Whitehead v. Whitman: Conflicting Perceptions of an NYC Experience

       By Anisa Arsenault, Christine Calvo, and Jackie Gonin

        Although Walt Whitman’s poetic tribute to the ethos of New York City during the mid-1800s is indubitable, the poet’s portrayal of the city as immortal is incongruous with the actual evolution of the city. Colson Whitehead’s contemporary novel The Colossus of New York mirrors some of Whitman’s work with similar themes and imagery of New York. However, Whitehead presents the city’s inevitable, yet continual nature to change. Whitman’s poetry differs most from Whitehead’s novel in its expression of a unanimous urban experience. Whitehead responds to Whitman by asserting that New York is particular to individuals and one’s experience does not necessarily recur for future generations as the poet supposed.

        A period of unprecedented change in Whitman’s New York contributes to his everlasting admiration of the city. In his essay “Leaves of Grass (1855) and the Cities of Whitman’s Memory,” scholar William Pannapacker explains, “The city had grown so large during Whitman’s youth that no single person could comprehend it; the idea of mystical unity — between people, places, and time — held incomprehensibility at bay” (219). From the relatively compact New York of Whitman’s childhood, a Manhattan with rural edges emerged. The economic development unleashed by the Erie Canal accelerated the change in the city’s physical appearance, industries, and formerly homogenous community (Pannapacker 203).

        In a memoir issued to the Mayor of New York City in 1825, Governor Colden remarks on the completion of New York canals . His admiration for new modes of transportation reinforces the historical conception of a progressive and ever-expanding New York. In addition, the writing style closely resembles Whitman’s as Colden praises nature and reiterates the peace and prosperity that will come from the interconnectedness provided by the canal:

Vessels, waterborne from the shores of Lake Erie, over the intervening hills and valleys, will meet ships from the Atlantic, at a point which, two hundred years ago, was surrounded by a wilderness, filled with savage tribes, hostile to each other. We shall have around us the same great objects of nature : The seas —the beautiful bays—and our magnificent mountain river : But instead of the huts of savages, we shall have the abodes of a civilized, opulent, and a free people. (Colden 3-4)

        Although Colden’s writing style and advocation of the city imitates Whitman, Whitman’s poetry resists the rapid transformation of New York by presenting it as an eternal utopia. Pannapacker elaborates: “Whitman breaks down the distinction between the self and the other; he counters urban alienation and anomie by suggesting a mystical union between all human beings simultaneously involved in their mutually sustaining and equal occupations” (208). “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” attests to Whitman’s suggestion of a transcendental union between all human beings: “And you that shall cross from shore to shore / years hence, are more to me, and more in my / meditations, than you might suppose” (5). Whitman illustrates the interconnectedness of human beings by supposing that future generations will share the same urban experiences as he did. “The similitudes of the past, and those of the future” captures the universality of Whitman’s portrayal of New York (“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” 8).

         Whitehead does not ascribe to Whitman’s attempt to disguise the urban anomie, but rather exploits the city’s regeneration of loss. In Tamar Katz’ essay, “City Memory, City History: Urban Nostalgia,” the critic recognizes how Whitehead’s novel encourages readers to ruminate on the loss of urban life. “It is customary to define the modern city by its newness and in doing so to make that newness and emblem of modernity as a whole. Modern life has been theorized as a constant encounter with change; in this view, cities are exemplary modern social spaces because of the speed with which they are transformed” (811). Whitehead sentimentally contemplates the constantly changing city by illustrating the rapid turnover of storefronts: “You swallow hard when you discover that the old coffee shop is now a chain pharmacy, that the place where you first kissed So-and-so is now a discount electronics retailer” (7). Places integral to the narrator’s experiences of New York are now harbored in memories. This attests to Whitehead’s depiction of the vicissitudes of the city.

        This exact sentiment is expressed outside of the realm of scholarly texts and in the TV series How I Met Your Mother. In the season four episode entitled “The Best Burger In New York,” narrator and main character Ted Mosby describes the New York he encountered upon arriving.

