Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Rudolf Schmidt to Walt Whitman, 28 February 1874

Date: February 28, 1874

Whitman Archive ID: loc.01909

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.

Editorial note: The annotation, "Rudolf Schmidt Feb. 28—'74," is in the hand of Walt Whitman.

Contributors to digital file: Alex Kinnaman, Elizabeth Lorang, Kevin McMullen, Ashley Lawson, John Schwaninger, Caterina Bernardini, Amanda J. Axley, Erel Michaelis, Caitlin S. Matheis, and Stephanie Blalock

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28 February 1874

Dear Walt Whitman,

Returning from Germany I found your letter of 25 Jan.1 waiting for me with many others. My first task is to write to you.

'Democratic Vistas'2 has appeared in Danish translation for two weeks ago. I sent you myself one copy in loose sheets (to of those small parcels) and the editor has during my absence on the day of the appearance sent you two complete copies—one of them unpaid, that it could be sure to reach you. In "Illustreret [Foereblal?]"3 (the people's illustrated magazine) for 22 Feb your likeness with a short biographical notice has been published, and the editor has sent you some copies. Of course all these parcels have gone to the Solicitor's4 office in Washington. I hope, that nevertheless the most of them have reached you. If not, let me know it as soon as possible, and new copies shall then be forwarded.

"Fædrelandet" (the fatherland) brings this evening a criticism on eight columns on your book. You shall have the paper sent one of these days. "Fædrelandet" was during 30 years our most influential paper, the sovereign commander of opinions. At present its lustre blackens and darkens. From democratic and liberal it has grown conservative and anxious. As all what is calling itself "intellect" in Denmark the editor does not at all understand the democratic movement among the peasantry. Your book has been as a clenched fist in the eyes of all these people. Of course the criticism testifies the fact. But the eight columns are in the eyes of the Danish public a great honour. The author of the criticism Rosenberg5 is a silly little fellow, who understands nothing between heaven and earth, and least of all, you.

Clemens Petersen6 was in ten years the critic of "Fædrelandet." It has been told to me, that his essay in "the Atlantic monthly" has had a great "success" in America. I can hardly believe it. Is it true? It should interest me very much to have true information on this point. My own opinion I wrote you in a letter7 the last summer. I hope, that you have received it. I also one time sent you a choice of Norwegian and Swedish poems in English translation,8 have you received it? With poor Clausen9 I sent you my picture. If you have not got, then [ask?] it from his widow. It is the only one, which is resembling.

The several pages which you have sent me I have duely received. But I did not think, that your illness10 had been so very severe, as now I hear.

In Berlin I saw Bismarck.11 It is worth the travel to get a glance on this so very powerfull and so excessively beastly face. Attila12 called himself "God's scourge", Napoleon13 did not call himself so, but he was it. But Attila was imposing in the splendour of his barbaric greatness; of Napoleon the German H. Heine14 has said "every inch a God". A scourge like this Brandenburgian fox hunter mankind never has known. Perhaps mankind never has been so deeply fallen!

I fully understand your interest for Björnson.15 He is genuine, his poetry comes from the source that is throbbing in the people's own heat. He has been the spoiled darling of the whole Danish public. But he is a living test of the hidous and venomous serpent, that hides his ugly head among the flowers of the pantheistic poetry. You have in your "vistas" spoken proud words of the flame of conscience, the moral force as the greatest lack of the present democracy. You have, without knowing it, named the lack of Bjornson at the same time! Bjornson owes Denmark gratitude. He has shown it in the form of deep and bloody offences, that make every honest Danish heat burn with rage and indignation. I hope never to see this man, whom I have really loved, more. At present he is in Italy and most probably he is going to America in the spring to finish his moral putrification with dollars–gaining, handshakings and other humbug.

You know too little of our relations, therefore I can tell you no more. But you will understand that I can forward no demand from you to Bjornson. But Clemens Petersen was one of his "lovers" and is it still. If Bjornson goes to America, he will visit Petersen. To him you can write and get said information.

I have asked you at least two times how you did like Clemens Petersen; you have not replied and most probably you wont speak of this matter. If that is the case, I shall repeat the question no more.

Hoping that these lines will find you in ameliorated state of health I am

Rudolf Schmidt

The Danish writer Peter Carl Rudolf Schmidt (1836–1899) was the editor of the idealist journal For Idé og Virkelighed ("For Idea and Reality") and had translated Whitman's Democratic Vistas into Danish in 1874.


