Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Excerpt from A Yorkshireman's Trip to the United States and Canada, Chapter VI: Philadelphia and Germantown

Creator: William Smith, F.S.A.S.

Date: 1892

Publication information: Our transcription is based on a photocopy of an original.

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

Whitman Archive ID: med.00562

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




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MAY NINTH.

—Visited in the forenoon the offices of the Reading and Pennsylvania Railways, in Fourth Street, two enormous buildings, one of brown-stone, the other of granite. The presidents of these railways are said to govern more men, control more active capital, and wield more real power than any other officials in the country. I made a call upon Captain Green, one of the vice-presidents of the Penn. Railway Co., and was received with great kindness, and obtained from him much information respecting the company. The Pennsylvania line traverses twelve of the American States, and has upwards of 7,500 miles of railway, and employs no fewer than 70,000 persons. It has a share capital of £22,000,000, largely held by English investors, and its annual traffic receipts reach the sum of £24,000,000. At Altoona the company build their locomotives in shops covering 42 acres, whilst the carriage-building shops in the same town cover 76 acres. The men employed in these works are well cared for and well paid, and I was told that most of them own their houses, which I saw afterwards were comfortable dwellings, and it is the laudable ambition of the head of each family in Altoona to be his own landlord. The offices in Fourth Street swarm with officials and clerks, of whom there are several hundreds, and yet everything appeared to be done with the greatest order and regularity.

I also visited the Philadelphia Library, the Cathedral, and the world-famous Baldwin Locomotive Works, which occupy over nine acres of ground, employ three thousand men, and have a present capacity equal to twelve locomotives a week.

After lunch I went by the ferry boat to Camden, New Jersey, to pay a visit to the veteran poet, Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass I had tried to read and understand some twenty or more years ago with only indifferent success, but in whose writings since that time I have met with much to admire. I found without any difficulty, the poet's home in Mickle Street, a small cottage of the most modest type. The poet was in his own room on the second

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story, a comfortable apartment about six yards square. The furniture is of the "antik" style, scarcely anything of modern make being in the room. There was a stove in which he keeps a good wood fire when necessary, a bed of firm construction, plain and old, three or four capacious chairs, and several heavy boxes in which he stores his own works. Around him is a litter of books, letters, papers, magazines, memorandum slips, all in the greatest confusion. Here he sits, and when writing, does it on his knee, a tablet being his constant companion. Friends see to it that his table is never without flowers. As he is unable to walk about without assistance, he has abandoned any attempt at order and neatness.

The poet was in very feeble health, and could not converse at any length, and much of the time I spent in the house was in one of the lower rooms with Dr. Bucke, his confidential friend and medical adviser.

Whitman is a large man, as can be seen even when he is sitting; standing six feet, broad of build, symmetrical, and his head and face give an idea of great power and fortitude. "His voice, full of music, charms ear and heart. He has an exceedingly large ear, set at an unusual line. His hand is the hand of labourer and scribe, large in bone and sinew, and shaped for liberal ends. It is almost superfluous to add that 'the good gray poet' is no misnomer; the silvered hair and bear, the customary suit of gray, and the wide brimmed soft gray felt hat, combining to preserve the integrity of the term."



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Dr. Bucke informed me that the poet has a great fondness for children, though his great figure and long shaggy beard are obstacles to immediate intimacy, but once children know him they never fear him again.

An interesting sketch of his life has appeared in Great Thoughts, from which the following is taken:—"On the 31st May, 1819, was born in the family of Walter Whitman, a farmer living on his farm in West Hills, Long Island, in the state of New York, a boy to whom the name of Walt was given.

Until he reached the age of eleven he divided his time between gathering the little knowledge that was to be obtained within the walls of diminutive school-house, and rambling alone and thoughtfully over the fields and hills on his father's farm, unconsciously drinking in experiences that were afterwards to be of so much worth to others as well as to himself. But when the school-days were over, and

