Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman: The Last Phase

Creator: Elizabeth Leavitt Keller

Date: June 1909

Publication information: Putnam's Magazine June 1909: 331–337.

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

Whitman Archive ID: med.00597

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




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WALT WHITMAN: THE LAST PHASE

By ELIZABETH LEAVITT KELLER*

*See portrait and poem on later page, in "The Lounger." In the present month (May 31) occurs the ninetieth anniversary of Whitman's birth.—THE EDITOR

IN questioning me about my patient, the late Walt Whitman, people have usually asked first, "What about his religious belief?" The following poem from his pen, entitled "The Soul," has enlightened me more upon this subject than any words I ever heard him utter.

The Soul,
Forever and forever—longer than soil isbrown and solid—longer than waterebbs and flows.
Each is not for its own sake,
I say the whole earth and all the stars inthe sky are for religion's sake.
In this broad earth of ours,
Amid the measureless grossness and theslag,
Enclosed and safe within its central heart,
Nestles the seed perfection.
By every life a share, or more or less,—
None born but it is born, conceal'd or un-conceal'd the seed is waiting.
Do you not see, O my brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death—it is form, union,plan—it is eternal life—it is happiness.
The song is to the singer, and comes backmost to him,
The love is to the lover, and comes backmost to him—it cannot fail.
I see Hermes, unsuspected, dying, well be-lov'd, saying to the people, Do notweep for me;
This is not my true country; I have livedbanish'd from my true country, I nowgo back there,—
I return to the celestial sphere where everyone goes in his turn.

During my attendance upon Mr. Whitman he was too near his "true country" to be able to explain or communicate his views regarding that, or the alien land which he felt he was leaving.

To question, or encourage him to talk, was impossible; and especially for me, whose only wish was to secure to him all the rest and quiet that I could.

On December 17th, 1891, Walt Whitman was stricken with pneumonia, and from that date until the second week in the new year, each and every day was full of anxiety; then came a rally of the vital powers, followed by slow sinking. He lingered until March 26th; sometimes bright and talkative, and sometimes lying in a state bordering upon collapse.

It was evident that he had no dread of death and even looked forward to it with fearless expectancy. He always spoke of this as his last illness, and once, in referring to those earlier, anxious days, he said: "My life was going out. I said 'Let it go', but doctors and nurses made a strong pull for it; fought for it like royal tigers, and prevailed. I am here."

He was dying in his own slow way; the certainty of death, calmly accepted by him, was in the atmosphere of the sick-room.

To the query often put to me, "Who was his favorite author?" I must plead ignorance. The only lines I ever heard him quote were these:

Not heaven itself upon the past has power;
But was has been, has been, and I havehad my hour.

This quotation (from Dryden's "Imitation of Horace") he used when

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anyone suggested to him the possibility of his recovery. "No. 'I have had my hour'; I have had my hour; only let me rest in peace until its close."

In the volume "In re Walt Whitman," on page 414, are these words:

Dec. 29th. A dead, inarticulate day; unchanged from yesterday's condition. As he requires constant attendance night and day, we yesterday introduced a trained nurse, Mrs. K—, who will share with Warren the burdens and duties of the watch.

The late Dr. Maurice Bucke of London, Canada, one of Mr. Whitman's most intimate friends, afterward his biographer, and one of his literary executors, met me at the Nurses' Directory of Philadelphia, and in a measure prepared me for the scenes and the people I was to encounter. He believed that my services would be required for a few days only, and said that he wished particularly that the sick room be put into some kind of order.

For twenty years Mr. Whitman had lived in Camden—for the last seven in the only house he had ever called his own.*

To this poor little frame building, crowded in between two much larger ones, Dr. Bucke accompanied me.

Our ring was answered by Mrs. Davis, Mr. Whitman's good housekeeper, so well known to all the friends of his later years. I saw a tall, sweet-faced, middle-aged woman of quiet, modest demeanor, and when she spoke I noticed that her voice was remarkably pleasant and well modulated. I confess that I met her with a prejudice which further acquaintance wholly dissipated. She had been lying down to rest, and had a small quilt pinned about her shoulders. She looked weary, and her eyes were red with weeping.

