Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: William M. Payne to Walt Whitman, April 7 1889

Date: April 7, 1889

Whitman Archive ID: loc.03489

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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CHICAGO DAILY NEWS.
EDITORIAL ROOMS.1
1601 Prairie Ave
April 7. 1889.

My dear Sir.

As one of the wide circle of the friends whom you have never seen or heard of, I take the liberty of addressing you a word of thanks for the pleasure with which I have read your "November Boughs,"2 and of sending you two articles, upon the subject which I have recently published. No one knows better than I how little the opinion of the world can matter to you one way or the other, but I have thought that it might afford you a moment of satisfaction to know how kindly some of us out here think of you, and I am sure that it affords me much more than that to give this personal expression to my feeling.

Yours faithfully,
W. M. Payne

WALT WHITMAN'S BOOK

A Striking Collection of Essays and Poems—A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads.

The Soul of Eastern Civilization—A Suggestive Work by Percival Lowell—Review of Minor Publications.

Walt Whitman.

The time is past when Walt Whitman could be dismissed with a smile or a sneer, and he has already taken his place in the foremost rank of our writers. The public has been slow to recognize the power and value of his work, but no public, possessed of any degree of intelligence, could long hold out against the verdict rendered in his favor by the consensus of English and American critics. No writer of ordinary powers could win the approval and praise of such men (to name but a few) as Tennyson,3 Swinburne,4 W. M. Rossetti,5 J. A. Symonds6 and E. C. Stedman,7 and this praise and this approval have been bestowed by them in generous measure. It will appear then, at the present day, neither paradox nor extravagance to say that "November Boughs" (Philadelphia: David McKay)8 is an important permanent contribution to American literature.

The contents of this suggestively named volume are diversified. There are some twenty pages of poems, half a dozen essays in literary criticism, several miscellaneous prose papers, and much fragmentary reminiscence of a varied and well-spent life. Of most interest, perhaps, is the "Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads," which serves as the volume's preface. In this admirable paper the veteran poet, with the objective vision of age, takes a long retrospective survey of his activities, admitting the reader more closely than before into the secret of his endeavor, and giving clear and forcible expression to the aims for whose accomplishment he has striven. "At the age of 31 to 33," he tell us, he found himself possessed by an overmastering impulse. "This was a feeling or ambition to articulate and faithfully express in literary and poetic form, and uncompromisingly, my own physical, emotional, moral, intellectual and esthetic Personality, in the midst of, and tallying the momentous spirit and facts of its immediate days, and of current America—and to exploit that Personality, identified with place and date, in a far more candid and comprehensive sense than any hitherto poem or book." The outcome of this ambition was the collection of pieces known collectively as "Leaves of Grass" and the prose papers also put forth from time to time. "The best comfort of the whole business is that, unstopp'd and unwarped by any influence outside the soul within me, I have had my say entirely my own way, and put it unerringly on record." This is what he tells us, with a pride as pardonable as the occasion for its exhibition is rare even among writers of more than usual sincerity and earnestness of purpose. In another place the feeling of pride leads to this exclamation: "My Book and I—what a period we have presumed to span! those thirty years from 1850 to 1880—and America in them! Proud, proud indeed may we be if we have culled enough of that period in its own spirit to worthily waft a few live breaths of it to the future!"

