“Life Illustrated Thoroughly”

Market Street Ferry, Front and Market Streets, December 16, 1915 (PhillyHistory.org)

As we learned last time, Whitman much preferred the ferry. Not that bridges didn’t have their fine points. A night on the Mississippi, for instance. Whitman “haunted the river every night…where I could get a look at the [Eads] bridge by moonlight. It is indeed a structure of perfection and beauty unsurpassable, and I never tire of it.”

From far away, Whitman praised even the Brooklyn Bridge, which ultimately made obsolete his favorite Fulton Ferry. “To the right the East river—the mast-hemme’d shores—the grand obelisk-like towers of the bridge, one on either side, in haze, yet plainly defin’d, giant brothers twain, throwing free graceful interlinking loops high across the tumbled tumultuous current below…”

But up close and personal, Whitman always chose the ferry. “It is impossible to overstate the psychic investment [Whitman] had in ferries,” writes Arthur Geffen, who argues that the Brooklyn Bridge “became psychologically disturbing to him because it endangered a world in which he had made deep personal investments.”

On the water, Whitman could experience and celebrate all that he saw: “Such a show as the Delaware presented an hour before sundown yesterday evening, all along between Philadelphia and Camden… It was full tide, a fair breeze from the southwest, the water of a pale tawny color, and just enough motion to make things frolicsome and lively. Add to these an approaching sunset of unusual splendor, a broad fumble of clouds, with much golden haze and profusion of beaming shaft and dazzle.”

Delaware Avenue, North From Market Street, ca. 1890 (PhillyHistory.org/Free Library of Philadelphia)

On the water, Whitman could revel in the humanity. Ferry crossings became his signature events, experiences that started on richly crowded landings. As he observed in Specimen Days:

“The reception room, for passengers waiting—life illustrated thoroughly. Take a March picture I jotted there two or three weeks since. Afternoon, about 3 1/2 o’clock, it begins to snow. There has been a matinee performance at the theater—from 4 1/4 to 5 comes a stream of homeward bound ladies. I never knew the spacious room to present a gayer, more lively scene—handsome, well-drest Jersey women and girls, scores of them, streaming in for nearly an hour—the bright eyes and glowing faces, coming in from the air—a sprinkling of snow on bonnets or dresses as they enter—the five or ten minutes’ waiting—the chatting and laughing—(women can have capital times among themselves, with plenty of wit, lunches, jovial abandon)—Lizzie, the pleasant-manner’d waiting room woman—for sound, the bell-taps and steam-signals of the departing boats with their rhythmic break and undertone—the domestic pictures, mothers with bevies of daughters, (a charming sight)—children, countrymen—the railroad men in their blue clothes and caps—all the various characters of city and country represented or suggested. Then outside some belated passenger frantically running, jumping after the boat. Towards six o’clock the human stream gradually thickening—now a pressure of vehicles, drays, piled railroad crates — now a drove of cattle, making quite an excitement, the drovers with heavy sticks, belaboring the steaming sides of the frighten’d brutes. Inside the reception room, business bargains, flirting, love-making, eclaircissements, proposals—pleasant, sober-faced Phil coming in with his burden of afternoon papers—or Jo, or Charley (who jump’d in the dock last week, and saved a stout lady from drowning,) to replenish the stove, after clearing it with long crow-bar poker.”

“Besides all this ‘comedy human.’ The river affords nutriment of a higher order.” And Whitman goes on to share some of his “memoranda of the past winter, just as pencill’d down on the spot.” For that, best to track down a copy of Specimen Days or simply click here and read.

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