Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Edward Bertz to Walt Whitman, 20–22 July 1889

Date: July 20–22, 1889

Whitman Archive ID: loc.01096

Source: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Transcribed from digital images or a microfilm reproduction of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Kirby Little, Caterina Bernardini, Ian Faith, and Stephanie Blalock



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Deutscher Schriftstellerverband1
Bezirtsverein I, Berlin. Dorstand.
Lagow,
July 20th,
1889.

My dear Sir,

Your card and, some days later, the gift of your Complete Works2, as well as the parcel of pamphlets and papers you sent me, safely reached me here in the country where I am spending my summer holidays, and whence I shall return to Potsdam in the beginning of August.3 Your card alone would have been a great treasure; but to receive, out of your own kind hands, that glorious book with your personal dedication, your portraits, and those various materials which confirm what had always been my impression of your character, is more to me than words of gratitude could express. So I will only say: Thank you heartily. To think that some words of mine brought a pleased smile upon the lips of a great and good man, adds something priceless to the value of my life.

My article was hastily written and, though you do acknowledge my good intentions, must seem very inadequate to you. But for years it has been my aim some day to write an exhaustive essay worthy, as far as it may be in my power, of your work and genius. Now your personal touch, if I may say so, has given me a new impulse, and I am resolved to set to work at once. If life and strength lasts, this pen of mine shall help to reveal you to the German people.

When I wrote that paper for the "Deutsche Presse," I did not know of the translation published at Zürich, of which you speak. But I got it since then and brought it here with me. I came here, together with a medical man, Dr. Rehfeldt,4 my faithful friend since our common school days, and we are staying in a retired spot which belongs to the most picturesque in Northern Germany. The house is situated high in a garden from which we overlook two deep, quiet lakes, surrounded by hills clad with beach and pine forests. On our island between them clusters the hamlet of Lagow, at the foot of an ancient castle. My friend has his wife and children with him. Every evening when these my little favourites have gone to sleep, we light the lamp under an old lime tree in the garden, and then we call you to keep us company. The other night I translated to my friends pp. 5 to 11 from Mr. O'Connor's5 "Vindication", and they were deeply moved. The wife whose spiritual beauty would gladden your heart, instructed me to send you her love. Generally my friend reads the translation while I compare the English text. So Messrs. Knortz6 and Rolleston7 have found in us a rather critical public. In many places the rendering is excellent, and faithfully mirrors the beauty and power of your thoughts, eliciting warm praise from Rehfeldt and his lady. In not a few instances, however, we also noticed mistakes which sometimes will make it hard to grasp your meaning, for those who cannot read the original. No doubt you are aware that it is very difficult to translate you; frequently the entire originality of your language seems to defy its being moulded into different forms. I have often experienced it in my own attempts at translating you; for I was never quite satisfied with the result. In any case there is not, in the German translation, that grand harmony by which the original is distinguished, and it certainly does not reach the perfection of those examples Freiligrath8 has given us of your work. But to translate a poet, another poet is required, and I think that some day he will appear who will do justice to you even in German. However, everything considered, it is a careful and diligent book Messrs. Knortz and Rolleston have given us, and as pioneering work it is most welcome.

To avoid mistakes, I think I ought to tell you that I am living as an independant literary man, and am not constantly the editor of the "Deutsche Presse," but was so only temporarily, because of a severe illness of the regular editor. However, since last autumn I am entrusted with the honorary office of first secretary in the Society of German authors, a position the duties of which keep me very busy indeed. I am also a member of the "Verein Berliner Presse," and though quietly living at Potsdam, I have to go to Berlin about twice or three times every week.

Perhaps you did not know of the passages characterizing your mind and work which, in my article, I have translated from "Thyrza."9 The author of this book, the English novelist George Gissing, is one of my very best friends. I knew him from my first coming to England, in 1878, and passed with him, in common studies and aspirations, some rich and fruitful years of companionship and curious Bohemianism, and our correspondence, since my coming back to Germany, was never interrupted. I made him acquainted with your works, after my return from America, and it is my own experience he has related in "Thyrza": his hero's getting to know "Leaves of Grass" during his American life, and coming home a new man.