Upon the two matters in which Whitman's work has mainly given offence—its disregard respectively of the conventional requirements of morality and of literary form—this introduction is clear and outspoken. Concerning the latter of these matters we read: "I know well enough, too, that in respect to pictorial talent, dramatic situations, and especially in verbal melody and all the conventional technique of poetry, not only the divine works, that to-day stand ahead in the world's reading, but dozens more, transcend (some of them immeasurably transcend) all I have done or could do. But it seemed to me, as the objects in Nature, the themes of estheticism, and all special exploitations of the mind and soul, involve not only their own inherent quality, but the quality, just as inherent and important, of their point of view, the time had come to reflect all themes and things, old and new, in the lights thrown on them by the advent of America and democracy—to chant those themes through the utterance of one not only the grateful and reverent legatee of the past, but the born child of the New World—to illustrate all through the genesis and ensemble of to-day; and that such illustration and ensemble are the chief demands of America's prospective imaginative literature." While this plea may by no means be accepted as justifying Whitman's literary form, which has faults of which his defective sense does not allow him to dream, it is valuable as a statement of his aim in writing, and for its hearty recognition of the conventional types of excellence in literary composition. This recognition, indeed, finds further and ample expression in the papers on Tennyson, Burns and Shakspeare which are given in the present volume. Of the real purpose of literature, whether conventional or not in form, Whitman is substantially at one with all the great writers from Shakspeare downwards. "I say the profoundest service that poems or any other writings can do for their reader is not merely to satisfy the intellect or supply something polished and interesting, nor even to depict great passions or persons and events, but to fill him with vigorous and clean manliness, religiousness, and give him good heart as a radical possession and habit." These words are as noble as they are profoundly true.

The other matter, brought into prominence by the moralists, who have made themselves mainly responsible for the tardiness of the recognition bestowed upon Whitman's work, is thus met, and the opinion is enforced by years of careful reflection. "From another point of view, 'Leaves of Grass' is avowedly the song of Sex and Amativeness, and even Animality—though meanings that do not usually go along with these words are behind all, and will duly emerge; and all are sought to be lifted into a different light and atmosphere. Of this feature, intentionally palpable in a few lines, I shall only say the espousing principle of those lines so gives breath of life to my whole scheme that the bulk of the pieces might as well have been left unwritten were those lines omitted. Difficult as it will be, it has become, in my opinion, imperative to achieve a shifted attitude from superior men and women toward the thought and fact of sexuality as an element in character, personality, the emotions, and a theme in literature. I am not going to argue the question by itself; it does not stand by itself. . . . In respect to editions of 'Leaves of Grass' in time to come (if there should be such), I take occasion now to confirm those lines with the settled convictions and deliberate renewals of thirty years, and I hereby prohibit, as far as word of mine can do, any elision of them."

The few pages of poetry included within this volume should be reckoned with Whitman's most remarkable work. They exhibit, of course, the peculiarities of diction and the general formlessness of the "Leaves of Grass." The reader who is not prepared to accept the writer's theories, or, rather, who is not willing to acquiesce in them for the time being, will not be appealed to by these "Sands at Seventy." Admitting the peculiarities as a constant and consistent factor, there is much that is both striking and fine. Take, for exmaple, this epigram on "The Bravest Soldiers:"

"Brave, brave were the soldiers (high-named to-day) who lived through the night;
But the bravest press'd to the front and fell, unnamed, unkown."

Here is a touch of nature that is admirable in its thought and feeling:

"Simple and fresh and fair from Winter's close emerging,
As if no artifice of fashion, business, politics, had ever been.
Forth from its sunny nook of shelter'd grass—innocent, golden, calm as the dawn,
The Spring's first dandelion shows its trustful face."

The following fragment is based upon an incident of the Greely expedition—the hearing of a solitary snow-bird's song by the explorers in 83 degrees of north latitude:

"Of that blithe throat of thine from Arctic bleak and blank,
I'll mind the lesson, solitary bird—let me, too, welcome chilling drifts,
E'en the profoundest chill, as now—a torpid pulse, a brain unnerv'd,
Old age land-lock'd within its Winter bay—(cold, cold, O cold!)
These snowy hairs, my feeble arm, my frozen feet,
For them thy faith, thy role I take, and grave it to the last;
Not summer's zones alone—not chants of youth, or south's warm tides alone,
But held by sluggish toes, pack'd in the northern ice, the cumulus of years,
These with gay heart I also sing."

There is something haunting about these lines, with whatever species of composition we may choose to class them, and this haunting quality appears upon every one of the too few pages which contain the poet's latest songs. At his best, Whitman has a genius for style and for apt expression of thought which allies him with the greater poets and insures for him the recognition and the respect of the future.

THE CHICAGO EVENING JOURNAL: SATURDAY, MARCH 16, 1889.


