Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman

Creator: William H. Garrison

Date: May 1892

Publication information: Lippincott's Magazine 49 (May 1892): 623–626.

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

Whitman Archive ID: med.00595

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




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WALT WHITMAN.

WALT WHITMAN the poet has suffered during the period of his literary activity every form of critical calamity, from adulation that would exalt him above all the world-poets of the past, to detraction that denied him even ordinary sanity. Walt Whitman the man has a different record: his personality was potent, and no one who came under the influence of its spell could fail to be impressed with his power.

The story of his career has been written at by many hands, and material for a complete biography has been furnished by the poet himself to his friend and admirer Dr. Bucke, but it may be worth while to set down what Whitman would call "a few hints, a few diffused clews and indirections," covering an acquaintanceship of about twenty years, during the greater part of which I was his neighbor in Camden.

My first meeting with Walt Whitman occurred when I was a boy and had occasion to ask for a certain residence in his street. I did not know who or what he was, but on his answering my question I was so struck with the quality of his voice, which was musical and resonant, that I took the earliest opportunity to make inquiry as to the new-comer, and received the information that it was a man named Walt Whitman, who had written what some people called poetry and others nonsense. Had the present city directory of the town been in existence, I could have found it authoritatively stated that the gentleman was "Walt Whitman, poet"! My first visit to him occurred some years later, in the little house on Mickle Street which has been the scene of the closing years of his life. When I entered the room the poet was sitting in his great chair by the window, in front of him a table heaped up at least to the height of four feet with books of all sorts, old and new, gift-editions from men famous in letters, and cheap second-hand purchases; the floor was knee-deep in newspapers, manuscripts, and books, among the last a well-thumbed Latin lexicon. The decorations of the room were insignificant, with the exception of two portraits, one of his father and one of a Dutch ancestor, and it was upon these pictures that the conversation turned. The portrait of the father showed the thoughtful Puritan face of which Emerson is the type, and indeed the resemblance to Emerson himself was so strong that Sidney Morse, the sculptor, presented Whitman with several small busts of the New England seer, in which the likeness was very striking. The Hollander, on the other hand, had the full lips and sensuous features of the man of pleasure, and Whitman's comment was that physically and mentally he had often recognized what he owed to these antecedent forces of which he was the resultant. This idea seems to have impressed him, for he repeated it to Mr. Gilchrist in 1887, when the latter was painting his portrait.

The most interesting talk that I ever had with Walt Whitman was on one winter afternoon some five years ago, when I dropped in and found the poet ready and eager "to gossip in the early candle-light of old age." His theme was himself and his book, and he told the story not at all to me, as it seemed, but as though he were taking a backward glance o'er travelled roads, alone. The starting-point was an answer to the question,—

"Mr. Whitman, how did you come to write poetry?"

And in his reply he said that at the time when he was a carpenter-builder in Brooklyn he would buy a bit of property in the suburbs, erect a little house upon it with his own hands, sell the place at an average profit of about two hundred dollars, and, taking the money thus earned, go down to Long Island and lie out on the rocks, reading, dreaming, and watching the ships.

"I think the first time I ever wanted to write anything enduring," he said, "was when I saw a ship under full sail and I had the desire to describe it exactly as it seemed to me. I tried then and failed, and I have tried since, but have never yet been satisfied with the result. I have been able to describe a locomotive so that I shall never want to change or add to what I have written; but the ship at sea has always eluded me. Years later, when I was living in New York, I used to go to the Battery of an afternoon and sit and watch the sailing-vessels by the hour; but I could never put down on paper any words about them that entirely pleased me."

In the course of the same talk Whitman said that at one time had been a voracious and omnivorous reader, not alone in English, but also largely in French, which he learned during his residence in Washington, and to a limited extent he had read Spanish.

As a general rule, Whitman talked in the most objective way, and preferably on commonplace, non-literary topics.

