Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman's Dying Hours

Creator: Anonymous

Date: February 13, 1892

Publication information: The Evening Telegram 13 February 1892.

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

Whitman Archive ID: med.00544

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




image 1

WALT WHITMAN'S
DYING HOURS

———

The "Telegram" Visits
the Bedside of the
Aged Poet.


———

EVERYBODY IN CAMDEN KNOWS HIM.


———

Last Public Appearance and
What Was Said at
the Banquet.


———

"LEAVES OF GRASS" AND "NOVEMBER BOUGHS."


———

An Autobiographic Note From an "Old
Remembrance Copy."


———

"Apple orchards, the trees all covered with blossoms;
Wheat fields carpeted far and near in vital emeraldgreen;
The eternal, exhaustless freshness of each early morning;
The yellow, golden, transparent haze of the warm after-noon sun;
The aspiring lilac bushes with profuse purple or whiteflowers."

This is Walt Whitman's portrait poem of Nature in his natal month of May—he was born on May 31, 1819—but he will never again breathe the fragrance of the apple blossoms, or of the aspiring lilac bushes. He is entirely conscious of the fact. The mind that could read philosophy in the humblest form of vegetation—in the very leaves of the grass—exhibits in this supreme moment the perfect courage which sees and knows danger, yet encounters it for a noble purpose. Like a true child of nature he will accept assistance only from her hands in the struggle with death. His life has been consistent with her laws and he expects and accepts only her help in the hour of his greatest need.

"WE WILL FOOL THESE DOCTORS."

This expectation has not been in vain. Walt Whitman was told on Christmas last that he could not possibly survive the day. He refused to take medicine then, as he had declined before and has since. He would not even hear the verdict of the physicians, and when his faithful attendant urged him to swallow some stimulant or prepare to die, he answered, after thinking a little while:—

"Warry, we will fool these doctors yet."

He kept his word. By sheer force of will he recovered the use of his lungs, both of which had been closed after last November's attack of pneumonia, and when I saw him yesterday he assured me that it would not surprise him if he saw his seventy-third birthday. He has been confined to his bed since last October. Paralysis has seized all his limbs, excepting the right arm and hand, so that he can write a barely decipherable scrawl. His voice is weak and his sentences broken by faulty respiration. His strongly marked features are less pallid than should be natural under the circumstances. Indeed, his face seems almost ruddy in contrast with the snowy whiteness of his hair and beard.

THE POET'S HOME.

The poet's home is No. 328 Mickle street, Camden, N. J., a town of 60,000 inhabitants, which bears toward Philadelphia the relation sustained by Brooklyn toward New York. The Delaware, broader than the East River, flows between the two cities. The boats of the Market and Federal street ferries, it should incidentally be mentioned, are as much more elegant and commodious than those attached to the Fulton and Grand street ferries, as the latter are an improvement over the rowboat in which Washington made his perilous passage of the Delaware at this season of the year, a century ago.

There are few fine houses on Mickle street and No. 328 is not one of them. It is scarcely twenty feet wide and stands like a big wooden box directly on the sidewalk, without garden room in front for a single blade of grass. It is two stories high, without a basement, and the poet's bedchamber is on the second story, and does not seem large enough to shelter a personality so great and original as that of its prostrate occupant. And yet this insignificant house, in an unattractive, narrow and out-of-the-way thoroughfare, is the only one in Camden that has made the town famous. Every person of whom I inquired on the streets knew where Walt Whitman lived. I entered an evil smelling liquor saloon on the next corner and found a noisy crowd of men throwing dice, drinking applejack and using alcoholic language.

"Does Walt Whitman live in this neighborhood?" I asked the inebriated bartender.

THEY KNEW HIM.

A hush fell upon the beer-and-profanity impregnated atmosphere. With a tone of respect inspired by the name of that great man, the bartender answered in the affirmative and told me to go half way down the block. I pleaded ignorance of the locality as a stranger, and then he said to a young man with unsteady legs,

"Bill, get a move on yer and show the gentleman the house."

