Commentary

Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman at Home

Creator: Richard Hinton

Date: 1889

Publication information: The World 14 April 1889.

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

Whitman Archive ID: med.00640

Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney




image 1

WALT WHITMAN AT HOME.

———

AN INTERESTING VISIT TO THE FAMOUS
POET'S HUMBLE SICK-ROOM.


———

Reminiscences of the Long and Eventful Career of the "Good Gray Poet"— His Strong Personality and Kindly Character— Tributes to His Genius from the Fremost Men of Letters— Incidents in His Life.

Walt Whitman was a pathetic, even venerable personality, as I saw him two Sundays ago, in his very humble cottage home, upon a commonplace by-street of Camden, N. J. That old town on the southern shore of the Delaware is, at its best, a most uninviting place to reside in; least of all, one would think, for a poet. But here the "Good Gray Poet" has lived ever since he left Washington in 1873, after his first attack of paralysis. For twelve months Walt has lived within the valley. Lying on his bed or seated in an invalid's chair, amid conditions that are certainly unpleasant to the eye, if not absolutely squalid, he has waited with gracious and manly dignity, amid "the shadows," plucky, sadly but soberly, of his "November Boughs," for that

Lovely and soothing death
of which he sings, bidding it
Undulate round the world, serenely
Arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later, delicate death.

Walt Whitman's cottage is a very plain, rather dingy, two-storied and attic-roofed frame dwelling, such as a prudent American mechanic would have fifty years ago built for himself and family. It needs paint on the exterior; the steps are a little uncertain as to strength; there is a weather-beaten look about the door and wooden shutters, but all this is forgotten on reading the name "Whitman" on the door. At least, that is always true of admirers and friends.





Figure 1.

WALT WHITMAN.
[From his last photograph.]


The little parlor in which I had last seen Walt seated, at the further and open window, with a rose at the lapel of his familiar gray suit, lame, but still capable of moving about, surrounded by the disordered order of his books and papers on floor and table, handy to his chair, was now ooking neat and spruce, as it had become the place for callers and the sitting-room of Mr. Whitman's housekeeper. In one corner was a large bust of Elias Hicks, the liberal Quaker eader of half a century ago, of whom Mr. Whitman has made so attractive a biographical study, published in that last delightful volume, "November Boughs." Portraits of the poet's father and mother, with some photographs, hang on the walls of the quaintly humble parlor. Our invalid is upstairs, however. We are admitted at once to his room, though his doctors protest against company.

It is not a pleasant room for a sick man to be in, but the superb, even if feeble and broken, figure of a man who sits there soon made its untidiness forgotten. A rather large room, with three uncurtained windows, carefully closed and darkened without by heavy Venetian blinds, with bare walls and scant furniture, certainly untidy and quite stuffy in atmosphere, made a chill and homely environment for the great delineator and poet of all out o' doors. A sheet-iron stove, rusty and emitting the pungent odors of burning wood; an undraped bed, a table covered with a litter of books and papers, which spread also all round the floor, and a couple of chairs were, with the exception of Walt's own roomy seat, the furnishing of that comfortless chamber. But he himself filled it with a benign, even beautiful presence. Delighted to see me, he raised his arm and face to give and receive the salute of comradeship—a kiss on either cheek.

ON HIS SICK BED.

I wish that the man could be put into words as he sat there, so cheerful, even happy, in his hopeful resignation. His limbs and feet were wrapped in heavy gray blankets. Another blanket was drawn lightly over his shoulders. He was in his shirt-sleeves. The wide, open shirt-collar, so familiar to all who have known him, made bare the brown hairy throat and upper chest. His flesh, I noted, in face and throat, still keeps the singularly pink flush which marked it in the prime of his virile manhood. But the noble head, so massive and full proportioned, with its silvery, silken hair, falling in long soft locks from the high, rounded coronal, was still there instinct with life and thought. The white beard—so singularly clear and pure and silken in aspect and texture makes nobly venerable the strongly masculine moulded features. The arched eyebrows are also white, like bows of driven snow. Beneath them smoulder such wondrous gray eyes. They are pathetic in expression beyond description, looking when lifted as if, verily, they saw beyond. In repose they are dreamily introspective, with the sadness of a marked physical weakness and yet lambently luminous with the hope and soul of the pure idealist and philosopher. Otherwise Walt Whitman's face was as usual, except, perhaps, a perceptible relaxation of the lines and muscles. But his voice, as ever, a great charm, was tender with the unconscious pathos of his weariness and weakness. There was the same fine music of its minor key, but a little trembling tone, as he told of his condition.

