Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Travels, Whitman's
Author:
Field, Jack
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Other than periodic travel in New England and his war-related stay in Washington, D.C., Whitman made only three journeys of length during his lifetime: to New Orleans in 1848, to Denver in 1879, and to Canada in 1880. For a poet who catalogued hundreds of places both in the United States and around the world in Leaves of Grass, his excursions away from home were surprisingly few.

Several factors may have limited his opportunity to travel. The New Orleans trip, his first outside the confines of New York, was made possible by newspaper employment. Upon his return, after a one-year stint at the Brooklyn Freeman, he entered a seven-year phase of odd employment and real estate ventures while supporting his family. During this time he became the poet of Leaves.

In 1857 he accepted the editorship of the Brooklyn Daily Times. The following year he planned a series of lectures which would take him "through all these states, especially West and South and through Kanada" (qtd. in Allen 219). But Whitman was fired from his position in the summer of 1859, and spent the next three years living a bohemian lifestyle without the funds necessary for his proposed trip. He did stay in Boston from 15 March until 13 May 1860 to oversee the printing of the 1860 edition.

Having read in the New York Herald that his brother George had been wounded in the battle of Fredericksburg, Walt immediately rushed to Falmouth, Virginia, in December of 1862 and found him relatively unhurt. Shortly afterwards he established residency in Washington, D.C., where for the next ten years (punctuated by trips back to Brooklyn) he lived and worked as volunteer nurse and paid government clerk.

In January 1873 he suffered a paralytic stroke and was forced to move in with his brother George in Camden, New Jersey. After time and therapeutic visits to the nearby Stafford family farm at Timber Creek, Whitman was well enough to embark on the long awaited journeys out West and to Canada, which were primarily funded by friends and admirers. These two trips, along with the earlier sojourn to New Orleans, served to fortify the poet's belief in the greatness of America.

New Orleans

On 9 February 1848 Whitman accepted an offer (from a businessman he happened to meet at the theater) to help start a newspaper in New Orleans. Two days later, accompanied by his younger brother Jeff, Walt boarded a train in Brooklyn and traveled to Cumberland, Maryland. There they joined a stagecoach, with seven other passengers, for a trip over the Allegheny Mountains to Wheeling, West Virginia. Upon arriving on 13 February, they boarded the steamboat St. Cloud and traveled down the Ohio River. Whitman was impressed with Cincinnati and Louisville, and in Cairo, Illinois, they arrived at the junction of the Mississippi, which Walt called "the great father of waters" (Uncollected 1:189).

The remaining trip south was "monotonous and dull" (Prose Works 2:607) except for the bluffs at Memphis and Natchez, Mississippi. The Whitmans arrived in New Orleans on 25 February, and notes he made during the voyage became "Excerpts From a Traveller's Notebook," which appeared in the Crescent in three weekly installments.

After a pleasant beginning, with Walt working as assistant editor and Jeff as office boy, the brothers (especially Jeff, who was plagued with bouts of dysentery) became homesick and found their employers to be increasingly hostile. Toward the end of May, Walt resigned, and they began the return trip on 27 May.

Taking a different route than in February, the steamer Pride of the West took them to St. Louis on 3 June, where they boarded the Prairie Bird and proceeded to LaSalle, Illinois, arriving on 5 June. They transferred to a canal boat headed for Chicago, which they reached the next day. There they explored the city for a day, boarding at the American Temperance hotel.

The next day they took the steamboat Griffith across Lake Michigan. Whitman was impressed with Wisconsin, noting that if he were to move from Long Island, "Wisconsin would be the proper place to come to" (Prose Works 2:608). They arrived in Buffalo on 12 June and boarded a train to Niagara, where they saw the falls. Another train took them to Albany, and from there they traveled by boat down the Hudson River to New York City, arriving on 15 June.

The importance of this journey on Whitman's development as a poet cannot be overemphasized. According to his friend Dr. Bucke, Whitman believed that the New Orleans trip helped him gather "the main part" of the "physiology" of Leaves of Grass.

Denver

In September 1879 Whitman was invited to participate in the Old Settler's Quarter Centennial celebration in Lawrence, Kansas. His railroad pass and most expenses were included. Traveling with four companions who were newspaper men and well-known Free-Soilers (as was the poet), Whitman planned after the event to continue west as far as his health and finances would allow.

On 10 September they traveled by train from Philadelphia to St. Louis. Near Urbana, Ohio, the train had a bad collision, but only one person was hurt, and they continued after a delay of several hours, arriving on the twelfth. While his companions stayed in a hotel, Walt spent the night at his brother Jeff's house. Ironically, the brothers had explored St. Louis together on their return trip from New Orleans, and must have noted the many changes as Jeff showed Walt the sights. The poet said, in an interview published in the 13 September 1879 St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat, that he was "in sympathy and preference Western—better fitted for the Mississippi valley." The next day the five travelers boarded a train for Kansas City. They were met at the station by a committee from the Quarter Centennial, and were escorted to Lawrence on another train.

