Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Associations, Clubs, Fellowships, Foundations, and Societies
Author:
Pannapacker, William A.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Although Whitman did not organize groups in any formal way, from the 1860s to the 1890s he attracted disciples, primarily in the United States, Canada, and England. Whitman's American admirers—William D. O'Connor, Richard Maurice Bucke, John Burroughs, Thomas Harned, William Sloane Kennedy, and Horace Traubel—sometimes presented the poet as a new messiah, and English admirers Edward Carpenter, James Wallace, and Dr. John Johnston made pilgrimages to Camden and wrote books about the experience. In the last few years of Whitman's life, his disciples began to organize themselves into cultlike associations with shrines, scriptures, icons, and rituals. While Whitman was sometimes embarrassed by the excesses of his admirers, he encouraged groups like the antecedents of the Walt Whitman Fellowship and the "Eagle Street College," whose construction of "Walt Whitman" was generally consistent with the image he wished to present. On the other hand, Whitman resisted Sadakichi Hartmann's unauthorized attempt to make himself the head of a Whitman fund-raising society in Boston in 1887. In the decades after Whitman's death, however, new associations became less religious, and the poet became a central figure in a variety of cultural movements. The versions of Whitman that emerged were often created in the image of his admirers: Whitman the socialist, Whitman the communist, Whitman the feminist, Whitman the democrat.

The group that became the Walt Whitman Fellowship began informally as early as 1887, when Whitman's friends began to celebrate his birthday with a dinner held on 31 May. In a few years these dinners developed into publicity and fund-raising affairs, the largest of which was in 1889, when a committee including Harned, H.L. Bonsall, and Geoffrey Buckwalter rented a hall in Camden and sent notices to admirers, friendly critics, and authors the world over. The celebration was covered by the local press, and enough money was raised to buy Whitman a wheelchair. The numerous testimonial speeches and telegrams were collected by Traubel in Camden's Compliment to Walt Whitman (1889). After Whitman's death in 1892, his friends gathered again in Philadelphia on 31 May and named themselves the "Walt Whitman Reunion Association," dedicated to keeping "fresh in our hearts the memories of our departed friend, the poet," and to extending "the influence of his writings where they are not understood and loved" (White 69). In June, John H. Johnston, a jeweler and patron of Whitman from New York, was named chairman of the association. The members had a "Whitman Night" at New York's Twilight Club in the fall, and they celebrated Whitman's birthday in New York in 1893.

In 1894 the association met again in Philadelphia, and after voting down titles such as "Society" and "Comradeship," the thirty-six members renamed themselves the "Walt Whitman Fellowship: International." Its purposes were threefold: to bring together people interested in Whitman, to establish Whitman fellowships all over the world, and to publish works relating to Whitman. The founding members included Daniel Garrison Brinton, Bucke, Burroughs, Harned, Robert Ingersoll, Johnston, David McKay, Traubel, and his wife, Anne Montgomerie Traubel. A professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Brinton was named president, and Horace Traubel soon became secretary-treasurer, a position he held until his death in 1919. From 1895 to 1900 the fellowship alternated its annual gatherings between Philadelphia and Boston, and from 1901 to 1919 they met in New York. During these years membership climbed as high as 240, and branches of the fellowship were formed in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Knoxville, Tennessee. Other branches were proposed for Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and San Francisco in the United States, and London, Bolton, and Liverpool in England. The fellowship continued its celebrations for twenty-five years, and it attracted a diverse membership of writers, artists, and politicians, including Max Eastman, John Erskine, Walter Lippman, F.B. Sanborn, E.C. Stedman, Clement Wood, Marsden Hartley, John Sloan, Alfred Stieglitz, Max Weber, and Samuel L. Jones, the mayor of Toledo. According to one member, the meetings were a gathering of "Socialists, anarchists, communists, painters, poets, mechanics, laborers, business men," each of whom shared a love of Whitman (White 67). Before the fellowship ended in 1919 with the death of its chief organizer, Horace Traubel, it had published 123 "Walt Whitman Fellowship Papers," containing many important essays on Whitman. The fellowship eventually became a parent group for several other Whitman organizations that continued through the twentieth century.

