Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Walt Whitman Walt Whitman home page

Whitman and New York City

Walt Whitman drew poetic inspiration from New York City. Then, as now, the city was a magnet for international immigrants as well as young Americans seeking employment and adventure.

enlarge Aquatint, New York from Heights near Brooklyn, 1823.

Aquatint, New York from Heights near Brooklyn, 1823. I. N. Phelps Stokes Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

enlarge Engraving,

Engraving, "Travelling on the Erie Canal," 1826. NYPL Digital Gallery, The New York Public Library

enlarge Illustration,

Illustration, "Emigrants leaving Queenstown for New York," 1874. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

enlarge A New York City street scene, c1900.

A New York City street scene, c1900. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

enlarge Etching,

Etching, "Broadway, New-York," c1834. NYPL Digital Gallery, The New York Public Library

Densely Populated
In Whitman's day, New York was simply Manhattan Island. Brooklyn was a separate city across the unspanned river. And while Brooklyn was the seventh largest city in the United States in 1840, New York with more than 300,000 inhabitants, was almost ten times as populous.

Bustling Port
The city's economy had grown steadily since the opening of the Erie Canal connecting the Hudson River to the Great Lakes in 1825. It created an American-controlled commercial route from the Atlantic Ocean to the bounties of the Midwest. Access to the interior made the port of New York more attractive to trade from around the world.

A Mandated Grid
The city was growing north along the island, in an orderly manner established by the Commissioner's Plan of 1811. The plan mandated a grid of streets and avenues in future expansions north of 14th Street, with about twenty streets to a mile. By 1840, the city had grown about half a mile north with buildings as far 23rd Street on the west side. It wouldn't be until 1853 that Central Park was conceived, running from 59th to 110th Streets.

Magnet for Immigrants
Much of the growth was fueled by the continual infusion of immigrants -- as many as 2,000 a day. In the early nineteenth century many of the newest New Yorkers were Irish Catholics escaping famine. With the increased population living so densely, however, diseases could quickly escalate into epidemics. New York suffered from outbreaks of yellow fever, cholera, malaria, typhoid and other maladies.

Animals and Filth
Along with throngs of people, many thousands of other creatures called New York home -- ones that neighed, mooed, clucked, oinked and baaed. Horses provided the main source of transportation -- pulling trolleys, carts, carriages, and Whitman's beloved omnibus. A single draft animal produced 24 pounds of manure a day. When horses died, they were too heavy to remove and their corpses would be left to decompose until they could be carted away in pieces. There was no sanitation department to clean the animal (and human) waste that accumulated in the streets.

Center of Wealth and Culture
At same time, New York was seen as a place where someone could make a fortune -- and enjoy it. Ever since Alexander Hamilton had established the American financial system, New York had been a center of wealth. Dozens of daily and weekly newspapers competed for attention and provided work for ambitious young writers like Whitman. Museums and theaters offered Old World and New World cultural arenas for urbanites like Whitman to explore.

City of Multitudes
To paraphrase Whitman, the city contained multitudes -- and seeming contradictions. Densely populated slums existed just around the corner from some of the most glamorous addresses in America. In the city, Whitman found inspiration, and his books celebrated the urban bustle he loved.

Whitman's Poetry: Leaves of Grass | Whitman and New York City | Whitman, Emerson, and 19th Century Literary America
Whitman and Race | Walt Whitman and the Civil War | Walt Whitman (1819-1892)








Additional funding for this
program was provided by:



Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this Web site do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.