I spent two years in America, from 1881 to 1883, at Rugby, Tennessee, the English colony of Thomas Hughes.10 My health had broken down from overwork, and making the personal acquaintance of the author of "Tom Brown's School Days," I was induced to join his settlement, since I urgently needed a change of air. The sea voyage did me much good, and when I arrived at Rugby, I was well enough to help for a month or two in nursing those English young fellows who, after coming out to Tennessee, were most of them attacked by typhoid fever. A number died, and when the others recovered I went into the wilderness. But though I acquired a hundred acres of forest land, and got a good house erected there in a solitary and romantic spot, all of which is still my property, my farming came to nothing, as I longed to get back to my studies, as soon as I had got well again in the rough and healthy forest life. Seven squatter's children came to me every morning with their spelling-books, and I amused myself with teaching them the three R's, still snow blocked the roads. Then I passed the winter in complete solitude, reading Shakespeare and the ancient classics, with no companion save a fine collie dog I had brought over with me from England. In the spring of 1882, the trustees of the "Hughes Public Library" which, in honour of Tom Hughes, had been founded at Rugby by the publishers of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, offered me the post of librarian, and I accepted it for a year, during which time I had to arrange and to catalogue the whole library.

Your works were not among the donations; but reading about you in the "Critic" paper, I believe, which was regularly sent to the library, I ordered "Leaves of Grass" from Cincinnati, and from the very first I recognized your geniune greatness, and loved you with all my heart. However, with a whole library at my disposal, in which hundreds and hundreds of books were new to me and attracted my curiosity, I was not then in a position to enter very deeply into anything, but rather tasted of everything, and I may say the seeds that fell into my heart when first reading you, have grown to maturity only after my return to Europe when I found time quietly to digest what I had hastily swallowed.

I did not want to stay in America, as I felt that my real work lay in Europe with which I was most strongly connected by personal and intellectual ties. So in June, 1883, I went back first to England, and, about a year after that, to Germany. But before leaving, I spent a fortnight in New York, and there I purchased "Specimen Days and Collect,"11 so that your complete works, as far as they were then published, accompanied me to Europe.

Since then I have been leading the life of a literary man. In 1884 I wrote an English book, entitled "The French Prisoners",—the story of a friendship between a German boy and a young French soldier. It was published by Messrs. Macmillan & Co., of London, and rather well received by criticism. One of its chapters is headed by a motto from "Leaves of Grass", orig.: "Beautiful thought, beautiful as the sky, that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time for even be lost."12 In the following year I published, at Leipzig, a German translation of Montesquieu's "Lettres persanes,"13 with commentary and critical introduction. In the latter I have also mentioned you.

But I may say I am still in the beginning of my literary career. After finishing that translation, I devoted about three years to extensive studies, writing very little, and it seems to me that only then I acquired what I may perhaps regard as my maturity. Now during the last year I have written a number of long articles on literary matters, for various papers, and I had the satisfaction that almost every one of them brought me letters of approval and gifts of books from authors. All that is very encouraging and assures me in the hope that I may in time do some really good work. Having devoted much industry and thought to the study of philosophy, social science, and literature, I was able to form an independent opinion on many things; and as my highest aim in writing is truth, I have come to believe that there is some important work to do for my pen. And I trust you will find it is no unworthy advocate that is going to interpret you to the Germans. You will not wonder, of course, if I tell you that in many respects I am opposed to the spirit now current in the German empire. I am not a fighting man by nature, but as an author I feel in duty bound to defend with unflagging energy what is highest in life and literature, and I would rather be silent forever than to foster anything mean and unjust.

July 22nd, 1889.

