Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Calvin H. Greene to Walt Whitman, 18 May 1891

Date: May 18, 1891

Whitman Archive ID: loc.02126

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 notes: The annotation, "Return to Box III Rochester Mich. if not delivered in 10 ds.," is in an unknown hand. The annotations, "#1," and "see notes May 20 1891," are in the hand of Horace Traubel.

Contributors to digital file: Cristin Noonan, Amanda J. Axley, Marie Ernster, and Stephanie Blalock



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Rochester Mich—
5-18-91

Mr Walt Whitman Camden N. J.1
Dear Sir,

Enclosed, you will find a few pages composed of selections from your work sandwiched with Col. Ingersoll's2 Summing up in his address at Phil'a of the 21st of Oct last.3 I thought that closing portion of it especially admirable. And, a few days ago I some how fell upon this way of testing the integrity of the orator's statements.

If I have not succeeded in verifying them, I have, at least, had a good deal of satisfaction in the attempt. Near the close of my effort it occured to me that it might possibly amuse you a little to look it over.

You will, doubtless, find the thing sufficiently fanciful, forced & artificial, & also, that I have presumed to take a little liberty with the text, for which, please pardon.

About thirty years ago I obtained a copy of "Leaves of Grass" of the Edition of '60–61—I have counted myself in, as one its its admirers ever since. &, to be frank, it is one of the few books that the reading of has led me, from the start, to entertain a warm-hearted interest in its author.

Such sketches & likenesses of yourself & reviews of your works as have happened to fall in my way, I have attentively looked over & carefully treasured up—John Burroughs'4 "Walt Whitman" I own & am pleased with, also with the testimony of Emerson5 & Thoreau6 upon the same subject.

I well remember the latter person's mention in one of his letters, of being in Brooklyn with his friend Alcott7 & meeting you there years ago—& his remarks that followed.

I first read Ingersoll's oration in the N.Y. "Truth Seeker,"8 but have since ordered it in book form. The occasion of that gathering has seemed to me, grand & unique. Nothing approaching it in history, as I remember, except what came near happening to the poet, Tasso9 at Rome in April of 159510

Please accept my most cordial congratulations & best wishes for your health & happiness.

I suppose I saw daylight about two years before you, yet am still what might be called active (in body), & am enjoying life as much as ever, with a hopeful outlook toward the future.

Please excuse this long, rambling letter from a stranger to you, & if it has tired you, have the kindness to attribute it wholly to the proverbial garrulity of old age, and still believe me,

Yours Very Sincerely
C. H. Greene


Ingersoll's Synopsis of "Leaves of Grass" Verified

As you read the marvelous book, or person, called "Leaves of Grass,"

This is no book, who touches this touches a man, I spring from the pages into your arms11

you feel the freedom of the antique world;

I heard what was said of the universe, Heard it, & heard it of several thousand years;
Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me, . . .
Afar down I see the huge first Nothing—I know I was even there.

you hear the voices of the morning, of the first great singers—

I hear in the distance the sounds of children, & of animals early in the day.
I hear the Hebrew reading his records and psalms,
I hear the rhythmic myths of the Greeks & the strong legends of the Romans.

voices elemental as those of sea and storm.

Elemental drifts! O I wish I could impress others as you & the waves have just been impressing me.
As I ebbed with the ebb of the ocean of life,
As I wended the shores I know.

The horizon enlarges, the heavens grow ample, limitations are forgotton—

O space boundless! O all, all inseperable—ages, ages, ages!
O days bygone! Enthusiasts, Antecedents! O centuries, centuries yet ahead,
O so amazing and so broad! up there resplendent, darting and burning.

The realization of the will, the accomplishment of the ideal seems to be in your power.

I do not doubt there are realizations I have no idea of, waiting for me through time & through the universes.

Obstructions become petty and disappear.

All parts away for the progress of Souls,
All that was or is apparent upon this globe or any globe, falls into nitches & corners
before the procession of Souls along the grand roads of the universe.

The chains & bars are broken, & the distinctions of caste are lost.

Liberated & the divine average—Freedom to every slave on the face of the Earth.
He says indifferently & alike, How are you, friend? to the President at the levee,
And he says Good-day, my brother! to Cudge that hoes in the sugar-field.

The soul is in the open air, under the blue & Stars—the flag of Nature.

I have read these leaves to myself in the open air—I have tried them by trees, Stars, rivers.
I think heroic deeds were all conceived in the open air
I think I could stop here myself, and do miracles.

Creeds, theories & philosophies ask to be examined, contradicted, reconstructed.

