Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Bolton (England) "Eagle Street College"
Author:
Krieg, Joann P.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Among the birthday greetings Whitman received in 1887 were an unexpected gift of money and an expression of admiration from two Englishmen who were completely unknown to him. They were J.W. Wallace and Dr. John Johnston, both of Bolton, a cotton manufacturing town not far from Manchester in the Lancashire district of northern England. Wallace and Johnston were the leaders of a small band of Whitmanites who met weekly at Wallace's home on Eagle Street. So earnest were their discussions at these gatherings that Johnston dubbed the group the "Eagle Street College." Whitman acknowledged the gift warmly, which was repeated in succeeding years, and in 1890 met Johnston for the first time when the doctor arrived at Mickle Street in Camden. The following year Wallace made the same journey. While in America, both men also visited various friends and associates of Whitman, meetings which they recounted in a jointly written volume published in 1917.

The story of the "College" itself, however, ranges beyond these brief contacts, for in the closing years of his life Whitman wrote a steady stream of messages, sometimes on a daily basis, to this unlikely group of admirers. These were not literary critics or scholars, in the usual sense, but bank clerks, clergymen, manufacturers, assistant architects (including Wallace), and, of course, the physician, Dr. Johnston. Originally their meetings ranged freely over many subjects, but three or four were already students of Whitman, so gradually the poet became the principal subject of their papers, readings, and discussions.

Once the direct contact had been made with Whitman through Johnston's visit, it never lessened, having been intensified by Wallace's stay in Camden. The ties between the poet and the Bolton group were made deeper by the gifts of books, magazines, and photographs that flowed between England and America, including Whitman's gift of the stuffed canary which in life had brought him much pleasure and which he made the subject of a poem, "My Canary Bird" (1888). Others were also brought into the relationship—John Burroughs; R.M. Bucke, who visited Bolton; and Horace Traubel, who became one of Wallace's most constant correspondents and remained so until Traubel's death. In England the "College" contacts included Edward Carpenter and John Addington Symonds.

Despite the literary luster of Carpenter and Symonds, it was the working-class status of the collegians themselves that appealed to Whitman, and in them he believed he had found the audience for which he aimed. Later the circle of friends became part of the English socialist movement, but while Whitman was alive their ideal was democracy, by which they meant the elimination of the class system in England and the improvement of the conditions of workers. Therein lay Whitman's great appeal for them, for they understood him to be the divinely inspired prophet of world democracy.

The "Eagle Street College" did not disband or lose its direction after Whitman's death, but continued to work toward the high objectives its members believed Whitman had set. Virginia Woolf once paid respect to their long devotion to Whitman, and the "College" so inspired their townsmen that the Bolton Library maintains the collegians' books, correspondence, and manuscripts in its local history collection. Included among the artifacts is the stuffed canary still in its original case.

Bibliography

Blodgett, Harold. Walt Whitman in England. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1934.

Johnston, J., and J.W. Wallace. Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–1891. 1917. New York: Haskell House, 1970.

Salveson, Paul. Loving Comrades: Lancashire's Links to Walt Whitman. Bolton, England: Worker's Educational Association, 1984.

Woolf, Virginia. "Bolton and Walt Whitman." Times Literary Supplement 3 Jan. 1918.


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