Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Some Personal Recollections and Impressions of Walt Whitman

Creator: Thomas Proctor

Date: February 1898

Publication information: The Journal of Hygiene and Herald of Health February 1898: 29–39.

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

Whitman Archive ID: med.00627

Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney




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SOME PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS AND IM-
PRESSIONS OF WALT WHITMAN.

———

My recollections of Walt Whitman date back to three or four years prior to the civil war.

He was then to me, as he was to many New Yorkers, a familiar figure often seen as he leisurely sauntered up and down Broadway, or was seated at the side of the driver on an omnibus or stage or while he was taking a stroll on the Bowery as he was in the habit of doing.

In those days the fashion of men's attire was conventional and sombre to a much greater degree than now.

Nearly all adult male New York was clad in black broadcloth and doeskin and even artisans and mechanics, when not actually engaged in their work were thus dressed. The high silk hat was almost the only head gear in vogue. In use it ran the gamut from the glossiness and symmetry of the latest style on "the Broadway promenade" or the make that was worn atilt by "the boys" on the Bowery corners, to the St. Patrick's day specimen, very sleeky, though perhaps in the stage of molt, and possibly more or less indented.

HOW HE DRESSED HIS FIGURE.

Walt Whitman, in contrast to the mode, was always clad in material of light color and of a cut according to his own fancy shockingly contrary to the very stiff and prim usage of the time, his white shirt collar, conspicuously broad, was worn unbuttoned, exposing the front or side of his well developed neck whenever he turned his head, or the breeze brushed aside his grayish beard. He wore a slouched hat of noticeable shape, slanting backward from his

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brow, while behind his ears fell his hair, meeting and in color matching his beard. Altogether this patriarchial personage and outré figure in passing to and fro attracted much attention.

But the city was not so large then, nor so cosmopolitan as now.

To the keen glances of the curious as they passed Walt Whitman, was disclosed a face in which the features were harmoniously set, a ruddy blonde complexion, a benignant countenance, while the whole face was mildly suffused by a complacent glow. His mein was suggestive—ever so slightly of a swagger. But there was nothing in it, however, to intimate that he had ever lifted a "wild barbaric yawp high over the roofs of the world," whatever there might have been therein to impress the passerby that it was in him bent to "loaf and celebrate himself."

GOES TO WASHINGTON.

In the autumn of 1862, I was called to Washington to reside.

Within a few months, or it may have been only weeks, after my arrival and when, as yet almost a stranger in a strange city, I was pleasantly surprised by meeting the well known form of Walt Whitman as he came leisurely strolling down Pennsylvania Avenue, while I was going in an opposite direction. So glad was I to catch sight of a familiar face that impulsively, as our eyes met, I bowed a recognition, to which he made courteous acknowledgement. And this was our first greeting.

In style now, his attire was about the same as it had been formerly, but of better quality and more carefully fitted. His new felt hat had a broader expanse of brim than his former slouch one, and was more after the fashion of the pictured cowboy's pride.

We met again on the same thoroughfare shortly after this, and a similar salute passed between us. This time I was walking with a companion, who, witnessing the incident, informed me that Walt Whitman "was a writer who had produced leaves of grass, but was now in clover." This I think was the first knowledge I had that he was a literary worker.

Then followed a period of less than two years, during which I seldom saw him. But towards the close of the summer of 1864 I had become very well acquainted with the man.

Some time before this I had been in the habit of making frequent visits to young men friends whose home was next door to the house in which Mr. Whitman was boarding. This house was

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one of a couple of houses—twins joined—situated at the corner of M and Twelfth streets, but I also had friends whom I used to visit, though not so frequently, who lived in the same house with Mr. Whitman. These two houses were pleasant to look upon. They stood upon high ground and were surrounded by flower gardens, containing vine covered arbors. By the side of the house in which Mr. Whitman resided, stood a noble cherry tree, whose splendid display of blossoms in spring time used to bring out many tributes of admiration from the passerby. Under this cherry tree was an arbor seated in which I had at times caught glimpses of Mr. Whitman, before I had become, as later I did, an inmate of the same house.

A LITERARY CIRCLE.

During the period of which I am now writing, I had for, between two and three years, been occupying rooms on Tenth street, in the lower part of the town and about the distance of a city block from Pennsylvania Avenue. Our chambers were the meeting places for several small circles of my young men friends. The largest of these circles included a number of bright men, mostly students, with a taste for literature.