He rattles off a slew of negative adjectives, culminating in “altogether terrifying.” (We could envision Ted to be the omniscient narrator of Colossus.) But that was his New York. After all, Whitehead explains that “you build your private New York the first time you lay eyes on it” (4). In addition, Whitehead claims, “You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now” (4). Ted longs for his beloved, albeit disgusting, first New York: “But then, sadly, the whole city started to go uphill….one by one, the crappy old places we loved began to disappear.”

        The ever-changing storefronts rattle Marshall’s world when he discovers an old favorite burger joint is now the site of an ATM.  For Whitehead, the changing city and city businesses are significant because “all our old places are proof that we were here” (Whitehead, 9). Without our old haunts, we uncomfortably realize “New York will go on without us”…and we “try to fix the city in place, remember it as it was” (Whitehead, 10). This is certainly true for Marshall, but his quest for that old perfect burger illuminates a new reason for demanding our original city establishments; what we are really attempting to return to are the associated feelings and points of life, not the buildings. Marshall states, “I think about that first week in New York, you know? I was 22 years old. I had my whole future ahead of me. I guess I just kind of  thought if I could have that burger one more time- feel that way for one more night- that I might be able to check that off the list and grow up.”

        In the spirit of creating your own New York, Whitehead titles each of his chapters with a popular location throughout the city. Each location is a representation of how different a well known area can be for each individual. For example, in his chapter titled “Broadway”, Whitehead explains, “To be free of all that came before, to mold your face to the cliche of this place. Pick your self. Be famous and celebrated” (Whitehead 79). He shows how one location is constantly changing when new people arrive and make their own mark there.

        In his essay titled “Don’t You Be My Neighbor”, Whitehead describes his own changing New York. His home of Brooklyn has fallen victim to development, creating lasting change on the places he has the fondest memories of. He explains, “The renovations to the Atlantic Avenue station are almost done. It used to be my home stop. Now it’s a transfer point that brings me deeper into Brooklyn, but I still feel more than a little affection for it” (Whitehead 1). The remodeling of different parts of “his” Brooklyn continue to reinforce his idea that New York will always be changing.

        Contrary to Whitehead, Whitman’s poetry does not consider the expiration of his New York, supposing, “Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, / and the thick-stemmed pipes of steamboats, I / looked” (“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” 27). Without foresight of the Brooklyn Ferry being replaced by the Brooklyn Bridge, Whitman assumes all future generations will share in his experience of crossing the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Whitman’s poetry aims for preservation of the physical landscape of the city through emphasizing its universality, while Whitehead’s prose is nostalgic of the past, but exposes its inevitable change.

        In his blog With a Brooklyn Accent, Mark Naison attests not only to Whitehead’s recognition of a changing cityscape, but also a changing culture. His post “Fourth Avenue Blues- A Brooklyn Story,” recalls the tire repair shops, Pentecostal churches, bodegas, taxi depots, “groups of teenagers, most, but not all, Black and Latino, [who] would periodically play chicken with passing vehicles,” etc. All of this contributed to a unique atmosphere which Naison defines as “working class Brooklyn Americana, with a street atmosphere reflecting the increasing presence of Black and Latino families in what was once a heavily Italian area.” That was his beloved part of the city in 1976. Now, “tire repair shops and pentecostal churches are gone, replaced by one luxury condo after another…all of them filled with young professionals who have moved to the area from Manhattan, or in some cases, Europe and South America. Fourth Avenue still has food places, but except near Atlantic Avenue, they are all cafes, bars, pastry and bagel stores, some with arrangements for outdoor seating, and a few upscale diners.” Like Whitehead, Naison notes modern storefront change along the street. However, he adds a layer of lamentation, and observes change mostly in the sense of gentrification. “As for me, I feel like a fish out of water in this ‘paradise’ of Urban Revitalization.” And in Naison’s individual 1976 New York City, the nitty-gritty and diverse areas were what made the city real: “I miss the excitement, and yes the fear, that came from being in a place where none of our problems and cruelties were hidden, where you had to face the reality of a race and class divided city every day where you lived.”

        Despite the similar subject matter, Whitman’s poems about Broadway juxtaposed with the “Broadway” chapter from Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York displays yet more incongruities in the writers’ perceptions of the city. In “Broadway,” published in 1888, Whitman remarks, “Could but thy flagstones, curbs, façades, tell their inimitable / tales” (“Broadway” 7). Whitman poses the question of whether the physical landscape of the city could confess stories about its inhabitants.

