Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman

Creator: Moncure D. Conway

Date: October 15, 1866

Publication information: The Fortnightly Review 6 (15 October 1866): 538–548.

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

Whitman Archive ID: med.00552

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




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WALT WHITMAN.

THERE is as yet nothing distinctive in American literature except its tendency. This is interesting, because it is toward a reproduction of some of the characteristics hitherto peculiar to the earliest literature of the East. That the tints and splendours of the Oriental should begin to re-appear in the Occidental mind, is as manifest as it is suggestive. The passion for Oriental Scriptures in America was already active when the transcendentalists of Boston recognised it twenty-five years ago, and responded to it in the pages of their magazine, the Dial, which contained in each number an important chapter of "Ethnical Scriptures." Mr. Emerson reproduced many fine thoughts from Hafiz, Saadi, and the "Redekunste" and other Persian transcripts of Von Hammer. Thoreau, naturalist and scholar, passed his life in the woods as a devout Yogi, studying the Baghavat Geeta and the Puranas. Other miners of this old vein, as Brooks and Alger, scattered through the country orient pearls from "Wisdom of the Brahmin" and "Grains of Incense," which were hungrily caught up by the multitude. I could quote here worthy verses from several young poets of America, to show that the direction I have ascribed to the Occidental mind is genuine, and as free from mere imitativeness as from affectation; but my purpose at present is to give some account of a singular genius whose writings, although he certainly had no acquaintance with Oriental literature, have given the most interesting illustration of it, besides being valuable in other respects.

It was about ten years ago that literary circles in and around Boston were startled by the tidings that Emerson—whose incredulity concerning American books was known to be as profound as that of Sydney Smith—had discovered an American poet. Emerson had been for many years our literary banker; paper that he had inspected, coin that had been rung on his counter, would pass safely anywhere. On his table had been laid one day a queerly-shaped book entitled, "Leaves of Grass. By Walt Whitman." There was also in the front the portrait of a middle-aged man in the garb of a working-man. The Concord philosopher's feeling on perusing this book was expressed in a private letter to its author, which I quote from memory:—"At first I rubbed my eyes to find if this new sunbeam might not be an illusion. . . . . I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere for such a start." Toward no other American, toward no contemporary excepting Carlyle, had Emerson ever used such strong expressions as these. The writer to whom they had been

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addressed at once printed a new edition of his poems, placing on the back of it, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career.—R. W. Emerson." This and the publication of the entire letter at the end of the volume annoyed Mr. Emerson very much, for it was a formidable book for any gentleman to carry by his endorsement into general society. Mr. Emerson was afterwards convinced, I believe, that Walt Whitman had printed his letter in ignorance of the bienséances in such cases, but he was destined to hear of some unpleasant results from it. Walt Whitman's book was, in fact, unreadable in many of those circles to which the refined thinker's name at once bore it; and many were the stories of the attempts to read it in mixed companies. One grave clergyman made an effort to read it aloud to some gentlemen and ladies, and only broke down after surprising his company considerably. Nevertheless, the book continued to be studied quietly, and those who read it ceased to wonder that it should have kindled the sage who had complained that the American freeman in "timid, imitative, tame," from listening too long to "the courtly muses of Europe." The plainness of speech in "Leaves of Grass" is indeed biblical; there is, too, a startling priapism running through it; nay, squeamish readers must needs hold their noses, for the writer does not hesitate to bring the slop-bucket into the drawing-room to show that the chemic laws work therein also; yet from its first sentence, "I celebrate myself," there starts forth an endless procession of the forms and symbols of life—now funeral, now carnival, or again a masquerade of nations, cities, epochs, or the elements, natural and human—fascinating the eye with wonder or dread. To these terrible eyes Maya surrenders; faces, forms, skeletons, are unsheathed. Here are the autographs of New York, and of the prairies, savannahs, Ohio, Mississippi, and all powers, good and evil. There is much that is repulsive to the ordinary mind in these things and in the poems that really express them; but as huge reptiles help to fashion the pedestal of man, as artists find in griffins and crouching animal forms the fundamental vitality upon which the statue or pillar may repose, one might not unreasonably find in the wild and grotesque forms of Walt Whitman's chants, so instinct with life, the true basis of any shaft, not the duplicate of any raised elsewhere, that American thought is to raise.

As my readers generally may not have seen, or may not have access to, the "Leaves of Grass," I quote here some characteristic passages from the book:—

From the Proto-Leaf.


