Dead Wood: A Letter from New York. August 19, 1841
A young abolitionist writer arrives on the streets of the modern Babylon.
DEAD WOOD brings you regular excerpts from the years before ideas became “content”. Some editions will be serious and thought-provoking. Some will be ludicrous or silly. Some will be chosen just because they happened to strike us as particularly interesting.
The letter below is excerpted from Lydia Maria Child’s “Letters from New York,” which appeared as regular columns in the National Anti-Slavery Standard. Child had arrived in New York from Boston in 1841 both to advance the cause of abolitionism and also to save her family’s finances. Her husband’s most recent career attempt—beet sugar manufacturing—had failed and the couple escaped bankruptcy only through the promise of a $1000 per year salary for Lydia at the New York-based abolitionist paper. Child was already a well-known author. She had written a series of popular novels and histories, all of which contained then-radical ideas about interracial marriage, the equality of the sexes and Native American rights. In her tenure at the National Anti-Slavery Standard, she proposed to unite the in-fighting factions of the abolitionist movement and to expand the paper’s audience among the general public. One of her great successes was the publication of her “Letters from New York,” which were so popular that she gathered them into a best-selling book in 1850.
Despite her fame in the mid-1800s, Child has largely been forgotten. Her politics were so radical for her time that she was frequently disowned by the literary establishment, and her writing style is more grandiose and romantic than modern readers will generally tolerate. But her letters are still available, thanks to the Archives of the New York Public Library and the Internet Archive. They contain rich descriptions of the bustling life and characters of the city and all the excitement of a young writer beginning her adventure.
You ask what is now my opinion of this great Babylon; and playfully remind me of former philippics, and a long string of vituperative alliterations, such as magnificence and mud, finery and filth, diamonds and dirt, bullion and brass-tape, etc etc. Nor do you forget my first impression of the city, when we arrived at early dawn, amid fog and drizzling rain, the expiring lamps adding their smoke to the impure air, and close beside us a boat called the 'Fairy Queen,' laden with dead hogs.
Well, Babylon remains the same as then. The din of crowded life, and the eager chase for gain, still run through its streets, like the perpetual murmur of a hive. Wealth dozes on French couches, thrice piled, and canopied with damask, while Poverty camps on the dirty pavement, or sleeps off its wretchedness in the watch-house. There, amid the splendour of Broadway, sits the blind negro beggar, with horny hand and tattered garments, while opposite to him stands the stately mansion of the slave trader, still plying his bloody trade, and laughing to scorn the cobweb laws, through which the strong can break so easily.
“Nor do you forget my first impression of the city, when we arrived at early dawn…and close beside us a boat called the 'Fairy Queen,' laden with dead hogs.”
In Wall-street, and elsewhere, Mammon, as usual, coolly calculates his chance of extracting a penny from war, pestilence, and famine; and Commerce, with her loaded drays, and jaded skeletons of horses, is busy as ever fulfilling the 'World's contract with the Devil.' The noisy discord of the street-cries gives the ear no rest; and the weak voice of weary childhood often makes the heart ache for the poor little wanderer, prolonging his task far into the hours of night. Sometimes, the harsh sounds are pleasantly varied by some feminine voice, proclaiming in musical cadence, 'Hot corn! hot corn!' with the poetic addition of 'Lily white corn! Buy my lily white corn !' When this sweet, wandering voice salutes my ear, my heart replies —
'Tis a glancing gleam o' the gift of song — And the soul that speaks hath suffered wrong.
There was a time when all these things would have passed by me like the flitting figures of the magic lantern, or the changing scenery of a theatre, sufficient for the amusement of an hour. But now, I have lost the power of looking merely on the surface. Every thing seems to me to come from the Infinite, to be filled with the Infinite, to be tending toward the Infinite. Do I see crowds of men hastening to extinguish a fire? I see not merely uncouth garbs, and fantastic flickering lights of lurid hue, like a tramping troop of gnomes, — but straightway my mind is filled with thoughts about mutual helpfulness, human sympathy, the common bond of brotherhood, and the mysteriously deep foundations on which society rests; or rather, on which it now reels and totters.