I laid aside my wraps, and still in company with Dr. Bucke groped my way up to the dark staircase, and passing through a closet-like anteroom entered the chamber of the dying poet. The small room was crowded with objects which the dusk of a winter's afternoon did not fully reveal. The only things that stood out vividly were the white pillow, and the placid face encircled with snowy hair. Motionless he lay, but when I was presented to him, he raised his eyelids, extended his hand, and welcomed me kindly. His brother, his literary executors, and certain other friends, grouped together, were speaking in low tones. A handsome, boyish-looking man, who seemed to be at everyone's beck and call, greeted me pleasantly, and although he was seemingly tired to exhaustion, there was a merry gleam in his eyes as we shook hands. This was Warren Fritzinger,*

his nurse, and my constant associate in taking care of the patient. Some etchings of the poet, recently completed, had just been sent to him. One of these he gave to Dr. Bucke, who was about to return home; by request he added his autograph. He was held up in bed for this purpose, which he accomplished with much difficulty. Dr. Bucke took an affectionate leave of his friend, and bidding all good-bye, hastened away; the others soon followed, and I was summoned to tea.

On entering the dinging-room I was impressed—as I have since learned that others have been—by its remarkable likeness to the cabin of a ship. The table, with but one leaf up and just large enough for two places, was placed against the wall. The stove stood near enough to serve as side table when needed; and in line with this was a small sink, over which were some closed shelves for dishes. In order to reach these dishes it was necessary to stand upon a stool. This was at hand under a near extension of the stove. Then came a passage from the hall to the back door. In the hall was the flour barrel, opposite which was the cellar door. The cellarway I found had a wide shelf for food, and was hung around with

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tins, rolling pin, and other kitchen utensils. Elsewhere in this room—which might properly be called the living-room, being dining-room, kitchen and sitting-room combined—were a lounge, a sewing-machine, and some chairs. Every inch of wall-space was covered. There were small shelves, brackets, wall-pockets, a clock, a calendar and some pictures. The ceiling was hung with cages, in two of which were turtle doves; in the others were a robin and a canary. The plaintive cooing of the doves and the shrill notes of the canary were deafening. In a wooden case, behind a glass, were the stuffed remains of a parroquet, which formerly had added his voice to the din. On the lounge a coach-dog, carefully covered with a shawl, was serenely sleeping; two cats were sitting near the stove. These showed every disposition to friendliness, by coming at once to the table and rubbing against me. Everything was homelike and the table was well supplied. When I returned to the anteroom, Warren gave me some instructions, and insisted that I should call him if needed; then I was left alone.

As I sat in that little dimly lighted den and peered into the still dimmer apartment beyond, or stood upon the heaps of rubbish in the doorway—over which I occasionally stumbled,—either to minister to my patient or to replenish the fire, I was more and more struck with the disorder on all sides. My first glance had been one of bewilderment; I now looked with deliberation and amazement at my surroundings. Confusion, dust and litter—it seemed the accumulation of ages. I afterwards learned that for over two years no books magazines or manuscripts had been removed from this, Walt Whitman's peculiar sanctum.

There were no bookcases, large shelves or writing-desk; there was no receptacle for newspapers, and apart from the two overloaded tables, the floor had received all of them. Upon this his general table the daily papers had been dropped when read; the weeklies had followed, and in their turn the monthly magazines. An immense number of periodicals and pamphlets had been received in the course of two years, and all were still here. Almost everything was yellow with age and soiled with the constant trampling of feet.

The mass, which was nearly solid was two feet in depth, and had many transverse ridges. Mr. Whitman had never bought stationery; he utilized wrapping papers, old letters and envelopes, and as he was in the habit of making his poems over and over, afterwards tearing up rejected bits, I found, on clearing up, bushels of fine litter, evenly dispersed. Upon the stove was a large earthen dish. One author, to emphasize the neglect in which he thought Mr. Whitman lived, has declared that this contained his soup; but the dish never held anything but clean water, designed to keep the air of the room moist by evaporation. On the right side of the bed was an antiquated chest, on top of which were two bottles, one of eaude-colonge and the other brandy, an old-fashioned candlestick with candle and matches, a wine-glass and tumbler, and a covered stone mug for drinking water. Within reach was his cane, which he was accustomed to use to summon attendance. On the left of the bed the mass of rubbish had reached a height of at least four feet. On investigation, however, there proved to be a lounge underneath. The tables stood like cows in a meadow with the grass up to their bodies; and the legs of the bed also were buried out of sight. The only thing that had gone up with time was the imposing easy chair. This, with its white wolfskin, surmounted the pile like a throne. The wolfskin was sadly eaten, as were the old and poor garments that hung upon the walls. At one of the tables a bent metal drop-light held a chipped argand burner at a dangerous angle, and within this dingy glass shone a feeble ray of light just making visible the pallid face and hoary hair of the dying man. As I stood on the mass