While the Walt Whitman Fellowship: International was active in the United States, another group of Whitman's admirers continued its activities in England. Around 1885 some friends in Bolton, Lancashire, became interested in Whitman and began to meet regularly at the house of James William Wallace on Eagle Street. The group called itself the "Eagle Street College," but it became known as the Bolton Whitman Fellowship. Its members were mostly middle-class men; among them were two bank clerks, an accountant, two assistant architects, two law clerks, a couple of tradesmen, a clergyman, and a doctor. Wallace and Dr. John Johnston, the leaders of the group, began to correspond with Whitman in 1887. They regularly sent the poet letters of homage and cash gifts, and Whitman responded with affectionate letters, photographs, and copies of his books. In 1890 Johnston visited Whitman in Camden and made a pilgrimage to the poet's birthplace on Long Island. Later that year Johnston published a pamphlet, "Notes of a Visit to Walt Whitman and His Friends in 1890," and received Whitman's approval to send copies of it to numerous friends in England and America. At this time the leaders of the Bolton Fellowship came into contact with several important English Whitman enthusiasts (Edward Carpenter, William Michael Rossetti, and John Addington Symonds) and with leaders of the Whitman Fellowship in America (Bucke, Burroughs, Harned, and Traubel). In 1891 Wallace, accompanied by Bucke, visited Whitman in Camden and the birthplace on Long Island, and later published his own account, "Visits to Walt Whitman and His Friends, Etc., in 1891" (1917). The Bolton group remained active until the death of Wallace in 1926. Members continued to meet on Whitman's birthday at the house of James Ormrod for a time, and Wallace's adopted daughter, Minnie Whiteside Bull, maintained a correspondence with Whitman's American enthusiasts, particularly Anne Montgomerie Traubel, until the 1950s. Largely through her efforts an important collection of Whitmaniana and the proceedings of the "Eagle Street College" remain in Bolton's Central Library. Harold Hamer published a catalogue of the collection in 1955.

Several other groups of Whitman enthusiasts emerged in the United States and Canada in the first decades after Whitman's death. Not personally associated with Whitman, these groups tended to be less religious in their devotion and more interested in Whitman as literary figure or as a spokseman for social and political reform. The long-surviving Iowa Schoolmasters' Walt Whitman Club was founded in Cedar Falls, Iowa, in 1895 by J.T. Merrill and O.J. Laylander, both Iowa school officials who wanted students to become more familiar with Whitman's writings. The club began with a dozen members, and in 1896 Merril was elected "Chief Walt" for life, and Laylander became "Scribe Walt." (Ordinary members were called "Waltlets.") They held regular initiation rituals followed by a banquet with speeches and toasts from "Brother Walts." Some Iowans suspected the club of radical intentions, but it seems to have been simply a fraternal society for the promotion of Whitmanesque attitudes, and it may be that Whitman eventually became incidental to the networking activities it facilitated among the leading educators of the state. Among its membership were at least twenty Iowa college presidents, fifty superintendents of schools, and numerous principals, deans, and professors. From 1895 to 1970 the Whitman Club had 290 members, a large percentage of whom have been associated with the University of Iowa, sponsor of The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review (1983—).

The Walt Whitman Fellowship of Chicago also maintained a long unbroken history. Founded in 1906 by Dr. Morris Lychenheim, it continued to hold annual meetings on 31 May until at least the late 1950s. Noted criminal lawyer Clarence Darrow was a supporter of the fellowship in 1919, and he spoke at their 1925 meeting. A fiftieth-anniversary celebration was held in 1956 and attended by Senator Paul Douglas, Louis Untermeyer, Francis Winwar, and Walter Blair.