All writers, whether classic or modern, were in his phrase "fellows,"—a word of which he was very fond,—and not the least characteristic of the man was his use of conversational English. His vocabulary was a singular mixture of old words used with unexpected meanings (as when he spoke of his book having been published under the "umbrage" of a certain firm), commingled with such picturesque and useful passing slang as caught his fancy, as for instance the word "sculp," which he habitually used when his bust was being made.

Whitman seemed to have the keenest enjoyment of bright colors. On one Sunday afternoon while entertaining some half-dozen callers he halted the general talk to call attention to the bright red dress of a little girl whom he spied out of his window. "How that color brightens up the whole street!" he said. And on another occasion, when he had driven out to a horse-race (his first appearance at a race-track), he told me he lost all interest in the sporting event to sit in admiration of a clump of green trees that outlined themselves against a white fence. Isn't that beautiful?" he said. "How the white background sets off the many shades of the green leaves!"

One of the most satisfying qualities that Whitman possessed, as a man, was the dignified, unruffled demeanor that he never lost, whether he was hobnobbing with a deck-hand or a 'bus-driver or entertaining some guest who was a celebrity in two continents. Always he seemed to be realizing in action his own ideal when he says,—

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained.
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition;
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins;
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God.
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

In general society Whitman never lost this poise that was characteristic of him in smaller circles. Often silent for an hour or two, barring an occasional interjected remark, he was always an attentive listener, and, when some topic was broached that engaged his attention, a careful and a ready talker. I have known him to sit at a dinner-table for the best part of an evening without opening his lips, and suddenly to warm into a theme on which he spoke fluently and without interruption for a half-four or more. But his talk, while always thoughtful, was almost invariably remembered not so much because of its intrinsic intellectual worth as because of the striking personality of the speaker who uttered it.

One word as to the care which Whitman bestowed upon even the smaller fugitive pieces which he published in the local and other newspapers. In the matter of the accuracy with which these productions were printed he was scrupulously exact. Each bit when it had left his hands in manuscript was sent to a quaint old printing-establishment in the town, where it was set up in type. It was then returned to the author, who made such corrections as seemed to him desirable, and after this a revised and re-corrected copy was struck off and sent out as the matter to be used punctatim et literatim. At times he was critical even to the verge of whimsicality in the matter of punctuation, and it was a source of annoyance to find the title of his latest book, "Good Bye My Fancy," so printed that a comma or any other mark separated the four words into two groups.

This sensitiveness was doubtless due to the experience he had had at the printer's case; but if this be so it is difficult to explain the "copy" that he furnished for some of his prose bits. I have seen a manuscript, a part of "November Boughs," a single page of which was composed of at least a dozen kinds of paper, written in black pencil, blue pencil, black ink, and red ink. Some of the parts of this manuscript were written on bits of brown straw paper, others on manilla paper, others on the blue paper that had once formed a part of the cover of a pamphlet, and each piece of a different size, shape, and color, suggesting the idea that as a thought or a sentence had come into the mind of the writer he had made a note of it and pasted the whole together without thinking it worth while to give to the total result coherence or form.

His nickname, Walt, he told me himself he had received from the 'bus-drivers in New York, with whom he rode as constantly when he lived in that city as he did with those in Camden when he made the latter place his home.

To those who knew him, Walt Whitman was such a straightforward man that the apparent eccentricity of costume which he affected seemed almost inexplicable, as indeed it was to me until he told me that he had once worked at carpentering, and then the idea suggested itself that, after all, the loose rolling collar exposing the chest and the turned-back cuffs were only a conventionalized form of the laboring-man's ordinary garb; and when I asked Whitman whether this was so he said he supposed that was the case.

In a gift-volume of the "Gypsies" Charles Godfrey Leland addresses Whitman in a poem in which he says that Walter, his first name, means a warrior, and this the poet has always been, that the "Whit" may either be the Saxon "wit" or "wisdom" or "white" in the sense of his being a "white" man, but that the essence of the whole name lies in the last syllable,—he is a "man;" and this is the testimony of all who have ever come to know Walt Whitman personally.

William H. Garrison.

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