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and looked down, the sight was beyond description. The owner was but a few inches above his worldly possessions; he seemed a part of them, and the picture would have been incomplete without him. Would that it could be reproduced upon canvas with the vividness with which it is stamped upon my memory! And that strange feeling which comes over patient and nurse when they are learning to know each other without speech, was us both.

By daylight and with companionship, things seemed less unnatural. Fortunately Mr. Whitman took kindly to me, and our intercourse was of the pleasantest. Mrs. Davis, inured to his eccentricity, and extremely indulgent to his wishes, was grieved that anything in his room should be disturbed while he lived. No one then thought that his life was to be spared for weeks instead of days. The litter had invaded the second room, and I began by picking up the newspapers nearest the door, folding them, and stacking them on the landing at the head of the stairs. Little by little I made my way into his room, but it was slow work, and not much could be effected during the first week.

At the expiration of this time, Mr. Whitman had gradually regained something of his former strength, and things assumed a routine, with only incidental changes from day to day. Warren volunteered to take the night work, but there were many occasions when both of us remained on duty. I continued to put things in order, always desisting when my patient showed the least sign of annoyance. I would often go into the room on the pretext of putting wood in the stove, and I soon learned to perceive just how much or how little I could do. The bound volumes, invariably thrown face downward into the mass, I arrayed upon some shelves in the little room. Many were presentation copies—among them one by Longfellow, and one by Tennyson. These shelves were already doing double duty, but in this crowded house there always seemed to be room for a little more.

Periodicals I piled outside with the newspapers, and as no shred of writing was to be taken out, all the script was made into a mound in one corner of the room. In this confused pile were rolls of manuscript written on different colored bits of paper; many were pinned together. No wonder some one said that Whitman's manuscripts resembled Joseph's coat! In the litter were innumerable letters; thousands of requests for autographs; poems that had been submitted to his criticism; friendly letters from home and abroad; all his business correspondence; postal cards, notes of congratulation, invitations, envelopes unnumbered, visiting-cards, wrapping papers of all brands and sizes, a variety of string of all lengths, and ranging from the fine colored cord which druggists use, to the heaviest and coarsest of twine. There were several pieces of rope, coins, pins galore, countless pictures, many photographs of himself. Strings were so interwoven through the accumulated layers that it would take days to come to the ends of them. And under all, some little crusted brown worms had made their home. Moths flew around the room in perfect security, and industrious spiders had curtained the corners and windows. On the door hung the old hat, and on a table a plaster bust of the poet stood sentinel.

As a patient, Mr. Whitman was easily satisfied and uncomplaining; when no one was present he was exceedingly quiet. But callers came at all hours, even up to midnight, and not a few were deeply offended at not being admitted even at this unseasonable time.

He always saw his friends when he could, often when he really should not have seen them; and as it was then that the vital spark would brighten with pleasure, most of his visitors were deceived as to his true condition. When they had gone, it was left to his three attendants to see

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how the oil in the lamp of life had been consumed; and repeatedly the flickering light seemed on the point of vanishing. Mrs. Davis usually answered the door-bell, and Warren always responded to the nightly rap of the reporters.

Many people, even strangers, insisted on seeing Mr. Whitman. One very persistent lady told me she would not leave the house without a personal interview—an interview with that dying man, who so often pleaded pathetically to be unmolested! Mrs. Davis came to the rescue, and afterwards told me that had I lived there as long as she, I should be used to such scenes. She herself had a strong character and much tact. She never offended any one, and throughout Mr. Whitman's protracted illness, which really lasted from second stroke of paralysis in 1888 to his death, many were admitted to his presence through her intercession.

