For a number of years, we offered this extra-credit question on the Writing New York final examination: “Who was Baron Axel von Klinkowstrom and what is his significance to our course?”
To answer this question, you would have to have read the draft of my essay “Whitman’s and Melville’s New York, 1819–1855,” assigned as secondary reading on our syllabus. There you would have discovered a discussion of Klinkowstrom (1775-1837), a Swedish naval officer, who visited the United States in 1818 and lived in Manhattan and Brooklyn from 1819–20. Klinkowstrom was a precursor of such distinguished European commentators on American affairs as Alexis de Tocqueville, Charles Dickens, James Bryce, and (more recently) Bernard-Henri Levy
The primary purpose of Klinkowstrom’s visit to New York was to report on a new invention: the steamboat. He wrote a series of letters to the Swedish government in which he described not only the American development of steamboat technology, but also the state of American life, especially life in and around New York City.
“I was not prepared to find such a large and populous city on a coast where two hundred years ago there was only an insignificant village,” Klinkowstrom wrote on his first arrival in 1818. He added that “from the sea the city is not handsome, as the houses are not stuccoed, and the view is obstructed by the many ships whose tackle hugs the bridges in a double row, and whose masts form a forest.” He was immediately impressed by the city’s commercial spirit: “Although I have only hurriedly seen New York as yet,” Klinkowstrom wrote in 1818, “I do believe there is a livelier spirit of speculation there and that people are eager to become rich quickly through many enterprises.”
The following year, after he had taken up residence in Manhattan, Klinkowstrom commented on the city’s architecture and streets. Noting that “the houses in New York are usually painted in the English fashion, that is to say with a dark brick color and white trimming between the stones,” Klinkowstrom suggested that
the city would be rather gloomy if the streets were not wide and cheerful. Here and there trees are planted along the streets. The streets all have sidewalks which make walking very easy. In the newer part of the city, the streets are straight; but they seldom cross each other at right angles, and in the entire city there is not one handsome square.
Klinkowstrom praised Broadway and drew a watercolor of the intersection of Broadway and Fulton Street, facing City Hall, and he called this part of New York “really quite beautiful.” Klinkowstrom, however, wryly included a pig rooting about in the street on the right-hand side of the picture, and in his letters he noted the “harmful and unpleasant” custom of “allowing the swine to wander about freely on the streets. . . . These pigs have often caused ridiculous situations. Once during the fashionable promenade hour on Broadway I saw some of these animals rush on the sidewalk, making a sharp contrast with the elegant clothes, and one filthy pig bumped into a well-dressed woman. Often they trip people who are not sufficiently observant.”
New York, he concluded, “is not as clean as cities of the same size and population in Europe.”
[The picture, “Broadway-street and the City Hall in New York” (1824) is engraving by Carl Fredrik Akrell (Swedish, 1779–1868), after Klinkowstrom’s watercolor. It is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Read more about it here.]