Nineteenth century poet Walt Whitman, who lived in Brooklyn for most of his life, wrote frequently about New York City and its striking skyline. He depicts the overall composite of the skyline in conjunction with descriptions of the daily lives going on in the streets of New York so that the two become irrevocably connected. Ultimately, the skyline view of Manhattan – the ships and buildings that compose the city, especially in lower Manhattan as seen from Whitman’s vantage point in Brooklyn – becomes both a symbol and a source of pride for the lives within it. To Whitman, Manhattan’s skyline signifies a city-wide identity that unites the citizens of New York.
Several of Whitman’s poems portray Manhattan’s skyline as a source of identification for citizens of New York. In “Manhatta,” Whitman points out the fundamental elements of the city. Immediately, he turns to its physical aspects – the “nests of water-bays, superb, rich, hemm’d thick all around with sailships” and the “high growths of iron, slender, strong, light, splendidly uprising.”[i] These two features, the ships and buildings (in particular the towering church spires) of Manhattan against the “sparkling waters” and “clear skies,” make up the skyline of 19th century New York,[ii] as exhibited in the 1834 painting “New York from Brooklyn Heights.”[iii]
Whitman continues this portrayal of Manhattan by zooming gradually into his initial picture of the skyline; he next mentions “the down-town streets, the jobbers’ houses of business” and then finally goes all the way down to the level of the people on the streets.[iv] In this way, by starting with the broader picture and moving inward, Whitman shows the people and buildings as pieces of a greater whole, and these fragments can be summarized by the overall image of the skyline. “Immigrants arriving . . . carts hauling goods . . . brown-faced sailors” all become a part of “the mechanics of the city;” the individuals roaming the “numberless crowded streets” are all cogs in the machine described ultimately as “city of spires and masts.”[v]
New York City’s primary means of identification is by these “spires and masts,” but the various people who exist amid the structures give them life.[vi] The people of New York – the ones creating and living among the ships and buildings – give the skyline its significance, and the skyline in turn comes to signify them. Ultimately, the Manhattan skyline becomes the visual symbol for the countless lives within it. “A million people” are summed up in this one image of the skyline – one Whitman was very familiar with, as he frequently traveled between Brooklyn and Manhattan and was able to enjoy the view of lower Manhattan’s ships and church towers framed against the East River.[vii] Whitman’s insight in “Manhatta” shows the figurative aspect of the Manhattan skyline and its role as a representation of the people of New York. [viii]
Whitman also uses various metaphors to demonstrate how the skyline signifies the residents of Manhattan. In one poem he refers to New York as “million-footed Manhattan,” a very telling phrase.[ix] By attributing this human aspect to the island, Whitman suggests that Manhattan is, in essence, the people within it. Further, he brands Manhattan as “city of spires and masts,” designating the skyline as the primary identifier of the city.[x] Following this train of logic, the skyline is, to Whitman, the fundamental physical representation of the people of New York. In another analogy, Whitman personifies Manhattan as the mother of its inhabitants. He calls Manhattan “Lady of Ships . . . old matron of the city . . . amid all your children”[xi] This comparison brings the unity of New Yorkers to an even deeper level – a familial one. If the common ancestry of Manhattanites is their city, the skyline can be thought of as a sort of family crest: an indicator of the roots of its people (the ships and buildings they planned, constructed, and continue to live and work in) and the trademark of their pride as a part of the city. As a communal emblem, the skyline shows the triumphs of forefathers and provides a common image which any New Yorker can point to and say, “This is who I am; this is where I come from.” This image of the skyline as a family crest is a less explicit symbol of the people of New York, but it nonetheless gives a visual source of identity to anyone living in Manhattan.
This symbolism not only sets apart individual citizens as the building blocks that make up Manhattan but also brings them together into a more cohesive and meaningful whole: the skyline.
However, the skyline does not just unite people as a physical commonality – it becomes a source of pride for Whitman as well: in one poem he refers to New York City as “mighty Manhattan, with spires, and the sparkling and hurrying tides, and the ships.”[xviii] This particular poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d,” is not even about New York, but in the few lines referencing the city Whitman cannot conceal his pride for Manhattan and especially for the skyline that composes it. He also refers to the city as “superb-faced Manhattan,”[xix] another personification that shows both the liveliness of the city and its connection to the masses of people living there. He sees a “superb” beauty in every individual who fills Manhattan, not just through the overall picture of “people, endless, streaming, with strong voices, [and] passions.”[xx] Just as individual ships and buildings make up the skyline, individual people form the masses of New York, and Whitman finds beauty in both its skyline and its citizens.
In fact, Whitman often idealizes Manhattan in his writing and “present[s] an improved version” of both the people and the city, which was, in reality, dirty and crime-filled during his lifetime.[xxi] This practice of “cleaned-up” representations of the city was common, as in this painting, which shows a pristine street despite a total lack citywide sanitation at the time.[xxii]
In spite of these issues, Whitman maintains an overall positive impression (likely facilitated by his idealization of the skyline) of New York as a “proud and passionate city,”[xxiii] a “mettlesome, mad, extravagant city.”[xxiv]
Whitman has an unparalleled pride for his home in New York – even though he lived a ferry ride away in Brooklyn (at the time its own city), his works show that his true allegiance lies across the river, not just within Manhattan but particularly in the skyline he can look back to once he goes home. This skyline becomes the visual symbol for both the city and the citizens that Whitman loves so deeply. Today, the view of lower Manhattan from Brooklyn is entirely different from Whitman’s perspective, but the beauty and symbolism that Whitman recognized in his day are still being explored today, by visitors and residents alike who trek to Brooklyn just to get a glimpse of one of the most striking views of Manhattan: the spirit of the city in its skyline. If Whitman were alive today, he would be proud to know that the recognition of Manhattan’s skyline and its power to give identity, unity, and pride to its viewers has not been lost.
The painting “The Ferry at Brooklyn, New York” shows the ferry in Brooklyn, with Manhattan visible in the background. Whitman’s poem takes place as he travels from Brooklyn to Manhattan, moving directly toward the skyline, and it captures both his literal, visual perspective and his deeper, symbolic one. For Whitman, the skyline serves to represent the collective experiences of all those who view it from the ferry.
The view from the ferry remains important not only as a physical observation point for the skyline but also as a source of meaning: Whitman gives equal emphasis to the acts of “look[ing]” and “feel[ing]” as people ride the ferry. These observations and sentiments provide the common link to unite New Yorkers of all varieties who experience the view from the ferry, even those from different time periods. “What is the count of the scores or hundreds or years between us? Whatever it is, it avails not,” Whitman insists. “[He] too walk’d the streets of Manhattan Island, and bathed in the waters around it,” and this, he feels, is enough to bring together people from any time or place. To Whitman, the New York experience transcends the constructs of time and distance, and his poem depicts the view of the skyline from the East river as a crucial means for the city to unite people across these borders.
As Whitman looks out at the Manhattan skyline, he sees the entirety of human experience that individuals share – both good and bad. He “not just write[s] for the masses” but “throw[s] himself into their midst,” exploring their commonalities.[xxix] The shared practice of viewing the skyline from the ferry reminds him of other experiences that all people share in their lives. “It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,” Whitman reminds readers; “it is not you alone who know what it is to be evil.” Just as those crossing on the ferry all know what it is to “look toward the lower bay to notice the arriving ships” or to see “on the neighboring shore, the fires from the foundry chimneys burning high and glaringly into the night,” they have all experienced pain and selfishness in their lives. Whitman also notes the physical closeness of people on the ferry – he “[feels others’] arms on [his] neck as [he stands], or the negligent leaning of their flesh against [him] as [he sits].” He equates this concrete proximity to a more symbolic sense of community, following this physical description by demonstrating of the commonality of New Yorkers all “liv[ing] the same life with the rest.” Whitman claims “it is not you alone, nor I alone” who undergoes various experiences of life, but the collective community of New York shares them, and he boils down all these experiences to one common occurrence: the ferry ride between Brooklyn and Manhattan. In other words, “the Brooklyn ferry [is] the symbol of the oneness of Manhattan . . . it unifie[s] the ‘million-footed.’”[xxx]
Whitman’s portrayal of the ferry ride is not entirely accurate; he does present an “artistically improved” version of the experience.[xxxi] The ferries would have been extremely crowded and somewhat dangerous, as illustrated by the 1898 painting “On the Ferry.”[xxxii]
This image shows the “wear and tear” and discomfort that would have accompanied commuters on a true Brooklyn ferry ride during rush hour.[xxxiii] Still, at some times the ferry must have taken on many of the idyllic qualities Whitman writes about.
For Whitman, an identity as “Manhattanese, friendly and proud” provides a sense of community, and as the ferry takes him steadily toward Manhattan, the view of its skyline offers a visual symbol for the many shared experiences that compose life in New York. He wonders “what sight can ever be more stately and admirable to [him] than [his] mast-hemm’d Manhattan.” This view of the skyline from the Brooklyn Ferry fills him with affection for New York and its residents. Bursting with pride for his city, he exhorts, “Flow on, river . . . cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers! Stand up, tall masts of Manhatta!” Whitman’s skyline view brings together the natural beauty of the river with the manmade splendor of ships and buildings, and the entire image is associated with people within it. These “Manhattanese” from century to century share the experiences both of humanity and of living in New York, and they can feel this togetherness – regardless of individual differences – in the ritual of observing the skyline from the Brooklyn Ferry. Manhattan’s 19th century skyline, as exhibited in this image circa 1833-9 becomes Whitman’s symbol for life in the city.[xxxiv]
[i] Whitman, Walt. “Manhatta.” In Leaves of Grass. Vol. XXXIV.
[iii] Granger, Russell P., and H. Miller. "New York from Brooklyn Heights." Whitman's Brooklyn. 2014. Accessed November 2, 2014.
[viii] The iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909 New York : Robert H. Dodd, 1915-1928.Electronic reproduction. v. 1-4. New York, N.Y. : Columbia University Libraries, 2008. JPEG use copy available via the World Wide Web. Master copy stored locally on  DVDs#: ldpd_5800727_001 01-13 ; ldpd_5800727_002 01-19 ; ldpd_5800727_003 01-16 ; ldpd_5800727_004 01-16.. Columbia University Libraries Electronic Books. 2006.
[ix] Whitman, Walt. “A Broadway Pageant.” In Leaves of Grass. Vol. XVIII.
[x] Whitman, Walt. “Manhatta.” In Leaves of Grass. Vol. XXXIV.
[xi] Whitman, Walt. “Drum-Taps.” In Leaves of Grass. Vol. XXI.
[xii] Whitman, Walt. “City of Ships.” In Leaves of Grass. Vol. XXI.
[xiii] Whitman, Walt. “A Broadway Pageant.” In Leaves of Grass. Vol. XVIII.
[xiv] Whitman, Walt. "Broadway." In Leaves of Grass. Vol. Fancies at Navesink.
[xv] Whitman, Walt. “Manhattan Faces.” In Leaves of Grass. Vol. XXI.
[xvi] Whitman, Walt. “A Broadway Pageant.” In Leaves of Grass. Vol. XVIII.
[xvii] LeBreton, Louis. "Arrivee Du Paquetbot Transatlanitque [View of New York from the South East]." Museum of the City of New York J. Clarence Davies Collection. Accessed November 19, 2014.
[xviii] Whitman, Walt. “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d.” In Leaves of Grass. Vol. XXII.
[xix] Whitman, Walt. “A Broadway Pageant.” In Leaves of Grass. Vol. XVIII.
[xx] Whitman, Walt. “Manhattan Faces.” In Leaves of Grass. Vol XXI.
[xxi] Reynolds, David S. "Manhatta: The Literary Marketplace and Urban Reality." In Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography, 105-110. New York: Knopf, 1995.
[xxii] "New York in the 19th Century." Ephemeral New York. Accessed November 23, 2014.
[xxiii] Whitman, Walt. “City of Ships.” In Leaves of Grass. Vol. XXI.
[xxv] Granger, Russel P. “Fulton Street from the Ferry.” Whitman’s Brooklyn 2014. Accessed November 18, 2014.
[xxvi] Granger, Russell P., and G.K. Richardson "South Ferry." Whitman's Brooklyn. 2014. Accessed October 28, 2014.
[xxvii] Whitman, Walt. “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” In Leaves of Grass. Vol. XVIII.
[xxviii] "Views of New York." J. Pocker. Accessed November 19, 2014. http://www.jpocker.com/prints/new-york/views-of-new-york/.
[xxix] Reynolds, David S. "Manhatta: The Literary Marketplace and Urban Reality." In Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography, 82-3. New York: Knopf, 1995.
[xxx] Still, Bayrd. "Mirror for Gotham: New York as Seen by Contemporaries from Dutch Days to the Present." Internet Archive. 1956. Accessed November 2, 2014.
[xxxi] Reynolds, David S. "Manhatta: The Literary Marketplace and Urban Reality." In Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography, 82-3. New York: Knopf, 1995.
[xxxii] "Of Brooklyn Ferries." Brooklyn Public Library. April 1, 2010. Accessed November 9, 2014.
[xxxiv] The iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909 New York : Robert H. Dodd, 1915-1928.Electronic reproduction. v. 1-4. New York, N.Y. : Columbia University Libraries, 2008. JPEG use copy available via the World Wide Web. Master copy stored locally on  DVDs#: ldpd_5800727_001 01-13 ; ldpd_5800727_002 01-19 ; ldpd_5800727_003 01-16 ; ldpd_5800727_004 01-16.. Columbia University Libraries Electronic Books. 2006.