1. Schmidt refers to Whitman's letter from January 25, 1874. Whitman had written to Schmidt about his health and inquired after Björnstjerne Björnson’s plans to come to America. He also asked Schmidt for a copy of the Danish translation of Democratic Vistas[back]

2. Whitman's Democratic Vistas was first published in 1871 in New York by J.S. Redfield. The volume was an eighty-four-page pamphlet based on three essays, "Democracy," "Personalism," and "Orbic Literature," all of which Whitman intended to publish in the Galaxy magazine. Only "Democracy" and "Personalism" appeared in the magazine. For more information on Democratic Vistas, see Arthur Wrobel, "Democratic Vistas [1871]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

3. As yet we have no information about this publication. [back]

4. The parcels were sent to Whitman's old address in the Attorney General's Office in Washington before Schmidt knew of Whitman's declining health and his move to his brother George's home in Camden, New Jersey. [back]

5. Carl Rosenberg was a literary critic whose views on democracy accorded with Whitman's; however, as a Christian, he took issue with Whitman's pantheism. For more on Rosenberg's opinion of Whitman, see Carl Roos, "Walt Whitman's Letters to a Danish Friend," Orbis Litterarum, 7 (1949), 49n. [back]

6. Clemens Petersen (1834–1918), for ten years a critic for the Danish magazine "Fædrelandet" (Fatherland), left Denmark in 1869 amid police accusations of homosexuality; accusations that Petersen was inappropriately involved with schoolchildren were never proven. Petersen remained in the U.S. until 1904, when he returned to Denmark. Petersen and Norwegian poet Björnstjerne Björnson (1832–1910) engaged in a long correspondence, suggesting a close friendship. Rudolf Schmidt pressed Walt Whitman for his opinion of Petersen, as in his February 28, 1874, letter: "I have asked you at least two times how you did like Clemens Petersen; you have not replied and most probably you wont speak of this matter. If that is the case, I shall repeat the question no more." See Who's Who in Gay & Lesbian History, ed. Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon (London: Psychology Press, 2000), 2:55, 343; see also Carl Roos, "Walt Whitman's Letters to a Danish Friend," Orbis Litterarum, 7 (1949), 43n. [back]

7. Perhaps Schmidt is thinking of his letter of April 4, 1873, in which he wrote: "I wonder, that Clemens Petersen who is an infinitely greater talent has got no entrance into this periodical [The North American Review]."  [back]

8. It is unclear which letter Schmidt is referring to here. [back]

9. Carl F. Clausen, who Rudolf Schmidt called "my old friend and countryman," corresponded with Schmidt after he left Denmark in 1860. See Carl Roos, "Walt Whitman's Letters to a Danish Friend," Orbis Litterarum, 7 (1949), 34–39. The Directory in 1870 listed him as a draughtsman and in 1872 as a patent agent. He died of consumption in the middle 1870s. [back]

10. In January 1873, Whitman suffered a paralytic stroke that made walking difficult. He first reported it in his January 26, 1873, letter to his mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman (1795–1873), and continued to provide regular notes on his condition. By mid-March Whitman was taking brief walks out to the street and began to hope that he could resume work in the office. See also his March 21, 1873, letter to his mother. [back]

11. Otto Eduard Leopold Bismarck was the prime minister of Prussia (1862–73, 1873–90) and founder and first chancellor (1871–90) of the German Empire. [back]

12. Attila the Hun (406–453) was a tribal emperor in Central and Eastern Europe. He is considered one of the most powerful rulers in world history. Attila was the ruler of the Huns from 434 until his death in 453. [back]

13. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) was Emperor of France from 1804 to 1815. [back]

14. Christian Johann Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) was a renowned German poet, journalist, essayist, and literary critic. He is well known for his lyric poetry, which was set to music in the form of the lieder by the composers Robert Schumann (1810–1856) and Franz Schubert (1797–1828). [back]

15. Björnstjerne Björnson (1832–1910), Norwegian poet, dramatist, and novelist, was co-editor of Rudolf Schmidt's journal. In his January 5, 1872, letter, Rudolf Schmidt observed: "Hans Christian Andersen would perhaps not make you very great joy, if you did know him personally. Björnson would be your man." Schmidt later altered his opinion of Björnson. [back]


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