Although not founded as a Whitman association, New York's Sunrise Club championed Walt Whitman at dinners attended by several hundred members in the late 1890s. Around 1918 one of its members started an annual gathering dedicated to Whitman. Led by James F. Morton, over the next decade the group swelled to several hundred people who met to discuss Whitman, read poems, and visit Whitman's birthplace on Long Island. Meanwhile, the "Writers' Club" of New York, organized in 1917, protested Whitman's exclusion from New York University's Hall of Fame. Their leader, J. George Frederick, organized annual trips to Whitman's birthplace which included ceremonial addresses and readings. The two leaders, Morton and Frederick, formed the "Whitman Society" in New York in 1924, which continued its expeditions to Long Island. Around 1928 they planned a Walt Whitman Magazine, which was halted by the beginning of the depression in 1929. The Whitman Society disbanded shortly after Whitman was accepted into the Hall of Fame in 1931.

The Walt Whitman Fellowship of Canada was founded in 1915 in Toronto and held annual meetings with speeches and music on Whitman's birthday for at least fifteen years. Its members included Henry S. Saunders, a noted collector of Whitmaniana, who served at times as president. Another Canadian association, the Whitman Club of Bon Echo, Ontario, existed for only a few years, headed by Flora MacDonald Denison, former president of the Canadian Woman Suffrage Association. She published six issues of The Sunset of Bon Echo from 1916 to 1920 and organized the erecting of a monument to "Old Walt" on scenic Bon Echo Rock in 1919.

The spirit of reform and political radicalism never entirely left the Whitman associations that continued in various forms through the twentieth century, but the interests of the two principal organizations that remain today, the Walt Whitman Association and the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association, are primarily the preservation of the houses in which Whitman was born and died, the maintenance of archives of Whitman materials, and the education of the public about Whitman. Nevertheless, in both cases the need to acquire government funding has necessitated a political construction of Whitman quite different from those of other associations.

What is now the Walt Whitman Association originated in 1919 when J. David Stern, publisher of the Camden Daily Courier, and his wife, Juliet Lit Stern, urged the city to purchase Whitman's former house at 330 Mickle Boulevard. As a result of their efforts the house was purchased by the city of Camden and dedicated as a memorial museum in 1923. A committee of remaining members of the Walt Whitman Fellowship: International, including Anne M. Traubel and her daughter, was created to advise the city and to appoint a curator of the house. The committee became the Walt Whitman Foundation, chaired by Whitman's former physician, Alexander McAlister, and it resumed the annual celebtration of Whitman's birthday. In 1940 a board of trustees, chaired by Ralph W. Wescott, formed a corpration in order to raise funds to preserve the house and to build a library next door. In 1945 ownership of the house was transferred from Camden to the State of New Jersey. From 1948 to 1955 the Walt Whitman Foundation Bulletin was published and expanded to The Walt Whitman Newsletter, which continued until 1958. According to a leaflet inserted in the first issue of the Bulletin, the promotion of Whitman was a "vital step towards world democracy, tolerance and peace," and in March 1950 the Bulletin included an essay by Cleveland Rodgers contrasting Whitman with Marx.

In 1965, the foundation was reincorporated as the Walt Whitman Association and elected Dr. Harold W. Barnshaw president. In 1984 the association prevailed on the state to restore the building next to the house as a library, and the following year it aided the initiation of a Whitman Studies program at Rutgers University directed by David Reynolds. From 1979 to 1991 the association sponsored The Mickle Street Review, and since 1987 it has published a newsletter, Conversations. The house remains open for tours, the library is open by appointment to visiting scholars, and the association continues to hold meetings, readings, and Whitman-related events for the general public.

