Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Walt. Whitman: Interview with the Author of "Leaves of Grass"

Creator: J. L. Payne

Date: June 5, 1880

Publication information: The Daily Free Press 5 June 1880.

Source: Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue.

Whitman Archive ID: med.00518

Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney, Nic Swiercek, and Shea Montgomerey




image 1

WALT. WHITMAN.

———

Interview with the Author of
"Leaves of Grass."


———

How he Commenced to Write and the Way
his Works were Received.


———

His War Experience and the Book He
Wrote About it.


———

What He Thinks of Himself and Sev-
eral Other Authors.


———

HIS APPEARANCE AND A SKETCH OF HIS LIFE—
A LONG VISIT TO CANADA.

———

After the series of letters which appeared in these columns some months ago, and what has been said from the lecture platform, anything concerning Walt Whitman, the eminent American poet, will, it is presumed, be read with interest. It was with this idea before him that a FREE PRESS reporter boarded the G. W. R. Pacific express at Paris yesterday evening, on which the venerable author of "Leaves of Grass" was coming westward. After searching in vain through several of the dining-room cars, Mr. Whitman was found on the platform of the rear Wagner surveying the beautiful hills around Paris, in company with his personal friend, Dr. R. M. Bucke, Medical Superintendent of the London Lunatic Asylum. No introduction had yet taken place, but there was no mistaking the old gentleman. He was every inch of him a poet—the ideal poet that one outlines in his mind, but seldom hopes to see. In stature he is about five feet nine, broad shouldered, straight and of ordinary proportions. His hair is long and like his whiskers is of snowy whiteness. His expressive face bears the ruddy glow of health, and when his small blue eyes meets those of his visitor the formalities of an introduction and handshaking seem ridiculously unnecessary; for you are friends in a moment. He was dressed in a very light colored tweed suit, and wore a broad, light felt, planter's hat. His white shirt was cut in true sailor style, opening low down upon his breast, and with the collar rolled out upon his coat lappels. The whole dress with the white flowing hair and whiskers were suggestive of a nature that one is afterwards agreeably surprised not to meet with. A better natured, jollier, more honest out speaking gentleman could not be met with. Instead of that stiffness which might be supposed to come of long continued popularity, there is a warm familiarity that makes his visitor feel perfectly at home.

A card was handed to Dr. Bucke, who spoke a few words in private to Mr. Whitman. Without waiting for further formalities, the poet reached out his hand, and, with a slight American accent, said, warmly:—

"Most happy to meet you. I'm one of the fraternity myself. Been a newspaper man most of my life. You wish to have an item about me? Well, I never go back on a newspaper man. Come right into the car."

"Well, this is taking time by the forelock," said Dr. Bucke, with a laugh. "How did you know we were aboard the train?"

"Oh, you trust a newspaper man to know when an item of news is about to turn up," explained Mr. Whitman. "They know it by instinct."

The ice had been broken with a suddenness that knocked the reporter's list of nicely-prepared questions clear out of his memory; but when seats had been taken vis-a-vis, the first interrogation was evolved in rather jerky Canadian:—

"This is not your first trip to Canada, Mr. Whitman?"

"Oh, no. I was at the Falls for a few days in 1847, but made nothing like the trip I am making now. I had been in the South, and returned home by way of Buffalo and the lakes."

"You are an American, Mr. Whitman; born at West Hills, Suffolk Co., L. I., in 1819, I believe?"

"Yes, you have the historical part of it all right. And I am a printer, too, and am not ashamed of it. I worked at it for several years, and would do considerable at it yet if I was a little more industrious."

"The writing of poetry would not be assisted by mechanical work, would it?"

"Oh, I don't think you are right in supposing that to be the case," answered Mr. Whitman. "My theory of poetry is that it is not at all incompatible with labor and all that accompanies it. Oh, no; poetry and work are not necessarily separated; they may go together quite harmoniously."

"When did you commence 'Leaves of Grass?'" was asked. It was not the next question in the original list, but it was the only one that could be thought of.

