Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: John T. Trowbridge to Walt Whitman, 12 February 1864

Date: February 12, 1864

Source: The transcription presented here is derived from Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden (New York: D. Appleton, 1908), 2:524. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Location: Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Whitman Archive ID: loc.00875

Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Janel Cayer, Vanessa Steinroetter, Kathryn Kruger, Sarah Synovec, Eric Conrad, Heidi Bean, and Elise Cook




Somerville
February 12, 1864

My dear Walt Whitman.

I1 have not seen your friend Babbitt since he left the Mason Hospital (about the time I wrote you before); but I have been there to inquire about him2. Three days ago I called, and a soldier who had recently seen him reported him as gradually regaining his strength, though not his voice. He is able to go out a little. He is with, or near, some good friends of his, who are no doubt a comfort to him.

What you write me of yourself and of your experiences, interests me and makes me almost envy you the privilege of being with our noble unfortunate soldiers. You ought to write the epic of this war. By the way, has anything been done with Drum Taps? O'Connor3 said he would communicate with Carleton4 on the subject. I have spoken with one publisher here about them; but he did not bite.

An item of great domestic importance to us will perhaps interest you. A boy was born to me yesterday—a lusty little chap, fat, well-formed, weight ten pounds. Mother doing well thus far. I have seen the new moon over my right shoulder to some purpose lately.

A few days ago I wrote a letter about you to Secretary Chase5. I hope you will yet hear from him. He acknowledged at the time the receipt of the book you handed him; so I knew the package must have reached you. I am heartily glad if the books have been put to any use. How is your friend Brown who was to lose his foot?6

Give my love to the O'Connors.

Good bye.

Your friend,
J. T. Trowbridge


Notes:

1. John Townsend Trowbridge was a novelist, poet, author of juvenile stories, and antislavery reformer. Though Trowbridge became familiar with Whitman's poetry in 1855, he did not meet Whitman until 1860 when the poet was in Boston overseeing the Thayer and Eldridge edition of Leaves of Grass. He again met Whitman in Washington in 1863, when Trowbridge stayed with Secretary Chase in order to gather material for his biography, The Ferry Boy and the Financier (Boston: Walker and Wise, 1864); he described their meetings in My Own Story, with recollections of noted persons (Boston: Houghton and Mifflin, 1903), 360–401. On December 11, Trowbridge had presented to Chase Emerson's letter recommending Whitman; see the January 10, 1863. Though Trowbridge was not an idolator of Whitman, he wrote to O'Connor in 1867: "Every year confirms my earliest impression, that no book has approached the power and greatness of this book, since the Lear and Hamlet of Shakespeare" (Rufus A. Coleman, "Trowbridge and O'Connor," American Literature, 23 [1951–52], 327). For Whitman's high opinion of Trowbridge, see Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden [New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961], 3:506. See also Coleman, "Trowbridge and Whitman," Publications of the Modern Language Association of America [PMLA], 63 (1948): 262–273. For several weeks in 1863, Trowbridge stayed with Whitman in Washington, D.C., along with John Burroughs and William D. O'Connor. [back]

2. As Whitman informed Margaret S. Curtis in a letter from October 28, 1863, Caleb Babbitt suffered a sun stroke in July and was admitted to Armory Square Hospital. According to the "Hospital Note Book" (Henry E. Huntington Library), Babbitt had been in Mobile, Alabama, earlier. About August 1, 1863, he left Washington on furlough. On August 18, 1863, Caleb's sister, Mary A. Babbitt informed Whitman of Caleb's arrival in Barre, Massachusetts; because of his exhaustion he was unable to write. Mary acknowledged Whitman's letter on September 6, 1863, and wrote that Caleb was "not quite as well as when I wrote you before…he wishes me to tell you to keep writing…for your letters do him more good than a great deal of medicine." On September 18, 1863, at the expiration of his forty-day furlough, Caleb was strong enough to write: "Walt—In your letters you wish me to imagine you talking with me when I read them, well I do, and it does very well to think about, but it is nothing compared with the original." On October 18, 1863, Babbitt was depressed—"dark clouds seem to be lying in my pathway and I can not remove them nor hide them from my mind"—until he mentioned his beloved, Nellie F. Clark, who "has saved me." On October 26, 1863, S. H. Childs wrote for Caleb from the Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston: "He Is unable to set up & suffers considerable pain In his head." See also Whitman's letters from December 27, 1863, and February 8, 1864.  [back]

3. For a time Whitman lived with William D. and Ellen M. O'Connor, who, with Charles W. Eldridge and later John Burroughs, were to be his close associates during the early Washington years. William D. O'Connor (1832–1889) was the author of Harrington, an abolition novel published by Thayer & Eldridge in 1860. He had been an assistant editor of the Saturday Evening Post before he went to Washington. O'Connor was an intelligent man who deserved something better than the various governmental clerical posts he was to hold until his death. The humdrum of clerkship, however, was relieved by the presence of Whitman whom he was to love and venerate—and defend with a single-minded fanaticism and an outpouring of vituperation and eulogy that have seldom been equaled, most notably in his pamphlet, "The Good Gray Poet." He was the first, and in many ways the most important, of the adulators who divided people arbitrarily into two categories: those who were for and those who were against Walt Whitman. The poet praised O'Connor in the preface to a posthumous collection of his tales: "He was a born sample here in the 19th century of the flower and symbol of olden time first-class knighthood. Thrice blessed be his memory!" (Complete Prose Works [New York, D. Appleton, 1910] pp. 513). For more on Whitman's relationship with the O'Connors see O'Connor, William Douglas [1832–1889]. Of the O'Connors, Thomas Jefferson Whitman wrote on June 13, 1863: "I am real glad, my dear Walt, that you are among such good people. I hope it will be in the power of some of our family to return their kindness some day. I'm sure twould be done with a heartfelt gratitude. Tis pleasant, too, to think, that there are still people of that kind left." [back]

4. Trowbridge refers here to the New York publisher, George Carleton. In 1867 Carleton would pass on an opportunity to publish a new edition of Leaves of Grass. Within about a month, Carleton "had the distinction of turning down both Leaves of Grass and Mark Twain's first book"; Carleton later dubbed himself "the prize ass of the nineteenth century." See Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: A Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980), 320. [back]

5. Trowbridge made several unsuccessful attempts to secure Whitman a clerkship from Salmon P. Chase, Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of Treasury. [back]

6. Lewis Kirke Brown (1843–1926) was wounded in the left leg near Rappahannock Station on August 19, 1862, and lay where he fell for four days. Eventually he was transferred to Armory Square Hospital, where Whitman met him, probably in February 1863. In a diary in the Library of Congress, Whitman described Brown on February 19, 1863, as "a most affectionate fellow, very fond of having me come and sit by him." Because the wound did not heal, the leg was amputated on January 5, 1864. Whitman was present and described the operation in a diary (Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of Walt Whitman, The Library of Congress, Notebook #103). Brown was mustered out in August 1864, and was employed in the Provost General's office in September; see Whitman's letter from September 11, 1864 . The following September he became a clerk in the Treasury Department, and was appointed Chief of the Paymaster's Division in 1880, a post which he held until his retirement in 1915. (This material draws upon a memorandum which was prepared by Brown's family and is now held in the Library of Congress.)  [back]


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