Two of the leaders of this company were then next door neighbors of Mr. Whitman, their home being the corner one of the two M street houses mentioned. They knew him very well and all the members of this circle were more or less acquainted with him. Most of our meetings here were held for recreation and pleasure, but nevertheless, new books, magazine literature, and the topics of the day were not infrequently discussed in an edifying, as well as in an easy desultory manner. On special occasions it might even be that an attempt at literary composition by one of our own set offered a subject for comment, commendation—though oftener for good humored raillery. We had discussed Walt Whitman and his works, or portions of them, many a time. We did not think very highly of his writings and found in them more matter for amusement than for instruction. But we all liked the man, and those of our company who knew him best liked him best, and our liking for him could scarcely have been otherwise. His cheery, kindly manner, the pleasing tones of his voice, to which occasionally was interluded the attraction of his mellow whistle, formed a combination quite irresistable. The strains of this whistling seemed to burst from him at times as spontaneously and as tunefully as do the sweet carollings

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of the merl, a bird to which I have many times since listened and nearly always with a reminder of Whitman.

On one occasion our chairman for the evening announced the close of serious (mock) business as follows: "And now, gentlemen, in the words of our great poet, 'let us loaf and celebrate ourselves'." These subsequently became by-words among us.

DEATH OF LINCOLN.

But our pleasant meetings at this place were destined to come to a sad and gloomy ending. Though the storms of battle had now ceased to rage over the land and the skies were almost clear, an after-clap came. The saviour of a Nation was stricken down and lay dying in our humble abode. In place of sounds of merriment, gaspings, low sobbing and throbbings of anguish pervaded and filled the space around us, as the agonizing hours of an awful night waxed and waned. Daylight came at last, death entered and stillness reigned. As days and weeks followed, a nation's grief was chastened, but our meetings at this place were forever at an end. From those chambers the black pall was never lifted.

This house of which I have been writing stood opposite to Ford's theatre, and it was here that by invitation of one of my companions, the unconscious form of Abraham Lincoln in his dying moments was carried and hen laid upon the bed of my friend's friend. Mrs. Lincoln and her companions occupied for the greater portion of the night the suite of rooms on the second floor, which were our own apartments, while below on the first or parlor floor, her husband lay breathing his last.

Not long after this tragic event our bright circle was broken and its leading spirits were scattered. But some of us, I remember, were touched by the pathos of Walt Whitman's refrain soon after published:

"O, Captain! My Captain!


*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won,
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead."

Our lives were deepened.

A MORE INTIMATE ACQUAINTANCE.

In the autumn of 1865, after leaving this abode of sad remembrance, it was that I became an inmate of the same house in which

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Mr. Whitman was residing where I saw him, excepting at intervals of midsummer vacations, at meal time, or about the house as it might happen, daily. Already allusion has been made to the arbor under the cherry tree under which Mr. Whitman used to sit. This also became a favorite resting place of mine. Sometimes he kept me company. Frequently, also, chairs were placed upon the grass in the front part of the garden facing the street whereon a considerable number of us, including Mr. Whitman, used to pass an hour or two together, before dusk of warm evenings.

In such ways as these we saw much of each other during the period of my residence in this house, over two years. Incidents relating to him are few.

I recall a trifling one which took place one afternoon while a number of us and some of our visiting friends, were seated in the front part of the garden and some of our neighbors and friends next door and also their friends, were in the front part of their garden, adjoining. A company of strolling musicians stopped and played some pieces for us. We enjoyed the music, which was good, but Mr. Whitman appeared to derive the most pleasure from it. The "concord of sweet sound," however, seemed to put "Jip," a dimunitive smooth-coated pet terrier into a fit of misery. With hair bristling upwards along his backbone and with tail tucked between his slender legs, he circled about in the oddest way, giving vent to dismal and annoying howlings, and would not be quieted. Finally he concealed himself behind the skirts, and under the chair of his mistress, where, though he ceased his loud cryings, he continued to whimper in the most pitiful accents as long as the music lasted. As the musicians turned to go, Mr. Whitman who had heretofore remained silent, passively remarked, "Music is a great language." One of those present tried to draw him out further as to his meaning, but I do not remember his response except that it was in the sense of music's universality of expression. The querist's rejoinder was, "Then, Mr.Whitman, what do you suppose was the message the music conveyed to Jip and nearly frightened him into fits?" He made some reply as he turned aside his head, but it was not audible.

AT THE TABLE.

Mr. Whitman when at the table generally joined in with whatever conversation might be going on. But he seldom started any topic, hardly ever led, and was never obtrusive. When in those stirring

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times exciting subjects were introduced it was noticeably his habit to remain a silent listener. Evidently he was disinclined to take part in any discussion which would be likely to arouse feelings of irritatation in anyone present. He believed that nothing should be introduced at the table to disturb the general cheerfulness and harmony.

At meal times he had always a good appetite—the appetite of a sound, healthy man. He showed that he appreciated good and toothsome things. He liked variety and partook of farinaceous food, eggs and vegetables, but of flesh meat only of a very moderate amount. Tea and coffee were always served at the table, and my impression is that he partook of one or the other of them modererately and as he felt inclined. He ate his food slowly and in sufficient quantity, I judge, but no more than was required to keep well nourished his remarkably fine physique.