Now I reexamine philosophies and religions
Alons! From all formulas! From your formulas, O bat-eyed & materialistic priests.
The stale cadaver blocks up the passage—the burial waits no longer.

Prejudices disappear, superstitions vanish and custom abdicates.

The Soul travels, The body does not travel as much as the Soul.
Of the progress of the Souls of men & women along the grand roads of universe,
all other progress is the needed emblem and sustenance.

The sacred places become highways, duties & desires clap hands & become comrades & friends.

To see no being, not God's or any, but you also go thither,
What blurt is this about virtue and about vice?
I say what tastes sweet to the most perfect person, that is finally right.

Authority drops the scepter, the priest the miter, & the purple falls from kings.

With antecedents, With those old continents whence we have come to this new continent,
With the fading kingdoms & kings over there, With the fading religions & priests,—
There will shortly be no more priests—I say their work is done.

The inanimate becomes articulate, the meanest & humblest things utter Speech,

Thoughts of waters, forests, hills, Of the earth at large whispering through medium of me
A word then, . . . Is that it from your liquid rims and wet sands?
Answering, the sea whispered me through the night, & very plainly before daybreak.

and the dumb and voiceless burst into song.

I hear the violoncello, or man's heart's complaint,. . .
I hear the chorus—it is a grand-opera,
Ah, this indeed is music! This suits me!

A feeling of independence takes possession of the Soul,

I celebrate myself, And what I assume you shall assume, I loafe & invite my Soul.
I swear I am for those that have never been mastered.
I swear I will not be outfaced by irrational things.

the body expands, the blood flows full & free, Superiors vanish, flattery is a lost art,

Was it doubted if the body does not do as much as the Soul?
The poet can make every word he speaks draw blood.
Is it you that thought the President greater than you? Souls of men & women I own publicly who you are if nobody else does.

and life becomes rich, royal and superb.

Forever alive, forever forward! They go! they go!
I know that they go, but I know not where they go.
But I know they go toward the best—toward something great.

The world becomes a personal possession,

Solitary, singing in the west, I strike up for a new world.
Here lands female and male,
Here the heirship and heiress–ship of the world.

and the oceans, continents & constellations belong to you.

See vast trackless spaces, . . .See ancestor-continents, away grouped together
The earth—That is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer.

You are in the center, everything radiates from you.

Conformity goes to the fourth-removed, I cock my hat as I please, indoors or out,
Our world is aware,& by far the largest to me, & that is myself,

and in your veins beats & throbs the pulse of all life.

Not in this beating & pounding at my temples & wrists, O pulse of my life!
Need I that you exist & show yourself, anymore than in these Songs.

You become a rover careless and free.

You road I travel and look around! I believe you are not all that is here.

You wander by the shores of all seas and hear the eternal psalm.

As I have bathed on the beach of the Eastern Sea, and again on the beach
of the Western Sea, I have charged myself with contentment & triumph . . . .
O setting sun! I still warble under you, if none else does, unmitigated adoration.

You feel the silence of the wide forest & stand beneath the intertwined & overarching boughs,

Beyond these I pass, far, far in the forest, before I think where I get,
Solitary, smelling the earthy smell, stopping now & then in the silence,
Alone I have thoughts—yet soon a silent troop gathers around me.

entranced with symphonies of winds and woods.

Music always around me, unceasing, unbeginning,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan, . . . or stand under trees in the woods
The winds blowing, the notes of the wondrous bird echoing, The strange tears down the cheeks coursing.

You are borne on the tides of eager and Swift rivers,

O boating on the rivers! Rude boats descending the big Pedee, Otherways, there, atwixt the banks
of the Arkansas, the Rio Grande, the Nueces, the Tombigbee, the Red River, the Saskatchawan,
or the Osage, I with the spring waters laughing and skipping and running.

hear the rush & roar of cataracts as they fall beneath the seven-hued arch,

I see the Great River, & the Falls of Niagara, Its cataract falling like a veil over my countenance,
See the prismatic colors glistening and rolling,
O vapors! I think I have risen with you.

and watch the eagles as they circling soar.

O from his masterful sweep, the warning cry of the eagle.

You traverse gorges dark & dim, & climb the scarred & threatening cliffs.

Always California's golden hills & hollows—and the Silver mountains of New Mexico.
What are the mountains called that rise so high in the mists?
I see the table-lands notched with ravines, I see granite boulders and cliffs.

You stand in orchards where the blossoms fall like snow,

Appletrees covered with blossoms! Rich apple–blossomed earth! Smile, for your Lover comes!

where the birds nest & sing, & painted moths make aimless journeys through the happy air.

