Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. T. O. Mabbott), “Letter 05,” Doings of Gotham: Poe's Contributions to The Columbia Spy (1929), pp. 59-64 (This material is protected by copyright)


[page 59:]


New York,

June 12, 1844.

Brooklyn has been increasing with great rapidity of late years. This is owing, partly, to the salubrity of its situation; but chiefly to its vicinity to the business portion of the city; the low price of ferriage (two cents); the facility of access, which can be obtained at all hours, except two in the morning; and, especially, to the high rents of New York. Brooklyn, you know, is much admired by the Goth-amites; and, in fact, much has been done by Nature for the place. But this much the New Yorkers have contrived very thoroughly to spoil. I know few towns which inspire me with so great disgust and contempt. It puts me often in mind of a city of silvered-gingerbread; no doubt you have seen this article of confectionery in some of the Dutch boroughs of Pennsylvania. Brooklyn, on the immediate shore of the Sound, has, it is true, some tolerable residences; but the majority, throughout, are several steps beyond the preposterous. What can be more sillily and pitiably absurd than palaces of painted white pine, fifteen feet by twenty? — and of such this boasted “city of villas.” You see nowhere a cottage — everywhere a temple which “might have been Grecian had it not been Dutch” — which might have been tasteful had it not been Gothamite — a square box, with Doric or Corinthian pillars, supporting a frieze of unseasoned timber, roughly planed, and daubed with, at best, a couple of coats of whitey-brown paint. This “pavilion” has, usually, a flat roof, covered with red zinc, and surrounded by a balustrade; if not surmounted by something [page 60:] nondescript, intended for a cupola, but wavering in character, between a pigeon-house, a sentry-box, and a pig-sty. The steps, at the front-door, are many, and bright yellow, and from their foot a straight alley of tan - bark, arranged between box - hedges, conducts the tenant, in glory, to the front-gate — which, with the wall of the whole, is of tall white pine boards, painted sky-blue. If we add to this a fountain, giving out a pint of real water per hour, through the mouth of a leaden cat-fish standing upon the tip-end of his tail, and surrounded by a circle of admiring “conchs” (as they here call the strombuses), we have a quite perfect picture of a Brooklynite “villa.” In point of downright iniquity — of absolute atrocity — such sin, I mean, as would consign a man, inevitably, to the regions of Pluto — I really can see little difference between the putting up such a house as this, and blowing up a House of Parliament, or cutting the throat of one’s grandfather.

The street-cries, and other nuisances to the same effect, are particularly disagreeable here. Immense charcoal-waggons infest the most frequented thorough-fares, and give forth a din which I can liken to nothing earthly (unless, perhaps, a gong), from some metallic, triangular contrivance within the bowels of the “infernal machine.” This is a free country, I have heard, and wish to believe if I can; but I cannot perceive how it would materially interfere with our freedom to put an end to these tinta-marres. A man may do what he pleases with his own (and the principle applies as well to a man’s waggon, as to a man’s snuff-box, or wife), provided, in so doing, he incommode not his neighbor; this is one of the commonest precepts of common law. But the [page 61:] amount of general annoyances wrought by street-noises is incalculable; and this matter is worthy our very serious attention. It would be difficult to say, for example, how much of time, more valuable than money, is lost, in a large city, to no purpose, for the convenience of the fishwomen, the charcoal-men, and the monkey-exhibitors. How often does it happen that where two individuals are transacting business of vital importance, where fate hangs upon every syllable and upon every moment — how frequently does it occur that all conversation is delayed, for five or even ten minutes at a time, until these devil’s-triangles have got out of hearing, or until the leathern throats of the clam - and - cat- fish venders have been hallooed, and shrieked, and yelled, into a temporary hoarseness and silence!

