Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Trowbridge, John Townsend (1827–1916))
Author:
Rachman, Stephen
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

One of the earliest and most even-handed of Walt Whitman's admirers, John Townsend Trowbridge left a deft and important portrait of their relationship in his autobiography, My Own Story. New York born but Boston based, Trowbridge was editor, novelist, poet, antislavery reformer and writer of many juvenile stories and serials. He enjoyed acclaim and popularity for his novels, especially Neighbor Jackwood (1857), Cudjo's Cave (1864), Coupon Bonds (1866), the widely read "Jack Hazard Series" (1871–1874), and his best-known light verse about a hubristic boy, "Darius Green and His Flying-Machine." He was an important voice in literature for children, editing Our Young Folks and contributing to St. Nicholas and The Youth's Companion, and he was also a frequent contributor of verse to the Atlantic.

In My Own Story Trowbridge relates how he first came across excerpts of Leaves of Grass while staying in Paris during 1855; he read the book upon his return to the United States and liked it very much while objecting to its explicit sexuality. In a letter dated November 1856, he called it "a marvel & a monstrosity." "The author is a sort of Emerson run wild—glorious, graphic, sublime, ridiculous, spiritual, sensual, great, powerful, savage, tender, sweet, and filthy" (qtd in. Coleman, "Trowbridge" 262–263). Trowbridge met Whitman for the first time in Boston in 1860 when the poet was preparing the third edition of Leaves of Grass, and he was surprised to find a "simple, well-mannered man" (Trowbridge, "Reminiscences" 164). When Whitman called on Trowbridge at his home in Somerville, their friendship blossomed, and the latter inquired into the poet's familiarity with Emerson's writings. Whitman explained that, when he was building houses with his father in 1854, he had read Emerson's essays on his lunch breaks and Emerson had "helped him to 'find himself.'" "I was simmering, simmering, simmering," Whitman was reported to have said; "Emerson brought me to a boil" (qtd. in Trowbridge, "Reminiscences" 166). Given Whitman's subsequent denials of having read Emerson before writing Leaves of Grass, Trowbridge's testimony remains an important contravention.

Over a period of weeks in 1863, Trowbridge spent a good deal of time with Whitman along with John Burroughs and William D. O'Connor in the poet's "terrible" garret in Washington, D.C., and made unsuccessful attempts to secure for Whitman a government clerkship from Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln's Secretary of Treasury. While keeping his distance from the more sycophantic circles of Whitman's admirers, Trowbridge remained a steadfast friend through the 1880s and beyond. "The way Trowbridge stuck to me through thick and thin was beautiful to behold," Whitman told Horace Traubel. "He had objections to me always; has objections today; but he accepted me on general principles and has never so far as I know revised his original declaration in my favor" (Traubel 506).

Trowbridge is a significant contemporary reader of Whitman precisely for the way he could take from Leaves of Grass what he enjoyed and still be offended. Very little scholarship exists which examines Whitman's influence on Trowbridge but surely poems such as "My Comrade and I" from The Vagabonds and Other Poems (1869) evoke the sentiments of "Calamus" cast in conventional meter and mores. Undoubtedly, Trowbridge always found the sexual parts of Leaves of Grass unpleasant and unnecessary and yet often felt that Whitman's later verse was too conventional in its phraseology, preferring the 1855 edition. While his appreciation does not fit the radical mold of the typical nineteenth-century champion of the Good Gray Poet, it does offer evidence of a frequently overlooked part of nineteenth-century Whitmanian readership—a conventional Victorian sensibility that could perceive, as he writes, "the great original force" (Trowbridge, "Reminiscences" 175) of Whitman's verse.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Coleman, Rufus A. "Further Reminiscences of Walt Whitman." Modern Language Notes 63 (1948): 266–268.

———. "Trowbridge and Whitman." PMLA 63 (1948): 262–273.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 3. New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914.

Trowbridge, John Townsend. My Own Story. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903.

———. The Poetical Works of John Townsend Trowbridge. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903.

———. "Reminiscences of Walt Whitman." Atlantic Monthly 89 (1902): 163–175.


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