From the point of view of a cultivated taste, his table manners were refined, and always and in all things agreeable.

HIS GOOD HEALTH. SLEPT WELL.

He never complained of feeling ill or out of sorts, nor did he ever intimate that he was in any other condition physically than that in which he, at this period, appeared to be—most perfect health—and this was how he always appeared during the whole period of my acquaintance with him in Washington.

He spoke of himself as a sound sleeper. His habit was to go to bed shortly after ten o'clock—an early hour for Washington people. He usually arose about eight o'clock in the morning. Occasionally he told with evident pleasure how well he enjoyed the sensation of a premature awakening and realization that there was still an hour or half hour left for an after-nap. "It was delicious," he said.

DID NOT USE TOBACCO OR SPIRITS.

He was not a user of tobacco in any form, and to the best of my knowledge and belief he made no use of alcoholic beverages. All the young men of our circle—friends of Mr. Whitman—and their visiting friends, I think were smokers and drank wine occasionally, but he never joined with them in either indulgence. This was so well understood amongst us that if he was invited to take a glass of wine, or offered a cigar, the invitation was given playfully, or in the spirit of politeness. If at any time he had accepted, we should have been surprised.



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It has been told me by others, though I never heard him say it, that he liked to have the physical sensation of being clean, and that this was not possible to one who used tobacco in any form. It would be like him to say this, but not in the presence, I think, of a user of tobacco, out of respect to their feelings and a dislike to cause anyone pain.

LOVE OF NATURE.

With me—rather more so, I think, than with others of our company—he seemed to take pleasure in giving expression to his fondness for beautiful scenes in nature, whether of sky, landscape, or woods and green fields. Also, he used to speak of his delight in animated nature, from man to beast or bird and creeping things.

And he used through tenderness of feeling to turn aside to avoid crushing the cicadas—or seventeen-year locusts, so-called—as they fell to the ground at his feet when he walked.

I was thus impressed that his temperament was responsive to nature's varied phases, and at rare times on such subjects his manner of speaking was more animated and attractive than usual, while then especially his voice had additional music in its tones. But his thoughts, it seemed to me, were vaguely expressed and too often in words that seemed oddly fitting.

In characterizing a scene in nature by which he had been deeply moved, I remember his climactic words were, "It was grand, sublime—it was tip top!"

The mere presence, however, of a companion who was in sympathy with him in such tastes and feelings, though words between them might be but few—as on his part they generally were—appeared to afford him great pleasure.

OUTINGS WITH WHITMAN.

We twice took day's outings together. On the first of these days our ramble was taken along the picturesque banks of Rock Creek, a stream which runs for a part of its course between Washington and Georgetown. It was a glorious May morning, and after all these years I well recall the lovely spot where we lingered. We stood upon the highest hill—though of but gentle ascent—of a series of hills or hillocks of "milder declivity," closely neighboring and ranged in open woods which stretched along the hither bank of the stream. We stood on a carpet of rich, deep purple, while to right and left companion hills or hillocks were either thus color—tapestried or in most lovely contrast, adorned in cerulean hue, each tint intens-

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ifying and glorifying the other, as pansy, violet, or housetoned, in lavish profusion, vied in entrancing display. And as we faced the opposite bank of the stream, for a long distance it was broadly bordered in creamy white and glowing pink, as closely grouped, in unbroken sinuous band, the flowering dogwood and redbud alternated, while form and hue in the sun's effulgence floated, and quivering was responsive to every whisper of the breeze.

Mr. Whitman's whole being appeared to be absorbing the beauty of the scene. For a long time, with eyes slowly moving backward and forward along this stretch of vividly contrasted color, he seemed held as if in a spell.

While lingering we were silent, but as finally we turned away he said, "This is inviting to my soul."

During our saunterings on this occasion we saw many varieties of wild flowers, and caught glimpses of several species of birds and heard their songs, but in answer to my queries he could give the names of but few of the flowers, and of none, as I remember, of the birds.

In the course of our walk there were long intervals of silence between us, and altogether his words were very few. Returning home, I felt that though his sympathy was keenly alive to everything beautiful to the eye and sweet to the ear in Nature, yet his mind seemed to be lacking in the ability and desire to obtain and retain definite knowledge of Nature's works.

Of our second excursion together, the scene was amidst rocks and woods in a romantic locality on the banks of the Potomac; and the impression received on the former occasion as to his fine feeling for Nature, but lack of knowledge of her handiwork, was deepened and confirmed.