Yesterday your gift of Dr. Bucke's14 book arrived, as well as, from Mr. Knortz of New York, his German lecture about you. Thank you from all my heart for the kind and welcome help you are giving me in the work that is now before me: for indeed all those materials will make my task much more easy. But, besides being a help, Mr. Bucke's book contains much, very much that is new to me and a key to your work and character. And, beyond all that, everything that comes from you is sanctified, and words cannot express what it means to me.

I have written this very long letter because I felt it due to you to tell you something of the disciple who was so kindly received by you. Perhaps, as my work progresses, it will please you to hear now and then how I am getting on. But of course no answer will be needed, since it is quite sufficient to me to imagine that my lines come to you like a pleasant visitor.

By-the-by, there was a delay in sending you my article, because I did not know in what city you are living. After some weeks only, seeing from a paragraph in the London "Athenaeum" that you had been present at the celebration of your birthday in Camden, New Jersey,15 I concluded that you were dwelling there.

Now good-bye for this once, my dear friend and Master. I send you my sincere goodwishes for the improvement of your health and strength. Some weeks ago my old grandparents, after sixty years marriage, celebrated their diamond wedding. My grandfather who last year had been so ill that hardly any hope remained for his life, walks now about again and reads all day long, and is as ardent and radical a politician as ever, though now past eighty-six: I trust you too, like him, will grow quite strong again.

Ever yours reverently, gratefully, and affectionately,
Edward Bertz.


Correspondent:
Edward Bertz (1853–1931), also spelled "Eduard," was a German writer and translator from Potsdam, who became involved with social democracy movements and signed a petition against the criminalization of homosexuality in Germany. In honor of Whitman's seventieth birthday, Bertz published an article in the Deutsche Presse of June 2, 1889 (Amelia von Ende, "Whitman and the Germans of Today," The Conservator No. 4 [June 1907], 55–57). Bertz sent Whitman the article in his June 16, 1889, letter to the poet. A holograph copy of the article, with corrections by Whitman (June 1889) is part of the Charles E. Feinberg Collection, held by the Library of Congress. Whitman discussed the letter and Bertz's article with Horace Traubel, remarking, "It is interesting to me to know what they think of us way over there. It comes from Berlin, which is a center, I suppose, an important center" (Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Friday, June 28, 1889). For more information on Bertz, see Grünzweig, Walter, "Bertz, Eduard (1853–1931)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland, 1998).

Notes:

1. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman Esq | 328 Mickle Street, | Camden, New Jersey, | United States America. It is postmarked: LAGOW | 22 7 | 89 | 8-12H. There are two additional postmarks; both are illegible. The following is printed at the top of the envelope: Deutscher Schriftstellerverband | Bezirks-Berein I, Berlin. [back]

2. Whitman's Complete Poems & Prose was published in December 1888. With the help of Horace Traubel, Whitman made the presswork and binding decisions, and Frederick Oldach bound the volume, which included a profile photo of the poet on the title page. For more information on the book, see Ed Folsom's Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary. [back]

3. Whitman's letter to Bertz appears to be lost. [back]

4. Bertz is referring to Dr. Heinrich Rehfeldt (1851–1910), his longtime friend, who studied medicine in Leipzig and was, at the time, the chief physician at Frankfurt-on-Oder. [back]

5. William Douglas O'Connor (1832–1889) was the author of the grand and grandiloquent Whitman pamphlet "The Good Gray Poet," published in 1866 (a digital version of the pamphlet is available at "The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication"). For more on Whitman's relationship with O'Connor, see Deshae E. Lott, "O'Connor, William Douglas (1832–1889)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

6. Karl Knortz (1841–1918) was born in Prussia and came to the U.S. in 1863. He was the author of many books and articles on German-American affairs and was superintendent of German instruction in Evansville, Ind., from 1892 to 1905. See The American-German Review 13 (December 1946), 27–30. His first published criticism of Whitman appeared in the New York Staats-Zeitung Sonntagsblatt on December 17, 1882, and he worked with Thomas W. H. Rolleston on the first book-length translation of Whitman's poetry, published as Grashalme in 1889. For more information about Knortz, see Walter Grünzweig, "Knortz, Karl (1841–1918)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

