Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: An Old Poet's Reception

Creator: Anonymous

Date: April 15, 1887

Publication information: The Evening Sun 15 April 1887.

Source: Our transcription is based on Walt Whitman, Daybooks and Notebooks, ed. William White (New York: New York University Press, 1978), 2:417–421;.

Whitman Archive ID: med.00558

Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney, Chris Higgs, and Shea Montgomerey



AN OLD POET'S RECEPTION.

HOW THE MAJESTIC WALT WHITMAN RECEIVED HIS FRIENDS.


The Scene at the Westminster Hotel Last
Evening—Poets, Artists, Men with Horse
Sense, and Lovely Women in Line.

Last evening at 8 o'clock Walt Whitman, the poet, received his friends at his apartments in the Westminster Hotel. Three cosy parlors had been set apart for the reception. A portrait of Dickens had been put in a prominent place. "The dear old man," as his friends call him, had lectured in the afternoon at the Madison Square Theatre on Lincoln, but he appeared little fatigued. Indeed he had reason to feel in good spirits, for the lecture was as successful in a financial as in a literary sense. J.H. Johnston, a wide awake merchant, with Dundreary whiskers and a face aglow with good nature had agreed to hold himself responsible for the expense of the lecture, which amounted to $450, but the proceeds paid all that, and a profit of $190 beside. Mr. Johnston feels as proud of the venture as he does of the fact that he was one of the first advertisers in the first number of THE EVENING SUN.

The first caller to greet the poet was an EVENING SUN reporter. The old man sat enthroned in a great armchair, cushioned with dark red plush. He wore trousers and waistcoat of dark gray stuff, gray woolen stockings, such as our grandmothers used to knit for us, low-cut, comfortable shoes, and a coat of some dark material.

The striking feature of his toilet, however, was his shirt. Its wide collar, loose at the throat, and its cuffs, which turned over the ends of his coat sleeves, were trimmed with narrow lace of a pretty pattern. He held in his hand an old cane like a shepherd's crook, from which the polish had been worn. His long white hair and full white beard and mustache, which entirely shaded his lips, and his heavy white eyebrows, characteristic of a man of magnetism, set off his massive face and gave him a look of quiet grandeur which led Mr. Laurence Hutton to remark, "He looks like a god."

Indeed, he does look like a painting of Jove. Although his eyes are small, they have merry twinkle as he talks. The rich red blood of a manly man, who feels intensely and likes to live and love, gives his face a ruddy glow. His voice is steady and gentle, but at times in conversation he hesitates to select the most fitting word.

On account of his lameness he remained sitting all the evening. A young man who bore the double burden of receiving the cards of the callers and having the toothache had come over from Camden with Mr. Whitman as his attendant. He is William Duckett. In an hour Mr. Duckett had a very full hand of the cards of distinguished men and the crowd became so great that he gave up trying to announce each newcomer.

Early in the evening he arranged about the room some of the flowers that had been presented to the poet at the lecture. There was a great laurel wreath from Wilson Barrett, tied with rich satin ribbon of many colors. On one ribbon Mr. Barrett had written:

How like a winter hath thy absence been!

and on another:

Return, forgetful muse, and straight redeem in mighty numbers time so wisely spent.

Still another ribbon was inscribed:

So long! Walt Whitman.

WILSON BARRETT.

There were offerings from E. C. Stedman, the poet, and others, but the one which the old man most prized was a bunch of lilacs, which a little girl wandered out on the stage and gave to him at the lecture, which the words suggestive of his own poem:

I've brought you some lilacs that in our door yard bloomed.

A young man who wears his hair like Wm. Walter Phelps, and who fairly worships the poet, entered, shook him warmly by the hand, and called him "Walt," as did nearly every one.

"You are the man who has been sending me the paper," said the poet.

The young man, who is Henry Tyrrell of Frank Leslie's, admitted that he had, and shook hands with the poet again.

A rather tall young man with sandy hair and beard and a face alive with good nature entered. The poet greeted him with "Ah, Joe, glad to see you!"