"In 1855—just twenty-five years ago. It has been supplemented by several editions since, however, written at different periods and extending over many years."

"What were the inspirations which led you to write it?"

"You will beat me if you find that out," broke in Dr. Bucke.

"The doctor has been trying to glean that information from me all the way from Philadelphia," said the poet. "I have been curious to solve that problem myself, and should like to know the answer very much. You may say that the first edition was printed by the critter himself."

"How was it received?"

"Well, my friends don't like me to speak much on this point; but with a desire to be strictly truthful, I must say that it was received both in Europe and America, with kicks and buffets, and I came near being kicked and buffeted myself for writing it. There was, however, an exception among a small but determined minority of persons, who seemed to take kindly to it."

"What class of people would you call them?"

"No particular class," was the reply. "They were those who seemed to have found an—I know no better word to use than—affinity. I suppose, partly because I have so much persistence and willingness, I kept on printing other editions. It pleased me and pleased this small minority of friends. The last two editions, however, have been received with a more marked and determined advocacy by my readers. The minority, although still small, has assumed more respectable proportions—I hope I may always say respectable so far as quality is concerned—and particularly so in Europe."

"Rather than in your own country?"

"Yes, I think so, although my friends on this side of the water don't want me to admit it."

"What would you attribute that to?"

"Not to anything in particular," said Mr. Witman, as he seemed to be getting into a favorite subject. "There is young blood coming in, not only in our own country, but in Europe. Young fellows are coming forward without sufficient strength to maintain themselves against the authority of orthodoxy; but the boys are growing. Aside from that, that, however, I have a great friend in Zola, the French author, who has written to me twice saying that he swears by 'Leaves of Grass.' Ferdinand Freiligrath was also a great friend of mine."

"Oh, most of the distinguished literary men are readers and admirers of 'Leaves of Grass,'" said Dr. Bucke rather enthusiastically. "Tennyson and—"

"Well, Tennyson has not put himself on record," explained Mr. Whitman. "He has the judgment to like me personally, but has never committed himself with regard to my works. Ruskin, however, has recorded himself as my friend."

"You were also a nurse during the war," put in the reporter, by way of information to the venerable poet, but more especially with a view to receiving an answer.

"Yes; I look upon that as the best part of my life, those four or five years that I spent in the war, not as a destroyer, but as far as possible, a saver of life. I followed the army of the Potomac from field to field, until Grant took command. I left then because he didn't want interference from outsiders, and because I found a wider field at Washington. I went to and fro among the wards as an independent nurse; on my hook, as the soldier said who laid behind a log and fired away without listening to any captain's orders. If it comes in, you may just say that Walt Whitman looks on those four years of his life with more satisfaction than on his literary triumphs, although he has a pretty high idea of his own works. I have thought many times lately that I should look upon my life as very dreary and barren if it were not for these four years. About three years ago I was turning over my stock of manuscript, when I came upon thirty or forty little note books that I had used during these years among the wounded in the the hospitals. It struck me that these would make a nice little book if printed. I gave them to my old printer blood-stained and blurred as they were, and this book, 'Memoranda of the War' was the result."

There was a cessation of the interview for a few minutes while the reporter turned over a few of the leaves of the book handed him. Mr. Whitman looked out of the window on the surrounding scenery and continued:—

"I feel to travel—to go about. You may say, in fact, that with true American instinct I feel like lecturing. I generally despise lecturing; but old age is garrulous, and wants to talk. I am getting more confidence now. I used to doubt whether it was worth while to write—whether my own experiment was a success."

"You wrote in a somewhat peculiar style, it is said, and without rhyme?"

"Yes; there is no rhyme in it, and a good many people say no sense; but if you ask me the reason, I shall be unable to answer you. I may say, however, that the basis of my poetry is human fraternity, comradeship—I like that word. I was working at carpentering and making money, when this 'Leaves of Grass' bee came to me. I stopped working, and from that time my ruin commenced."

"I would like to get a few more men ruined by that means," put in the doctor, with a laugh.