"I sit here and wait. What else can I do? You see"—and he turned with a touch of his old manner and smile towards me—"I still try to work a little. It is not much, but I am hopeful. The doctors think I'll yet get down out of this. Perhaps I will. At any rate, I shall try. No, they don't like me to have company; think I'm too weak as yet. I'm so glad you came, even if I can't see you stay. I've had two callers already this morning. My appetite is very good—for a sick fellow. I think I shall get one again. They don't give me much medicine. The doctor believs in building me up, and I guss he is right. More than one doctor, eh? Yes, I've four of them who call—and yet,"—with a touch of his old humor and a faint cough, the poet continued—"I still live to tell the tale. I take a little sherry, just a swig; the Doctor thinks I ought to take it in milk, if at all. I don't like it that way so well, so I take my swig first and then the milk, and let nature do the mixing," he added waggishly.

Necessarily the visit was a brief one, for the signs of fatigue were soon seen. We glanced hastily at some letters and many presentation copies of books with their authors' autographs in them, sent to the little Camden home. And then we kissed him farewell, and were out in the soft, almost sping-like air, feeling as if it were very hard that a life so loving and responsive to all around him, so quick to see the loveliness of the universe of matter and life, should be shut in without a flower, with scarce a sunbeam, to cheer his rude room and hardly a touch of human love closely felt about his chair and couch. He is physically well cared for—so far as the plain and simple people who wait upon him can understand. But nearly all that can brighten from without such days as his now are is among the missing.

HIS LIFE WILL NOT BE LONG.

But the massive vigor of the physical man seems to be slowly regathering recuperative power, and his friends are allowing themselves to hope for so much of his continued presence that a project is now being considered for a new volume, to be prepared by friendly hands, which it is designed shall contain many autograph letters written to Walt Whitman by famous authors and critics here and elsewhere, as also memorabilia of his own, and a new biographical sketch with portraits. It is hoped by the sale of such a work to raise a small sum, yet sufficient to aid in making more comfortable a life that cannot long be with us.

It is more than thirty-four years since I first saw Walt Whitman. Possibly, as his friend John Burroughs, the poet-naturalist, wrote me a short time ago, after a visit to Camden, "Probably I shall never see him again" alive. But who will gainsay what I affirm in declaring that Walt Whitman has exercised a very wide influence. This may be truthfully affirmed with due reservations, even by those who differ as to the quality of his poetic conceptions and the final verdict thereon of time and history. Those who have known him—and none have ever done so but to find a reverential love springing up as they recall their association—will never ignore the impinging force of his mentality and individuality on their own character and its expression.

I have known Walt Whitman for more than thirty years and I have known also of the friends who have stood for him through good and evil report—not the disciples so much as the admiring comrades—each in their place and degree. I propose to tell something of both poet and friends. No man has been more abused personally, and that without knowledge, than he. No man to those who have known him has been more beloved. It may be excused therefore in one who assumes no critical attitude on or off Mount Parnassus, but who has been able to realize a man when meeting him, if that one undertakes to tell something of the most memorable of all the many notable persons he has encountered and lingered alongside of in a busy life. It may be pardoned also, if reference is briefly made to the recognizing brains and persons who have endeavored by their friendly homage to repay Walt Whitman in some degree for the abusive recognition which has followed him in the buzz of the black flies that swirl around the inky pools frequented by rhymsters and criticasters. Surely, then, one may refer to the largely noble and amply generous recognitions which have come, among others, from Victor Hugo and Alfred Tennyson; from Swinburne, Rossetti and Robert Buchanan. Appreciative, keen, incisive criticism by poets like the German Ferdinand Frielgrath, critics like Edward Dowden, of Dublin, Ann Gilchrist, Arthur Clive, G. C. Macaulay, Frank W. Walters, Ernest Rhys and many another English writer, surely mark the power and beauty of Whitman's thought and purpose. So also must it be said of the Danish writer, Rudolf Schmidt, of the Hungarian, Italian, Russian and French critics, who have doffed their hats to him from over the waters in honor of his claim as the poet of Democracy.

TRIBUTES FROM LITTERATEURS.

