Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman in Private Life

Creator: Olive Harper

Date: November 6, 1875

Publication information: Daily Graphic 6 November 1875: 53.

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

Whitman Archive ID: med.00524

Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney and Shea Montgomerey




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WALT WHITMAN IN PRIVATE LIFE.

———

A VISIT TO HIS QUIET COUNTRY HOME—PER-
SONAL REVIEW OF HIS WORKS.


[CORRESPONDENCE OF THE DAILY GRAPHIC.]

PHILADELPHIA,November 2.—

White with the snows and storms of winter, bent, bowed, and scarred with fierce tempests, but staunch and strong of heart as an oak tree, is Walt Whitman, the glorious representative of America; worthy poet of a new and rugged yet grand theme, which needs to be interpreted with a grandeur and newness undreamed of or unthought of by those would-be poets—those word-stringers who gather age-polished thoughts and hang them on silken threads. Not of them nor that ilk is this grand old poet, who lives in his quiet retirement in out-of-the-world Camden; who sits so calmly, full of conscious power, in his arm-chair, and seems to care nothing for the outside world, with its fevers and fears.

I went the other day by appointment to visit him at his home in Camden, and after my usual quantum of annoyance at last reached his house, where a belligerent dog seemed to think I had no business. I rang and was received by the poet himself, who came to the door and welcomed me with a simple kindness that more than paid me the trouble of so long a trip. A few commonplace words and I settled my mind to business. I was a reporter; I was going to "interview" him after the recognized style, and I was not going to spare him nor myself; but somehow I forgot all that in looking at him, and I thought of the temple of Jupiter Olympus that I had seen in Athens. He seemed in some indefinable manner to partake of the grandeur, the simplicity, the repose, and the rarity of that majestic ruin, colossal even in its decay. He looks as one would think the author of "Leaves of Grass" would look, and yet he is more. That book gives an idea of wonderful force of mind, originality, and the power of making thunder roll and reverberate in type; of hurling strong words after each other, careless of whom he strikes with the fervid showers, or how many prejudices he shatters to atoms. In that book there is the strength of the giants of old, the beauties of the creation, and the harsh simplicity of the child who knows not how to clothe bare truths because he knows not that the world would rather the innocence be covered with a guilty mantle. To the pure all things are pure. Even to the impure this old man must seem to be the poorest of men—seem so because he is so.

THE POET AT REST.

He was in his easy-chair, his face turned to the light, his little dog in his lap and looking up to him with affectionate gaze, his blue eyes beaming kindliness, his firm mouth expressing much sweetness and much sorrow, his color still healthy red, his hair and beard white as snow, with deep lines of care and thought upon his brow, his large frame bowed with sickness. And he made a study for a painter. His homely, unstudied dress added greatly to the dignity of his manner, and he was entirely devoid of any sign of that vanity that I have always considered inherent in male poets. I looked at him closely; his hands were strong and clean, his nails cared for. His collar was open, but snowy in whiteness, and one could see at a glance that he felt that the gift of nature, a mortal, living body, was not to be neglected or disregarded, as too many writers think.

He sat there smiling and talking and caressing his dog and turning the tables to a certain extent by asking me questions, but I reminded myself of my errand, and yet hated myself for it. I liked him so well and admired his greatness so thoroughly that I felt I was doing an injustice to both of us in visiting him in the character of a legitimized spy. Yet when I did ask him impertinent questions he did not show me the door nor knock me on the head.

I thought him a very old man, at least eighty; but he is only fifty-seven years old. What freezing sorrow has blanched his hair and furrowed his noble forehead a pitying Christ knows. For me I would not know.

HOW FAME MAY BE WON.

I asked him how many books he had published. I supposed from his reputation in Buda-Pest in Hungary, in Germany, France, and in that severest country to please of all, England, that he must have published an infinite number of books, though I had never seen but one here, and I found that the one I had read was the only one. Let those who rail at that book think of that fact. A great and spreading fame abroad and universal admiration won through the very book our far-seeing critics abuse. Another book to be shortly published will, I hope, bring him if not more honor at least more money.

Walt Whitman as a worker has been indefatigable in his efforts to perfect his book, and he tells me that he must have rewritten that twenty times. I wonder where is another worker who would do the same? Where is the carpenter who would undo and do over his work twenty ways, or where the woman who would have patience to pick out her work nineteen times that the twentieth might be more perfect?

