Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman in Boston

Creator: Sylvester Baxter

Date: August 1892

Publication information: New England Magazine 6 (August 1892): 714–721.

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

Whitman Archive ID: med.00614

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




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WALT WHITMAN IN BOSTON.

By Sylvester Baxter.

IN the course of the eventful life that covered nearly three-quarters of the century now almost at its close, Walt Whitman, in his journeyings, wove himself pretty thoroughly into the texture of the land that formed the grand theme of his verse. The central prairies, the high plains of the far West, the Rocky Mountains, the shores of the Atlantic and of the Pacific, the Mississippi, the great lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, cities and towns in all parts—the spirit of all these he absorbed in his wanderings up and down in the United States, distilling its essence in his great book, "Leaves of Grass."

There are however, four great cities with which he is peculiarly identified. New York, of course, first of all—Manhattan he always called it, with that curious insistence of his upon naming things in his own way. Whitman was a New Yorker of New Yorkers. Born almost in its outskirts, he passed the greater part of his life in and about the vast city, which he loved with an affection such as has been accorded it by few of its children, singing its praises, characterizing and depicting it in his verse with a wholeness, a universality, a sympathy, and a delicacy of perception such as no other city has received from any other poet. If all American literature down to date save two books should be destroyed—Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," and Howells's "Hazard of New Fortunes,"—a remote posterity might be able to gain a very accurate idea of the New Yorker of the nineteenth century.

Whitman's relations with Boston were of quite another kind. From Boston came his first recognition from an authoritative source; the recognition of one grand spirit by its peer, in the shape of the hearty and unreserved greeting of the great Emerson. In Boston "Leaves of Grass" was first regularly published, and nearly a generation later Whitman's poems received in the New England

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metropolis that form of indorsement which, with a book, is comparable to the reception of a person into the best society,—publication by a house that ranked among the first in the country. In Boston, too, his work found a larger number of admirers than probably in any other place in the country. The poet spent less time in Boston than in any other of the four cities. His visits were three in number, the first and the last of several weeks each, and the second of but a few days. But these visits were notable occasions in his life. Whitman was also ancestrally connected with the Boston neighborhood. The Whitman stock in America originated in the Old Colony, and the family is numerously represented in the towns on the south side of Boston Bay. What was formerly South Abington became the town of Whitman a few years ago.

The third of the great cities with which Whitman had to do ranks next to New York in the important bearing which it had on his life. It was in and about Washington that he spent most of the Civil War period and the several years of his service as a department employee.

Last comes Philadelphia,—for Camden, though in New Jersey, is essentially a part of that city. So long as health permitted, Whitman was wont to cross the Delaware in the ferry-boats, repeating his favorite East River experiences, immortalized in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." He was bound to Philadelphia by strong ties of personal friendship and by the Quaker element in his blood that left characteristic marks upon his personality and even affected to a notable extent his literary style. It was to a Philadelphia publisher that he transferred his "Leaves of Grass" after the unfortunate outcome of its Boston publication; the several subsequent editions were issued there by David G. MacKay, besides his volume of prose and his supplementary poems.

It was on his second visit to Boston, in April, 1881, that I first met Whitman, beginning a friendship that will always form one of the pleasantest memories of my life. Whitman had been invited to Boston by a number of his younger admirers connected with the Papyrus Club—prominent among them John Boyle O'Reilly—to read his paper on Lincoln; a sort of memorial service which the poet made it a point to observe somewhere every year on the anniversary of the death of the great President, whom Whitman honored as the most representative of Americans,—an incarnation of the spirit of modern democracy. As a member of the Boston Herald staff, I had been requested to write an article on Whitman—not an interview, but one of those personal sketches of literary and public persons that had become a feature of that newspaper and of which I had contributed a number. The task in question, however, would naturally have fallen to my colleague and intimate friend, Frederic Russell Guernsey—now resident in Mexico and prominent in journalism and business there—for Guernsey was an old admirer of Whitman and had written charmingly about him. When John Burroughs came to Boston—the summer before, I believe—he dropped in upon Guernsey at the Herald and introduced himself with the words: "My name is John Burroughs. We are both friends of Walt Whitman, and that is enough to make us friends,—so let's take a walk together. I don't care anything for the sights of the city; I want to see the people."