View from Twenty-third Street,... Digital ID: 800292. New York Public Library

Broadway in 1891 above, 1857 below

Broadway widened by the Arcade... Digital ID: 805754. New York Public Library

Similarly, Whitehead personifies: “Pavement that remembers a night best forgotten. Potholes that remind you of sunken places in your spirit” (79). Whitehead’s illustration of the streets of New York derives from that of Whitman, but the author adds cynicism for his modern audience. Unlike Whitman, whose lines embody curiosity to hear the tales that live within the curbs, Whitehead’s narrator prefers to disregard the potholes that have infringed on his privacy. Although Whitman’s Broadway is also one of splendor, Whitehead’s Broadway is one of disgust. “To live so close to Broadway, in its radiation day after day. It will make you sick” (Whitehead 78). Whitehead’s compares living within proximity to the heavily trafficked street to the agony of cancer, implying disgust. The narrator continues to mock: “On this stretch doormen keep out the disease riffraff, sorting them from the more luxurious epidemics upstairs” (78). Whitman’s poetry withholds these elements of reality of the city that Whitehead unabashedly exploits. “Thy windows rich, and huge hotels –– thy side-walks wide” (“Broadway” 8). Whitman does not satirize the spectacle of the pageant, while the elite from their balconies overlook the plebeians foot-passengers flooding down Broadway.

        Nonetheless, Whitehead’s reflections on the city are too reminiscent of Whitman to ignore the poet’s relevance today. An example includes both authors’ portrayal of crowds. “The simple, compact, well-joined scheme – myself / disintegrated, every one disintegrated, yet part of / the scheme” (“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” 7). Although everyone is en route to individual pursuits, Whitman emphasizes the unity of their simultaneous commute. Lytle Shaw of “Whitman’s Urbanism” remarks, “For it is in the daily life available in cities like Manhattan that, according to Whitman, one can best ‘absorb’ and be absorbed by the largest number of other people – that one can try on, learn from, identify with other subjectivities, other concretely embodied modes and styles of life” (76). Shaw recognizes Whitman’s admiration for the density of city living which inspired the poet’s illustration of people’s routines being harmonious. However, Whitman’s spirit of togetherness is absent from Whitehead’s depiction of the city’s crowds. “He is disappearing with every step. Who is he among that crowd” (Whitehead 80). For Whitehead, individual identities dissolve within the crowd; these people are isolated from one another and are bereft of Whitman’s interconnectedness.

        The expression of New York phenomena is not what makes the authors divergent, but rather the tone in which they depict city life. With vigor Whitman writes, “What hurrying human tides, or day or night!” (“Broadway” 1). In his essay “Whitman’s Tale of Two Cities,” M. Wynn Thomas says Whitman “uses a holistic descriptive language of riverine flow, of oceanic tides, or of electric currents ––– totalizing images that resist the very idea of subdivision and create the illusion of a single, unsegregated urban scene” (633). Use of natural imagery, such as “tides,” stresses the solidarity of the city. Although Whitman’s poetry resonates with enthusiasm for the crowds, Whitehead emphasizes their bane by likening crowds to black holes. “Disappear into a crowd. It’s right there in, the city character: we have the right to disappear” (109). The author’s detached tone reflects the ambiguity one assumes traveling throughout the city.

        “Colossus shows how urban transformations tie us in the most ordinary, repetitive manner to lost places and their emergence in memory. It suggests that a study of the city and its representations must by definition be a study of the rhetoric of loss and of the forms of remembering that shape the way we think about and in cities” (Katz 811). Whitehead supposes New York can only be understood through one’s own experience, and the only salvation to preserve these experiences is through memory. His narrator repeatedly recollects on storefronts that have changed purpose and regards places as physical idols. The pizza parlor which is no longer there is paramount to the remnants of the constantly vanishing past. In The New York Times staff blog The 6th Floor, Rosie Schaap attests to this New York nostalgia, listing the top ten memorable bars that have come and gone. As if taking a cue from Whitehead, shes says, “Is there anything more heartbreaking for a former regular to discover than that her longtime local has been reborn as a J. Crew store?” (Schapp).