It was courteous Joseph Gilder, editor of the Critic. Later he assisted in presenting the many who called to pay homage to the old man.

A little group gathered about the poet, who began talking about the time when he used to drive stage.

"It used to be the delight of my life to ride on a stage coach," said he. "I knew many of the old drivers. They were hale fellows, chewed tobacco or smoked if they chose and each had a nickname. There was Yellow and Dressmaker, who won his sobriquet by being greatly mashed on a pretty dressmaker. There was Gold Dollar Bill and a big fellow they called Elephant. His brother, a little man, came to work on the line, and they called him Little Elephant. There was my friend Jack Finley. He stayed on the line till the last, and I presume it seemed hard to him when the old stages were abolished."

THE EVENING SUN reporter, by way of a little literary gossip, asked the poet, "How do you divide your time? Do you write daily?"

"Well, I get up at 7; eat a hearty breakfast, and then write some, or at least go through the motions; then—"

"Ah, Judge! How are you?" said the poet, as Judge Harnett of Camden, a very young man for a judge, entered.

Then a gentleman of medium stature, with full beard tinged with gray, and a face of calm repose entered and was warmly greeted. He was plainly dressed and looked like a well-to-do farmer. He is John Burroughs, who paints nature in books as few men are able to do. He was flushed with success at having just come from making 250 pounds of maple sugar in a bush in Delaware county, and he has promised to write up his experience. The reporter ventured to ask him: "Do they still catch the sap in whitewood troughs?"

Alas, the age of progress has invaded the sugar bush! Mr. Burroughs reluctantly admitted that the old whitewood trough has been supplanted by a new-fangled tin pail, and the old elder spile through which the sap flowed from the tree has been driven out by a patent iron arrangement.

A young enthusiast entered and presented Walt two numbers of La Vogue, a French magazine, one number of which contained selections from the poet's "Leaves of Grass," and the other a French translation of his fervid production, "A Woman Waits for Me."

"Just like the French to pick out that poem" said Walt with a smile.

"Let me see," said the poet to THE EVENING SUN reporter, "Where was I? Oh, yes, I was answering your question as to how I spent my time. Well, it is very monotonous. I breakfast at 7, then—"

Then a gentleman with long black hair and full beard came in, and Walt greeted him with fraternal warmth. He is Joel Benton, the philosopher. Mrs. Morton of Boston, who proudly declared that she was by birth a Whitman, was presented next. A young man of medium stature and wearing a full tawny beard, a suit of the same complexion and thick eyeglasses, was Mr. Johnson, one of the editors of the Century. Mr. Metcalf of the Forum, who wears a heavy gray mustache and studious look, was introduced, and he and Mr. Johnson stepped behind the poet's throne and engaged in conversation while newcomers were being presented.

Mr. Learned of the Evening Post, who loves nature about as well as John Burroughs, sat at the poet's left and talked awhile with him, when the conversation was interrupted by the coming of a lady of the intense, poetry-reading school, and her pale, willowy daughter. A kindly, plain woman who looked as if she could make good doughnuts, said she had just come from a many years' residence in the Sandwich Islands to greet the poet. A tall, gaunt man, who wore a gray flannel shirt, was Dr. Holbrook of the Herald of Health. He looked as consumptive as writers on health topics usually do.

The poet again tried to resume answering the reporter's question, but had got no farther than "after breakfast," when a tall man, looking aggressively and solemnly in earnest, came up and presented Walt a tract, which he first dodged, and then generously took and secreted somewhere about his capacious coat. Then came another very intense lady. She said: "I wrote you a love letter once, Mr. Whitman."

His merry eyes twinkled, as he asked: "Did I answer it?"

"No," she answered, whereat Walt's eyes twinkled the more, and the lady uttered a pretty little compliment about being so thankful that the good poet had lived. He murmured something about feeling thankful on his own account, and then reached out his hand to grasp that of a plump little gentleman with Burnsides and a dress suit. No one would have picked him out as the editor of a religious weekly, but he is Editor Mabie of the Christian Union.

