Commentary

Disciples


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Tuesday, May 27, 1890

     5.10 P.M. W. in his room. Just concluded dinner. I took him the local papers from the hallway, for which he expressed gratefulness. He was out today in the chair—the carriage for the present having ceased coming. "Bucke came at half past twelve: we left him here when we went out. He is now on his way to Washington. It seems to me that Bucke, who came here to rest, is not resting at all—that he is driving things harder instead of easier—what is more, shows signs of it. As I look at it, it would have availed him much more had he settled at Cape May—taking advantage of all it has to offer—and it has much to offer—is a paradise of a sort. Now he goes to Washington, to con over O'Connor's manuscripts! God save me from such work! It is awful work to piece together another's manuscript. The writer himself has an idea of connections which a stranger has to study out, worry out, through a mass of appalling discouragements, difficulties. To me it is a bête noir. There are several reasons why I should never have it to do—in the first place, because it is intricate and laborious, in the next because it is just this black beast." And yet— "I suppose after all it is part of the Doctor's purpose in being here to know how his irons (and he has many in the fire) are coming on." And further: "We have not seen particularly

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much of him this trip, though today our talk was rather more full than any others: mostly of Ellis and what his book brings up—Arnold, Heine, and many other such matters."

     I wondered if the other essays in Ellis' book (I have only so far read the Whitman) would not help me to an understanding of Ellis' point of view? "No—I don't think so: it is all there in the Whitman—perhaps the Heine would help you some, but no others."

     Suddenly he asked me: "Did you see the Record this morning? According to the Record I am dying. I suppose I am, in a sense, dying: but I have been pretty sick these past six years, and the past two badly sick: so that I do not see that it needs to be remarked upon now. I have had many ups and downs—usually an up for every down—though I suppose some day I'll get a down from which I shall not recover. But so far I have escaped fatal harm, the sun has inevitably come out after the clouds—and here I am. It's all Adam Sloan's work"—as I understand, based on the Camden Telegram article of yesterday afternoon— "and of a piece with Sloan, without a doubt. And yet even he ought to know better. He has been here half a dozen times—knows my friends, atmosphere, entourage, (or should) and a thousand and one of those indirections by which a story is known better than by what are called direct testimonies. Yet he writes this way!" At one point the report says: "Whitman never was of a robust physique"—W. laughingly saying: "What stuff! Why, that is the very point we travel on!" Already two reporters had been here today, to one of whom— "a large-eyed, nice looking youngish boy, from the Times—I have talked. God knows how it'll turn out—one can never say!" "To the ordinary reporter—the lower orders—the samples we mostly meet with here, the word that Mary may have said to Sloan, or Tom, was sufficient, with the money impulse in the office, to fill a column. Sloan probably plead[ed] very hard to see me, and Mary no doubt was quite decisive as to my condition."


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From the Philadelphia Record, May 27, 1890
WALT WHITMAN ILL
The Poet Succumbing to Old Age
and Feebleness
HE'S CONFINED TO THE HOUSE
A Familiar Face Missed in the Streets of Camden—
Preparing for the Final Scene


That Walt Whitman, the "good, gray poet," is failing—and rapidly, too—is a fact patent to all of his intimate friends. Yet the fact is being kept from the public through regard for the aged poet. Whitman is extremely sensitive on the point of his own physical welfare, and any allusion to his condition brings forth confidential expressions of his buoyancy of spirit, yet ill-concealed admission of weakness.

The weather during the past few weeks has been particularly distressing to him, and he has been unable to leave his house to breathe in the sunshine and the light he so loves. His rolling-chair became a familiar object on the streets of Camden for a few weeks this spring. Every day or two the picturesque figure of the great, shaggy beard, blowing in the breeze, the huge white hat and the limbs snugly incased in a heavy woolen shawl, was pushed along on the sunny sides of the streets by the sturdy young man who acts as the poet's body servant. On every hand the wheeled chair and its famous occupant was greeted with great respect, children whispering to each other as it passed:

"That's Walt Whitman."

The chair has not been seen on the streets for weeks, and inquiry at his residence on Mickle Street is met with the answer that Whitman is suffering with a severe cold, and that he is not at all well.

71 YEARS OLD

Whitman will be 71 years old on Saturday next, but it is doubtful if he will be able to attend the quiet little dinner arranged to take place as a celebration in this city. A few of his most intimate friends and admirers have arranged the affair.

Lawyer Thomas B. Harned, the poet's close friend and counselor, reluctantly admitted that Whitman is failing rapidly, that a marked physical change has come over him, and that his friends are

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just beginning to realize it. Whitman was never of a robust physique, and of recent years he has been feebler than ever. Dr. Buck [Bucke], his biographer, is spending a good deal of time with him now, and he, too, admits that the famous man is nearing the end.


Counselor Harned has at his office in Camden Whitman's curious will. It was drafted by the poet a year ago, and has been regularly attested by Mr. Harned. It is a singular-looking document, and no one save the poet himself—not even his counselor—knows what it contains. The paper upon which it is written is ordinary foolscap, one sheet pasted lengthwise on the other, and the whole tied with a piece of common wrapping yarn.