But Guernsey had other work on his hands at the time of Whitman's visit, and so the assignment came to me. It was about noon, and I found Whitman in an easy-chair in the parlor at the Revere House. Several friends were with him, among them Trueman H. Bartlett, the sculptor. Making known my errand, he greeted me cordially. His hand, which was rather small, but relieved from any effect of daintiness by an unusual hairiness, had a warm, magnetic touch, like that of a man of strong physical nature. His peculiar attire agreed so perfectly with his appearance that it seemed as if any other must have looked out of place. It had that effect of entire appropriateness, of perfect adaptation to personality, that all dress, considered from the ideal point of view, should have. Therefore the idea of its eccentricity hardly en-

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tered one's head, so comfortable did he look. It clothed Walt Whitman as a tree is clothed by its bark, or an animal by its fur. With all its apparent carelessness, it was evident that Whitman was very scrupulous about his dress. It had the look of perfect adaptation to his person—very much as his rough-seeming verse, as the poet confessed, was brought into conformity with an adequate expression of himself only after most careful study and continuous experiment. In the easy-setting garments of Quakerish drab, in the flowing collar and loosely-knotted handkerchief, and the large, broad-brimmed hat, there was evident a consummate neatness, as of a person instinctively clean and with an innate aversion to slovenliness.

As he sat there with his big stick, it seemed to me that if I should come across him in just that position, seated on a gray, lichen-covered boulder in the depth of a wood, under old trees draped with moss what flowed like his hair and beard, and with rabbits and squirrels sporting over his feet in entire fearlessness, it would not be in the least surprising. He talked about himself, not loquaciously nor with egotism, but with a quiet, matter-of-course candor. His voice was high-pitched, but agreeable and without twang; a sort of speaking tenor—a Middle State voice, Guernsey called it. He had just come in from a drive to Cambridge to call on Longfellow, and expressed great pleasure over his visit and a sincere admiration for Longfellow's verse. He found Longfellow most beautifully and æsthetically surrounded, but Whitman declared that he himself could not possibly work in a luxurious environment; it would oppress him, as if for lack of breathing space.

Various callers came in; among them John T. Trowbridge. There was a most joyous meeting between the two poets, who were intimate friends of long standing, and they had been much together in the Washington days. Trowbridge called him "Walt," in the comrade-like way in which Whitman preferred to be addressed by his friends, old and young, and it seemed quite the thing to speak to the Poet of Democracy thus familiarly. Trowbridge was an old admirer of Whitman's verse, and could recite from "Leaves of Grass" by the page, with genuine eloquence and deep feeling. The two had not met for a long time, and the talk was largely reminiscent. Whitman said that he was about ready to give up in discouragement, feeling that perhaps there could not be anything in his poetic mission after all, when Tennyson's magnificent letter came, almost taking his breath away with its surprising heartiness, and filling him with new cheer and courage."And Tennyson has shown his admiration for you in no more genuine way than in being directly influenced by you in his later style," said Trowbridge. "Do you think he has?" asked Whitman simply. "Most undoubtedly," said Trowbridge.

It was the morning after the reading (the sixteenth anniversary of Lincoln's death) which took place the evening before, April 15,— a sort of semi-drawing-room occasion, in the pleasant Hawthorne Rooms on Park Street, before a representative and distinguished audience. There was considerable talk about the affair, and what Whitman said of his impression was afterward included in the memoranda of his "Specimen Days." I particularly remember how struck he was by seeing so many fine-looking gray-haired women, and in his notes he says:

"At my lecture I caught myself pausing more than once to look at them, plentiful everywhere through the audience—healthy and wifely and motherly, and wonderfully charming and beautiful—I think such as no time or land but ours could show."


Whitman was strongly impressed by the growth of Boston, not only materially but in the higher aspects. He compared the change to the facts revealed by Schlieman in his excavations, where he found superimposed remains of cities, each representing either a long or rapid stage of growth and development, different from its predecessor, but unerringly growing out of and resting on it."In the moral, emotional, heroic, and human growths (the main of a race in my opinion), something of this kind has certainly taken place in Boston," he wrote.

"The New England metropolis of to-day may be described as sunny (there is something else



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that makes warmth, mastering even winds and meteorologies, though these are not to be sneez'd at), joyous, receptive, full of ardor, sparkle, a certain element of yearning, magnificently tolerant, yet not to be fool'd; fond of good eating and drinking—costly in costume as its purse can buy; and all through its best average of houses, streets, people, that subtle, something (generally thought to be climate, but it is not—it is something indefinable amid the race, the turn of its development) which effuses behind the whirl of animation, study, business, a happy and joyous public spirit, as distinguish'd from a sluggish and saturnine one. Makes me think of the glints we get (as in Symond's books) of the jolly old Greek cities. Indeed, there is a good deal of the Hellenic in B., and the people are getting handsomer, too—padded out, with freer notions, and with color in their faces."