Is it nothing also that Emerson greeted him in 1855 "at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start;" that Edmund C. Stedman has summed up its achievements in some dergee in the poet's declining years; that our finest sonneteer, the poet-editor, Gilder, and that John Burroughs, whose insight and poetic touch all must confess, have paid to Walt Whitman their tributes. Is the latter's little book of 1867 worth nothing, or is it of no importance that William D. O'Conner wrote in denunciation of a piece of official brutality and insolence his marvellously eloquent and scholarly brochure "The Good Gray Poet" of 1866, or the equally as remarkable tribute of 1883, that will be found in Dr. R. M. Bucke's interesting biography of Whitman, published inthe same year? Are all these things of no significance? Are Chainey and Kennedy Sloane of no value as critics? Is it nothing that Th. Bontzen, in the Revue des Deuz Mondes of June, 1872, declared that Whitman's "Drum Taps" compassed the finest war poetry in the world? Is it without moment, then, that his monody "When lilacs last in the door-yard bloomed" is conceded to be not alone the loftiest poetic tribute to Abraham Lincoln, but also the most sane and spiritual, the most transcendental and ideal of chaunts to death, "Sweet Sister of Sleep," that an English-speaking poet has ever written? That such a poet and such a character should lie dying, unregarded by the mass of thoughtful men and women, is in itself a strange anomaly. I shall not consider "why," but in some degree shall endeavor to show "who" and "what" Walt Whitman is. Every one reaches these as to others by subjective influences as well as objective impressions. So I shall try and describe Walt Whitman as he looked and seemed when I first met him.

One early Summer afternoon in 1855 I sat drowsily at work writing mail wrappers for the Knickerbocker Magazine, in the publisher's office of which I was then employed as a general clerk. It is over thirty-three years since, when on that June afternoon, I first saw Walt Whitman. It comes back to me as I write almost as freshly as when I felt that then I'd seen a Man. My impressions were written on the next day, and my memory has been vividly refreshed. The office of the Knickerbocker, then edited by dear old, witty and genial Louis Gaylord Clarke, and published by a rather grim and saturnine-looking business man named Houston—at least to me he seemed what I say—was in the handsome white marble building on Broadway, constructed for the Appletons, and which is now used by an insurance company.

The door opened quietly. As I looked up I saw a striking figure, strikingly clad, even fro that day when conventionalities were not so usually observed as at present. As the caller advanced I noted a man of 6 feet, of sun-browned face, neck and breast; well covered with brown hair, here and there just touched with gray. The simple ease and swing of this figure bore out the idea of superb physical manhood, which was at first the dominating note of the presence before me, as it advanced with a quiet, lounging air of repose and masculine grace towards the little desk at which I sat writing. "What a magnificent fellow!" were the words I wrote next day in my diary. The room was at once pervaded by the stranger, who shed forth as it were an almost visible nimbus and magnetism. I speak now of a feeling that was afterwards and often confirmed. Even in these latest years—when he has lain old, invalid, paralyzed, dying—this man has held that supreme touch and aroma of noble manliness. The figure first caught my eyes and then the dress. The grand head and serene face were to dawn upon me in a few moments. It was a massive figure, of splendid height and perfect proportions. One felt as well as saw that. Shoulders broad and square, deep-chested, deep through the frame, the lines of the form sloping in strong curves, the flanks thin and limbs muscular rather than large. I noted that the one brown, hairy hand that was lifted to the broad-brimmed felt hat he wore was also strong, but shapely, and certainly not large. The feet were well proportioned and clad in broad-toed, easy shoes. The gait itself drew my eyes to the manly figure. The impression conveyed was that its wearer was a sailor, fisherman or pilot. Trousers, buttoned over the shapely hips, of some coarse dark cloth, hung loosely and flowing until they swept over the neat, broad shoes. The great torso was covered by a blue-flannel shirt, with a wide, rolling collar, open well at the front, leaving bare the strong, columnar neck and the upper part of a hirsute chest, wel browned by the sun and winds. He wore no coat. Lifting the drab felt hat, somewhat broader in trim and higher crowned than the Kossuth hats, which were then coming into use among ease-loving Americans, the visitor asked "if Mr. Clarke was in?"

I then observed that he held a small parcel of thin quarto-sized books under his right arm. He walked with bared head to my desk and laid one in my hand, saying: Please tell Mr. Clarke that Walt Whitman left this for him."

A PRESENCE NOT TO BE FORGOTTEN.

The voice caught my ear. A low-pitched, penetrative baritone, habitually used on the minor key, it lingered and made me wish to hear it again. At least, it has always possessed that quality to me. I have never heard Walt's voice raised in tones of anger or even of aroused feeling. Once, perhaps, I felt in its sound a degree of intense contempt. It was in either 1866 or 1867, when a small newspaper clique were disposed to revile and slander him. One who had been especially offensive, making insinuations of a slanderous character, had the audacity to address him on a public way with a friendly greeting. Walt's hands, as common with him, were ensconced in the peculiar side pockets he always had made in his body or overcoat. He looked down under the brim of his hat and simply replied to the greeting, "You blackguard!" There was no bitterness, rather a touch of humor in the accent, but the expression of contempt was beyond description. The libeller walked on.