     But "whatever all this," he had been down to the river, and felt "already set-up from yesterday's cloudland"—adding: "It makes me less inclined than yesterday to call the dinner off!" I had a letter from Ingersoll, saying he would come over "if possible," and would let me know positively in a day or two. I should write to Ingersoll, telling him not to regard these reports if they reached him—W. advising me: "If you do so—say to him: 'I was an hour ago with Walt Whitman—we had a good talk together—he sends his best love and affection, and hopes you will come over'—or something to that effect, putting it as near my way as you can." He supposed Ingersoll would "finally say no, as all the rest are doing,"—adding however— "I know if he does, it is from necessity, as being a very busy man." I had a letter also from Arthur Stedman, stating his father's absence from the city &c.—for health—had left even before W.'s letter of last week arrived. W. spoke of Stedman's sons—then of how he "always liked the wife." He was also intensely interested in a letter I had from Mrs. Fairchild. "She always moves me deeply," he said. Appearing to be rather serious from the number of those who refuse to attend the dinner.

     Again—in a tone full of music— "You have no idea how much good Agnes' flowers have done me: I want you to tell her so: I have taken them up again and again. They are singularly beautiful specimens in themselves; they came at a

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very opportune time. Last night and this morning I was not feeling well at all: and these—color, odor, all—perfect it seems to me—appealed to me direct. It is interesting, the little things that will serve to overlay a man's troubles. Beecher, they say, had a resource—he loved gems—at times when he felt blue, despondent, he would look at them, handle them, and they set him right. They were in a little pouch or box, which he carried with him:—and he was known to stop in at some house on the road—the house of some intimate—ask for a room—explaining that he wished it for rest, and for only a brief space. One such time his host, after 20 minutes or so, went into the room, fearing something was wrong—and there was Beecher—sitting: his chin on his hands—the gems spread out before him—intently regarding them. Then he explained. The story came to me in that way—is perhaps not strictly true—yet is illustrative—not improbable. These roses from Agnes have had an effect like that upon me."

     Warren brought in some mail—for one thing a couple of copies of the Springfield Republican. "I guess they have the Victoria piece," he said, "I sent a copy to them." As turned out to be the case. "The Republican has always been friendly to me. Talcott Williams hails from Springfield."—And then by some reference to T. W.'s connection with the Press: "Of the man Calvin Wells, and that other, Charles Emery Smith, I care little—I think they amount to little." Remarked that "the lyingness" of the average reporter "invites the application and adoption of the Tennysonian epithet "the reporters in a loomp are bad!" Mrs. Davis told W. she wished for nothing to do with them. W. putting in— "Nor do I."

     Having made some reference to the Broadway Tabernacle in New York W. said: "Though it is gone now—torn down—destroyed—and no sign to place it any more, yet for me it lasts, will last, as one of the most emphatic memories of my early life; I had much time then—little to do—and was often there. It was the speech headquarters of the abolitioners of

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the time—of come-outers of all shades—I delighted to hear them, they were so dead in earnest—many of them such fine specimens of men—Phillips—and there was Clement M. Clay—and others. Yes, Burleigh—him I remember well—a grand looking man—hair parted in the middle, curls. Often I would hear the roughs, the enemy, in the meetings there; they would say, 'Here he is! here is Jesus!'—in derision. No, it was not imitation in Burleigh—it was his own natural physiological self, expressed in perfect port."

     W. said he had been making his meal "off of strawberries, mainly" and "good they were for an old fellow—and a young too?"—looking at me and laughing. Adding: "But I had a mutton chop, also—and that reminds me: I had among my friends in Washington, many curious fellows, whose habits and ways were a constant study, entering by more ways than one into the sinew and marrow of my work. Gebrowksi [Gurowski?] was one—but I do not mean to speak of him now: I have in mind an old commodore—a peculiar old codger—he took his meals in a restaurant I knew well: was given to mutton chops—liked them—yet, never at one time ate more than one. His directions to the cook, or waiter, were singular, emphatic: he would say, 'Now, I want you to bring me a mutton chop for breakfast—mind what I say, one mutton chop—not more'—here W. raised his finger admonishingly, looked at me over his glasses— " One mutton chop—one mutton chop—not a fibre more!' And then in the morning the man would after all bring him a good full plate, three chops instead of one, and the old man, his ire up, irascible to the last tone, would cry out, 'What does this mean? Did I not tell you to bring me one chop—but one chop?' 'But Commodore, this is the system of the place, the way of the kitchen: you would be charged just as much for one as for three. And, Commodore, you are not required to eat the three if you don't want to!' But the commodore was not appeased. 'Damn you! it's not the one or the three, but I want you to obey orders!'" W. laughed in great humor, then: "Nowadays, when Mary brings

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me up my chop, she will say— 'I remember Mr. Whitman: one chop!'"

     I read W. a letter I had received from Burroughs. The last sentence, "I am fairly well, but not buoyant," excited W.'s smile. "That is characteristic of John as he is these days—a lugubrious output, of a certainty." And then: "You are right, he has no right to such a humor: John has grander eligibilities—basically is of better stuff: this is the new crust of him. Oh! there is no doubt but that he has been tossed thick by that New York crowd—however little he knows it himself, tossed thick: very few escape it. I know what it is—know it well: most of my years were passed in some sort of contest with it. And I know that the bitterest enmity I have had to contend with is there in New York. O yes! there has been a change in John, and that is the reason. I think, know, O'Connor realized the change but not the reason. It is the change that will come over a poor girl of finest impulses, cast into the society of gossipy, mean-minded, libidinous women—effected, not knowing it—though that is stating it severely. Or like the case of the nobler men who study theology—whose religion goes well till it comes upon that rock of a damnation for most of the earth—is then wrecked—then itself goes to hell: hell, the lie of ages and ages, to me the impredenliest[?] horror dared by men's lips. I do not know that we are right to such comparisons with John, but I give them as in a way illustrative. Probably John's change does not manifest itself in his writing"—I put in— "Perhaps only in subjects—more literary and theological." W. then— "Yes, that John should take account of—especially the theological, which is enough to damn any man!"


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