The contrast with the Boston that he knew on his two former visits must indeed have been remarkable. It was then in the last stages of its hereditary and traditional Puritanism; it was now the least Puritanical of all the great American cities so far as the native social element, that which distinguishes them as American, was concerned. The ferment of its intense radicalism, generated by its very Puritanism, had liberalized and transformed it.

One of Whitman's pleasantest experiences during his short stay was a visit with the sculptor, Bartlett, to the house of Mr. Quincy A. Shaw in Jamaica Plain, where two hours passed quickly in looking at Mrs. Shaw's superb collection of the pictures of J.F. Millet. He was profoundly moved by the work of the great Frenchman, and he declared that never before had he been so penetrated by that kind of expression. The scenes of homely peasant life told him the full story of what went before, and necessitated, the great French revolution:

"The long precedent crushing of the masses of a heroic people into the earth, in abject poverty, hunger—every right denied, humanity attempted to be put back for generations—yet Nature's force, titanic here, the stronger and hardier for that repression—waiting terribly to break forth, revengeful—the pressure on the dykes, and the bursting at last—the storming of the Bastile—the execution of the king and queen—the tempest of massacres and blood."



He found the true France, base of all the rest, in these pictures. "If for nothing else, I should dwell on my brief Boston visit for opening to me the new world of Millet's pictures," he wrote, and he asked: "Will America ever have such an artist out of her won gestation, body, soul?" At the end of his visit he wrote: "It was well I got away in fair order, for if I had staid another week I should have been killed with kindness, and with eating and drinking."

The next August, Whitman wrote me asking if I could find him a quiet boarding-place where he could stay several weeks while he was overlooking the publication of the complete edition of his poems by the house of James R. Osgood & Company, in accordance with a proposition made by the firm at the time of his visit in the spring. I found him a pleasant room in the Hotel Bulfinch, on Bulfinch Place, a quiet and characteristic old West End street, a few steps back from the Revere House. The Hotel Bulfinch is one of several in Boston which have the reputation of being the original of "Mrs. Harmon's Hotel" in Howells's novel, "The Minister's Charge." But that celebrated hostelry is a "composite," and Lemuel Barker was not running the elevator, which proved a great convenience to the venerable poet, with his difficulty of locomotion. Bulfinch Place, even if it cannot lay exclusive claim to "Mrs. Harmon's," deserves to rank among Boston's historic streets, for, on the other side of the way, near the corner of Bulfinch Street—the name was given in honor of the architect of the State House—is the old boarding-house, celebrated and beloved among actors; for many of the famous figures of the American stage have known it, and William Warren, the great comedian, lived there for many years, until the end of his honored life.

Whitman arrived about the middle of August, and during the two months of his stay felt himself comfortably at home. He passed the time leisurely and many pleasant attentions were paid him in an informal way. Not being hurried for time, these attentions did not fatigue him. A large portion of the day he spent in his sunny room on the south side of the house, reading over his proofs, which littered the table in characteristic disorder, carefully marked in his firm, strong, and

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somewhat crabbed hand. Friends dropped in on him for a chat, now and then, and of an evening he enjoyed having one of the young men of the Herald counting-room, who lived in the house, come to his room and play the violin for him.

Walking at that time was not painful or particularly fatiguing for him, and a favorite diversion for him was to go out to Scollay Square, near by, where he would take an open car for South Boston, going to City Point and back, sitting on the front seat and occasionally talking with the driver, something after the manner of the old-time days on the Broadway stages in New York. He enjoyed the water-front at City Point exceedingly; the views of the harbor and the swarms of yachts, and the democratic aspect of the place, with the crowds resorting there.

Another favorite spot was the Common. In "Specimen Days," under date of October, 10-13, he wrote that he spent a good deal of time there, every mid-day from 11.30 to about one o'clock, and almost every sunset another hour."I know all the big trees," he wrote, "especially the old elms along Tremont and Beacon Streets, and have come to a sociable, silent understanding with most of them, in the sunlit air (yet crispy-cool enough), as I saunter along the wide unpaved walks." And he told how, on a bright and sharp February mid-day, twenty-one years before, he walked for two hours up and down the Beacon Street mall with Emerson, listening to his argument against a certain part in the construction of his poems, "Children of Adam"; while each point of Emerson's statement seemed unanswerable, he felt at the end of more settled than ever to adhere to his own theory."Whereupon we went and had a good dinner at the American House." This most interesting account, in which he lifts the veil from a most important episode, appears to be about the only thing in Whitman's works relating to his earlier visits to Boston.