Among my solitary delights was the study of faces. So, I answered, as I remember, Walt Whitman's careless look with one that imprinted his face on my memory for life. What I saw was a large head, strong, rather heavily moulded features. The jaw, a deep one, coming to a good, square chin. The lower part of the face set well forward. The whole shape, a large and distinct oval. It was not a long one, though, proportionately to its size. But the high and rounded head that rose above his strong face was the most remarkable feature. The arched eyebrows, moulded with their strong, antique curves, gave a classic look to the countenance. The forehead did not strike me as high so much as massive. I noticed that the brown hair was thin and fine on the rounded coronal. If there is any truth in phrenology, Walt Whitman's mental endowment presents a large amount of reverence and the other qualities which are believed to make up spirituality.

My visitor was gone as quickly as he came, but there was no hurry in his movements. I have often noticed since then Walt's gait was always an easy, even lounging one, yet there was a certain momentum and steadfast force in his movements, so that he got over a good deal of ground in any given time; but this is aside. I looked eagerly after my unknown visitor, and then as eagerly turned to the thin, flat volume that lay on my desk. It was rather pretty in appearance, 11½ inches long by 8 inches wide, bound in a dark green cloth, stamped in relievo, with a frame of gold lines, inside which were plain leaves and flowers at the corners and below the title, which in gilded letters was wrought into a very neat yet ornate design of flowers, leaves and grass spears or blades. Opening it, the title-page proper was found to be as unique as the cover. Opposite to it was a fine steel-plate portrait of the man by whom it had been left. It is a portrait which has since become familiar to the reading public and has often been described. Clad as I have already indicated, it is a speaking likeness of Walt Whitman at that date. It looks also like the man he "celebrated" as being one of whom it might be said:

Wherever he goes men and women accept and desire
him;
They desire he should like them, and touch them and
speak to them and stay with them.

There are, with the portrait, 110 pages in this volume, four being occupied with the engraving, title-page and the reverse pages. Twelve other pages are occupied by an untitled essay, in which the poet presents in vigorous prose, though strongly individualized by style and mannerisms, his theory of poetry and of that real literature which alone is suitable to the genius of the American Republic and people. The eye accustomed to the usual form of our printed pages would be repelled, as I was at a first glance, by the peculiar use of periods and the breaking of sentences. Since then the preface, one of the most lucid and notable of Whitman's prose writings, has been reproduced in a later volume. Much of its argument, though, is found in the vital and powerful essay "Democratic Vistas," which the poet published in 1871. The poems or chaunts occupy ninety-five pages. They bear no title except that of "Leaves of Grass," which is five times repeated thereafter on pages 57, 65, 70, 77 and 82. These leaves open with that bold—bald, if ye will—declaration which has challenged and defied the literary world:

I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to
you.

This is the declaration and keynote of the universal individual, which is also the one individual—You and Me—as well as the common man, the En Masse, as he afterwards prefaces it in another edition. It is the keynote of democracy, and its literature as Walt Whitman understands and proclaims it and him. It is the touch of his hand, the breath of his brain, the atmosphere of his genius, the aroma of his character, the index finger of his influence. All this came to me afterwards, and grows with every perusal. This first poem represents Walt Whitman "one of the roughs," yet the "Kosmos"—"sounding his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world." Its echoes grow as time continues.

HIS STRIKING INDIVIDUALITY.

As to his form of composition, not attractive at first sight to accustomed readers of verse, he "discharges himself quite altogether from the old laws of poetry, considering them and their results unfit for present needs and especially unfit for the United States." His claim is that of inaugurating "an original modern style," and the theory thereof is "that our times exhibit the advent of especially two new creative world or influences, giving a radically changed form to civilization—namely, the world of science for one and the world of democratic republicanism for another, and that a third influence, a new poetic world of character and form, adjusted to the new spirit and facts and consistent with democracy and science, is indispensable." He says that here we "must found our own imaginative literature and poetry and that nothing merely copied from and following the feudal world will do. And I dismiss," he has often said, "without ceremony all the orthodox accoutrements, tropes, haberdashery of words, feet, measure, that form the entire stock in trade of rhyme-talking heroes and heroines. My metre is loose and free. The lines are of irregular length, apparently lawless at first perusal, but on closer acquaintance you will find that there is regularity, like the recurrence, for example, of the lesser and larger waves on the seashore, rolling in without intermission, and fitfully rising and falling."