"Take my leaves, America!
Make welcome for them everywhere, for they are your own offspring;


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Surround them, East and West! for they would surround you;
And you, precedents! connect lovingly with them, for they connect lovingly
with you.
"Omnes! Omnes!
Let others ignore what they may,
I make the poem of evil also—I commemorate that part also,
I am myself just as much evil as good—And I say there is in fact no evil,
Or if there is, I say it is just as important to you, to the earth, or to me, as
anything else.
"O expanding and swift! O henceforth,
Elements, breeds, adjustments, turbulent, quick, and audacious,
A world primal again—Vistas of glory, incessant and branching,
A new race, dominating previous ones, and grander far,
New politics—new literatures and religions—new inventions and arts.
These! These, my voice announcing—I will sleep no more, but arise;
You oceans that have been calm within me! how I feel you, fathomless,
stirring, preparing unprecedented waves and storms.

Walt Whitman


"Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace, and joy, and knowledge that
pass all the art and argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the Spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my
sisters and lovers,
And that a Kelson of the creation is love,
And limitless are leaves, stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm-fence, and heaped stones, alder, mullen, and
pokeweed.
"A child said, 'What is the grass?' fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer, designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and
remark, and say whose?
"Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.
"Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them
the same.
"And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
"Why should I pray? Why should I venerate and be ceremonious?
"Having pried through the strata, analysed to a hair, counselled with doctors,
and calculated close,
I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones.
"I know I am august.
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood,


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I see that the elementary laws never apologise,
I reckon I behave no prouder than the level I plant my home by, after all.
"I exist as I am—that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware, I sit content,
And if each and all be aware, I sit content.
"One world is aware, and by far the largest to me, and that is myself,
And whether I come to my own to-day, or in ten thousand or ten million
years,
I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can wait.
"Immense have been the preparations for me,
Faithful and friendly the arms that have helped me,
Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing like cheerful boatmen.
For room to me stars kept aside in their own rings;
They sent influences to look after what was to hold me.
Before I was born out of my mother, generations guided me,
My embryo has never been torpid—nothing could overlay it.
For it the nebula cohered to an orb,
The long slow strata piled to rest it on,
Vast vegetables gave it sustenance,
Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths, and deposited it with care.
All forces have been steadily employed to complete and delight me,
Now I stand on this spot with my soul."
"The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me—he complains of my gab and
my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world."
"I too, Paumanok,
I too have bubbled up, floated the measureless float, and been washed on
your shores;
I too am but a trail of drift and débris,
I too leave little wrecks upon you, you fish-shaped island.
"I throw myself upon your breast, my father,
I cling to you so that you cannot unloose me,
I hold you so firm, till you answer me something.
"Kiss me, my father,
Touch me with your lips, as I touch those I love,
Breathe to me, while I hold you close, the secret of the wondrous murmuring
I envy,
For I fear I shall become crazed, if I cannot emulate it, and utter myself as
well as it.
"Sea-raff! Crook-tongued waves!
O, I will yet sing, some day, what you have said to me."
"O truth of the earth! O truth of things! I am determined to press my way
toward you,
Sound your voice! I scale mountains, or dive in the sea after you.

Voices.


"O what is it in me that makes me tremble so at voices?
Surely whoever speaks to me in the right voice, him or her I shall follow, as
the waters follow the moon, silently, with fluid steps, anywhere around
the globe.
Now I believe that all waits for the right voices;


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Where is the practised and perfect organ? Where is the developed soul?
For I see every word uttered thence has deeper, sweeter, new sounds, impos-
sible on less terms.
I see brains and lips closed—I see tympans and temples unstruck,
Until that comes which has the quality to strike and to unclose.

To a Common Prostitute.


"Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you;
Not till the waters refuse to glisten for you, and the leaves to rustle for you,
do my words refuse to glisten and rustle for you.

The Child.


"There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he looked upon and received with wonder, pity, love or
dread, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day,
or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.
The early lilacs became part of this child;
And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover,
and the song of the phœbe-bird,
And the Third Month lambs, and the sow's pink-faint litter, and the mare's
foal, and the cow's calf,
And the noisy brood of the barn-yard, or by the mire of the pond-side,
And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there, and the beau-
tiful curious liquid,
And the water-plants with their graceful flat heads—all became part of him.
The strata of coloured clouds, the long bar of maroon-tint, away by itself—
the spread of purity it lies motionless in,
The horizon's edge, the flying sea-crow, the fragrance of salt-marsh and
shore-mud—
These became part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes,
and will always go forth every day."

