Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman's Words

Creator: Anonymous

Date: September 23, 1888

Publication information: The New York Herald 23 September 1888: 8.

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

Whitman Archive ID: med.00559

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




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WALT WHITMAN'S WORDS.

———

He Thinks Bryant America's
Greatest Poet.


———

OPTIMISTIC OLD AGE.


———

He Agrees with Darwin, Yet Seeks a
Loftier Theology.


———

[BY TELEGRAPH TO THE HERALD.]
PHILADEPHIA, Pa.,Sept. 22, 1888.

—Whenever I reach this city I always cross the ferry to Camden, for a visit to Philadelphia without seeing Walt Whitman would be no visit at all. Somehow I have always been impressed that there by the shores of the Delaware is one of the grandest spectacles of the nineteenth century—the oracle of the age waiting calmly for his time to go, and amid his infirmities, launching those daring hieroglyphics which are to adorn his lofty and immortal shaft.

I first met Whitman in June, 1885. He was then, doubtless, in his lowest ebb of poverty, living on the proceeds of "Leaves of Grass," which had amounted to $56 for 1884, and a little money loaned by a friend.

During not a few visits to his little home Whitman has given me many of his experiences, struggles and impressions of men. He subsequently examined the notes I took for revision and correction. I am therefore able to reflect him accurately.

The "good gray poet" was seventy years old on May 31. He came out of the war poor, after having nearly exhausted his vitality in nursing soldiers in the hospitals. He was given a place in the office of the United States Attorney General, but in 1873, on account of a stroke of paralysis, due to exposure during the war, he was cruelly discharged, and thus deprived of his only income. "Leaves of Grass" had been published in 1855. It came into the world unnoticed; a financial investment, paying no dividends for years. I had a second edition in 1857. The third edition, published in 1861, paid a small sum. Then came the war, during which Whitman worked heroically for the wounded in the hospitals and on the battle fields. The fourth and fifth editions of the war period were likewise failures. So it happened that he was without an income when discharged by the Attorney General.

The critics sneered at his volume of poems, some of the book agents embezzled its proceeds and Whitman retired to Camden to die. His mother and sister died, poverty went hand in hand with him, the papers ridiculed him, but Whitman was always possessed of buoyant spirits.

Whitman did not die in Camden after he left Washington, according to his own programme, which included death among other things. On the contrary, in 1876 he issued the centennial edition of "Leaves of Grass" and "Two Rivulets" in two volumes, with autographs and potraits. These he himself sold from his sickroom at $10 each. There was not much sale at that price, or public favor, naturally, but as Whitman remarks, "enough of both to swear by." Tennyson headed one list of purchasers, Swinburne another, Professor Dowden another and Lord Houghton a fourth. Swinburne has since recently published a furious attack on Whitman's poems, but no one, except possibly himself, can fathom his motives.

THEN PEOPLE READ IT.

The edition of "Leaves of Grass" issued in 1881 by Osgood & Co. was successful until suppressed by the Puritanic sentiment of Massachusetts. The only effect of the suppression on Whitman was that he immediately issued a work of prose entitled "Specimen Days." The Osgoods owed Whitman $500 when his poems were suppressed. In payment he took the plates of "Leaves of Grass," and in 1882 he issued two editions, receiving therefor $1,300; from his edition of 1883, $300; for the one of 1884, $200.

"Leaves of Grass" continued its search for publishers. Mr. J.T. Trowbridge interested himself in the work and took it to Ticknor & Fields, and to him Mr. Ticknor said:—"I have thought seriously of the subject. There is money in the book as well as genius, but upon the whole, situated as we are, it will not do for us to take hold of it." Mr. Trowbridge then went to Lee & Shepard. Mr. Lee replied:—"From mere considerations of policy I wouldn't to-day put our names to a first edition of Byron or even the Bible. When Walt Whitman has become a standard like them, as I suppose he will, any firm will be glad to publish him."

Whitman has commemorated many public events, such as the deaths of Grant and Brignoli, the completion of the Washington Monument, the rescue of Greely and the Red Jacket memorial at Buffalo.

Mr. E. C. Stedman several years ago wrote a severe criticism of Whitman, which appeared in the Century. It puzzled Whitman to account for the statements made, and he always wondered what he had said or done to cause Mr. Stedman to allege that he (Whitman) "derided his compeers" and made "intolerant strictures on the poets of his own land." No doubt Mr. Stedman will some day look into the matter more closely and retract if he really did Whitman a wrong.

I take from my notes of Whitman's opinions, which were revised by him, the following:—

A MARTYR OF PRINCIPLE.

ABOUT CRITICISM.—"I may say that I do not and shall not, it is certain, fail in either my poetic of prose work to vigorously maintain the same principles on account of which I have been so vigorously attacked. It has been my effort not to grow querulous in my old age, but to have more faith and gayety of heart as I advance."

ON THE POETRY OF THE FUTURE.—"I believe that America is going on her way in the best method that is fitting to her. The best method is to establish the basis of a grand materialistic civilization, such as products, machinery, intercommunication and all practical modern improvements that can be achieved, equally spread over our vast domain. I think the things done during our existence as a people in the past century are just the best that could have been done. Upon these bases in the future, and in good time will come an intellectual, literary and artistic development fitting for us. While I am satisfied so far with the absorption of foreign literary ideals and contributions as nutriment, yet I look forward to the time when poetry and other great imaginative results will be produced in the United States as becoming to them, as were the aesthetic products of the classical ages of Greece appropriate to those ages.

"I am somewhat of the opinion that Boston, New York and the Atlantic coast will be but the stimulus or nursery of the great works that may find their local origin in the West. The prairies offer the suggestions of the grandest imaginative works. I have spent some portion of my life on the Western prairies and among the Rocky Mountains. Several of the poems I wrote there if left out of my works would be like losing an eye. Sometimes I think my Western experiences a force behind my life work.

"The battlefield also afforded much inspiration. A large part of 'Leaves of Grass' consists of war poems on a variety of themes, all jotted down at the time and on the spot; occurrences on the field at night or in the woods, a pause, the retreat, the torpor of a hot day in a crowded hospital and a squad of cavalry crossing a ford. The scenes I met with in the war of the most realistic description formed the poems called 'Drum Taps.' I find it curious how thoroughly these pages are read and accepted by Confederate and Union soldiers alike. I think it due to the fact that my work was divided equally among both opposing forces and my poetic thought was consequently inspired by both sides.

"It won't do for us to absorb and chew forever on the poetry of the Old World, of which Shakespeare is the most illustrious model. We must have a great poetic expression from our own soil conforming to our public and private life. The primary materials for poetry are the same forever. Like a font of type, poetry must be set up over again consistent with American, modern and democratic institutions."

WHITMAN'S THOUGHTS.—"A book must have a living vertebra to hold it together."

"I refuse to be called a materialist entirely. I think I combine that with the spiritualistic inseparately in my books and theories. I believe in Darwinianism from A to Z. To satisfy me there must be a combination of modern science with a loftier and deeper theology than anything that has ever been furnished in the past. My belief is that things in our time—politics, religious investigation, sociology and the movements of all—are going on as they should. This activity, if continued, will achieve all the results desired by reformers. The results will be a hardening and healthifying of the muscles—a freedom of all these things.

"I don't think America or the age realizes its own unparalleled virtues. They are as near perfect as can be in the vast aggregate of people.

"I want to stamp a greater hope and faith—an optimism—on old age.

"I am an old bachelor who never had a love affair. Nature supplied the place of a bride, with suffering to be nursed and scenes to be poetically clothed."


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