The din of the vehicles, however, is even more thoroughly, and more intolerably a nuisance. Are we never to have done with these unmeaning round stones? — than which a more ingenious contrivance for driving men mad through sheer noise, was undoubtedly never invented. It is difficult to foresee what mode of street-pavement will come, finally, into vogue; but we should have some change, and,, that forthwith, or we must have new and more plentiful remedies for headache. The twelve-inch cubes of stone (square, with the upper surface roughened) make, perhaps, the most durable, and, in many respects, the best road; they are, however, expensive, and the noise they emit is objectionable, although in a much less degree than the round stones. Of the stereatomic wooden pavement, we hear nothing, now, at all. The people seem to have given it up altogether — but nothing better could be [page 62:] invented. We inserted the blocks, without preparation, and they failed. Therefore, we abandoned the experiment. Had they been Kyanized, the result would have been very different, and the wooden causeways would have been in extensive use throughout the country. In England, where wood is costly, it might not be preferred to stone, but here it must and, finally, will. The Kyanizing, or mineralizing, is a simple process, and cheap. Put a pound of corrosive sublimate (bi-chloride of Mercury) into sixteen gallons of water, and in this mixture immerse a piece of sound wood (either green or seasoned) for forty-eight hours (more or less as the wood is thicker or thinner). At the end of this time the wood cannot be rotted. It has assumed a metallic hardness and texture, is much increased in weight, and will last as long as granite. In the pavement with ordinary wood, although the road be arched, the soft, rotting material yields to heavy pressure, the whole arch sinks, and the fabric is soon destroyed — to say nothing of the speedy decay of the upper surface. The Kyanized wood would not yield an inch, and therefore would never be displaced; and, never rotting, would last for ages as good as in the beginning. The present retail cost of the bi-chloride of Mercury is, I believe, about ninety cents per pound; but if an extensive demand for the article should arise (as would be the case were we to adopt the Kyanized road) the quick-silver mines of South America, now abandoned, would be again put into operation, and we might get the mineral for thirty or forty cents, if not for less. In point of cheapness, freedom from noise, ease of cleaning, pleasantness to the hoof, and, finally, in point of durability, there [page 63:] is no causeway equal to that of the Kyanized wood. But it will take us, as usual, fully ten years to make this discovery. In the meantime, the present experiments with the unprepared wood will answer very well for the profit of the street-menders, and for the amusement of common - councils — who will, perhaps, in the next instance, experiment with soft-soap, or sauer-kraut.

Some persons, falling from the roof of a house, and receiving severe injury, has been wrapped up, by somebody else, in a wet sheet, and not immediately dying in consequence, but getting well in spite of the sheets, somebody else, again, has written a letter to the “Tribune,” extolling the “Hydro-pathy,” or water-cure, of that monarch of the charlatans, Priessnitz. Whereupon, all the medical world of Gotham are by the ears. They will remain so, I hope, until you hear from me again.



This letter first appeared in the Columbia Spy, June 15, 1844. The manuscript survives — it was for many years in a collection owned by the late Mr. Whitaker, of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, and it is possible that a few lines may have been published from it while it was in his possession. Recently the manuscript was obtained by Dr. Rosenbach through whose courtesy I had the pleasure of seeing it some months ago. It is one of the finest manuscripts of Poe in existence — his humor is rarely as attractive as in this performance. And trite as it may seem for a New Yorker to abuse Brooklyn, it is amusing to see how quickly Poe fell into the ways of the place he had so recently made his residence. The absurdities of the little city (which even the friendly and loving descriptions in Whitman’s prose cannot make out a very dignified metropolis) gave Poe a splendid chance to exercise his peculiar talents for biting abuse and scornful description. And those are talents one would rather see used against a city, which is without feeling, than against the works of a poet — even a bad poet. [page 64:]

The noise of the city streets seems to have jarred particularly on Poe’s nerves, and he even wrote an essay on Street-Paving in the Broadway Journal, which contains some of the ideas presented here. On John Howard Kyan and his inventions see the Dictionary of National Biography. Poe was fond of the word “tintamarre” — see his Marginalia in the Democratic Review, November, 1844.

From the Tribune of June 8, I learn that one George Washington Sullivan, a laborer, was the victim of the accident, supposedly cured by Hydropathy; — an account in the Northampton Democrat of June 4 was reprinted in the New York Evening Post, and thence Dr. J. Shew took it to send to Greeley’s Tribune. Vincent Pressnitz (1799-1851) a peasant of Graefenburg in Silesia performed many “cures” by means of cold water, and though he seems to have published little or nothing himself, naturally had followers at home and in America in a day when every “ism” and sect found favor in the eyes of the enthusiastic intellectuals. All transcendentalists and reformers were sure of a welcome in the columns of Greeley’s paper. Dr. Shew was, I think, a connection of Marie Louise Shew, who was later a friend of the Poe family, and inspired the poem, “To Marie Louise,” beginning “Not long ago the writer of these lines.”





[S:0 - SPM29, 1929] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Bookshelf - Doings of Gotham: Poe's Contributions to The Columbia Spy (J. Spannuth and T. O. Mabbott) (Letter 05)