Mose the fireboy: Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman: Rebel, poet, B’hoy?

Before we move on, I want to briefly mention one of the odder legacies of Mose the fireboy, and the Bowery B’hoy movement in general, which is that poet Walt Whitman was obsessed with them and they influenced his poetry.

There’s no doubt Whitman saw one or more of the Mose plays — he’s explicit about the fact in his essay “The Old Bowery,” writing:

For types of sectional New York those days–the streets East of the Bowery, that intersect Division, Grand, and up to Third Avenue–types that never found their Dickens, or Hogarth, or Balzac, and have pass’d away unportraitured–the young shipbuilders, cartmen, butchers, firemen (the old-time “soap-lock” or exaggerated “Mose” or “Sykesey,” of Chafrau’s plays,) they, too, were always to be seen  in the audiences, racy of the East River and Dry Dock.

Whitman wrote another description of B’hoys in a prose piece called “The Habitants of Hotels,” and this time references Chanfrau’s theater:

That young man with the bandy legs who is standing with his back to the stove has just arrived from New York. He prides himself upon the neatness of the tie of his crimson neck-cloth, and professes to be a connoisseur in everything relating to pea- nuts. Whilst he puffs the smoke of a remarkably bad segar directly underneath your nostrils, he will discourse most learnedly about the classical performances in the Chatham Theatre, and swear by some heathen god or goddess that “Kirby was one of ’em, and no mistake.” This is one of the “b’hoys of the Bowery.”

Whitman actually used the name of Chanrau’s famed character himself — when writing for the New Orleans Daily Crescent, he called himself Mose Velsor. He praised the B’hoy in his book
“An American Primer” as being one of the American types who were in the process of creating a new American language: “Words to answer the modem, rapidly spreading, faith, of the vital equality of women with men, and that they are to be placed on an exact plane, politicaUy, socially, and in busi- ness, with men. Words are wanted to sup- ply the copious trains of facts, and flanges of facts, feelings, arguments, and adjectival facts, growing out of all new knowledges.”

Whitman composed his own “Primer of Words,” unpublished during his lifetime, that consisted of the sorts of slang words he credited to the Bowery B’Hoys, according to David S. Reynolds in his book “Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography.” Among these expressions was a phrase we still use today, “So long,” which Whitman used as the title of a poem.

In fact, Whitman used these words in his own writing. You might remember that one of the slang words the Mose takes care to explain in “Glance at New York” is “foo-foo,” saying “Outsiders is foo-foos, and foo-foos is outsiders.”

The word also appears in “Leaves of Grass,” in his iconic poem “Song of Myself.” Whitman writes: “Washes and razors for foofoos …. for me freckles and a bristling beard.”

He also offers the following, which describes a typical B’hoy, and could even describe Mose:

The boy I love, the same becomes a man not through derived
         power, but in his own right,
 
Wicked rather than virtuous out of conformity or fear,
Fond of his sweetheart, relishing well his steak,
Unrequited love or a slight cutting him worse than sharp steel
         cuts,
First-rate to ride, to fight, to hit the bull’s eye, to sail a skiff, to
         sing a song or play on the banjo,
Preferring scars and the beard and faces pitted with small-pox
         over all latherers,
And those well-tann’d to those that keep out of the sun.

 Whitman’s obsession with Bowery B’hoys did not go unnoticed. As Reynolds points out, critics often used the terms to describe his poetry. A contemporary critic called him “the ‘Bowery Boy’ in literature,” with another writing that Whitman “Would well answer equally for a ‘Bowery Boy,’ one of the ‘killers,’ ‘Mose’ in the play, ‘Bill Sykes after the murder of Nancy,’ or the ‘B’hoy that runs with the engine.'”

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.