"Many of my friends and relations were very angry about it," continued the poet.

"Thought you were throwing away your life, did they?" asked the doctor.

"Yes; I was, too, from a business point of view. I went down to Long Island on a long, cold, bleak promintory, where but one farmer resides, and I lived there while 'Leaves of Grass' were gestating. I wrote my first copy and threw it into the sea."

"What made you destroy it?"

"Well, I said to myself what better is this than ten thousand other poems, and tore it up. I knew I had an idea that had not been expressed by other poets, so I tried three or four more times, until at last the illustrious work—I may say—appeared. At present, although my friends are greatly in the minority, they are determined and persistent, and curious as it may appear, has among them a great many ladies."

"Was there much difference between these first writings and the final issue?"

"Yes; there was in some respects; but I was determined that nothing bitter or that would cast reflection on my country should appear."

"Intensely loyal, eh?"

"Well, when I was young I had an intense anti-slavery spirit, which was shown in my writings. Since that time I have been down South, and found out that there was no more slavery there fifty years ago than there is to day in the North. Legally, however, the blacks were slaves. To be brief, however, I think the idea of my book is conveyed in that one word, 'comradeship'."

"Did you see any of the controversial letters which appeared in the FREE PRESS some time ago, regarding your writings?" inquired the reporter, as he was repairing the broken point of his pencil.

"Yes," answered the poet, "I saw one or two of them; but I don't read much. I'm not a great reader by any means."

"What books do you like best?"

"Well, I would say first Walter Scott, as a poet and a novelist. About half a dozen of his books I have read over and over again, and from among them I have taken 'The Heart of Midlothian' as my favorite. George Sands is a great favorite. I like Shakespeare and the good old book of all, the Bible; it is a poem to me. I also like Homeric poetry."

"What do you think of Dickens?"

"Well, I am not an admirer of his, but easily see why his works take and ought to take. At the same time, I wouldn't like to go on the record as not being an admirer of Dickens, Bret Harte and that class of humorists. They offend my democracy, however. They present the most of working people in a kind of delerium tremens spirit. I cannot read Bret Harte without feeling angry, because he seems to have taken the Homeric poetry as his basis, and turned it into a burlesque with the heroism left out."

"Humorous literature, however, is becoming very popular."

"Yes;" said the poet, "it is, and I say nothing against it. But, they seem to caricature these miners and working people. I admire heroism, and do not care to see them presented as ruffians or as speaking like drunken men. In fact, I think the language of these strong working people is better than the general lingo that is used in our drawing and lecture rooms. It is really more expressive. I am myself of a race of working people."

"How did you like newspaper work?" was asked with a view to changing off from what gave symptoms of becoming a discussion.

"I enjoyed it well," was the reply, "and always keep my hand in. I consider myself a newspaper man, as well as a printer. I know numerous printers, and we soon fraternize."

"How long will you remain in London?"

"Oh, I shall be here for some time. My object is to meet the Canadians face to face and to see the country. I like to go about; like to meet young men; like to have them drop in on me just as you have done to-day. I take a pleasure in conversing, and you will be a living witness of the fact that I can do my share of the talking."

"Many friends in Canada?"

"Well, I really believe I have more than I first supposed. Yes, I have quite a number."

In this strain the old gentleman spoke throughout without the least presumption or endeavor to be anything but an off-hand poet, who knew the material world as well as he did the region of imagination. In passing Ingersoll, he spoke of Bob Ingersoll, the great American lecturer. He regarded him as a wonderfully witty man and speaker possessed of great magnetism. He reminded him, however, in his treatment of the subject in hand, of a doctor who cuts away at the pimples on a man's skin instead of commencing at his system. He only told about one-tenth of the story. In conclusion it may be said that Mr. Whitman's home is in Camden, N. J., where he lives a quiet life among his friends. From 1865 until 1874 he was in the employ of the American Government at Washington, and during 1873 was stricken with paralysis. He is still lame from the effects of the stroke. He is a thorough conversationalist, and a jolly companion.


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