During the first day of the event, the fifteenth, Whitman sat on the outdoor stage and endured the heat. He failed to appear the next day, when he was expected to read a poem, complaining of ill health. That evening the party traveled to Topeka by train, and the next day toured the city. Legend has it that Walt was taken to view some Indian prisoners, who responded only to him.

On the eighteenth, minus one companion, they headed to Colorado on the Kansas Pacific railroad. The group arrived in Denver on the evening of the nineteenth in time to see the Rocky Mountains at sunset. Denver was a growing city in 1879, with a streetcar system, telephone company, and construction for electric lights in progress. Whitman spent time touring the city rather than join his friends on a rugged excursion to the mining town of Leadville, although in later newspaper "interviews" he claims to have gone there.

He did visit Platte Canyon by train, which was the inspiration for his poem "Spirit That Form'd This Scene" (1881). The next morning, the twenty-third, the four men departed and headed east, although Whitman had wished to travel further west. In Pueblo they boarded the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, arriving in Kansas City on the twenty-fifth. They stopped on the way in Sterling, Kansas, where Whitman visited with a former soldier he had befriended during the Civil War.

From Kansas City they took a train and reached St. Louis on the twenty-seventh. There Whitman parted with his friends, who returned East, and began an extended visit with Jeff which became necessary when Walt suffered a relapse around 11 October.

When he felt better, Whitman spent his time visiting the Mississippi River, the Mercantile Library, and a kindergarten near Jeff's house where he entertained the children with stories. He sent several of his correspondents at this time a map of his travels.

He finally departed St. Louis on 4 January, receiving the necessary funds for the trip from an unknown donor via Dr. Bucke. His train arrived in Philadelphia the next day, and he returned to his brother's house in Camden. The trip West had been the great journey of his life.

Canada

In the summer of 1880, Whitman began his only trip outside of the United States. Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, his friend and eventual literary executor, had been encouraging the poet to visit him in London, Ontario, where he was superintendent of the Asylum for the Insane. Bucke came to Camden and on 3 June accompanied Whitman on the rail trip to Canada. They stopped en route so that Walt could view Niagara Falls for the second time in his life (the first was on the return trip from New Orleans).

Whitman spent his first two weeks in London observing conditions at the asylum and exploring the spacious ornamental grounds and farmland there. On 19 June they took a sixty-mile trip west to Sarnia, a city on the banks of the St. Clair River and on the Canada-Michigan border fifty-five miles northeast of Detroit. On the twenty-first they enjoyed a moonlight excursion on Lake Huron, and the next day visited a school and Indian settlement in the area on their way back to London.

For the next month Whitman remained at the sanitarium, enjoying the natural surroundings and activities. On 26 July he and Dr. Bucke took a train to Toronto, and the next day boarded a steamboat on Lake Ontario and proceeded to Kingston on the Canada-New York border, two hundred miles northwest of Syracuse. They stayed there a week, sightseeing and touring the Lakes of the Thousand Islands twenty-five miles east of Kingston. On 3 August they took a steamer to Montreal, arriving that evening. On the fifth they proceeded to Quebec, and the next day continued 134 miles to Tadoussac, at the mouth of the Saguenay River. A steamboat took them up that river to Chicoutimi and Ha Ha Bay, then back again to Quebec on the eighth. The next day they continued on to Montreal, Toronto, and Hamilton, arriving back in London on 14 August.

Whitman spent his remaining forty-five days in Canada resting and observing nature at the asylum. On the twenty-eighth he traveled by rail with Bucke as far as Niagara, then returned home by himself on the twenty-ninth.

Other than a short trip the following year to Boston to oversee the printing of the 1881 Leaves and to visit Emerson in Concord, this Canadian "jaunt" was the final travel experience of his life.

Bibliography

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

____. Walt Whitman. 1961. Rev. ed. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1969.

Barrus, Clara. Whitman and Burroughs, Comrades. 1931. New York: Kennikat, 1968.

Eitner, Walter H. Walt Whitman's Western Jaunt. Lawrence: Regent's Press of Kansas, 1981.

Greenland, Cyril, and John Robert Colombo, eds. Walt Whitman's Canada. Willowdale, Ontario: Hounslow, 1992.

Nicholl, James R. "Walt Whitman's 1879 Visit to Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado." Heritage of the Great Plains 14.1 (1981): 33–42.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence of Walt Whitman. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.

____. Daybooks and Notebooks. Ed. William White. 3 vols. New York: New York UP, 1978.

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.

____. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. 1921. Ed. Emory Holloway. 2 vols. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1972.


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