A big man with black mustache and imperial, and wearing glasses divided in the centres, as if his keen eyes had shattered them, came next. He is Major Pond, who was business manager of Mr. Whitman's lecture. A gentleman with gray side whiskers, a bald head of the fine face of a typical English lord was Pearsall Smith of Philadelphia, who is a friend of Gladstone's and who enjoyed the acquaintance of Carlyle.

Walt made another effort to finish answering the reporter's question, but had scarcely taken up the thread of conversation when the floor shook beneath the tread of a massive man, whose smooth-shaven face denoted force of character.

"How airye?" he asked with a Scotch inflection as he shook the poet's hand.

It was Robert Collyer. As the poet and preacher sat side by side, the big head of each crowned with long white hair, an enthusiastic beholder said aside: "See the two grand old men."

Mr. Collyer soon withdrew, but he paused to ask Mr. Johnston how much the receipts of the lecture were. When told that the profits were $190, he said: "Put me down for enough to make it $200."

A young lady of striking appearance, tall and resolute, entered. She wore a plain hat, of dark material, with no nonsense about its trimming, and a jacket something like a man's coat. She had a large leather hand bag attached to the side of her dress. She is Miss Jennie Gilder of the Critic. She was accompanied by a lady in plain black, with a beautiful complexion and a winsome face, who needed no introduction to the poet. This was Mrs. R. W. Gilder, wife of the editor of the Century.

An elderly gentleman, spare featured and gray whiskered, accompanied by his daughter, a decided brunette, who wore a dress of black satin, was presented as Moncure D. Conway. Miss Conway timidly asked the poet to give her his autograph, and he took out a very plain brass-mounted pencil and wrote his name on a card, using THE EVENING SUN reporter's note book as a rest.

"Please let your pencil wander over on a page of that book with another autograph," asked the reporter, and the poet smilingly granted the request.

These were the only attacks of autograph hunters during the evening. A not very literary looking young man with thin whiskers was presented as Sidney Luska. He has written some successful books, and started out in literature while he was writing in the Surrogate's office. His story bore the appropriate title "As It Was Written."

A very attractive, slender lady in black was the next comer. Her bright eyes danced as she greeted the host. She is Mrs. Gen. Custer. Mrs. Ward, a lovely lady of social prominence, was the next comer. E.S. Nadal, about the handsomest man in the party, who was formerly Secretary of Legation at London, had just been introduced, when a slender, beardless young man in evening dress, whose shirt front was plentifully pleated, was introduced as Wolcott Balestier. He is the editor of Tid Bits, and an author of more than ordinary success.

The saddest, thinnest man of the assemblage, who wore side whiskers and looked anything but a poet, is J.H. Bonner, late of North Carolina, whose poems have elicited some kind words from E. C. Stedman. He has just settled in New York and is trying to find a place where he can breathe.

No one needed to be told that the next comer was an artist. His pointed beard and picturesque appearance betrayed that fact. He is Wyatt Eaton. Miss Collins, a plump young lady, who wore glasses and a black flat-brimmed hat, accompanied him. She paints. A solidly-built man, with a broad face and the appearance of a well-to-do merchant, was introduced as Frank Carpenter. He doesn't look it, but he, too, is an artist, and once painted a portrait of Lincoln.

A tall, slender young man, with a full blonde beard and pompadour hair and the keenest of eyes is J. W. Alexander, whose portraits of prominent men adorn the magazines. He is still very young. He is going to make a portrait of Mr. Whitman, who will probably give a sitting to-day.

A little dark-featured man, very spare and unliterary in appearance, enters. His black hair and mustache are streaked with gray, and, he has hard work to keep a frown from his brow. He is Frank R. Stockton, who is just now in the zenith of his popularity as a story writer. The plain, practical looking lady who accompanies him is his wife.

