Fulton Street, And Walt Whitman by Christopher Morley

Story type: EssayAt the suggestion of Mr. Christopher Clarke, the Three Hours for Lunch Club made pilgrimage to the old seafaring tavern at No. 2 Fulton Street, and found …

Story type: Essay

At the suggestion of Mr. Christopher Clarke, the Three Hours for Lunch Club made pilgrimage to the old seafaring tavern at No. 2 Fulton Street, and found it to be a heavenly place, with listing brass-shod black walnut stairs and the equally black and delightful waiter called Oliver, who (said Mr. Clarke) has been there since 1878.

But the club reports that the swordfish steak, of which it partook as per Mr. Clarke’s suggestion, did not appeal so strongly to its taste. Swordfish steak, we feel, is probably a taste acquired by long and diligent application. At the first trial it seemed to the club a bit too reptilian in flavour. The club will go there again, and will hope to arrive in time to grab one of those tables by the windows, looking out over the docks and the United Fruit Company steamer which is so appropriately named the Banan; but it is the sense of the meeting that swordfish steak is not in its line.

The club retorts to Mr. Clarke by asking him if he knows the downtown chophouse where one may climb sawdusted stairs and sit in a corner beside a framed copy of the New-York Daily Gazette of May 1, 1789, at a little table incised with the initials of former habitues, and hold up toward the light a glass of the clearest and most golden and amberlucent cider known to mankind, and before attacking a platter of cold ham and Boston beans, may feel that smiling sensation of a man about to make gradual and decent advances toward a ripe and ruddy appetite.

Fulton Street has always been renowned for its taverns. The Old Shakespeare Tavern used to be there, as is shown by the tablet at No. 136 commemorating the foundation of the Seventh Regiment. The club has always intended to make more careful exploration of Dutch Street, the little alley that runs off Fulton Street on the south side, not far from Broadway. There is an eating place on this byway, and the organization plans to patronize it, in order to have an excuse for giving itself the sub-title of the Dutch Street Club. The more famous eating houses along Fulton Street are known to all: the name of at least one of them has a genial Queen Anne sound. And only lately a very seemly coffee house was established not far from Fulton and Nassau. We must confess our pleasure in the fact that this place uses as its motto a footnote from The Spectator–“Whoever wished to find a gentleman commonly asked not where he resided, but which coffee house he frequented.”

Among the many things to admire along Fulton Street (not the least of which are Dewey’s puzzling perpetually fluent grape-juice bottle, and the shop where the trained ferrets are kept, for chasing out rats, mice, and cockroaches from your house, the sign says) we vote for that view of the old houses along the south side of the street, where it widens out toward the East River. This vista of tall, leaning chimneys seems to us one of the most agreeable things in New York, and we wonder whether any artist has ever drawn it. As our colleague Endymion suggested, it would make a fine subject for Walter Jack Duncan. In the eastern end of this strip of fine old masonry resides the seafaring tavern we spoke of above; formerly known as Sweet’s, and a great place of resort (we are told) for Brooklynites in the palmy days before the Bridge was opened, when they used to stop there for supper before taking the Fulton Ferry across the perilous tideway.

The Fulton Ferry–dingy and deserted now–is full of fine memories. The old waiting room, with its ornate carved ceiling and fine, massive gas brackets, peoples itself, in one’s imagination, with the lively and busy throngs of fifty and sixty years ago. “My life then (1850-60) was curiously identified with Fulton Ferry, already becoming the greatest in the world for general importance, volume, variety, rapidity, and picturesqueness.” So said Walt Whitman. It is a curious experience to step aboard one of the boats in the drowsy heat of a summer afternoon and take the short voyage over to the Brooklyn slip, underneath one of the huge piers of the Bridge. A few heavy wagons and heat-oppressed horses are almost the only other passengers. Not far away from the ferry, on the Brooklyn side, are the three charmingly named streets–Cranberry, Orange, and Pineapple–which are also so lastingly associated with Walt Whitman’s life. It strikes us as odd, incidentally, that Walt, who loved Brooklyn so much, should have written a phrase so capable of humorous interpretation as the following: “Human appearances and manners–endless humanity in all its phases–Brooklyn also.” This you will find in Walt’s Prose Works, which is (we suppose) one of the most neglected of American classics.

But Fulton Street, Manhattan–in spite of its two greatest triumphs: Evelyn Longman Batchelder’s glorious figure of “Lightning,” and the strictly legal “three grains of pepsin” which have been a comfort to so many stricken invalids–is a mere byway compared to Fulton Street, Brooklyn, whose long bustling channel may be followed right out into the Long Island pampas. At the corner of Fulton and Cranberry streets “Leaves of Grass” was set up and printed, Walt Whitman himself setting a good deal of the type. Ninety-eight Cranberry Street, we have always been told, was the address of Andrew and James Rome, the printers. The house at that corner is still numbered 98. The ground floor is occupied by a clothing store, a fruit stand, and a barber shop. The building looks as though it is probably the same one that Walt knew. Opposite it is a sign where the comparatively innocent legend BEN’S PURE LAGER has been deleted.

The pilgrim on Fulton Street will also want to have a look at the office of the Brooklyn Eagle, that famous paper which has numbered among its employees two such different journalists as Walt Whitman and Edward Bok. There are many interesting considerations to be drawn from the two volumes of Walt’s writings for the Eagle, which were collected (under the odd title “The Gathering of the Forces”) by Cleveland Rodgers and John Black. We have always been struck by the complacent naivete of Walt’s judgments on literature (written, perhaps, when he was in a hurry to go swimming down at the foot of Fulton Street). Such remarks as the following make us ponder a little sadly. Walt wrote:

We are no admirer of such characters as Doctor Johnson. He was a sour, malicious, egotistical man. He was a sycophant of power and rank, withal; his biographer narrates that he “always spoke with rough contempt of popular liberty.” His head was educated to the point of plus, but for his heart, might still more unquestionably stand the sign minus. He insulted his equals … and tyrannized over his inferiors. He fawned upon his superiors, and, of course, loved to be fawned upon himself…. Nor were the freaks of this man the mere “eccentricities of genius”; they were probably the faults of a vile, low nature. His soul was a bad one.

The only possible comment on all this is that it is absurd, and that evidently Walt knew very little about the great Doctor. One of the curious things about Walt–and there is no man living who admires him more than we do–is that he requires to be forgiven more generously than any other great writer. There is no one who has ever done more grotesquely unpardonable things than he–and yet, such is the virtue of his great, saline simplicity, one always pardons them. As a book reviewer, to judge from the specimens rescued from the Eagle files by his latest editors, he was uniquely childish.

Noting the date of Walt’s blast on Doctor Johnson (December 7, 1846), it is doubtful whether we can attribute the irresponsibility of his remarks to a desire to go swimming.

The editors of this collection venture the suggestion that the lighter pieces included show Walt as “not devoid of humour.” We fear that Walt’s waggishness was rather heavily shod. Here is a sample of his light-hearted paragraphing (the italics are his):–

Carelessly knocking a man’s eye out with a broken axe, may be termed a bad axe-i-dent.

It was in Leon Bazalgette’s “Walt Whitman” that we learned of Walt’s only really humorous achievement; and even then the humour was unconscious. It seems that during the first days of his life as a journalist in New York, Walt essayed to compromise with Mannahatta by wearing a frock coat, a high hat, and a flower in his lapel. We regret greatly that no photo of Walt in this rig has been preserved, for we would like to have seen the gentle misery of his bearing.

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