Correspondent:
William Morton Payne (1858–1919) was a literary critic and writer. He was a literary editor for the Chicago Morning News and the Chicago Evening Journal, and he later wrote for literary publications such as The Dial, Harper's Weekly, and The Atlantic Monthly.

Notes:

1. Payne has partially crossed out parts of the letterhead that refer to the editorial rooms of the Chicago Daily News. He has written an alternative return address. [back]

2. Whitman's November Boughs was published in October 1888 by Philadelphia publisher David McKay. For more information on the book, see James E. Barcus Jr., "November Boughs [1888]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

3. Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892) succeeded William Wordsworth as poet laureate of Great Britain in 1850. The intense male friendship described in In Memoriam, which Tennyson wrote after the death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, possibly influenced Whitman's poetry. Tennyson began a correspondence with Whitman on July 12, 1871. Although Tennyson extended an invitation for Whitman to visit England, Whitman never acted on the offer. [back]

4. Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909) was a British poet, critic, playwright, and novelist. He was also one of Whitman's earliest English admirers. At the conclusion of William Blake: A Critical Essay (1868), 300–303, Swinburne pointed out similarities between Whitman and Blake, and praised "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," which he termed "the most sweet and sonorous nocturn ever chanted in the church of the world." His famous lyric "To Walt Whitman in America" is included in Songs before Sunrise (1871). For the story of Swinburne's veneration of Whitman and his later recantation, see two essays by Terry L. Meyers, "Swinburne and Whitman: Further Evidence," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 14 (Summer 1996), 1–11 and "A Note on Swinburne and Whitman," WWQR 21 (Summer 2003), 38–39. [back]

5. William Michael Rossetti (1829–1915), brother of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti, was an English editor and a champion of Whitman's work. In 1868 Rossetti edited Whitman's Poems, selected from the 1867 Leaves of Grass. Whitman referred to Rossetti's edition as a "horrible dismemberment of my book" in his August 12, 1871, letter to F.S. Ellis. Nonetheless, the edition provided a major boost to Whitman's reputation, and Rossetti would remain a staunch supporter for the rest of Whitman's life, drawing in subscribers to the 1876 Leaves of Grass and fundraising for Whitman in England. For more on Whitman's relationship with Rossetti, see Sherwood Smith, "Rossetti, William Michael (1829–1915)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

6. John Addington Symonds (1840–1893), a prominent biographer, literary critic, and poet in Victorian England, was author of the seven-volume history Renaissance in Italy, as well as Walt Whitman—A Study (1893), and a translator of Michelangelo's sonnets. But in the smaller circles of the emerging upper-class English homosexual community, he was also well known as a writer of homoerotic poetry and a pioneer in the study of homosexuality, or sexual inversion as it was then known. See Andrew Higgins, "Symonds, John Addington [1840–1893]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

7. Edmund Clarence Stedman (1833–1908) was a man of diverse talents. He edited for a year the Mountain County Herald at Winsted, Connecticut, wrote "Honest Abe of the West," presumably Lincoln's first campaign song, and served as correspondent of the New York World from 1860 to 1862. In 1862 and 1863 he was a private secretary in the Attorney General's office until he entered the firm of Samuel Hallett and Company in September, 1863. The next year he opened his own brokerage office. He published many volumes of poems and was an indefatigable compiler of anthologies, among which were Poets of America, 2 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885) and A Library of American Literature from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, 11 vols. (New York: C. L. Webster, 1889–90). For more, see Donald Yannella, "Stedman, Edmund Clarence (1833–1908)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

8. David McKay (1860–1918) took over Philadelphia-based publisher Rees Welsh's bookselling and publishing businesses in 1881–2. McKay and Rees Welsh published the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass after opposition from the Boston District Attorney prompted James R. Osgood & Company of Boston, the publisher Whitman had originally contracted with for publication of the volume, to withdraw. McKay also went on to publish Specimen Days & Collect, November Boughs, Gems from Walt Whitman, and Complete Prose Works. For more information about McKay, see Joel Myerson, "McKay, David (1860–1918)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]


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