed all that range of time as an insatiable romance-devourer (from a circulating library) and a perpetual theatre-goer. But it was very pleasant. Illusions of youth! Dreams of a child of the Bowery!”
A Richard III performance by Junius Brutus Booth was to be remembered for a lifetime, but John Wilkes Booth was a pale imitation. It provoked this review, given in all innocence of the terrible role Booth had yet to play three years later:
I went to see the old man’s son, Wilkes, play his Richard, during the engagement a month or so ago at Mary Provost’s theatre, having heard the said Wilkes’ acting praised. It is about as much like his father’s, as the wax bust of Henry Clay, in the window down near Howard street, a few blocks below the theatre, is like the genuine orator in the Capitol, when his best electricity was flashing alive in him and out of him.”
He concludes: Farewell, Old Bowery!
But nearly all I have named are dead, and the old theatre seems, these current days and nights, to sulk and mourn for them. I went by there the other night, and it was all gloomy enough. No more crowds around, no gas-clusters beaming down light in showered plenty, no more prosperous peanut stands.”
Now, instead, our wanderer can note the influx of German immigrants who gather in their beer halls:
All the east side is full of German operatives. To go off for a couple of hours of an evening, or six or seven hours of a Sunday, is their main hold upon life outside of their daily work. And these hours are identified with lager.”
Waiters clutching in their hands astonishing quantities of glasses, glide to and fro, working their way through impossible places, with snake-like agility. (This feat of carrying a couple of dozen glasses in each hand is worth noticing.)”
Somewhere around is a shooting-gallery attached, for amid all the din of the band, the click of glasses, the unrestrained laughter and talk of six or eight hundred people, and the raps on the tables to call the waiters, you hear the crack, crack! of the bogus rifles, firing wooden missiles at a target against the wall (at two cents a shot).”
There is much friendship—occasionally an embrace.”
Whitman also notices the Jewish presence in the beer halls, and, in his signature way of embracing all, he manages to connect their headgear to that of “Mose,” the proto-typical tough “Bowery Boy” of the day:
Among the audience are numerous descendants of the race that escaped from Egypt and crossed a certain sea dry-shod. Here they are in the Bowery, many of them with hats of the Mose style.”
Meanwhile, the young fellows (good-looking and healthy) waltz, waltz, waltz away. Of course there are the inevitable cakes and pretzel.”
 Charles I. Glicksberg in Walt Whitman and the Civil War (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1933) is credited with this discovery.
This post is by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections.