I’m in New York City for the summer now. Before coming I watched some of the Ric Burns documentary about New York City entitled “New York: A Documentary Film.” (Ric is Ken’s younger brother.) It’s quite enlightening about American and New York history to see it’s many transitions from an island inhabited by the Manhattoes, to a rowdy money making base for the Dutch West India Company. The Company would kill beavers and sell their silky smooth furs back in Europe to make hats. (As well as using the Beaver’s anal gland secretion for medicine.) That’s right, NYC was founded on beavers! Essentially Manhattan was owned by a corporation, they bought the island from the Indians for around $1,000. Some Manhattoes were angry about this and refused to leave the island, they were known as “occupiers,” or as some Dutch capitalists called them “whiney people with face paint banging drums.” Anyway, it’s a damn good documentary and damn long too (seventeen-and-a-half-hours! That’s almost a full work day for an investment bank intern!) The creation of the Eerie canal, the creation of Central Park, the Draft Riots and Alexander Hamilton getting capped all are included in the first three installments that I watched. I would highly recommend it, it’s all on YouTube. Here’s the first part. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vAl7M0Le1Kg
Walt Whitman and his flowing, passionate poetry was prominent in one of the installments, Whitman, after all, was a New Yorker. Whitman really dug the scene in Manhattan. This led me to turn to my copy of “Leaves of Grass” which I haven’t touched since my Junior year of High School. Whitman loved all the people of New York, he was fascinated by them, and as mentioned in the documentary “viewed everybody and everything in the city as a potential lover, even the street lights.” Sounds like MDMA had Walt feeling like a champion… None the less, I think Whitman’s positive and passionate view of humanity in the city is intriguing and will keep me mentally healthy throughout my stay here. Whitman says the “genius of the United States is in its common people.” He feels that “not nature nor swarming states nor streets and steamships nor prosperous business nor farms nor capital nor learning may suffice for the ideal of man…nor suffice the poet.” The ideal of man…New York is certainly a city carved out of lofty ideals of man, most notably efficiency and capitalism. However, Whitman seems to believe that man’s dreams and visions for the future, however intangible and unrealistic is the most important thing in America. (Ugh, well he’s a poet, he would say that!) True, but still intriguing and justifiable for someone who is interested in becoming an artist or teacher for that matter. From what I can gather Whitman believes the spiritual heart of America is in its diverse and ever changing population of humans. For us American’s living today we often turn to Whitman as one of the first poets or artists who sought to capture honesty in the American spirit and identity. I find Whitman’s views interesting because I’ve been reading a biography of John Muir, another 19th Century American who, like an old Whitman, had a beard that makes the Fleet Foxes look like 15 year olds. In my opinion, Muir was also revolutionary in establishing an organic spiritual understanding of America. Muir however did it through the establishment of National Parks, as well as some incredible stories of his treks, botanical writings, and nature inspired philosophies. When Muir spent a few days in New York on a freighter in route to San Fran Cisco and Yosemite valley, he “barely got off the boat” he didn’t want to be somewhere so inhabited. Muir find’s America’s true nature not in its people but in its uninhabited, vast majestic spaces. Luckily this land still exists thanks to Muir and Roosevelt for establishing our incredible National Park system. In America we don’t need ancient temples when we have the gapping Grand Canyon, the lush Yosemite, and the ghostly Badlands. Whitman, in contrast, feels this crazy country’s heart lies in the masses of common people, all immigrants with ideals for a better life. For now, since I’m living in the city, I’ll try to look through Whitman’s eyes in this wholly artificial city, this coral reef of humanity, and be inspired by the “chrome canyons of lattice Manhattan” (shout outs to Jeff Tweedy.) What about the Manhattoes though? Are they only mentioned for your politically incorrect joke Pat? Indeed, both of these poetic views of America, and all conceptions of America and Americans is darkened with a shadow of slavery, genocide, and greed, yet this can’t be our identity, this guilt can’t weigh us down, we gotta keep progressing and protect our people and land. Blah, blah, blah. Enough of my rant! I’m gonna go eat some Italian food then get drunk.
Kinda creepy animation, but Whitman’s got an NYC state of mind as sharp as NAS. Close your eyes and try to envision New York in 1888.