Erin M. for Nov. 15

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Mannahatta vs. Broadway: Whitman’s Two Visions of New York and his life

In this week’s reading of the First Annex, the poems Mannahatta and Broadway stood out to me. I think this was partially because Mannahatta was the poem I annotated for this Thursday.  :O) But, more so I chose these two poems because they detail such contrasting views of New York City. “Mannahatta” chronicles NY before it was a bustling metropolis and “Broadway” deplicts the glitz and glamour of the city after its development. Also, on a deeper level, and within the context of the deathbed edition of Leaves,  I see these poems as metaphors for Whitman’s life.

Starting with “Broadway” Whitman depicts the high energy and youth of the city. We can see the flurry of people and all of their emotions flowing with all the hustle and bustle of life. He writes:

What hurrying human tides, or day or night! What passions, winnings, losses, ardors, swim thy waters!

What whirls of evils, bliss and sorrow, stem thee!

What curious questioning glances—glints of love!

Leer, envy, scorn, contempt, hope, aspiration!

Thou portal—thou arena—thou of the myriad long drawn lines and groups! (p624 lines 1-6)

These lines recall not only the energy and spirit of the city, but also the energy of the descriptions of nature and nature and the body in “Song of Myself” or Whitman’s inspirational descriptions in poems like “America” and “Pioneers” He goes on to say basically, if these walls could talk in line 7 and in the final lines goes on to describe the life he believes the rich live in the city, with their beautiful hotels and store windows. I think this life is one that Walt would have embraced if he had the means, however he also saw the richness and beauty in the simple, everyday and natural world and embraced that with the same excitement with which he embraces broadway here. Unfortunately, he did die poor and never got to experience the rich life first hand, but reveled in it, nonetheless through observation. So, Broadway for me captures Walt’s youthful spirit and reflects his passion in early writings like “Song”, but for me “Mannahatta” is a quieter poem that seems to depict the life of mature Whitman.

“Mannahatta” is a poem that yearns for the return to a simpler Manhattan, a Manhattan that was lush with plant life and wildlife where the only rush was the rush of sea waves, not the progress of crowds and industry. As I said in my annotation, “Mannahatta” was the indigenous name for Manhattan given by the Native Americans; it means “land of many hills”. And Whitman seems to be aching for a return to the time when Mannahattan life was that simple since he italicized the poems final line “A rocky founded island—shores wherever gayly dash the coming, going , hurrying sea waves (Whitman line 3).  I could see an aging Whitman writing this poem. He can no longer participate in the activities of the city, so instead he wants the quiet times when staring at the ocean was all that was required to bring joy.

I reversed the order of these poems in order to present them in terms of Walt’s life from youth to death. But, you can also view them in the order in which they are presented here. I wrote about “Mannahatta” as an ending, but maybe Walt wrote it so his life would start over, metaphorically. He is about 70 years old here and perhaps he thought. if I capture the spirit of the start of New York, I can start over a bit myself! and “Broadway” could still represent his youthful side. We’ll never know, but I like to view the poem both ways!

3 Responses to “Erin M. for Nov. 15”

  1. emilym Says:
    Avatar of emilym

    I like your concept.

  2. bmzreece Says:
    Avatar of bmzreece

    There is a lot of energy in the “Broadway” lines you cite. Before, I would have thought of Whitman as more nature-oriented and concerned about the loss of nature inherent with societal development; but Whitman is such a lover of humanity that he embraces any technology or development that brings people together, whether those people experience and express “evils, bliss [or] sorrow.”

  3. Saundra Serpa Says:

    You’re crushing it on this blog, dude.

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