Having occasion to visit New York soon after the appearance of Walt Whitman's book, I was urged by some friends to search him out, and make some report to them concerning him. It was on a Sunday in midsummer that I journeyed through the almost interminable and monotonous streets which stretch out upon "fish-shaped Paumanok," and the direction led me to the very last house outward from the great city,—a small wooden house of two stories. At my third knock a fine-looking old lady opened the door just enough to eye me carefully, and ask what I wanted. It struck me, after a little, that his mother—for so she declared herself—was apprehensive that an agent of the police might be after her son, on account of his audacious book. At last, however, she pointed to an open common with a central hill, and told me I should find her son there. The day was excessively hot, the thermometer at nearly 100°, and the sun blazed down as only on a sandy Long Island can the sun blaze. The common had not a single tree or shelter, and it seemed to me that only a very devout fire-worshipper indeed could be found there on such a day. No human being could I see at first in any direction; but just as I was about to return I saw stretched upon

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his back, and gazing up straight at the terrible sun, the man I was seeking. With his grey clothing, his blue-grey shirt, his iron-grey hair, his swart sun-burnt face and bare neck, he lay upon the brown-and-white grass—for the sun had burnt away its greenness—and was so like the earth upon which he rested, that he seemed almost enough a part of it for one to pass by without recognition. I approached him, gave my name and reason for searching him out, and asked him if he did not find the sun rather hot. "Not at all too hot," was his reply; and he confided to me that this was one of his favourite places and attitudes for composing "poems." He then walked with me to his home, and took me along its narrow ways to his room. A small room of about fifteen square feet, with a single window looking out on the barren solitudes of the island; a small cot, a wash-stand with a little looking-glass hung over it, from a tack in the wall, a pine table with pen, ink, and paper on it; an old line-engraving, representing Bacchus, hung on the wall, and opposite a similar one of Silenus; these constituted the visible environment of Walt Whitman. There was not, apparently, a single book in the room. In reply to my expression of a desire to see his books, he declared that he had very few. I found, upon further inquiry, that he had received only such a good English education as every American lad may receive from the public schools, and that he now had access to the libraries of some of his friends. The books he seemed to know and love best were the Bible, Homer, and Shakspeare: these he owned, and probably had in his pockets whilst we were talking. He had two studies where he read; one was the top of an omnibus, and the other a small mass of sand, then entirely uninhabited, far out in the ocean, called Coney Island. Many days had he passed on that island, as completely alone as Crusoe. He had no literary acquaintance, beyond a company of Bohemians who wrote for the Saturday Press—the organ at that time of all the audacity of New York—whom he now and then met at Pfaaf's lager-bier cellar. He was remarkably taciturn, however, about himself—considering the sublime egoism of his book—and cared only about his "poems," of which he read me one that had not then appeared. I could not help suspecting that he must have had masters; but he declared that he had learned all that he knew from omnibus-drivers, ferryboat-pilots, fishermen, boatmen, and the men and women of the markets and wharves. These were all inarticulate poets, and he interpreted them. The only distinguished contemporary he had ever met was the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, of Brooklyn, who had visited him. He had, he said, asked Mr. Beecher what were his feelings when he heard a man swear; and that gentleman having admitted that he felt shocked, he (Whitman) concluded that he still preferred keeping to the boatmen for his company. He was at the time a

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little under forty years of age. His father had been a farmer on Long Island, and Walt had worked on the farm in early life. His father was of English, his mother of Dutch, descent, thus giving him the blood of both the races which had settled New York. In his youth he had listened to the preaching of the great Quaker iconoclast, Elias Hicks, of whom his parents were followers; and I fancy that Hicks, than whom few abler men have appeared in any country in modern times, gave the most important contribution to his education. After leaving his father's farm he taught school for a short time, then became a printer, and afterwards a carpenter. When his first volume appeared he was putting up frame dwellings in Brooklyn; the volume was, however, set in type entirely by his own hand. He had been originally of the Democratic party; but when the Fugitive Slave Law was passed he found that he was too really democratic for that, and uttered his declaration independence in a poem called "Blood-money,"—a poem not found in his works, but which was the first he ever wrote. He confessed to having no talent for industry, and that his forte was"loafing and writing poems;"he was poor, but had discovered that he could, on the whole, live magnificently on bread and water. He had travelled through the country as far as New Orleans, where he once edited a paper. But I would find, he said, all of him—his life, works, and days—in his book; he had kept nothing back whatever.