Closely related to the Walt Whitman Foundation, the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association was organized in 1949 by Cleveland Rodgers to purchase Whitman's birthplace in West Hills, Huntington, Long Island, from its former owner and to preserve it. Rodgers succeeded, in part, by presenting Whitman as an anticommunist poet, and in 1951 the Birthplace Association took over the house, holding a dedication on 31 May 1952. In 1957, to ensure its long-term security, title to the house was given to New York State under an agreement that would make it a State Historic Site operated by the Birthplace Association. The house remains open to the public, and the Birthplace Association continues to hold celebrations of Whitman's birthday and maintains a library and a visitor center with exhibits, presentations, and educational programs. The Birthplace Association published the Walt Whitman Birthplace Bulletin (1957–1961) and The Long Islander (1969–1974); since 1979 it has published a literary journal, The West Hills Review, and it has published a newsletter, Starting From Paumanok, since 1985. Its Poet-in-Residence Program has attracted Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg Galway Kinnell, and Adrienne Rich.

It is impossible to calculate how many other Whitman groups have sprung up and disappeared, leaving perhaps a memorial room at school or library, a collection of books, a few issues of a hand-printed newsletter, or nothing at all. There was a Walt Whitman Society of National Librarians in Hempstead, Long Island; a Walt Whitman Foundation of Los Angeles; a Whitman Society of London; a Whitman Society of Australia; a group in Vienna headed by Roswitha Ballabene; a Société de Walt Whitman in Paris; and a Walt Whitman Society of America formed briefly by Cleveland Rodgers in the early 1950s. Many other groups, no doubt, still exist and continue to be formed unnoticed by the larger community of Whitman admirers.

Bibliography

Dyson, Verne. "The Whitman Societies." Walt Whitman Birthplace Bulletin. "I. The Walt Whitman Reunion Association (1887)." 1.2 (1958): 14–17; "II. The Walt Whitman Fellowship: International (1894)." 1.3 (1958): 3–7; "III. The Walt Whitman Fellowship, Bolton, England: 'Eagle Street College' (1885)." 1.4 (1958): 18–21; "IV. The Walt Whitman Fellowship of Chicago (1906)." 2.1 (1958): 11–12; "V. The Walt Whitman Fellowship of Toronto (1915)." 2.1 (1958): 12–13.

Frederick, J. George. "The Attempts to Form Whitman Societies." Walt Whitman Birthplace Bulletin 2.1 (1958): 16–17.

Hamer, Harold. A Catalogue of Works by and Relating to Walt Whitman in the Reference Library, Bolton. Bolton, England: Libraries Committee, 1955.

Hendrick, George. "Flora MacDonald Denison's The Sunset of Bon Echo." Walt Whitman Birthplace Bulletin 3.2 (1960): 3–5.

____. "Walt Whitman and Sadakichi Hartmann." Emerson Society Quarterly 11 (1958): 50–52. Rpt. in Walt Whitman Birthplace Bulletin 3.1 (1959): 15–19.

Johnston, John, and James William Wallace. Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–1891 by Two Lancashire Friends. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1917.

Krieg, Joann P. "Walt Whitman in the Public Domain: A Tale of Two Houses." Long Island Historical Journal 6.1 (1993): 83–95.

Petersen, WIlliam J. "The Walt Whitman Club." The Palimpsest 51 (1970): 323–348.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. 9 Vols. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906; Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908; Vol. 3. New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914; Vol. 4 Ed. Sculley Bradley. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1953; Vol. 5. Ed. Gertrude Traubel. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1964; Vol. 6. Ed. Gertrude Traubel and William White. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1982; Vol. 7. Ed. Jeanne Chapman and Robert MacIsaac. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1992; Vols. 8–9. Ed. Jeanne Chapman and Robert MacIsaac. Oregon House, Calif.: W.L. Bentley, 1996.

White, William. "The Walt Whitman Fellowship: An Account of Its Organization and a Checklist of Its Papers." Papers of the American Bibliographical Society 51 (1957): 67–84, 167–169.


Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.