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the necessities of poverty compelled him, young as he was, to find work, he went at the age of twelve to the office of a lawyer, which he soon exchanged for the surgery of a doctor. Two years later he stepped into the composing room of a printer, where, as ever, he kept open eyes, ears, and mind, to glean and save all that was worth the trouble. In 1836, when he was seventeen, he acted as teacher in the country schools of his native island, living meanwhile at home, delighting in the pictures and music of nature. Often he walked to the summit of Jayne's Hill, a mile or two distant, whence over the woods and fields he could catch a far glimpse eastward of the sunlight on the rolling Atlantic; rabbit warrens, the surf-rollers dashing on the sand, and further away the purple outline of the coast of the American mainland. In this freedom of his spirit he imbibed a deep sense of the Infinite, of the Power that rules the universe. Many times he started out in the early summer morning with a hunch of bread, a towel, and a book, and walked far along the shore, reading, swimming, musing, just as the mood swayed him, becoming thoroughly saturated with the love of nature, and of the beauties of God's earth; and never returning homewards until the twilight sank over the world, when he trod the fields in 'the huge and thoughtful night;'

The night in silence under many a star,
The ocean shore, and the husky whispering wave whose voice I know,
Bearing him company till he raised the latch of his father's door."

This pleasant life came to an end in 1840, when he left for New York, where for five winters he worked at the compositor's case. Serious work called him, in 1846, to Brooklyn, where he became editor of the Eagle, afterwards, in 1848, exchanging that position for one on the staff of the New Orleans Crescent. On his return to Brooklyn in 1850, he joined the Freeman, which he shortly afterwards left to commence operations in wooden house building. At this he continued until 1854, when he began the great work of his life—the composition of his poems.

After an interval of hard work, he issued in 1855 a little book, nothing, in face, more than a pamphlet, bearing the title, Leaves of Grass. This he, with his own hands, set up in type and printed. No notice was taken of the work, which eventually filtered down lower and lower into the cemetery of literary aspiration, the outdoor box of the second-hand bookseller.

Nothing daunted by this want of reception, Whitman in 1856 printed a second and enlarged edition. Emerson, please with the work, called on the author, who, after an afternoon's conversation with the philosopher, became more firmly convinced than ever of the importance of truths he felt capable of delivering. Carlyle, having received a copy from Emerson, accompanied by a

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warning as to its strangeness, intimated in his characteristic manner that the writer of the book was mad or divine.

Whitman, thus encouraged, printed a further enlarged edition in 1860, and was considering the form which he should give to the work on its next appearance, when "the war" broke out. Casting aside all thought of aught else, he started for the front. Not for him was the fighting. His share of the work was the quieter but more truly heroic and glorious task of tending the wounded, dying and dead; this he performed till the wild struggle ended in 1864. The experiences he passed through, the sacrifices he made, and the Christ-like heroism he displayed are to be found noted in the simplest and least ostentatious manner in the earlier paragraphs of "Specimen Days," and in that portion of his poems headed "Drum Taps."

From 1865 to 1870 he was employed in the Government offices at Washington, but on the suggestion of one of the secretaries, he was dismissed the service, on the ground that his writings were not conducive to order as administered by the Government—a groundless accusation.

His spirit, however, was not to be broken by any ingratitude of this description. He felt that he was doing right, and, upborne by this feeling, he continued to press forward his work, and produced a fifth edition in 1871, to which he was constantly adding until 1873, when a disease, the seeds of which had been sown in him ten years before beside the beds and litters of hundreds of shattered men, came to its maturity. Hospital malaria gripped him, and after a long wrestle left him partially, but permanently, paralysed. To add to his burden of suffering, his mother, whom he loved almost as a wife, died suddenly while he was yet weak. The greatness of his grief, however, did not overwhelm him; his love for the dead, large as it was, did not overcome his love and duty to the living; and after a poem to his mother's memory, he wrote on as before, but more majestically and calmly:

As at thy portals also, death,
Entering thy sovereign, dim, illimitable grounds,
To memories of my mother, to the divine blending, maternity,
To her, buried and gone, yet buried not, gone not from me,
(I see again the calm benignant face, fresh and beautiful still,
I sit by the form in the coffin,
I kiss and kiss convulsively again the sweet old lips, the cheeks, the closed
eyes in the coffin:)
To her, the ideal woman, practical, spiritual, of all of earth, life, love, to
me the best.
I gave a monumental line, before I go, amid these songs,
And set a tombstone here.

In 1876 Whitman published the centennial edition of Leaves of Grass, followed in 1881 by another edition. The years 1882-3 saw the production of the eighth edition of the poet's magnum opus,

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together with a book of prose, Specimen Days and Collect, which consists of jottings from his diaries and note-books, of scenes and incidents of the American War and of his own life, together with his essay, Democratic Vistas. He still writes at intervals, which grow larger and larger, and only as lately as the wane of the year 1889 he issued a few more poems and prose sketches, collected under the pathetic title, November Boughs.


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