Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman

Creator: Leon Mead

Date: August 1900

Publication information: The Conservator 11 (August 1900): 91–92.

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

Whitman Archive ID: med.00590

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




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It chanced one day in Boston that Joaquin Miller, whose acquaintance I had gained through a poetical trifle of my own, the authorship of which had been attributed to him, invited me to accompany him on a little visit to Walt Whitman who was then in the city, engaged in correcting proofs for a new edition of Leaves of Grass. Naturally I availed myself of this opportunity to see two poets of widely dissimilar schools of commune together. Whitman had comfortable apartments at Mrs. Moffit's caravansary, in Bulfinch Place, where William Dean Howells, with his family, and other literary people often have sojourned. Greetings and introductions over, Whitman and Miller engaged in a conversation which, quoting from memory, ran something as follows:

Whitman—I'm real glad you dropped in, Miller, old fellow. Why, you're looking as fresh as a ruby. Getting fat, too. The waters of the Pierian spring agree with you.

Miller—You old rouge, Whitman, I'd give the planet Jupiter, if I owned it, in exchange for your physique, your white mane and god-like brow. Well, how are you, anyway?

Whitman—You find me in linen fresh this morning, yet wet as water. I'm in a good old fashioned perspiration—a luxury I was afraid I'd not get in Boston. Do you know, a man who never sweats is generally a hard-fisted, miserable kind of a fellow. I never had any sympathy with a dry-skinned man. He will turn coward if you give him the slightest provocation. By the way, I went out to Concord yesterday to see Emerson.

Miller—Indeed; how is the darling old man?

Whitman—Pretty feeble. Yes, I stayed to luncheon with him and we had a mighty sociable time. He took me for a walk through his garden and grounds. Occasionally a fitful gleam of his former self would creep into his eyes, when some reference was made to his old friends who have passed away. His memory is quite treacherous. He began several stories that he had to leave unfinished—he was sure to forget the salient point.

Miller—That is very sad. By the way, the other day I put in a couple of hours with Longfellow.

Whitman—I want to know!

Miller—We had a square you-tell-me-and-I'll-tell-you talk about American poets and we agree tremendously. Your name was mentioned.

Whitman—Was it?

Miller—And we raked you over the coals for quite a time.

Whitman—Well, now, Miller, candidly, what does Longfellow think of me? Honest Indian?

Miller—He told me he considered you a genius.

Whitman—No!

Miller—Yes, and moreover he said that you are not only a bright particular star but a fixed planet of the first magnitude. He said you are a broader poet than the whole lot. He likes you, Walt.

Whitman—Now, you don't know how that pleases me, Joaquin. I always had an idea that Longfellow didn't care a rap for me. God bless him! [At this point tears were visible in the speaker's eyes]. Do you think he meant it all?

Miller—Most assuredly he did. He referred to your Song of Myself as a deep, esoteric gem. He expressed the regret that you are not more generally understood and appreciated.

Whitman—I have tried all my life to write for the masses.

Miller—Old boy, you and I are over the heads of the rabble. We stand on an eminence of our own making, and look down when we wish to see the world. In a word, we know we are great, and if other people don't know it, it is their own fault.

It seemed to afford Whitman a great deal of quiet pleasure to be informed that Longfellow was his friend and admirer. The conversation branched off into personal matters which it would not be in good taste to record here. As I was leaving, Whitman favored me with a request to call upon him soon and bring some of my effusions, especially the one whose authorship had been attributed to Joaquin Miller. He said he always took a sterling interest in fledgelings and he liked doggerel when it was read by an enthusiastic youth.

A few days later I called upon Whitman, my pockets stuffed with verses. He received me in an affable manner, and I soon ventured to read him a little poem I thought he might like. At its conclusion he smiled forgivingly and asked me to tell him about my grandfather on my mother's side. He did not evince the slightest desire to hear any more of my verses, and I have come to appreciate what excellent judgment he exhibited on that occasion. He worse a loose cambric shirt, whose ruffled bosom was open, exposing his hairy breast. In the course of my stay he suggested that I should follow his example and wear a shirt with an open bosom, so that "the summer breeze could get at" me, as he phrased it.

Upon another occasion we were talking about various studies to which a writer should devote himself. "Rhetoric," said he, "is all well enough; but beware lest the rules dwarf you into a mere nonentity. A man who feels the message of life and has something to say, will find a way of his own to say it. I hate to see a chubby, rosy-cheeked boy, all mirth and animation, pressed hard against the grindstone of etiquette until he enters a parlor with as much austere dignity as his great grandfather, and says, very primly, 'of whom were you speaking mamma?' Such a boy, to my mind, is positively nauseating. God allows men to be boys first, so that they can kick around and cut up all sorts of monkey shines. And when they are compelled by their parents to be so sadly polite, it takes away all their charm and ginger. It is just so with a writer, who, a slave to rhetoric and such things, is afraid to say his soul is his own."

No one in our limited galaxy of great poets has been more characteristically American than Walt Whitman. With all his faults he is a native product, and we should be thankful that both as a man and as a poet he was not an exotic.

Leon Mead.

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