7. Thomas William Hazen Rolleston (1857–1920) was an Irish poet and journalist. After attending college in Dublin, he moved to Germany for a period of time. He wrote to Whitman frequently, beginning in 1880, and later produced with Karl Knortz the first book-length translation of Whitman's poetry into German. In 1889, the collection Grashalme: Gedichte [Leaves of Grass: Poems] was published by Verlags-Magazin in Zurich, Switzerland. See Walter Grünzweig, Constructing the German Walt Whitman (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995). For more information on Rolleston, see Walter Grünzweig, "Rolleston, Thomas William Hazen (1857–1920)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

8. Ferdinand Freiligrath (1810–1876) was a German poet and translator and friend of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In his January 16, 1872 letter to Rudolf Schmidt, Whitman wrote that Freiligrath "translates & commends my poems." His review in the Augsburg Allgemeinen Zeitung on April 24, 1868 (reprinted in his Gesammelte Dichtungen [Stuttgart: G. J. Göschen, 1871], 4:86–89), was among the first notices of Whitman's poetry on the continent. A translation of the article appeared in the New Eclectic Magazine, 2 (July 1868), 325–329; see also Gay Wilson Allen, Walt Whitman Abroad (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1955), 3–7. A digital version is available in Walter Grünzweig's "Whitman in the German-Speaking Countries," which collects several examples of German reception of Whitman's poetry. Freiligrath had promised his readers "some translated specimens of the poet's productions," not a complete translation. William D. O'Connor and Whitman were applying pressure. A sympathetic article on Whitman in the New York Sontagsblatt of November 1, 1868, mentioned Freiligrath's admiration for the American poet. A translation of this article, which Whitman had a Washington friend prepare, is now in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection. [back]

9. Thyrza (1887), a novel by the English novelist George Gissing (1857–1903), is the story of Thyrza Trent, a working class hat-trimmer who longs to rise above the circumstances of her birth and who falls in love with the Oxford-educated Walter Egremont, who often delivers lectures on literature to an audience of factory workers. [back]

10. Thomas Hughes (1822–1896) was an English laywer and author from Oxfordshire; he was best known for his novel Tom Brown's School Days (1857). He also founded an experimental Utopian community in Rugby, Tennessee, in 1880. [back]

11. The first issue of Whitman's Specimen Days and Collect was published by the Philadelphia firm of Rees Welsh and Company in 1882. The second issue was published by David McKay. Many of the autobiographical notes, sketches, and essays that focus on the poet's life during and beyond the Civil War had been previously published in periodicals or in Memoranda During the War (1875–1876). For more information on Specimen Days, see George Hutchinson and David Drews "Specimen Days [1882]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

12. Bertz is quoting, inaccurately, the opening of Whitman's "Reconciliation." [back]

13. Lettres persanes (Persian Letters), by the French writer and political philosopher Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755), was published in 1721. [back]

14. Richard Maurice Bucke (1837–1902) was a Canadian physician and psychiatrist who grew close to Whitman after reading Leaves of Grass in 1867 (and later memorizing it) and meeting the poet in Camden a decade later. Even before meeting Whitman, Bucke claimed in 1872 that a reading of Leaves of Grass led him to experience "cosmic consciousness" and an overwhelming sense of epiphany. Bucke became the poet's first biographer with Walt Whitman (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883), and he later served as one of his medical advisors and literary executors. For more on the relationship of Bucke and Whitman, see Howard Nelson, "Bucke, Richard Maurice," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

15. For Whitman's seventieth birthday, Horace Traubel and a large committee planned a local celebration for the poet in Morgan's Hall in Camden, New Jersey. The day was celebrated with a testimonial dinner. Numerous authors and friends of the poet prepared and delivered addresses to mark the occasion. Whitman, who did not feel well at the time, arrived after the dinner to listen to the remarks. [back]


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