"Bill" put himself with difficulty into marching order and led the way. Feeling the importance of his mission, he ignored the salutation of several gay young women, whom we met going to a dance in some hall near enough for me to hear the squeak of violins being tuned. It was after nine o'clock in the evening when I rang the door bell, and I was admitted by a good-looking young man with a strong physique and merry eyes. He introduced himself as Warren Fritzinger, the poet's night attendant. A trained female nurse, he said, took care of Mr. Whitman in the day time, because the invalid could not be left alone for a moment.

The other members of this household I found to be Mrs. Davis, the "care taker" as she described herself, and a highly domesticated, well fed and indolent coach dog named "Watch." This last individual regarded Mrs. Davis, who is a widow, with an affection that is consuming, exuberant and undivided. During the temporary absence of his mistress from the house, which he himself never leaves, he loses all interest in life and food. When she returns he does everything but bark to show his joy. Watch knows that he is in a house of sickness and never makes a noise.

AT THE BEDSIDE.

The poet was awake and sent down word that I could visit his bedside. He is a man of unusual stature, but that once powerful body is so helpless that it must be turned from one side to the other every hour to keep the blood from stagnating in the veins and arteries. As it is, circulation is at the lowest ebb. Nourishment that Walt Whitman may take in any form will not assimilate and starvation is by no means an impossible peril. Yet, with his senses made acute by suffering and the long and lonely hours of wakefulness unrelieved by the sight of friends or flowers, not an impatient or complaining word passes his lips. The gaze of those deep set, serious eyes is penetrating and proud, and yet there was cordiality in the weak clasp of his hand, as he told me that he knew why I had come to him.

ONCE A NEWSPAPER MAN.

"I have been a newspaper man myself," he said very slowly and painfully, "and you want to write something about my life. So I have prepared some notes that you may find useful, for I am too weak to talk, even for a few moments."

"You know that in England and abroad you are regarded as one of the greatest, if not most true of all American poets who have ever lived," I said, in the hope that this would give him conversational courage.

"I don't think of that now," he replied, "but I know I have many dear friends in England."

"Is there anything that can be done for your comfort?"

"Nothing at all. I am well taken care of. Remember me to all my old friends in New York."

I wanted to ask the venerable poet if he feared to die, although I knew that he did not. His friends in Camden say that equanimity such as he has shown during the past two months, during which period every breath might have been his last, has been the more amazing, considering the fact that he is not a professed believer in the creed of any church. He has not yet requested religious consolation from any clergyman, and has never spoken of the future after death. That Walt Whitman believes in God and in the immortality of the soul is shown by his writings. Of "Life and Death" he has sung these words:—

The two old, simple problems, ever intertwined,
Close home, elusive, present, baffled, grappled.
By each successive age insoluble, passed on,
To ours to-day—and we pass on the same."

FROM "NOVEMBER BOUGHS."

Again, writing of "The Bible as Poetry," he has said in his latest works, entitled "November Boughs":—

"No true bard will ever contravene the Bible. If the time ever comes when iconoclasm does its extremest in one direction against the Books of the Bible in its present form, the collection must still survive in another, and dominate just as much as heretofore, through its divine and primal poetic structure. To me, that is the living and definite element-principle of the work, evolving everything else. Then the continuity, the oldest and newest Asiatic utterance and character, and between all holding together, like the apparition of the sky, and coming to us the same. Even to our Nineteenth century here are the fountain heads of song."

Walt Whitman's most intimate friend, who lives in Camden, is Horace L. Traubel, a man half his age, of local reputation as a writer and lecturer. He visits the poet daily and looks after his business affairs. This gentleman was present at a remarkable dinner given in the poet's house on May 31, 1891, to celebrate his seventy-second birthday. This was the last public appearance of Walt Whitman, and there were thirty-three persons present, the majority being men. The conversation about the table was reported by a stenographer, and the result shows that the dinner was a feast of reason and a flow of soul, rather than an epicurian episode.

Since that occasion paralysis has robbed the world of the poet's genius, as irrevocably as death itself. These extracts of his remarks have never been published and show both the originality of his ideas, and the unconventional phrases which he clothed them with, more than do his deliberate writings.

TENNYSON'S MESSAGE.

Tennyson sent a cable message as follows:—

"All wealth and happiness on your birthday and henceforward."