When the immediate danger had subsided Mr. Whitman ceased to take medicine—that is, to take it with regularity. He objected, and the doctors would not insist. His temperature was never taken; his pulse and respiration were noted without his knowledge. No clinical chart was needed, but by request of his literary executors I kept a daily—almost an hourly—journal, which was taken away each morning. This covered scores of pages, and although it seldom contained anything of importance was a minute record of everything that occurred. It was difficult to follow Mr. Whitman in conversation, for in this he seldom took the leading part; and as it was wished above all things that all he said should be set down as spoken, no wonder the daily report was disappointing. He spoke in short, concise sentences, with many ejaculations and interjections, and his broken utterances were often hardly intelligible without knowing the words to which they replied.

When alone he was spoke to only when speech was unavoidable, and then in as few words as possible. He never talked to himself or muttered, as sick people often do. He took but two meals a day; one in the forenoon, and the other about four P.M., his only additional nourishment being milk-punch, or a little champagne, with which his friend Colonel Report Ingersoll kept him bountifully supplied.

He could not sit upright in bed, no matter how carefully he was propped; he could not raise his head from the pillow; this was done for him when he drank. He ate lying down. I always fed him sitting by his side, holding the tray in my lap. His favorite food was mutton-broth with rice in it. Once when I was giving him some terrapin that had been sent him and asked, "How does it taste?" he replied, in his characteristic way, "Almost as good as Mary's mutton-broth."

He ate with quite an appetite when at his best, but there would be days when milk-punch and champagne were all that he could take. I was brought into closest contact with my patient at meal time, and it was then that we had our many little confabs. But, alas! then I could not use pencil and paper, and one might as well attempt to repeat a page of "Leaves of Grass" after one reading, as recall what had been said. Our subjects, however, were commonplace enough, seldom soaring above that little home. Once I asked him what he would think of me when I told him that I had never heard of his book until I came there. He chuckled a little and said: "I guess there are plenty of people who can say the same—thousands of them. 'Leaves of Grass' was the aim of my life—I lived for it, worked for it. In these days and nights it is different; my mutton-broth, my little brandy, to be 'turned' promptly and be kept clean—these are much more to me."

His bed was none too comfortable and the large mattress protruded over one side, making it a hard task to turn him. A few weeks before he died, a new bedstead and firm, level mattress were purchased with the

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fund that some New York City association had subscribed to keep his room supplied with flowers. When these admirers learned that the fragrance of flowers had a suffocating effect upon the poet, they willingly appropriated the money to this more practical purpose.

Twenty-four hours before he died, a water bed was brought to the poet. What a blessing this would have been to all had it come months before! Mr. Whitman was a large man, and of heavy frame; he was totally unable to move himself while lying down, and he required almost constant turning, which he called shifting. His last words were the often repeated request to his faithful attendant, "Shift, Warry."

As a rule visitors were admitted in the afternoon or early evening. Many wrote first and came at an appointed time. In the forenoon we did the work in the sick room and around the house, one assisting the others. My only difficulty with Mrs. Davis and Warren was in getting them to let me do my full share. Warren sawed, split and brought up all the wood. Sometimes Mrs. Davis would come upstairs, where she was always welcome; and when Mr. Whitman was at his best we would pass a pleasant hour together.

I look back upon one morning in particular. Mr. Whitman was feeling unusually well and was in good spirits. Warren handed him an old ambrotype that had long been missing. He took it, and laughed and chatted about the original in a lively strain. He was genial and talkative; he referred to his life in Washington, spoke of the Civil War, and mentioned Abraham Lincoln, for whom he had the highest regard and admiration. Warren said: "Now you have seen a little of 'Old Walt.' That is more like his old self than he has been since he was sick." We hoped that it might be a permanent improvement, but it was the same old story: extra exertion and subsequent relapse.

While Mr. Whitman would have some comparatively easy days, he was never entirely free from pain.

He had a great liking fro the two young physicians who attended him, Dr. Alexander McAlister of Camden, who made daily calls, and Dr. Daniel Longaker of Philadelphia, who came whenever he could, or when he was sent for. Both gave their services cheerfully and without price.