An episode that gave Whitman rare pleasure was a visit to Concord as a guest of Frank B. Sanborn, meeting Emerson for the first time after many years. It was delicious autumn weather, and that evening many of the Concord neighbors, including Emerson, A. Bronson Alcott, and Miss Louisa M. Alcott, filled Mrs. Sanborn's back parlor. The next day, Sunday, September 18th, he dined with Emerson and spent several hours at his house. He also visited the "Old Manse," the battle-field, the graves of Hawthorne and Thoreau in Sleepy Hallow Cemetery, and the site of Thoreau's hermitage at Walden Pond. Another pleasant incident was a roadside chat with Dr. William T. Harris, the scholar and philosopher, as he halted in front of his house on the drive back from Walden Pond. This Concord visit is charmingly described in "Specimen Days."

One evening I took Whitman to the Globe Theatre to see Rossi, the celebrated Italian tragedian. A feature of Rossi's art was to depend for effect upon the naturalness of his impersonation, the subtlety of his delineation, the fineness of his shading—all of which was remarkable—and to dispense, so far as he could, with the aid of extrinsic things, like the simulations of "Make-up." The man, Rossi, was therefore in evidence in all that he did. The piece was "Romeo and Juliet," and Rossi played his part with much ardor, as well as delicacy. Whitman sat quietly through the performance, but at one point—I believe it was in the midst of an impassioned love-scene—he gave a little involuntary laugh. I think the sight of a middle-aged Romeo, slightly bald on the back of his head, was a bit too much for his sense of the ridiculous. At the close his only comment was: "I'm afraid an old fellow like me is not so impressionable as he was in his old theatre-going days."

With all his progressiveness, his enthusiasm for the modern, for the great inventions of the age, a bit of conservatism cropped out concerning the electric light, which was just coming into general use. Passing under some arc-lights in the street, on our way back from the theatre, he remarked: "This white, intense glare is too cold and harsh; over on the Common I noticed some new gas-burners shedding a full, rich, mellow radiance; that light is very pleasant."

Garfield's death occurred while Whit

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man was in Boston. The analogy to Lincoln's death, which had affected him so profoundly and which he had celebrated with one of the noblest odes in the English tongue, seemed to bring it peculiarly near to the poet. The next day, when it was mentioned, he simply said that he had heard the bells in the night. He contributed, however, the following lines to the Boston Sunday Globe:

"The sobbing of the bells, the sudden death-
news everywhere,
The slumberers rouse, the rapport of the People,
(Full well they know that message in the dark-
ness,
Full well return, respond within their breasts,
their brains, the sad reverberations.)
The passionate toll and clang—city to city, join-
ing, sounding, passing
Those heart-beats of a Nation in the night."

A memorable evening was one spent in Bartlett's studio with a little company informally gathered in honor of Whitman. The studio was a most unique and picturesque place at the very end of the wharf of the Boston Terra-Cotta Company on Federal Street, bordering the river-like Fort Point channel—one of the most interesting portions of the water-front. The room was spacious and hall-like, something like twenty or twenty-five feet high, with a quaint stairway in one corner, leading to rooms in a clerestory. The walls and ceiling were unfinished; the walls of brick, and ornamented with relief-casts and large cartoons. About the place stood sculptures—cast in plaster, or unfinished in the clay and muffled in mysterious-looking wrappings. The recesses of the great room were dim in the flickering gaslight, which but sparsely penetrated into the corners, and the shadows danced among the beams of the ceiling. If the scene could have been painted it would have made a real picture, with some notable portraits. Among the company were John Boyle O'Reilly, Joaquin Miller, Francis H. Underwood, Arlo Bates, Frank Hill Smith, Fred Guernsey, and myself. The evening was one of quiet sociability. There was a bowl of good punch, some lager beer, and crackers and cheese. There was no formal conversation, and talk ran on at random. I believe Joaquin Miller's play, "The Danites," was having a run in Boston at the time, and that was why "the poet of the Sierras" happened to be in the city. Boyle O'Reilly spoke of the play which he had in mind, part of whose scenes were to be in Australia. Miller was much interested in the idea, and he dilated with enthusiasm upon the great effect that might be produced by an Australian forest scene, with huge snakes squirming among the trees! Miller had then none of the frontierish eccentricities of costume, long hair, etc., that had distinguished him a few years before. He was quiet and somewhat retiring in manner, gentle in speech, and manifestly of a romantic cast of thought.

There was a picturesque contrast between Whitman and Underwood. Both were white-haired and full-bearded—Whitman of a rough hewn type, rugged as an ancient oak; Underwood—"the Assyrian" of that unassuming but idyllic and thoroughly charming little book, "A Summer Cruise Along the Coast of New England," written a generation since by Robert Carter—with classic features, clear cut as a cameo.