"The boss of us all," responded Walt Whitman. "Very short, very sweet. No flummery, no adjuncts, nothing but the heart and grip of the matter—good will. To me everything culminates in humanity, personality. Above all triumphs of learning, behind all the science of Huxley and even Darwin (the cap sheaf of them all)—of every science, equipment (and they are not to be despised; I hope I have not despised them)—is the human critter. My theory has been to equip, equip, equip, from every quarter, my own power, possibility—through science, if possible, though I do not set up for that (yet I understand how that is the greatest). But, after all is said, I turn everything over to the emotional, and out of that I myself, the actual personal identity for my own special time, have uttered what I have uttered. That is behind the 'Leaves of Grass.' It is the utterance of personality after—carefully remember—after being surcharged with those other elements.

TOM DONALDSON'S TALK.

"Tom Donaldson, cannot we have a word from you? Where have you been lately? You have been west, out in Washington?"

Donaldson—Yes.

Whitman—Tell us something about it. Tell us, too, about Blaine. We are curious about Blaine.

Donaldson—I will talk about a more opportune subject—about Walt Whitman. It seems to me I have never seen a book or newspaper article that conveyed to me the real individuality or personality of Walt Whitman. (A voice—How about Dr. Bucke's book?)

Whitman—I thoroughly accept Dr. Bucke's book.

Donaldson—So do I. But where in Bucke's book is this incident—

Whitman (interrupting)—I think Dr. Bucke has accurately described my own preparatory life—say from sixteen to thirty years—on which everything else rests; New York, Brooklyn, experimentation—down to New Orleans and up the Mississippi River to the big lakes. He has briefly but thoroughly grasped gripped, digested all that I was in those twenty years. I do not so much dwell upon his criticism of "Leaves of Grass." I have always thought that it escapes me myself, its own author. Dr. Bucke, with audacious finger, brain, seems to say, "Here is what it means," and "This is not what it means," and "This is a contrast and a comparison," and "This is one side and this is the other side." Well, I don't know—I accept and consider the book as a study. But behind remains mysterious personality, and the Doctor is almost the only one of my critics who seems to have thoroughly understood and appreciated that very important fact. Most poets, most writers, who have anything to say have a splendid theory and scheme, and something they want to put forth. I, on the contrary, have no scheme, no theory, no nothing—in a sense, absolutely nothing!"

"JUST LET 'ER GO."

Donaldson—Just let 'er go, eh?

Whitman—Almost that. To me there is something curious, indescribably divine, in the compound individuality that there is in every one. I suppose there are four hundred leaves of grass, one after another, contradictory, held together by that iron band—individuality, personality, identity. That is me—that is Dr. Bucke's book.

Voices—Bucke, Bucke.

Dr. R. M. Bucke—You all know I am no speaker—

Whitman—But you can give a word.

Bucke—If I could speak at all I could say something this evening on the marvellous diversity of opinion about you, Walt, and your book.

Whitman—Expatiate a little on that, Doctor; that is very curious.

DR. BUCKE'S SPEECH.

Bucke—Well, some think, for instance, that above all things you stand for the divine passion of love; others that you especially voice friendship; others again that external nature is your central and supreme theme; to still others you represent freedom, liberty, joyous and absolute abandonment; again your religious sense is placed at the head, and we are told that a noble aspiration for perfect spiritual manhood, supreme assurance of immortality, intuitions of the unseen, intense faith in the essential friendliness of the universe to man, is the essence of your life and teaching. But the opposite of all these is in you as well. You are as capable of hate and scorn as of love and comparison; imitation and obedience belong to you as much as their seeming opposites; reckless defiance and contempt are, though subordinated, as inherent in the "Leaves," and in you are reverence and affection; despondency and despair are as truly component parts of your character as are hope and joy; common and even coarse manhood is as developed in you as are the glorious ecstasy of the poet, or the high speculations of the philosopher; while you are good, you are also evil; the god-like in you is offset by passions, instincts, tendencies, that, unrestrained, might well be called devilish; if on the whole you have lived well and done well, yet none the less you have had in you, though subordinated, the elements of a Cenci, or an Attila. I do not believe that I or any of us realize, Walt, what you really are. The main thing is that we love you and hope to have you live long with us.

Whitman—I scarcely know whether I do or not.

