Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman: A Glimpse at a Poet in His Lair

Creator: Anonymous

Date: February 24, 1876

Publication information: The Times 24 February 1876: 2.

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

Whitman Archive ID: med.00525

Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney and Shea Montgomerey




image 1

WALT WHITMAN.

———

A GLIMPSE AT A POET IN HIS LAIR.


———

What the Author of "Blades of Grass" Says
About Newspapers and Publishers.
Interesting Reminiscences of
Washington Triumphs.


———

The chilly zephyr that blew across the Delaware yesterday wafted the Camden ferry-boats from slip to slip with such unwonted speed that the starboard side of Smith's Island was in hourly danger of demolition, and the huge billows that buffeted the wharves threw their icy spray over many a freckled Jerseyman who ventured too near the brink. It was in the midst of one of the fiercest blows of the afternoon that a TIMES representative, taking his life in his hand, with a recklessness known only to men who are searching for news, boarded the ferry-boat West Jersey, bound for that classical and picturesque place that is sometimes, though very improperly, called the Brooklyn of Philadelphia. It is unjust to apply such a title as this to Camden. To be a Brooklyn there must be a Plymouth Church, and a distinguished though somewhat doubtful clergyman, and a white-souled woman, advanced in years but affectionate in disposition. But Camden has none of these (at least none known to fortune or to fame); and even as a commercial centre she is not to be likened to Brooklyn. It is here, to be sure, that the Camden and Amboy Railroad comes to an abrupt end, and here, too, is the house of the West Jersey Ferry Company—an institution that keeps itself in a state of chronic thrift by charging five cents for a two-cent ride in a one-cent boat; but Camden's imports are limited to molasses (in jugs) and whisky (in bottles), and her exports consist chiefly of stale eggs and sand-burrs. Under these discouraging circumstances—.

However, the subject in hand is Mr. Walt Whitman, author and poet; and as Mr. Whitman lives in Camden, and shares in all the above-named disadvantages, the transition is easy and natural.

A GLIMPSE THROUGH THE WINDOW.

Everybody in Camden knows Walt Whitman, and the town-pump or the lock-up are not easier to find than the literary lion of the place. A stranger's first essay at getting his mouth shaped for a W is followed by a "Yes, sir; yes, sir, he lives at the northeast corner of Stevens and West streets. You go straight ahead four squares; cross the railroad, and—if you don't get killed—go on two squares; turn to the left, go on two squares, and there you are." With these easily-digested directions it would be impossible to miss him; and THE TIMES man soon stood in front of the old poet's house. As he passed the window a white-haired, pleasant-faced old gentleman looked out of it; and the face looked so much like a verse of Walt Whitman's poetry that it was hardly necessary to ask whether he was at home.

It was in the nicely-furnished parlor of a comfortable three-story brick house that he was seated, and as the visitor entered he kept his seat in a cozy chair in a corner by the window, but offered his hand in such a friendly way that it was impossible not to see that he meant a welcome. He was reading an editorial leader in the New York Tribune, but he lay down the paper to ask "Mr. Times," as he called him, what he could do for him. He looked very much like a poet, as he sat in the corner by the window. He was nicely dressed, but his general appearance gave an irrepressible idea that his clothes had been shot at him out of a twisted gun-barrel, and he sat uneasily in them. It would be impossible for anybody to guess when his hair was combed last. It lay in thick curls over his forehead, and stood straight up, and lay straight down, and took unexpected little journeys down over his shoulders, and rose and fell as he moved his head, and was altogether about the most impossible head of hair that ever was seen. But it was as beautiful as it was impossible. It was as white as snow, and gave the poet the appearance of one of the old patriarchs in the Bible. In front of him was a little marble-topped table, with two of his last books lying on top of a big family Bible, and on one end a bottle of ink, and a piece of rubber and a pen. On the floor at his feet was a "paper file," containing a small sheet on which some memoranda were written, and on a larger table, in the centre of the room, were several letters bearing English postage stamps.

THE UNAPPRECIATIVE PUBLISHERS.

In reply to a question as to when his book would be ready, and who was the publisher, Mr. Whitman said: "The book will be ready now in about two weeks. I am having it printed on my own account. None of the publishers will take my writings. Even when I send them a magazine article they always send it back. I was telling a friend the other day that I was beginning to grow proud of always having my writings sent back. My only way is to print the things myself or have them printed in the newspapers. The short articles sometimes make good things for the last columns of the editorial page, to be set in small type; but it depends about as much on the pressure of other matter as it does on the merit of the article whether it gets into a newspaper or not."

"You must have had some experience in the newspaper business; you seem to know its ins and outs,"said THE TIMES man.

"Oh, yes," said Mr. Whitman. "I'm an old newspaper man, and an old printer, too. I've stuck type all the way from New York to New Orleans. Yes, I am pretty well posted in the newspaper business. By the way, who writes the dramatic criticisms and book notices for THE TIMES? Some of them are very fine. I remember one, particularly, about three months ago, a notice of Tennyson's 'Queen Mary.' I liked it so much that I cut it out and sent it over to Tennyson, and I know that he was glad to get it, especially as it came from so far away." As the reporter arose to leave, the poet gave his hand a hearty shake for good-bye, and said: "Come and see me again, whenever you have time. I like to have young fellows like you come and see me, and I'm always glad to see a newspaper man."

A WASHINGTON LION.

Mr. Whitman is evidently far on the shady side of sixty, and is, as he says, "pretty well broken up." He is living very comfortably with a relative, but it is easily to be seen that he is not a man of means. It is only four or five years since he was the lion of the National Captial. In 1871 or '72 he could be seen, on any pleasant afternoon, walking in Pennsylvania avenue, his peculiar low-necked shirt and flowing hair attracting universal attention. On Friday afternoons he always attended the Marine Band matinees on Capitol Hill, invariably being the first there and the last to leave, and sitting throughout as if in a fit of abstraction, and the bloods of the capital vied with each other for a chance to walk by his side. On the coldest days in winter he took his afternoon stroll, never wearing an overcoat, but always the low-necked shirt. He never was known to attend a theatre, or other place of in-door amusement, and it was always a matter of conjecture how he lived, although it was supposed that he did some literary work for the Washington Star. It was about this time that his first book, "Blades of Grass," was published. He was an intimate friend of President Grant, and was acquainted with nearly every member of Congress. He was a man of extraordinary physique and was very proud of his strength, and whatever else of worldly profit or honor may have taken flight from the old poet's storehouse, his courtly bearing, magnificent frame and distinguished appearance are still left to him. He is still young enough, however, to add to his fame by the wielding of his pen; but to the respect and good will that is felt for him by his companions it would be hard for him to add. He is young in his old age and charitable in his poverty, and nowhere can the mantle of comfort for declining years fall more deservedly than over the shoulders of Walt Whitman.


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