Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Meetings with Walt Whitman: Interviews and Reminiscences

Creator: Brett Barney

Publication information: This is an original document, written expressly for this online edition.

Whitman Archive ID: anc.00270

Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney


This section of the Whitman Archive is one of several products of our efforts to make available significant primary documents that past editorial projects have omitted. Interviews of the poet have, historically, played a minor role in Whitman scholarship, and as far as we are aware no systematic attempt has ever been made to collect and edit them. A handful of the interviews may be familiar to scholars from reprintings in scholarly journals or from scattered references in such works as With Walt Whitman in Camden. However, much of the material presented here will be new even to Whitman specialists, having never been reprinted since it first appeared in the pages of nineteenth-century newspapers. Many of these had been documented—principally in the two-volume bibliography Walt Whitman: A Reference Guide (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1981-1982)—but are reprinted here for the first time. About half of the periodical pieces, however, are newly rediscovered.

My original intention was to create a comprehensive edition of Whitman interviews, an ambition that seemed to obviate the need to establish refined criteria for what to include. It became apparent soon, however, that an inclusive scope, rather than doing away with the need to make fine distinctions, simply relocated it. Instead of asking "Which interviews are the most important?" I had to ask the more basic question "What is an interview?"

The interview as a journalistic form was only just coming into being in the second half of the nineteenth century. Since very few editions of interviews from that time have been prepared, the critical and theoretical framework for doing such work is largely absent. The most obvious difference between the typical Whitman interview and a typical literary interview during the period from World War II to the present is in their formats: only a few of the reports of conversations with Whitman is cast in the question-and-answer format that has come to seem the hallmark of the genre. Instead, the usual newspaper interview of the 1870s and 1880s is a strikingly narrative genre: The reporter, in the role of observant narrator, relates not merely the words of the interviewed or the informational substance of those words but the entire story of the conversation, complete with details of setting, costume, ambience, and anything else that might seem to advance the plot. Most often, these accounts do not identify themselves explicitly as interviews.

As the most obvious defining characteristics of the present-day interview seemed, therefore, inadequate to the task of deciding whether something was or wasn't a nineteenth-century interview, alternative criteria were needed. Should unpublished notes of conversations with the poet qualify? Or what about notes published only years after the fact, short gossipy newspaper pieces that purport to quote a snippet of conversation, or newspaper accounts of public speeches? Because the Whitman Archive project in many ways exemplifies the Whitmanian principles of liberality and inclusion, and because electronic publication removes the physical space constraint that obtains in collected editions in print, after consulting with the Archive's editors and other staff members I decided to construe "interview" broadly, to use as a working definition any written account claiming to report Whitman's spoken remarks.

Eventually, though, even this accommodating standard had to be relaxed. My research into the development of the interview genre made it clear that conceiving interviews as necessarily containing reported speech was anachronistic. During Whitman's time, the defining characteristic of a "newspaper interview" was as much or more the reporter's visit itself as it was the subject's utterances during the visit; thus, one occasionally encounters a newspaper piece that follows the typical interview format of the time—and even calls itself an interview—but nowhere purports to present the words of the person interviewed.

The scope, therefore, of this collection is all written accounts of a meeting with Walt Whitman. In addition to the newspaper accounts that were published immediately following a visit, I have included approximately a dozen longer accounts, many of which take the form of "reminiscences." Some of these are drawn from periodicals and some from books. Most were published long after the meetings they describe.

In most cases, only one copytext is possible, since the interview in question appeared in only one issue of a periodical publication. For those interviews that appeared in multiple periodicals, I have tried in all cases to locate and transcribe from the earliest example. In a few cases, however, I have been unable to locate an extant copy of a known original and have had to use a later reprint from another paper. In the few cases where an interview appeared on the same date in multiple newspapers, I have chosen what appears to me the most carefully prepared unabridged example. Similarly, I have chosen the most complete forms of interviews that appeared first in periodical and later in monograph publications. When each has significantly unique material, both are included. Information about known reprints will be added to the textual notes.

The interviews were transcribed from a variety of source formats. Most of the pieces that originally appeared in newspapers were transcribed from digital images of microfilm; photocopies and digital images of originals were used in other cases. Most of the material from magazines and monographs was transcribed from a digital image of an original printed copy. In all cases, transcriptions have been proofread by a second person, and formats of the sources are reported in the notes. Encoding, whether applied during transcription or after, has been both machine-checked for consistency with the Whitman Archive's TEI encoding schema and assessed for accuracy during the proofreading stage.

The texts have not been modernized or standardized, with the exception that soft hyphens have been silently elided. In cases where it is unclear whether a hyphen is hard or soft, it has been retained. Spelling and typographical errors in the original are encoded in both corrected and uncorrected forms, though the HTML display presents only the uncorrected reading.

No attempt has been made to reproduce in the transcription idiosyncrasies of layout, typeface, or design. Accompanying page images are intended to serve the needs of those interested in such matters, as well as to provide the opportunity for readers to verify suspicious readings. Errors of any sort should be submitted to the attention of the editor, Brett Barney.

A majority of the interviews are unsigned and the authors unknown. Significant evidence regarding authorship is being compiled and will be displayed in the editorial notes as it becomes available.

Although I do not believe that the interviews collected here demand major alterations in Whitman criticism or biography, they do contribute significantly to both. There is good evidence that Whitman himself held the interviews to be significant. Besides writing some of them himself, he carefully collected and preserved many of them. The presence of over a dozen of the interviews in this collection owes directly to the fact that Whitman preserved copies of them that I or others have found while examining archival material at the Library of Congress and elsewhere. Several such archival clippings are apparently unique surviving copies. Furthermore, the poet incorporated interviews into his published work, and on more than one occasion he recorded in his notebook the fact that he had sent copies—sometimes as many as several dozen copies—of a recent interview to friends and family.

Interviews are a rich source of biographical information on Whitman. They offer insight into such elusive details as the poet's expression, mood, manner of speaking, etc., and they present information from an unusually large number of perspectives. In them we confront Whitman as seen by a whole range of people, from close friends to those utterly ignorant of his work. For myself, this rich sense of who Whitman was and what it was like to be around him has been the most valuable result of reading these many accounts. From them emerge, I believe, an ineffable but potent sense of a man that, for the most part, accords with and complements the persona Whitman attempted to present in his poetry: magnetic, soft-spoken, compassionate, careful in his speech, and deeply optimistic.


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