BEYOND THEIR COMPREHENSION.

F. H. Williams—It has become almost fashion to say that Walt Whitman lacks form, and that his method of expressing himself is in great chaos of words. But I do not think this is so. I believe that anybody, who will get away from the idea of scanning line by line, and will undertake to comprehend the fundamental thought at the bottom of "Leaves of Grass," and which runs through it—not through its sections, but through the book as a whole—will find that the form adopted is the only one in which that thought could possibly have been embodied and expressed. The people who say that his thought is a chaos, have simply come across a cosmos, that is beyond their comprehension.

Whitman—I hope that is so. And now, Tom, you don't intend to slip us altogether? Get up Tom, and give us your say!

POET OF IMMORTALITY.

Thomas B. Harned—You have heard much about "Leaves of Grass"—about Walt Whitman and his methods. But my mind is animated by other ideas. During the past year I have suffered the dread that perhaps it would not be long that we would know Walt Whitman here in person. The fact must be stated that during the past few months he has occupied a room above us, unable to leave it, his physical condition becoming weaker day by day. It seems to me that the great, the supreme lesson of Walt Whitman's life is this:—That he has been entirely consistent with himself; that he has not advocated any doctrine that he has not lived. And to me, inexpressibly beyond the hope of giving utterance to the thought, the calmness and deliberation with which Walt Whitman invites the future and looks forward unfearingly to crossing the unknown sea, is one of the most beautiful evidences of this consistency. Whitman, above all others, is the poet of Immortality. And when I use the word I mean by it a conviction of the immortality of identity—that our lives do not end here, that death is an essential—aye, as he urges, even to be sung to, praised. Calm, exalted, he awaits death. Here, then, in Walt Whitman's presence I desire to say that that is the sublime, supreme index of his character.

Whitman—And Eakins—What of Tom Eakins? He is here. Haven't you something to say to us, Eakins?

Eakins—I am not a speaker.

Whitman—So much the better—you are more likely to say something.

Eakins—Well, some years ago I painted a picture of Walt Whitman. I began in the usual way, but soon found that the ordinary methods wouldn't do—that technique, rules, traditions woud have to be thrown aside; that before all else he was to be treated as a man.

WHY HE NEVER MARRIED.

Lincoln L. Eyre—Well, there is one thing I want to say. You spoke of woman, and it has been to me a constant wonder that the man who has written "I see a mother clasping her child to her breast and I watch her long and long" has never married.

Whitman—That has been explained by Dr. Bucke, who, I think, knows me better than anybody, and has sort of intercalated and found out, partly by his own instigation and partly because he feels it to do. The whole thing, my friend, like the Niebelungen, or somebody's cat, has an immensely long, long, long tail to it. And the not being married, and the not, and the not, and the not, and the this, and the this, and the this have a great many applications. At the first view it may not be so creditable to the fellow, but go on, explicate still more, and still more, and still more behind all that—and after a while you see why it must be so in the nature of things. And that is a splendid explication of Robert Burns. You go behind all and you realize that, no matter what the blame may be to Robert Burns, somehow or other you feel like excusing and saying that that is the reason why, and that is the reason why, and that is the reason why. See?

Donaldson—If I understand what you have done, it is to make a plea for America and the Americans—it is to make a plea for universality and the brotherhood of man. Now, do I understand you right?

SAILING IN THE SAME SHIP.

Whitman—Oh! that is one thing—the common-hood, brotherhood, democratization, or whatever it may be called. But behind all that something remains. I had a dispute with Thomas Dudley some years ago. His theory was that our main thing in America was to look out for ourselves—for the fellows here. Well, in response, I said rather incidentally (but I felt it at the bottom of my heart) that the theory of the progress and expansion of the common bulk of the people, is the same in all countries—not only on the British Islands, but on the continent of Europe and allwheres—that we all embarked together like fellows in a ship, bound for good or bad; what wrecks one wrecks all. And it is my feeling that the torso of the people, the great body of the people all over the civilized world—and any other, too, for that matter—are sailing, sailing together in the same ship. And that which jeopardizes one jeopardizes all. And, in my contest with Thomas Dudley, who is a thorough protectionist (in which I thoroughly differ from him), my feeling was that the attempt at what they call protection, and all that goes to boost up, and wall up, and wall out, and protect out (doubtless I tread on the corns of a good many people, but I feel it deeply, and the older I live the stronger I feel it), is wrong, and that one feeling for all, extreme reciprocity and openness and freetradism, is the policy for me. And I not only think that it is an important item in political economy, but I think it is the essential social groundwork, away down; and to me nothing will do, eventually, but an understanding of the solidarity of the common people, of all peoples and all races. And that is behind "Leaves of Grass." Well, I have talked and garruloused, and frivoled so terriffically this evening, much to my amazement, that I don't think I have anything left. I must say to my friends further along the table that I am about half blind and cannot see more than ten feet ahead, and hardly that—else I am sure I should specify them. The main thing is that we are here, and are jolly and have a jolly good time.

