Course Guide: Nature in the City

Adam Gopnik's "Olmsted's Trip" and Walt Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"

Similarities between Frederick Law Olmsted and Walt Whitman:

  1. Both began their careers as East Coast journalists.
  2. Both took trips to the South and were outspoken against slavery. Olmsted wrote a definitive book on the South and Whitman worked as a male nurse during the Civil War.
  3. The two were contemporaries: Olmsted (1822-1903); Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
  4. Both shared similar American ideas about aesthetic construction. While Olmsted created a wholly democratic park with what Gopnik refers to as a "deliberate absence of orientation, of clear planning and of familiar reassuring lucidity," Whitman created a poem without the controlling structures of conventional rhyme and meter (i.e. the first free verse poems).
  5. Both react against the traditional European approaches to creating parks/ poems. While conventional European parks direct the visitor with guiding alleyways, and often contain a central monument that expose these parks as imperial rather than democratic, even when they are opened to the general public. (Examples of European style parks include the Jardin du Luxembourg or the grounds at Versailles.) Similarly, Whitman rejects traditional structures like the sonnet that, through regularity of rhythm and meter and other conventional turning points, guide the reader through the poem.
***In short, one might regard Central Park as the landscape equivalent of Whitman's free verse poetry.

When examining "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" in a unit on Nature in the City, poetic content as well as form is significant. Here are some potential points of focus:

  1. With his journalistic eye, Whitman relishes the details of the natural world as distinct from and part of the man-made landscape.
  2. The ferry is both real and metaphorical (evoking Charon's ferry which transports the traveler across the River Styx from life to death).
  3. Whitman writes the piece as if it were an informal letter to future ferry riders, thereby exposing poetry as a form of locomotion between the living and the dead.
  4. The poem is also about the construction of the city-dweller's soul, which is itself created through the components of the landscape around him, both natural and constructed, which he takes in though his senses. At the end of the poem, in an apostrophe to the elements of the world around him which Whitman refers to as "the dumb beautiful ministers," the poet writes:

    We use you, and do not cast you aside-we plant you permanently within us,
    We fathom you not - we love you - there is perfection in you also,
    You furnish your parts toward eternity,
    Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.

Another charming New York Ferry poem which can work as a companion piece to "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" is Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Recuerdo" (read in Millay's voice on Disc 2 of Poetry Speaks, ed., Elise Paschen and Rebekah Presson Mosby. Naperville, Ill: MediaFusion, 2001).

"Recuerdo" captures the carefree spirit of two young people as they ride the ferry all night in the city (presumably either the Brooklyn or Staten Island Ferry). With little money but with great imagination and nature at their disposal, these two capture the exuberance, joy and magic of the city as seen through youthful eyes.