With nest & four light-green eggs, spotted with brown, . . . Singing all the time, minding no time.—
You birds that wing yourselves through the air! you insects!
Me, observing the spiral flight of two little yellow butterflies, shuffling between each other, ascending high in the air.

You live the lives of those who till the earth, & walk amid the perfumed fields,

I see plowmen plowing farms. These are full of perfumes. I breathe the fragrance myself & know it & like it.
The farmer stops by the bars, as he walks on a First-Day loafe, and looks at the oats & rye.

hear the reaper's song & feel the breadth & scope of Earth & Sky.

I hear the workman singing & the farmers wife singing. Within me latitude widens & longitude lengthens.
Banding the bulge of the Earth winds the hot equator. Curiously north & south turn the axis-ends.

You are in the great cities, in the midst of multitudes, of the endless processions.

I see the cities of the earth, and make myself at random a part of them,
I am a real Parisian, a habitan of Vienna, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Constantinople,
I troop forth replenished with power, one of an average unending procession.

You are on the wide plains—the prairies—with hunter & trapper,
with savage & pioneer, & you feel the soft grass yielding under your feet.

Chants of the prairies! Upon the plains west of the Spinal river—yet in my house of adobe.
I saw the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west—the bride was a red girl.
Land of the pastoral plains! The grass–fields of the world!

You sail in many Ships, & breathe the free air of the Sea.

I behold the steam-ships of the world.
O to be on the sea! the wind, the wide waters around;
O to sail in a ship under full sail at sea!

You travel many roads and countless paths.

Afoot & light–hearted I take to the open road, Healthy & free, the world before me.
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose,
The Soul travels, The body does not travel as much as the Soul.

You visit palaces & prisons, hospitals & courts,

Suddenly out of its stale & drowsy lair, the lair of slaves,
Like lightening it le'pt forth, half startled at itself.
Its feet upon the ashes & the rags—its hands tight to the throat of kings.

you pity kings & convicts, & your sympathy goes to all the Suffering and insane, the oppressed & enslaved & even to the infamous.

O Christ! This is mastering me!
Through the conquered doors they crowd, I am possessed.
The interminable hordes of the ignorant & wicked are not nothing,—
Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you, . . . my girl,
Till then I salute you with a significant look, that you do not forget me.

You hear the din of labor, all sounds of factory, field & forest, of all tools, instruments and machines.

See the numberless factories! See, mechanics, busy at their benches with tools
See the many cylindered steam printing-press—see the electric telegraph.
See the pastures and forests in my poems.

You become familiar with men & women of all employments, trades & professions.

O workmen & workwomen forever for me!
O farmers and sailors! O drivers of horses forever for me!
O I will make the new bardic list of trades and tools.

with birth & burial, with wedding feast & funeral chant.

Not a day passes—not a minute or second without an accomplishment.
Not a day passes—not a minute or second without a corpse,—
The oath of the inseperableness of two together, (for I am the new husband)
And the slow-moving, black lines that go ceaselessly over the earth.

You see the cloud and flame of war,

I walked the shores of the Eastern Sea, Heard over the waves the little voice,
Saw the divine infant, where she woke, mournfully wailing, amid the roar of cannon,
The curses, shouts, crash of falling buildings, & repeated fusillades of the guns.

and you enjoy the ineffible perfect days of peace.—

The dependence of Liberty shall be lovers,
The continuance of Equality shall be comrades
These shall tie & band stronger than hooks of iron.

In this one book, in these wondrous "Leaves of Grass," you
find hints and suggestions, touches and fragments,
of all there is of life, that lies between the babe,
whose rounded cheeks dimple beneath his mother's laughing,
loving eyes, and the old man, snow–crowned, who,
with a smile, extends his hand to death.

I will not make poems with reference to parts,
But will make leaves, poems, poemets, songs, says, thoughts, with reference to ensemble,
And I will not sing with reference to a day, but with reference to all days,
And I will not make a poem, or the least part of a poem, but has reference to the Soul.
Whoever you are! to you endless announcements!
From the sprawl & fulness of babes, the bosoms & heads of women,
From the sacred faces of infants, the illuminated faces of the mothers of many children,
So the old manhood of me, with my joys!
My children and grand-children—my white hair and beard,
My largeness, calmness, majesty, out of the long stretch of my life.—
I will duly pass the day, O my mother! and duly return to thee.