        Whitman’s poetry naively ignores the prospect of New York City changing for future generations. Whitman’s references are not what makes his poetry antiquated, but rather his ambition to portray the city as an immortal utopia. Whitman’s glorification, “A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred / years hence, others will see them,” testifies to the poet’s account of New York which is incongruous with that of modern, changing, and individual experience (“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” 18). Pannapacker acknowledges that, “He was also well prepared to lament the ongoing alteration and disappearance of the landscapes and built environments from which he had derived so much of his identity. To see these places destroyed was to acknowledge not just his personal mortality but the ultimate unknowability of the future of New York, America, and the foundations of his poetic vision” (200). Although Pannapacker points out that Whitman, too, experienced and was inspired by the change occurring in the city, he did not use poetry as his means of exploiting the city’s evolution, but rather an attempt to promote his idealistic vision.

        Whitman and Whitehead differ in their understanding of how the city changes. For the most part, Whitman witnessed industry transform New York into a great American city; Whitehead writes in the post 9/11 context where devastation to the city has manifested into reality. Published merely three years after the catastrophe, Colossus’ rhetoric of sentimentality reflects modernity’s observation of New York’s susceptibility to loss. Whitehead’s Colossus of New York juxtaposed with Whitman’s optimistic “Broadway” and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” accentuates Whitman’s inability to capture the change and isolation inherent to the city, making his prophecy less prevalent to a New York that is going through a perpetual metamorphosis.

>>After all this analysis and reinforcement of Colson Whitehead’s idea of a personal New York, I thought I would share my New York City. It’s a limited New York for sure, with a good chunk of it condensed on 9th Ave. But these are my places and my experiences so far. The best part? I will only continue expanding it.


Works Cited


“The Best Burger in New York.” How I Met Your Mother. Writ. Carter Bays and Craig Thomas. Dir. Pamela Fryman. 20th Television, 29 Sept. 2008. Netflix.


“Broadway Widened by the Arcade Plan.” Sketch. 1857. Mid-Manhattan Library. NYPL Digital Gallery. Web. 17 Nov. 2012.


Colden, Cadwallader D. Memoir, Prepared at the Request of a Committee of the Common Council of the City of New York, and Presented to the Mayor of the City, at the Celebration of the Completion of the New York Canals. New York: Corporation of New York, 1825. Print.


Katz, Tamar. “City Memory, City History: Urban Nostalgia, The Colossus of New York, and Late-Twentieth-Century Historical Fiction.”Contemporary Literature 51.4 (2010): 810-851. Project MUSE. Web. 15 Nov. 2012.


Naison, Mark. “Fourth Avenue Blues- A Brooklyn Story.” With A Brooklyn Accent. 11 Aug. 2012. Web. 18 Nov. 2012.


Pannapacker, William. “Leaves of Grass (1855) and the Cities of Whitman’s Memory.” Leaves of Grass: The Sesquicentennial Essays. Ed. Susan Belasco, Ed Folsom, and Kenneth M. Price. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2007. 199-223. The Walt Whitman Archive. Web. 17 Nov. 2012.


Schaap, Rosie. “Manhattan’s Most-Mourned Bars.” The 6th Floor. The New York Times. 10 Oct. 2012. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.


Shaw, Lytle, “Whitman’s Urbanism”, “The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of New York”, Eds. Cyrus R. K. Patell and Bryan Waterman, Cambridge University Press, 2010, Cambridge Collections Online, Cambridge University Press. 16 Nov. 2012.


Thomas, M. Wynn. “Whitman’s Tale of Two Cities.” American Literary History 6.4 (1994): 633-57. JSTOR. Web. 15 Nov. 2012.


“View from Twenty-third Street, looking south, showing Broadway and Fifth Avenue.” Sketch. 1891. Mid-Manhattan Library. NYPL Digital Gallery. Web. 17 Nov. 2012.


Whitehead, Colson. The Colossus of New York: A City in Thirteen Parts. New York: Doubleday, 2003. Print.


Whitehead, Colson. “Don’t You Be My Neighbor.” New York Magazine. New York Media, LLC., 3 May 2004. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.


Whitman, Walt. The Essential Whitman. Ed. Galway Kinnell. New York: Ecco Press, 2006. Print.