Whitman sat quietly through the evening, not saying much, but keenly observant and attentive, fully a part of the occasion and absorbing it all in the way his friends know so well. There was always sociability in the very silence of the dear old man. Towards the end of the evening, Bartlett announced that Whitman had consented to recite something for us. We sat in an expectant hush as he began; but it was not one of his own poems that he gave us in tones strikingly natural and eloquent with deep feeling; it was a translation from the French of Murger's beautiful verses on death, "The Midnight Visitor," closely akin to Whitman's noble treatment of the theme. It was profoundly impressive; and episode that must remain memorable with all of the little company.

Whitman returned to Camden shortly before the publication of his poems. The appearance of "Leaves of Grass" under such conditions was generally received as al literary event of exceptional importance. The criticisms and reviews were naturally of the most diverse char-

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acter. It was, of course, to be expected that certain critics, but in all the comment that was made there was little, or nothing, to prepare Whitman's friends for the unfortunate occurrence that ruined the sale of the book when prospects were most promising. A storm of indignant protest followed the notification from the attorney-general of Massachusetts to the publishers. A most scathing letter from William Douglas O'Connor was published, consigning Mr. Marston, who filled the office at the time, to the depths of infamy. Mr. O'Connor was unjust to Mr. Marston, however. The attorney-general's act was simply an official one; his attention having been called to the subject, under the law, there was no other course left for him. It turned out, some time after, that the incentive came from a certain clergyman, well meaning enough, no doubt—but it may be questioned if a keen scent for impurity is a corollary of a pure mind. It was extremely improbably that the attempt at suppression could have been successful in court, but the publishers did not care to run the risk; Whitman firmly and consistently declined to change a line and he took over the plates himself.

Whitman had made many true friends in Boston, and from time to time he received pleasant remembrances from them. Learning how confined he was to his house, by reason of his growing infirmity, Boyle O'Reilly, Bartlett, and a few others, started very quietly a subscription for a horse and carriage to enable him to take an outing in pleasant weather. The handsome new team was driven up to his door in Camden one fine day, taking him completely by surprise. The gift added immensely to his comfort and pleasure for several years.

An attempt to secure him a pension by reason of his hospital services, which were the cause of his crippled condition, was made, Congressman Lovering, of Lynn, interesting himself actively for the measure. Pensions had already been given to nurses, but somehow the project failed; possibly because Whitman had not been regularly employed, but was a volunteer in the work. Whitman firmly refused to become and applicant for a pension, but would probably have accepted it had the efforts of his friends been successful.

Probably the most intimate and devoted of Whitman's younger friends in Boston was William Sloane Kennedy, the essayist, whose studies of Whitman are of the finest quality. Kennedy was away from Boston at the time of Whitman's last two visits. Returning from a visit to Whitman at Camden, in 1887, he reported the uncomfortable life that the poet led in the summer weather in the hot and close atmosphere of an inland city. What a blessing it would be, he said, if he could have a little cottage in the country somewhere, amid the natural surroundings that he loved. The idea was favorable received, and so, the next year, Boyle O'Reilly, Kennedy, and I endeavored to realize it. Our original project was to raise the money quietly, build the cottage, and have somebody drive Whitman out there and take him by surprise. But the matter leaked out and got into the newspapers, causing us to change our plans. We found little trouble in raising the modest sum required. Two or three subscriptions came from outside Boston, among them a handsome one from "Mark Twain," who wrote:

"What we want to do is to make the splendid old soul comfortable and do what we do heartily and as a privilege;" and he added, "There couldn't and wouldn't be any lack of people ready and willing to build a cottage for Walt Whitman; and as long as a rope-walk if he wants it."


Frank Hill Smith, who is an architect as well as a painter and decorator, contributed an artistic design and plans for a simple cottage of the kind needed, and John G. Low gave the titles from his Chelsea works for a handsome fireplace. Mr. Montgomery Stafford, the owner of the land at Timber Creek, in Kirkwood, New Jersey, the idyllic spot where Whitman went when so ill at the end of his Washington life, and where he was restored to comparative health, offered to give the site for a cottage.

But, when we raised the money, we sent it to Whitman for him to build how and where he pleased, thinking he would

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take delight, as an old builder, in looking after the matter himself. He intended to do this, but he never got round to it. I think the lethargy of age was creeping over him fast, and he lacked the energy to make a beginning.

At his death, we learned that he had built a tomb for himself and his parents in the Camden Cemetery, taking much interest in the work and supervising the construction himself. Perhaps he finally used the means we raised for a summer cottage in thus preparing for himself a last resting-place.


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