We passed the remainder of the day roaming, or "loafing," on Staten Island, where we had shade, and many miles of a beautiful beach. Whilst we bathed, I was impressed by a certain grandeur about the man, and remembered the picture of Bacchus on the wall of his room. I then perceived that the sun had put a red mask on his face and neck, and that his body was a ruddy blonde, pure and noble, his form being at the same time remarkable for fine curves and for that grace of movement which is the flower of shapely and well-knit bones. His head was oviform in every way; his hair, which was strongly mixed with grey, was cut close to his head, and, with his beard, was in strange contrast to the almost infantine fulness and serenity of his face. This serenity, however, came from the quiet light blue eyes, and above these there were three or four deep horizontal furrows, which life had ploughed. The first glow of any kind that I saw about him, was when he entered the water, which he fairly hugged with a lover's enthusiasm. But when he was talking about that which deeply interested him, his voice, always gentle and clear, became slow, and his eyelids had a tendency to decline over his eyes. It was impossible not to feel at every moment the reality of every word and movement of the man, and also the surprising delicacy of one who was even freer with his pen than modest Montaigne.



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After making an appointment to meet Walt again during the week, when we would saunter through the streets of New York, I went off to find myself almost sleepless with thinking of this new acquaintance. He had so magnetised me, so charged me, as it were, with somewhat indefinable, that for the time the only wise course of life seemed to be to put on a blue shirt and a blouse, and loafe about Manahatta and Paumanok—"loafe, and invite my soul," to use my new friend's phrase. I found time hanging heavily on my hands, and the sights of the brilliant city tame, whilst waiting for the next meeting, and wondered if he would seem such a grand fellow when I saw him again. I found him on the appointed morning setting in type in a Brooklyn printing-office, a paper from the Democratic Review, urging the superiority of Walt Whitman's poetry over that of Tennyson, which he meant to print (as he did everything, pro and con, in full) in the appendix of his next edition. He still had on the working-man's garb, which (he said) he had been brought up to wear, and now found it an advantage to continue. It became plain to me as I passed along the streets and on the ferry with him, that he was a prince incognito amongst his lower class acquaintances. They met him continually, grasped his hand with enthusiasm, and laughed and chatted (but on no occasion did he laugh, nor, indeed, did I ever see him smile). Having some curiosity to know whether this class of persons appreciated him at all, I privately said to a workman in corduroys, with whom I had seen him conversing, and whom he had just left, "Do you know who that man there is?" "That be Walt Whitman." "Have you known him long?" "Many a year." "What sort of a man is he?" "A fusrate man is Walt. Nobody knows Walt but likes him; nearly everybody knows him, and—and loves him." There was a curious look about the fellow as he emphasized the word loves, as if he were astonished at the success with which he had expressed himself. "He has written a book—hasn't he?" "Not as ever I hearn on." Several times, as we were crossing the waters about New York, I was able to separate from him, and put similar questions to artisans and others with whom I had seen him interchange greetings or words; but I found none of them knew anything about his writings, though all felt a pride in being acquainted with him. Nothing could surpass the blending of insouciance with active observation in his manner as we strolled along the streets. "Look at that face!" he exclaimed once as we paused near the office of the Herald. I looked and beheld a boy of perhaps fifteen years, with certainly a hideous countenance, the face one-sided, and one eye almost hanging out of a villainous low forehead. He had a bundle under his arm. "There," said Walt, "is a New York reptile. There's poison about his fangs I think." We watched him as he looked furtively about, and presently he seemed to see that we had

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our eyes on him, and was skulking off. At that my companion beckoned him, and after a little succeeded in bringing him to us, when we found that he was selling obscene books. At the Tombs prison we went among the prisoners, and the confidence and volubility with which they ran to him to pour out their grievances, as if he were one in authority, was singular. In one man's case he took a special interest. The man, pending trial for a slight offence, had been put into a very disagreeable and unhealthy place. Hearing his account, Walt turned about, went straight to the governor of the prison, and related the matter—ending thus: "In my opinion it is a damned shame." The governor was at first stunned by this from an outsider, and one in the dress of a labourer; then he eyed him from head to foot as if questioning whether to commit him; during which the offender stood eyeing the governor in turn with a severe serenity. Walt triumphed in this duel of eyeshots, and, without another word, the governor called an officer to go and transfer the prisoner to a better room. I have often remembered the oath of Walt Whitman on this occasion, as being one of the most religious utterances I have ever heard.