Correspondent:
Calvin Harlow Greene (1817–1898) was born in Covington, New York, and moved to Rochester, Michigan, as a child. He taught school at Rochester's Avon Lyceum in 1856 and served as principal there the next year. He owned and operated a saw and cider mill in Rochester. A lover of literature, he particularly admired Henry David Thoreau and, after reading Walden, he wrote to Thoreau in 1856 to ask how he could get a copy of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack; this initiated a sustained four-year correspondence between Greene and Thoreau. After Thoreau's death in 1862, Greene stayed in touch with Thoreau's mother and sister and visited the family in Concord, Massachusetts, where he also developed friendships with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott.

Notes:

1. This letter is addressed: Mr Walt Whitman | Camden | N.J. It is postmarked: ROCHESTER | MAY | 18 | 1891 | MICH; N. Y. | 3-18-91 | 10 PM | 8; CAMDEN, N.J. | MAY| 20 | 5AM | 1891 | REC'D. [back]

2. Robert "Bob" Green Ingersoll (1833–1899) was a Civil War veteran and an orator of the post-Civil War era, known for his support of agnosticism. Ingersoll was a friend of Whitman, who considered Ingersoll the greatest orator of his time. Whitman said to Traubel, "It should not be surprising that I am drawn to Ingersoll, for he is Leaves of Grass. He lives, embodies, the individuality I preach. I see in Bob the noblest specimen—American-flavored—pure out of the soil, spreading, giving, demanding light" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, March 25, 1891). The feeling was mutual. Upon Whitman's death in 1892, Ingersoll delivered the eulogy at the poet's funeral. The eulogy was published to great acclaim and is considered a classic panegyric (see Phyllis Theroux, The Book of Eulogies [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997], 30). [back]

3. On October 21, 1890, at Horticultural Hall in Philadelphia, Robert Ingersoll delivered a lecture in honor of Walt Whitman titled Liberty in Literature. Testimonial to Walt Whitman. Whitman recorded in his Commonplace Book that the lecture was "a noble, (very eulogistic to WW & L of G) eloquent speech, well responded to by the audience," and the speech itself was published in New York by the Truth Seeker Company in 1890 (Whitman's Commonplace Book [Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.]). [back]

4. The naturalist John Burroughs (1837–1921) met Whitman on the streets of Washington, D.C., in 1864. After returning to Brooklyn in 1864, Whitman commenced what was to become a lifelong correspondence with Burroughs. Burroughs was magnetically drawn to Whitman. However, the correspondence between the two men is, as Burroughs acknowledged, curiously "matter-of-fact." Burroughs would write several books involving or devoted to Whitman's work: Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person (1867), Birds and Poets (1877), Whitman, A Study (1896), and Accepting the Universe (1924). For more on Whitman's relationship with Burroughs, see Carmine Sarracino, "Burroughs, John [1837–1921] and Ursula [1836–1917]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

5. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) was an American poet and essayist who began the Transcendentalist movement with his 1836 essay Nature. For more on Emerson, see Jerome Loving, "Emerson, Ralph Waldo [1809–1882]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

6. Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) was an American author, poet, and abolitionist best known for writing Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854) and Civil Disobedience (1849). He was a contemporary of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. [back]

7. Amos Bronson Alcott (1799–1888) was an American educator, abolitionist, and father of Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888), whose 1868 novel Little Women (loosely based on the Alcott home) secured the financial stability her father had been unable to achieve through his own work as a teacher and transcendentalist. See also The Journals of Bronson Alcott, ed. Odell Shepard (Boston: Little, Brown, 1938), 286–290. [back]

8. Truth Seeker was a radical free thought periodical founded in 1873 by DeRobigne Mortimer Bennett (1818—1882) and his wife Mary Wicks Bennett. [back]

9. Torquato Tasso (1544–1595) was an Italian poet known for his poem La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered). First published in 1581, the poem depicts the Christian forces of the First Crusade (1096–1099) in a hard-won triumph against the Muslims at Jerusalem.  [back]

10. Pope Clement VIII invited Tasso to Rome to receive the crown of laurels as the king of poets in a ceremony on the Capitoline Hill in April 595; Tasso died just days before the honor was to be bestowed. [back]

11. As Greene noted in this letter, he has included several pages that are "composed of selections from [Whitman's] work sandwiched with Col. Ingersoll's." At the end of this line, the first that he has taken from Leaves of Grass, Greene writes the following citation that includes his source text and the page number: "Ed.—1860–1" 455. Each of Greene's page references appear in the right margin near or immediately following the quoted lines. All of Green's references are poems published in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass[back]


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