“Sometimes, the harsh sounds are pleasantly varied by some feminine voice, proclaiming in musical cadence, 'Hot corn! hot corn!'“
But I am cutting the lines deep, when I meant only to give you an airy, unfinished sketch. I will answer your question by saying, that though New York remains the same, I like it better. This is partly because I am like the Lady's Delight, ever prone to take root, and look up with a smile, in whatever soil you place it; and partly because bloated disease, and black gutters, and pigs uglier than their ugly kind, no longer constitute the foreground in my picture of New York. I have become more familiar with the pretty parks, dotted about here and there; with the shaded alcoves of the various public gardens; with blooming nooks, and 'sunny spots of greenery.' I am fast inclining to the belief that the Battery rivals our beautiful Boston Common. The fine old trees are indeed wanting; but the newly-planted groves offer the light, flexile gracefulness of youth, to compete with their matured majesty of age. In extent, and variety of surface, this noble promenade is greatly inferior to ours ; but there is
' The sea, the sea, the open sea; The fresh, the bright, the ever free.
Most fitting symbol of the Infinite, this trackless pathway of a world! heaving and stretching to meet the sky it never reaches — like the eager, unsatisfied aspirations of the human soul. The most beautiful landscape is imperfect without this feature. In the eloquent language of Lamartine — 'The sea is to the scenes of nature what the eye is to a fine countenance; it illuminates them, it imparts to them that radiant physiognomy, which makes them live, speak, enchant, and fascinate the attention of those who contemplate them.'
“I will answer your question by saying, that though New York remains the same, I like it better.”
If you deem me heretical in preferring the Battery to the Common, consecrated by so many pleasant associations of my youth, I know you will forgive me, if you will go there in the silence of midnight, to meet the breeze on your cheek, like the kiss of a friend; to hear the continual plashing of the sea, like the cool sound of oriental fountains ; to see the moon look lovingly on the sea-nymphs, and throw down wealth of jewels on their shining hair; to look on the ships in their dim and distant beauty, each containing within itself, a little world of human thought, and human passion.
Or go, when night, with her thousand eyes, looks down into the heart, making it also great—when she floats above us, dark and solemn, and scarcely sees her image in the black mirror of the ocean. The city lamps surround you, like a shining belt of descended constellations, fit for the zone of Urania; while the pure bright stars peep through the dancing foliage, and speak to the soul of thoughtful shepherds on the ancient plains of Chaldea. And there, like mimic Fancy, playing fantastic freaks in the very presence of heavenly Imagination, stands Castle Garden — with its gay perspective of coloured lamps, like a fairy grotto, where imprisoned fire-spirits send up sparkling wreaths, or rockets laden with glittering ear-drops, caught by the floating sea-nymphs, as they fall.
“Go there in the silence of midnight, to… hear the continual plashing of the sea, like the cool sound of oriental fountains.”
But if you would see the Battery in all its glory, look at it when, through the misty mantle of retreating dawn, is seen the golden light of the rising sun! Look at the horizon, where earth, sea, and sky, kiss each other, in robes of reflected glory! The ships stretch their sails to the coming breeze, and glide majestically along — fit and graceful emblems of the Past; steered by Necessity; the Will constrained by outward Force. Quick as a flash, the steamboat passes them by — its rapidly revolving wheel made golden by the sunlight, and dropping diamonds to the laughing Nereides, profusely as pearls from Prince Esterhazy' s embroidered coat. In that steamer, see you not an appropriate type of the busy, powerful, self- conscious Present? Of man's Will conquering outward Force; and thus making the elements his servants?
From this southern extremity of the city, anciently called ' The Wall of the Half-Moon,' you may, if you like, pass along the Bowery to Bloomingdale, on the north. What a combination of flowery sounds to take captive the imagination! It is a pleasant road, much used for fashionable drives ; but the lovely names scarcely keep the promise they give the ear; especially to one accustomed to the beautiful environs of Boston.
During your ramble, you may meet wandering musicians. Perhaps a poor Tyrolese with his street- organ, or a Scotch lad, with shrill bag-pipe, decorated with tartan ribbons. Let them who will, despise their humble calling. Small skill, indeed, is needed to grind forth that machinery of sounds; but my heart salutes them with its benison, in common with all things that cheer this weary world. I have little sympathy with the severe morality that drove these tuneful idlers from the streets of Boston. They are to the drudging city what Spring birds are to the country. This world has passed from its youthful, Troubadour Age, into the thinking, toiling Age of Reform. This we may not regret, because it needs must be. But welcome, most welcome, all that brings back reminiscences of its childhood, in the cheering voice of poetry and song.
Therefore blame me not, if I turn wearily aside from the dusty road of reforming duty, to gather flowers in sheltered nooks, or play with gems in hidden grottoes. The Practical has striven hard to suffocate the Ideal within me ; but it is immortal, and cannot die. It needs but a glance of Beauty from earth or sky, and it starts into blooming life, like the aloe touched by fairy wand.
The whole collection of “Letters from New York” are worth reading. You can find the full book on the Internet Archive.
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