He also claimed for his own utterances as the poet of the Democracy—individual and en masse—a certain Hebraic force, the spirits of all the primal poets, telling and teaching of a real world movement in saga, psalm, chant, epic or song. This recalls one trait which hostile critics call egotism. There can be no question of Walt Whitman's profound and masterful faith in himself or rather in the work he has done. To me, and others who have been near him, this feeling really possessed no trait of personal egotism. I have seen accusations of vanity urged against him because of his distinctive personality and dress. As for the latter I think it grew rather than was adopted, as much because it was a thrifty style as because it was comfortable and fitted with his daily habits.

As to his personal naturalness, that could not be otherwise, and only the peanut peddlers and picayune hucksters of literature have referred to it. Every one I have known who has been intimate and friendly with Walt Whitman will agree with me that his life, ways and social ethics have been profoundly simple, sane and manly. One could not help deferring to him. To do otherwise would have been to commit violence against one's sense of honor. But the people about him have never been those who agree because it was him, and Walt himself would have been uncontent if they had.

In his Boston sojourn he was, as here and elsewhere, a diligent saunterer of street and common, suburbs and highways, finding all the historic points, absorbing and tallying himself with every distinctive feature of the Hub. At the printing-office he was a great delight. He made a good many changes in proofs, and was very dainty of words—careful, too. I recall that he was always desirous of having the proofreader's judgment on any verbal felicity or coinage. This personage was a learned man, and philologists deferred to him. On most points he deferred to Walt.

HIS LIFE IN WASHINGTON.

Walt in the years when he was a department clerk in Washington slept in the attic chamber of an old-fashioned house opposite the Treasury, where the Corcoran Building now stands, on Fifteenth street, Washington. He was carried there when first stricken with paralysis in 1873. But his home life was really at the O'Connors'. Among the frequent visitors there in the years just after the war were the once well-known Count Adam Gurowski and George Wood, author of "Peter Schayme in America." Gurowski in those days was hot and furious in his criticisms of Lincoln and Seward and of the latter when he served with Mr. Johnson. It was a lively occasion when all of us got together and Walt sat in a big armchair, serenely smiling over the verbal whirlwinds that blew through and through the cosy rooms. For the rest he followed his old-time sauntering habits and became well known to all public men and habitués of Washington. Gen. Garfield for one was fond of meeting Walt on "the avenue," as he was himself walking up from the Capitol. He always recognized Whitman with a "So long," or a quotation from some of his poems, when he did not turn and saunter a while with the poet.

Everybody of a literary turn who visited the Capital would seek out Walt, and this was especially the case with English visitors, who were many in those years. All the street-car men knew him, and one manly fellow, a driver, attached himself closely to Walt, remaining his faithful, admiring friend, and rendering many personal services that only such fidelity could give to an older and honored man. I wish that his name could be recalled.

Of the days at Camden I know but little. He was first drawn there because of his brother's residence, and remained because of its cheapness of living. I agree with other friends that it has seemed a mistake to be on one side, as it were, in that lonely, separate way. But of course physical disability, to some extent, affected the will, and the aged poet clung to his independence also. Among the most devoted of later friends has been Whitman's biographer, Dr. R. M. Bucke, of London, Canada, who, with J. H. Ingham, of Philadelphia; Richard Watson Gilder, and his sister, John Burroughs and J. H. Johnson of this city, with some English friends occasionally, have done their utmost in making comfortable these latter years of this notable personality, poet, thinker and sage. Mr. Ingham has a history of his own, having lived as an abolitionist in slave-holding Virginia. He has been a regular visitor for years at the poet's Camden home, and cares steadily in quiet but effective ways for his welfare.

I shall remember Walt always as I last saw him in October of 1887, in the parlors of the Westminster Hotel on the occasion of his last visit to New York. He was to ride to a photographer, accompanied by Miss Jeannette Gilder, the editor of the Critic, to have a picture taken. Miss Gilder induced him to sit for the portrait just as he came in from the street, and the result was an excellent likeness. The photograph is reproduced above, and is without doubt the last the poet will ever have taken. The negative and only copies are in Miss Gilder's possession. He was feeble and lame, but his head and face were both noble and gentle as he fairly beamed in recognition of friends who gathered around him. Clad in his loose, graceful gray cloth suit, with a wide-collared silk shirt that bore a dainty touch of embroidery, and was as usual wide open at the breast, his grand head and soft, almost roseate-hued face, with the tired but still affectionate eyes, all framed in the white, silky lines of his silver hair and abundant beard, Walt Whitman was a picture indeed—a memory to be forever cherished.

RICHARD HINTON.

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