Henry Thoreau, who, though at present almost without European reputation, will be hereafter regarded as one of the ablest thinkers and scholars that ever lived in America, visited Walt Whitman in 1856; and I find in his posthumous "Letters," edited by R. W. Emerson, two that were addressed to the poet giving him good advice in the matter of reading, and especially, it would seem, answering some questions about Oriental books. In another letter written by Thoreau to a friend soon after the visit to which I have referred, he says:—"That Walt Whitman, of whom I wrote to you, is the most interesting fact to me at present. I have just read his second edition (which he gave me), and it has done me more good than any reading for a long time. . . . There are two or three pieces in the book which are disagreeable; simply sensual. . . . It is as if the beasts spoke. . . . Of course Walt Whitman can communicate to us no experience; and if we are shocked, whose experience is it that we are reminded of? . . . He occasionally suggests something a little more than human. . . . Wonderfully like the Orientals, too, considering that when I asked him if he had read them, he said, 'No; tell me about them.' . . . He is apparently the greatest democrat the world has seen." He made an equal impression on other men of culture and ability who visited him.

How Walt Whitman came to write those nine thousand extraordinary lines,—or verses, one knows not which to call them,—it were hard to say. The idea with which he entered upon his work may be gathered from the following extract from a private letter, which I am permitted to insert here. "I assume," he wrote, "that

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poetry in America needs to be entirely recreated. On examining with anything like deep analysis what now prevails in the United States, the whole mass of poetical works, long and short, consists either of poetry of an elegantly weak sentimentalism, at bottom nothing but maudlin puerilities, or more or less musical verbiage, arising out of a life of depression and enervation, as their result; or else that class of poetry, plays, &c., of which the foundation is feudalism, with its ideas of lords and ladies, its imported standard of gentility, and the manners of European high-life-below-stairs in every line and verse. . . . . Instead of mighty and vital breezes, proportionate to our continent with its powerful races of men, its tremendous historic events, its great oceans, its mountains, and its illimitable prairies, I find a few little silly fans languidly moved by shrunken fingers." His ambition is, he says in the same letter, "to give something to our literature which will be our own, with neither foreign spirit, nor imagery, nor form, but adapted to our ease, grown out of our associations, boldly portraying the West, strengthening and intensifying the national soul, and finding the entire fountains of its birth and growth in our country." He wrote on a sheet of paper, in large letters, these words—"MAKE THE WORK," and fixed it above his table, where he could always see it whilst writing. Thenceforth every cloud that flitted over him, every distant sail, every face and form encountered, wrote a line in his book. He was passionately fond of opera music, and many verses were written in the galleries of the opera house. He notes everything and forgets nothing. His brain is indeed a kind of American formation, in which all things print themselves like ferns in the coal. Every thought, too, signs itself in his mind by a right and immutable word.

Walt Whitman continued writing poems, that appeared from time to time in enlarged editions of the "Leaves of Grass"—which in 1860 reached its sixth edition—until the breaking out of the war. He then repaired to the city of Washington, and devoted himself to nursing and conversing with the wounded soldiers who were in the hospitals. His labours among them—for which he never asked nor received any compensation whatever—were unremitting; and he so won the poor fellows from all thought of their sorrows by his readings and conversation, that his entrance was the signal in any room for manifestations of the utmost delight. He certainly has a rare power of attaching people to him.

A friend of mine writing from Washington says, "I speak within bounds when I say that, during those years, he has been in contact with, and, in one form or another, either in hospital or on the field, personally ministered to, upward of one hundred thousand sick and wounded men."

At the close of the war he was appointed to a clerkship in the

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Department of the Interior, and in the intervals of official work wrote a new volume of poems entitled "Drum-Taps," which has been recently published. This volume is entirely free from the peculiar deductions to which the other is liable, and shows that the author has lost no fibre of his force. There is in this volume a very touching dirge for Abraham Lincoln,—who was his warm friend and admirer,—which is worthy of being quoted. It is as follows:—

"O captain! my captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weathered every rock, the prize we sought is won.
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But, O heart! heart! heart!
Leave you not the little spot,
Where on the deck my captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
"O captain! my captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
O captain! dear father!
This arm I push beneath you;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead."
"My captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
But the ship, the ship, is anchored safe, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won.
Exult, O shore, and ring, O bells!
But I with silent tread,
Walk the spot my captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead."

The late Secretary of the Interior, Mr. Harlan, recently had pointed out to him—probably by some one who desired Whitman's clerkship—some passages of the "Leaves of Grass" in which he could see only grossness, and for this cause ejected the poet from his office. The indignation which this caused throughout the country proves that Walt Whitman has quietly obtained a very wide influence. After a very curious controversy, chiefly notable for an able and caustic pamphlet written by Mr. O'Connor, showing that the Secretary would equally have dismissed the Scriptural and classical writers, the bard was appointed to an office in the Attorney-General's department, which he now holds. It is understood by his friends that he is writing a series of pieces which shall be the expression of the religious nature of man, which he regards as essential to the completion of his task.

MONCURE D. CONWAY.

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