Listening to the birds singing in "the recesses" was "good for the soul," as he expressed it, but of the trees in which these recesses were hidden, or of the birds heard from them, he showed that he possessed but little knowledge—too scant, indeed, to satisfy an eager companion's desire to increase his own little store of knowledge.

HIS PERSONALITY.

Though as an instructive companion in Nature's haunts I had found Mr. Whitman disappointing, and though we—of the household circle—had found but little in the man or his writings which to our minds suggested the sage, philosopher, seer, or poet, nevertheless, whenever he entered the house his presence invariably brought with it a genial atmosphere.



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Prompted by our liking for and interest in the man, some of the younger ones of our set now and then read his works.

About this time, also, it was that we were making good-humored comments upon a story of which Walt Whitman was made the hero. This story had just appeared in one of the prominent magazines, and was written by one of his friends.

The title of it, I think, was "The Carpenter." In it the intention of its author, if I mistake not, was to portray in parallel the son of the carpenter of Nazareth and the whilom carpenter of Long Island. And my impression is that the glittering strands of the story did not run on lines truly parallel, for as they ran up some sunset hill of indefinite location they met before the top was reached. The two became merged into a single personage, leaving the reader in a quandary as to which of these exalted ones it was, that by the other had been absorbed, and which of them it was who vanished beyond the hill amid supernal glories.

This story, if my recollection serves me not amiss, was written by the same friend of Mr. Whitman who had previously published a pamphlet in blue gray covers entitled, "The Good Grey Poet." The pamphlet was brought out about the time that Mr. Whitman was dismissed from office. It was widely read in Washington, and the pamphlet and the act of dismissal aroused much feeling, discussion and comment among the poet's friends, who were many, and his opponents, who were few, and in the press as well, which, I think, was altogether friendly to him. The result was that he was either restored to his old position under the Government or received a new appointment to a clerkship in another department.

MODIFICATIONS IN DRESS. CHASTE IN SPIRIT.

Walt Whitman's costume was now—nearing the end of my association with him—as unconventional in style as formerly, yet in it meanwhile there had gradually been brought about some modifications.

There was now more refinement of tint in its shades of gray, and in cut its lines suggested to the keen observer that they were fashioned with an eye to artistic effect.

His attire was altogether more in accord than formerly with the "ensemble" of the man. His locks and beard, grayish, merely, when I first became familiar with his figure, were now quite gray. There was also now less exposure about the neck.



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There was nothing whatever in or about his personality suggestive of anything coarse or common. It was unique and attractive. He was always chaste in speech, and that he was a clean man physically and morally was the impression he made on the minds of all of us. As said before, he was not a talkative man. He indulged in general conversation but sparingly, and then confined himself mainly to commonplace things. As to his taste in literature, or his habits in reading, he gave but little expression or indication. But I remember that on a few occasions he expressed his liking for Tennyson and for Carlyle, though my impression is that his remarks were applied to the men personally rather than to their works.

I never saw him engaged in reading, or have any literature in his possession, not even a newspaper. My belief is that he read very little at this period of his life, and that he had never been a great reader.

None of us, I think, was ever in his "den." It was on the top floor, where there was no other boarder. He did not spend much time there, except when in sleep. His habit was to be absent from the house for the whole or the greater part of the evening. Leisureliness—leisureliness in everything was one of his striking characteristics. Some of us thought that he was physically lazy and mentally hazy.

MANNER OF SPEECH.

His manner of speech was always very slow, but impressive, when engaged with a subject beyond the commonplace. It then was apt to abound in the enigmatic, and tended to attract the attention of the listener, especially one of an imaginative or fanciful turn of mind. The attention of such a one might, perhaps, be held for a considerable time—even through intervals of silence—in the momentary expectation of something luminous to follow an impressive utterance. But the listener was usually, if not ever, doomed to find impressive phrases not connected with what followed, nor made clear in meaning. They seemed mere adumbrations, and their promise vanished.

To me often his mind appeared pictured as a vista abounding in mists through which now and again one was on the verge of catching glimpses of rare jewels, but just at the critical moment of expectancy there fell a thick curtain shutting off from the earnest gazer all gleams of gems or rare pearls.

In closing these memories I may say that they are written without

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making use of or even referring to any matter printed or written, excepting only as below mentioned. They are simply recollections and impressions of some early days which memory is wont to hold graven in deepest lines.

In August, 1868, as in Washington, I bade Walt Whitman good bye, he kindly presented me with a copy of his "Drum Taps," and at the same time wrote in it his autograph, using for the purpose a large blue pencil. This little book has ever since remained unopened, until, while penning this article, it was referred to for verifying the correctness of the lines beginning, "O, captain! my captain!" above quoted.

But the little KEEPSAKE is prized not the less on that account.

Brooklyn, January 4, 1897.
THOMAS PROCTOR.

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