The Lost Museum Archive

No Dainty Kid-Glove Business

by Walt Whitman

After the 1850s, mixed-class audiences less often shared the same theaters. Some observers, such as poet Walt Whitman, regretted the change. In this selection from an essay written in the 1880s, he fondly recalled the enthusiasm of the crowds at New York's Bowery Theater. His memories of audience responses to the performances of popular actors such as Edwin Forrest and Junius Brutus Booth contrast sharply with Irving's comments.

Recalling from that period the occasion of either Forrest or Booth, any good night at the old Bowery, pack'd from ceiling to pit with its audience mainly of alert, well-dress'd full-blooded young and middle-aged men, the best average of American-born mechanics-the emotional nature of the whole mass arous'd by the power and magnetism of as mighty mimes as ever trod the stage-the whole crowded auditorium, and what seeth'd in it …-bursting forth in one of those long-kept-up tempests of hand-clapping peculiar to the Bowery-no dainty kid-glove business, but electric force and muscle from perhaps 2,000 full-sinew'd men …-such sounds and scenes as here [recalled] will surely afford to many old New Yorkers some fruitful recollections.

I can yet remember (for I always scann'd an audience as rigidly as a play) the faces of the leading authors, poets, editors, of those times-Fenimore Cooper, Bryant, Paulding, Irving, Charles King, Watson Webb, N.P. Willis, Hoffman, Halleck, Mumford, Morris, Leggett, L.G. Clarke, R.A. Locke, and others-occasionally peering from the first-tier boxes; and even the great National Eminences, Presidents Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, and Tyler, all made short visits there on their Eastern tours.

…The young ship-builders, cartmen, butchers, firemen … too, were always to be seen in these audiences, racy of the East River and the Dry Dock. Slang, wit, occasional shirt sleeves, and a picturesque freedom of looks and manners, with a rude good-nature and restless movement, were generally noticeable. Yet there never were audiences that paid a good actor or an interesting play the compliment of more sustain'd attention or quicker rapport ….

Source: Justin Kaplan, ed., Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose (1982)