Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: A Visit to Walt Whitman

Creator: Moncure D. Conway

Date: November 27, 1875

Publication information: The Academy 27 November 1875: 554.

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

Whitman Archive ID: med.00551

Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney and Shea Montgomerey




image 1

A VISIT TO WALT WHITMAN.

Philadelphia: November 1, 1875.

Camden is reached by a ferry crossing the Delaware River from this city, and, but for being in a different State, might be spoken of as a suburb of Philadelphia. It was there that I hastened to seek my old friend Walt Whitman on the first morning after my arrival here. Stopping at a neat brick residence at the corner of Stevens and West Streets, I learned that he was absent, and perhaps at the printing-office of the Republic, where his new book was in the press. In a sense this was an agreeable disappointment, for it showed that, notwithstanding ominous rumours concerning his health, the "good grey poet" was able to move about. But, as I went off to look him up, I could not help remembering how like it was to the first attempt I made, nearly twenty years ago, to find Walt in Brooklyn. Then also I was told I should find him at a printing-office, where he was printing his book. After so many years, in which he has achieved fame, the poet has still to print his books at a job-office, pay for each detail of the work himself, and personally supervise the mechanical execution. No American publisher will issue his works: the booksellers seem to regard him as a fair victim for fraud; no magazine will accept his MSS., and the orthodox compendia of poetry contain none of his notably American productions—not even Emerson's Parnassus. At the printing-office I learned that Whitman had gone across to Philadelphia, and I returned to his place of residence. It is the abode of his brother, with whom Walt boards. I had the privilege of conversing with the wife of this brother, who gave me somewhat happier accounts of the poet than we had received in London, both as to health and other circumstances. Although his health is considerably shattered, from an attack of paralysis which impedes the movement of his lower limbs, he is still able to go over to Philadelphia and enjoy its various fine libraries and reading-rooms. Subsequently I met his brother, and it was a pleasure to know that the afflicted poet was dwelling with a younger brother and a sister-in-law whose intelligence and affection could not fail to supply a happy home for his declining years. The mother to whom Walt was so devoted died some years ago, and he seems to have fixed himself permanently at Camden. Mrs. Whitman was kind enough to let me carry away a proof-copy of Walt's now book, Two Rivulets, the perusal of which I much enjoyed. The personal interest of this volume is greater than that of any other which Whitman has written. It is one of two volumes which will appear in a few months, the first being his Leaves of Grass. This will be the second volume, and, beside the "Passage to India," "After all not to create only," and one or two other poems with which his close readers are familiar, it contains twelve or fifteen poems never printed before. The book alternates quite abruptly with a streak of prose and a streak of poetry. Among the latter there are copious self-criticisms of the Leaves of Grass, the chief aim of which the author affirms to have been moral. The book also contains a very remarkable contribution to the literature of the late Secession struggle, entitled "Memoranda during the War." Some portions of Whitman's Diary, while ministering in the hospitals in Virginia, have already found their way into print, but the whole Diary is here printed, and will be found of surpassing interest. It so happened that when the federal troops occupied the village of Falmouth on the Rappahannock river, the house owned by my father, where my early life was passed, was used as a hospital, and it was in that house that Walt began his work of helpfulness. In reading the notes relating to a region with which I was so familiar, I was much impressed by Whitman's graphic outlines of the scenery, and his sympathetic appreciation of the spirit of Old Virginia. These notes were pencilled down sometimes on battlefields, and are often very thrilling. In this volume (Two Rivulets) there are some touching, though but casual, allusions to his condition of health, and it is pervaded by a feeling that it represents his final work.

On the day after my call, Walt came to see and dine with me, and I had many hours' conversation with him. He is only in his fifty-seventh year, nor does his face present so many indications of age as I was prepared to see. He is about as handsome an old man as I have seen, his white locks parting over a serene and most noble forehead, the eye clear and sweet, the features manly and refined, and the strength of the large head softened by an aspect at once pensive and simple. Time has not in any sense diminished his sanguine democratic hopes and his enthusiasm for America. He spoke most sadly when saying that he could hardly hope to see those of his readers and critics in England from whom he has received so many expressions of esteem and affection, and he was never wearied in asking questions concerning those among them with whom I was acquainted. He evidently feels that his end cannot be very far, but he is perfectly calm in the prospect, which I hope may be brighter than he at present anticipates. I will only add that, even more than when I first saw him, I have felt that I was in the presence of a man cast in the large mould, both as to heart and brain, and in every sense (as Thoreau describes him) the greatest democrat that lives.

MONCURE D. CONWAY.

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