AN AUTOBIOGRAPHIC SKETCH.

As I left the bedside of the dying poet he gave me this autobiographic and characteristic sketch of himself, and he assured me that it would be "readable newspaperally":—

AUTOBIGRAPHIC NOTE—FROM AN OLD "REMEM-
RANCE COPY."

Was born May 31, 1819, in my father's farm house, at West Hills, L. I., New York State. My parents' folks mostly farmers and sailors—on my father's side of English—on my mother (Van Velsor's) from Hollandic immigration. There was, first and last, a large family of children. (I was the second.) We moved to Brooklyn while I was still a little one in frocks—and there in B. I grew up out of the frocks—then, as child and boy, went to the public schools—then to work in a printing office.

When only sixteen or seventeen years old, and for two years afterward, I went to teaching country schools down in Queens and Suffolk counties, Long Island and "boarded round." Then, returning to New York, worked as printer and writer (with an occasional shy at "poetry").

1848-'49.—About this time went off on a leisurely journey and working expedition (my brother Jeff with me) through all the Middle States and down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. Lived a while in New Orleans and worked there. (Have lived quite a good deal in the Southern States.) After a time plodded back northward, up the Mississippi, the Missouri, &c., and around to, and by the way of, the great lakes, Michigan, Huron and Erie, to Niagara Falls and lower Canada—finally returning through Central New York and down the Hudson.

1851-'54.—Occupied in house-building in Brooklyn. (For a little of the first part of that time in printing a daily and weekly paper.)

1855.—Lost my dear father, this year, by death. . . . Commenced putting "Leaves of Grass" to press, for good—after many MS. doings and undoings. (I had great trouble in leaving out the stock "poetical" touches—but succeeded at last.)

1862.—In December of this year went down to the field of War in Virginia. My brother George reported badly wounded in the Fredericksburg fight. (For 1863 and '64 see "Specimen Days.")

1865 to '71.—Had a place as clerk (till well on in '73) in the Attorney General's Office, Washington.

(New York and Brooklyn seem more like home, as I was born near, and brought up in them, and lived, man and boy, for thirty years. But I have lived some years in Washington, and have visited, and partially lived, in most of the Western and Eastern cities.)

1873.—This year lost, by death, my dear, dear mother—and, just before, my sister Martha—(the two best and sweetest women I have ever seen or known, or ever expect to see.)

Same year, a sudden climax and prostration from paralysis. Had been simmering inside for several years; broke out during those times temporarily and then went over. But now a serious attack, beyond cure. Dr. Drinkard, my Washington physician (and a first-rate one), said it was the result of too extreme bodily and emotional strain continued at Washington and "down in front," in 1863, '4 and '5. I doubt if a heartier, stronger, healthier physique ever lived, from 1840 to '70. My greatest call (Quaker) to go around and do what I could among the suffering and sick and wounded was that I seem'd to be so strong and well. (I considered myself invulnerable.) Quit work at Washington and moved to Camden, N. J., where I have lived since, and now, September, 1880, write these lines.

(A long stretch of illness, or half-illness, with some lulls. During these latter, have revised and printed over all my books—bro't out "November Boughs"—and at intervals travelled to the Prairie States, the Rocky Mountains, Canada, to New York, to my birthplace in Long Island, and to Boston. But physical disability and the war-paralysis above alluded to have settled upon me more and more, the last year or so.)

W. W.

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