Dr. McAlister's standing order was "Do not disturb him in any way, nor ask him to do anything if he shows the least unwillingness." Sometimes his call would be but a quiet moment by his patient's side, and a single clasp of hands.

By January 10th Mr. Whitman had improved sufficiently to write his name on two of the etchings; one for each young physician. He always found it difficult to write in a bed. He did this by having a pillow and a book placed before him. One of us would usually sit behind to support him, and one would hold the inkstand. From this time to the 27th he wrote a few notes to friends, and to his sister in Burlington, Vermont. He also signed a number of photographs and the three remaining etchings, one of which he gave to his faithful housekeeper. On this date he wrote a few lines to his sister; then followed a period wherein he was so low that it was deemed by all that Walt Whitman had written his name for the last time.

This was a mistake; an unlooked for reaction occurred, and on February 5th he again asked for writing materials. He could no longer hold the book, and it looked as though his attempt must fail. Failure was a word Mrs. Davis had never learned, and grasping the situation at once, she went to a teacher of painting who lived next door, and procured a drawing-board, and had legs attached to it by hinges, thereby making it adjustable to Mr. Whitman's position in writing. He was delighted with this impromptu desk when it was placed before him the next day. "Ah!" he exclaimed "that's Mary—that's Mary. Just the right thing at the right time."



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Upon this board, and in the presence of no one but Mrs. Davis and myself, his last message to his friends was written. The weary old man was two days in completing this message—or greeting, as it is sometimes called—and but for Mary Davis's foresight and prompt action, the task would never have been accomplished.

The message was written on post-office paper, and inscribed upon two separate pieces which he pasted together. This testimonial of his remembrance and regard for others was sent over to England, where a facsimile was made, about fifty copies being sent back to him. These he distributed among his friends and acquaintances; and in nothing did he ever forget his nurses.

After this Walt Whitman wrote very little. One of his executors says under day of Feb. 11th: "I got him to write his signature for the use of a paper, and the job completely exhausted him." At this time Mr. Whitman was totally unfit to do anything except at his own pleasure.

He could always take his own part, and fortunately was capable of doing so still; had it been otherwise, there is no telling how soon he would have been hustled out of the world by a number of his enthusiastic admirers. On the 22d he signed some contracts, and kindly put his signature to a picture for me. At this time he had discarded ink, and used a blue pencil only. He wrote his name but once again, and that was for some business purpose. His last communication—a feeble attempt to write to his sister, on March 17th—was signed "W. W." only.

I hoped and expected to be with my patient to the end. The following—again quoting from "In re Walt Whitman"—will explain why I was not:

Mrs. K Leaves to-morrow, and Mrs. Davis and Warry will assume the watching between them, some one being engaged to relieve Mrs. Davis in the kitchen. Walt takes the change very hard, and we all regret it, but Mrs. K. had made an advance contract with another person months ago.

Thinking it improbable that Mr. Whitman would outlive the time for which I could remain with him, we all thought it best not to inform him of my impending departure, and agreed that he should be told of it only at the last moment. At breakfast in the morning before I left, by a great effort I summoned resolution to inform him of the coming change. He was wholly unprepared for it, and said: "You cannot go. You cannot go." When I told him the circumstances, and how much against my own wishes it was to leave him, he said: "Well, it cannot be helped."

He was reconciled when he learned that no other nurse was to follow me, and I promised to return as soon as possible should he need me, to which he said "Do, do, do."

When the doctor mentioned my leaving, the poor old man replied: "Yes, that is the worst news that I have heard in a long time." I do not mean to boast that I was so much to Mr. Whitman; hundreds of nurses would have done as well, and no doubt better; but I am thankful that it was my good fortune to be the one chosen, and more thankful that my services were always acceptable and never repugnant to him. The next morning I entered the room, ostensibly to put wood in the stove, and seeing that he wished to speak, I went to the bedside. I sat there for the last time—without the little tray,—and took his proffered hand. He held mine a few moments in silences, then bade me good-bye. His fingers relaxed, and I arose to go. Stooping down, I kissed his forehead. A single tear ran down his furrowed cheek, and my own eyes were dim as I took my last look at the dying Walt Whitman. He lived but seventeen days longer.


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