Whitman has been accused of egotism, and with some reason, because there are few people capable of understanding how perfectly he loses his personality in what he writes; and so when he speaks of his works in his hearty, whole-souled way, forgetting in the warmth of the conversation that he is the author of them and consequently should not praise nor even appreciate them, people will call him vain. For me, I think a writer has as much right to demand and express admiration for his productions as an architect has to speak highly of the work of his hands. Indeed so far as that goes any worker in any grade of life should be given the full right to express his or her satisfaction for a perfect work. Walt Whitman has been working diligently many years; that he has worked well and to the purpose all civilized nations admit. Why, then, should he not say as he feels, that he has done well? I like the honesty that holds itself above these petty notions that we should not show a natural and just pride in our works because it is our hands that have wrought them.

PERSONAL OPINIONS OF HIS POEMS.

Speaking of the different poets of the past, he said: "Shakespeare and the rest sang of the past, drew their inspirations from realities of events or character that was poetry in itself, mellowed by age and embellished by fancy, but for my own poems what have I? I must even make my subjects—make all except inspirations and intentions; must mould and carve and sing the ideal American. I project the future—depend on the future for my audience. I know perfectly well my path is another one. Most of the poets are impersonal; I am personal. They portray anything, everything, except themselves. In my poems all revolves around, radiates from, and concentrates in myself. I have but one central figure—the general human personality typified in myself. But my book compels every reader to transpose himself into that central position, and become the living fountain, actor, and experiencer of every page, every aspiration, every line."

To a great extent this is true. Yet those who see and talk with this strange poet can best appreciate the noblest meanings of his poetry. He began to write when a boy, always with the same aim in his mind, and has kept to it till success has crowned him.

He is six feet tall, and is bowed by this stroke of paralysis, and walks but slowly, leaning heavily on a large cane. His book has not enriched him, and he has but a slender income. Why is genius suffered to starve, or, starving, live?

Letters from the most eminent men of all countries come to this gray lion of Camden, who receives them with a pleasure fine to see, yet without the slightest semblance of exaltation at their adulation. I happened to have it in my power to tell him some little anecdotes and items connected with the appreciation of his works in other lands, and he received them with evident pleasure, but with a gravity that showed he felt them only his just due.

I asked him if he had never felt any longing to give voice to his own poems in public, and he replied in the affirmative, but said he preferred writing to speechifying. Recently he read one of his poems before a club in Camden, and I was informed that it was well done. Indeed, one sight of Walt Whitman's face leaves no room to think he would do anything other than well that he tried to do at all.

CHARACTERISTICS.

These great men have a very tender side to their hearts after all, and Whitman has evidently one of the tenderest for little children, for animals, and for those whom destiny has placed in serville positions, for he is kind and gentle with them all, and will go out of his way for them at any time.

I wanted to know what the surroundings of this man were. I found a handsome house, with white marble steps, the outer door invitingly open; a pretty parlor, with three windows—two on one street and one on the other—bright and cheerful. The furniture was ordinary, except the arm-chair, that seems to bear the impress of the poet's form, and a fine oil painting of him as he must have looked some ten or fifteen years ago. It represents a handsome, fresh, and good face—yet I like better the older features and the silver crown of to-day. I wanted to see his own particular den, his private and sacred corner where he writes (for he lives with his brother), but he did not ask me, and I could not propose it, so that is lost to posterity. I wanted to know (as I told him) what he ate, how much he ate, and how he ate it. I always had an idea that poets were fed on finer food than falls to the lot of ordinary mortals, but, according to what I hear, his diet is peculiarly substantial and of generous quantity. And, after all, why shouldn't it be?

We talked of everything under the sun, almost of everything I could think to ask or he to answer, and yet I cannot tell of what we did converse, and if I did start out to do it the whole DAILY GRAPHIC would be full—and then what? But what did I learn at Walt Whitman's? Why this: He is great; he is more, he is grand; he is good; he has gained fame abroad and abuse at home; he is America's own poet, Freedom's poet; he is prematurely old, and sick and poor—but add that the poor go to him when wanting a friend, homeless dogs follow him gratefully and little children gather affectionately around him—this aged, white-maned lion of Camden.

OLIVE HARPER.

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