Then comes E. C. Stedman, a small man with square-trimmed gray beard and close-fitting cutaway coat. He looks a typical broker. His son, who wears a black mustache and speaks in a voice as soft as a woman's, says that at Mr. Whitman's lecture on Lincoln in the afternoon there were present Frank Carpenter, who painted Lincoln's portrait; Lowell, who wrote the national ode, and John Hay, who wrote the life of Lincoln.

The next comer was an African, his slender figure clad in evening dress, a low cut collar encircling his neck, and his hair parted near the middle and combed back high above his ears. He is the Chevalier de Salas, and the red button of his order gleams in his lapel. He carried a brindle fiddle under his arm. It looked like an ordinary affair, but it was a Ruggeri, worth a small fortune. He spoke no English, and told Walt so in French and German, which the poet doesn't understand. He went over to the piano, which Prof. Toledo stroked a few times, while the Chevalier tucked his fiddle under his chin. Then the way the Chevalier made that fiddle talk was a caution. It raved like a cyclone and then relapsed into the soft murmur of a zephyr through the leaves. It wailed with anguish till the tears gathered in sympathetic Mrs. Custer's eyes, and again it sang with joy like the birds, and everybody felt glad. Everyone felt sorry, too, when the African finished his tune. It was for making a fiddle behave as sweetly as he does that he was made a Chevalier. He was born in Havana, where his father used to play the fiddle for home amusement. The lad began playing when he was but little taller than his father's fiddle. He went to Berlin and to Paris, and was trained to a degree of perfection that would astonish his old father. Walt was mightily pleased with the music, and the Chevalier played some more.

Meantime, W. H. Bishop, a young man, with a firm, good natured face and a genial look, entered with his wife, a beautiful lady in dark evening dress. Mr. Bishop doesn't look a day older than 25, but he has written several successful stories, one of which was "The House of a Merchant Prince."

A young man, smooth shaven and with close cut red hair, doesn't look old enough to be an editor, but he is, and a good one, too. He is Henry Walsh, editor of the Catholic World.

Miss Breese, a wealthy society lady, who is a stockholder in an opera house, is another comer.

Prof. Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen of Norway greets the poet, and a tall young man, with sandy mustache, who has left a sick bed to meet the poet, is introduced as Mr. White. He is an architect and the son of Richard Grant White.

Then Mr. Lawrence Hutton, who looks like a very prosperous young banker, and who writes mighty entertaining literary notes for Harper's Magazine, comes forward with his wife to bid Mr. Whitman goodnight. Miss Gilder and her sister-in-law bid the poet adieu until morning, when he is to meet them with some friends at a breakfast party.

R. R. Bowker, editor of the Publisher's Weekly, arrives, and Walt talks with him about the curious effect that Lincoln's death had on the army. Previous to the event the soldiers had had their cries, that went from division to division in great choruses, but a hush fell on the army when the news came of the great man's assassination, and the cries were heard no more.

John Fiske, a sturdy, deep-chested man, is one of the latest comers. He is a philosophical writer, and Darwin thought no one could expound Darwinism better than Fiske.

A young man, who has brought his opinions along with him, asks Walt if he doesn't dislike the Howells-James school of literature, but the poet declares that the very fact that a school or religion exists is proof that the people are ready for it. The young man talks with warmth about democracy, and Walt says that Carlyle was after all expounding the essence of true democracy when he was preaching what many interpreted as the antithesis of it.

Prof Ritter, who makes music and musicians at Vassar College, and is a well known composer, bids the poet adieu and one after another of the many gests, not half of whom have been named above, drop away. Never has the spectacle of so many eminent persons paying homage to a poor, plain old man been witnessed in New York. Walt has taken all their compliments with the pleasant "O-h!" that he utters when pleased. When the excitement has somewhat subsided he turns to the reporter and says, "Oh, yes; I was answering your question. Will I get up at 7 and—"

Then a new detachment of guests call to bid the poet adieu, and having got no farther than 9 o'clock in his account as to his method of spending his days, he gives up trying to answer the question.


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