Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman's Home

Creator: Anonymous

Date: April 29, 1890

Publication information: The North American 29 April 1890: 4.

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

Whitman Archive ID: med.00549

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




image 1

WALT WHITMAN'S HOME

———

A VISIT TO THE HUMBLE DWELL-
ING OF THE "GOOD GRAY POET."

———

The Aged Glorifier of America Sends Greeting to "the Boys"—The Surroundings of the Man Who Has Worked and Suffered Much.

Copyright, 1890, by American Press Association.]

"Give my regards to all the boys in New York city, and don't forget it."

This remark, uttered in full rich tones, was accompanied by a hearty hand clasp. Who was the person to voice this cheery farewell?

It was not a prosperous merchant, self sufficient in the pride of success, or a gay young fellow about town at peace with all the world because of inherited millions, but a poorly clad old man chained by disease to his chair in a dingy room, surrounded with no luxuries and few comforts—an ancient sage with kingly countenance, benignant eye and a heart still fulll of hope and love of humanity, despite the buffets, the disappointments and the sorrows of three score years.

It was Walt Whitman.

Poole's "Index of Periodical Literature" contains reference to over twenty articles published in the leading magazines of Europe and America relative to this man and his work. He is accorded the same recognition as a poet that is given to Wagner as a composer, yet, less fortunate than the author of "Parsifal," he has had no "mad monarch" to recognize his genius and force for him a hearing. Instead, he has trod alone, but undaunted, the thorny path of individuality, and now, with serene indifference to environment, gazes fearlessly out toward the shoreless sea on which he must soon embark.

It is not given to many men to preserve through unvarying seasons of popular misapprehension the optimistic temperament and faith in his kind that characterize Walt Whitman. Unduly abused by the many, extravagantly praised by the few, he has neither drawn tighter his cloak to protect him from the storm, nor cast it aside because of the noonday sun's fierce heat, but has walked forward undismayed along his appointed course, praising humanity, glorifying America, confident in the future of his race. As a result he has two constant friends. They are:

A woman and a dog.

I hope never again to experience such shock as I did the other afternoon on reaching 328 Mickle street, Camden, N. J. I had read of Walt Whitman's "comfortable but modest home" and was unprepared for the reality. Only on the testimony of two witnesses—a passer by and the door plate—could I bring myself to believe that this was the house of the "good gray poet." It needs paint on its weather-beaten boards; it needs new blinds at the dingy windows; but more than all it needs condemnation and destruction at the hands of the city authorities. The door was opened in response to my ring by a gentle faced, wistful eyed, elderly woman.

"Please step into the parlor," she said, "while I take your card to Mr. Whitman. His health is very precarious now."

A spotted coach dog sniffed suspiciously about me.

"Don't mind Homer," she added; "he's harmless, and Mr. Whitman's favorite companion. Why? Because he doesn't bother him with silly questions, I think."

Homer and I entered the parlor, and the woman went to the poet's room. What a scrupulously neat but utterly cheerless place that parlor is! A mantel crowded with photographs and testimonials; a floor nearly bare; a bust of heroic size in the corner, and not a bit of furniture worth a place in a cheap auction room. A picture of a noted English actor bore the inscription, "I place my hand in thine—Wilson Barrett," while the bare boards under foot seemed to say: "Here lives one whose latter days resemble those of Brinsley Sheridan. Now the world rushes by unheeding. To-morrow, when he is dead, it will bury him with all the honors."

"Mr. Whitman will see you for a few minutes."

In response to the announcement I climbed a narrow stairway to an upper room. For an instant the Presence within dominated everything. I beheld nothing save the man with the leonine head, seated in a great easy chair and tendering to me courteous welcome. I went directly to one object of my mission and told him that an admirer was anxious to furnish him easy employment of a congenial nature. The fine pink skin flushed, the eloquent gray-blue eyes lost a little of their luster.

"Tell Mr.——," he said, "that Walt Whitman thanks him. These are all bad days now, but when they are only half bad I like to scribble yet. This offer means"—a pause—"it means that I shall be glad to do the work if I can."

Was there not another meaning, also, to that broken sentence? I thought so as I looked at the great table piled high with books and papers, at the hard bed and uninviting lounge, at the windows through which no waving tree or nodding flower smiled welcome to their lifelong friend, at the man himself, royal and self respecting, a diamond set in dross, but shining with greater brilliance because of the mean surroundings.

We talked of "Leaves of Grass," the book which secured Whitman's discharge from the interior department by Secretary Harlan and gained him the friendship of Tennyson, and of the days when its author nursed the soldier boys. "I never married," he said, "for in place of a bride nature gave me sufferers to care for and scenes to clothe with poetry. Here," he continued, changing the subject, "is my message to the young authors: Employ not evil for its own sake. Make it a foil for purity."

I told him of passages in his writings which I admired and referred particularly to "My Captain," that eloquent lament that marks the martyrdom of Lincoln like a monument. I quoted:

Exult, oh! shores, and ring, oh! bells;
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck; my captain lies
Fallen, cold and dead.

"I'm glad you fancy that," he said quietly. "I thank you for your appreciation."

Not a word of self praise; not a syllable of self depreciation; a simple proud humility in the acknowledgment of pleasure that his printed thoughts were remembered by a stranger.

I had outstayed the moments to which I was pledged to limit my visit. I rose to go, and our hands met in friendly farewell. "Stay," he exclaimed. "Do you care for this?" and he wrote with firm stroke the following:

Then he added his message of regard to "the boys in New York," and we parted.

At the foot of the stairs stood the two faithful watchers. The dog bounded up the steps; with the woman I stopped to chat a moment. "You did right," she smiled sadly, "not to bother him with questions. He is over 70 now, and the years bring their weight."

Outside the sun shone, the birds sang, and the boys played. Within the doors sat the uncomplaining patriarch who has chanted the might and glory of America, and yet—strange to say—has gained greater applause and more practical sympathy beyond the seas than from the land he celebrated. Four years ago on this side the ocean the humorous papers were publishing Whitmanesque poetry and laughing over "barbaric yawps." Simultaneously with their doing so the artists and literary men of England were getting a generous response throughout the length and breadth of the British isles to the appeal contained in this circular:

"Walt Whitman starving.

"A man's ransom wanted. The victim is in the hands of a relentless enemy, who, if the ransom be not speedily paid, will immediately make an end of him. Will his fellow men put forth a hand to keep one of the world's immortals a little longer here, or will they allow death to take him ere his time?"

April 14, 1887, Mr. Whitman lectured at the Madison Square theatre, New York, on Abraham Lincoln. The affair was managed by a number of prominent literary men, and the house was crowded. Yet, in order that the poet might go home with $200 in his pocket, Rev. Robert Collyer added a handsome sum to the proceeds of the affair.

Walt Whitman was born March 31, 1819, on Long Island. Despite the reverses of life he can look down today from the serene heights of philosophic solitude and send the world a message like this:

Thanks in old age—thanks ere I go,
For health, the midday sun, the impalpable air—
for life, mere life,
* * * * * *
For beings, groups, love, deeds, words, books—
for colors, forms,
For all the brave, strong men—devoted, hardy
men—who've forward sprung in freedom's
help, all years, all lands,
For braver, stronger, more devoted men—(a spe-
cial laurel ere I go to life's war's chosen ones,
The cannoneers of song and thought—the great
artillerymen—the foremost leaders, cap-
tains of the soul;)
As soldier from an ended war return'd—as travel-
er out of myriads, to the long procession
retrospective,
Thanks—joyful thanks!—a soldier's, traveler's
thanks.

FRED C. DAYTON.

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