Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Rudolf Schmidt to Walt Whitman, 18 August 1875

Date: August 18, 1875

Whitman Archive ID: med.00515

Source: Transcription derived from Traubel; the location of the original manuscript is unknown. The transcription presented here is derived from Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, ed. Sculley Bradley (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953), 4:336–338. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Alex Kinnaman, Elizabeth Lorang, Kevin McMullen, Ashley Lawson, John Schwaninger, Caterina Bernardini, Amanda J. Axley, Marie Ernster, and Stephanie Blalock

August 18, 1875

My dear Walt Whitman.

I have indeed been extremely sorry to hear firstly from the transmitted paper of July 23 and then from your kind letter of July 31,1 that your prospects of recovering your health seem to have darkened forever.2 You are no old man, and I had always hoped that your giant frame at last should supersede the lurking enemy. Even yet I won't give up hope. That you don't give up your literary activity is to me a good token!

From Kristian Elster3 I have not heard myself in a very long time, and I don't wonder that he has not written to you. He is a true virginal nature with the shyness of a virgin. As he was nearly suffocated by the dullness and coarse materialism of the Norwegian Society,4 I pressed him for two years ago (when he had previously sent me some very fine articles for my periodical)5 to come for some months to Copenhagen. I introduced [him] to some of the leading literary men and in some rich families, but he did not come to them and I myself must fetch him in his lodging, when I would see him. It seemed to him to be an intrusion to pay a visit, when not expressly asked to come! This is the fruit of a lonely education in stern and harsh national surroundings The Norsemen can be described in the shy ones and the impudent ones. Björnson6 and Ole Bull7 are of the last sort, Elster of the first. The meanest sort—as usual—has first produced its gifted men: when the better sort in its time has sprung into flowers, they shall all be forgotten. Then as truly as Denmark is at this moment doing the principal part of the intellectual work of the Scandinavian race, its accomplishment is kept back for Norway.

The intellectual work of the Scandinavian race! What a humiliating thought to us Danes, that Hans Christian Andersen8 shall be nearly our only representant to the world. There are men in Denmark of such an intellectual greatness that Andersen was not reaching to their knees. The world did to his last days take the selfish old man for a child; the spirit of the Danish people is no child; it [is] a warrior with the sword in his hand bleeding from combats, when he fought one against seven, with great thoughts of his brow and stern resolution in his eyes! At last Andersen lived only among our rich Jewish families, who endured all his whims and harshness, hoping to be gilt by his fame. He was buried as he had lived. The King and the Crown Prince9 were in the church, reporters for foreign papers, also from America, swarmed everywhere; but there was no wet eye in the whole assembly.

But our time shall come! Most probably America, in the next century, shall be the vanguard of humanity, its greatest leading power. But your eyes will not be open to see the outlines filled your bold hand has drawn. As representants for mental power and intellectual vigor such people as Bret Harte10 and Mark Twain11 are fainting away into ridiculousness. Ours is the next future. You have no idea of the intellectual decay that in Germany is accompanying the political grandeur of the country. In June I met with professors and teachers of the university who in all earnest were Buddhists, believers of nothings, or properly spoken, believing that nothing is the true reality of the existence of world and man. This is the dark and black gulf that Goethe12 and Schiller13 decked with the flowers and branches of their genius. At present the flowers and foliage are fading, and the black fathomless abyss of despair opens its giant yawn to the horrified mind. The faith, the youth, the hope, the vigor of spirits, the soaring flight of lofty aspiration, is only to be found in Scandinavia. Martin Luther14 spoke the prophetic word: in the north is a place of refuge! The day of the fulfillment is near.15

I have never doubted that I could make myself understood to you, and a letter of business or concerning the usual affairs of human life I could most probably write without faults at all, when I did take pains with it. But all the striking expressions, all the elaborate work of the thought, is fading away beneath my feather, when treating more difficult matters in English. I am never saying exactly what I would say, and you know, my dear friend, that this is a great pain to anyone who is accustomed to clothe his thoughts in the garment of language. I shall be glad to receive your new books. A Danish philosopher defines a hero as a man who is holding on the possible against probability.

Hoping amelioration of your health against probability I am yours
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. See Whitman's letter to Schmidt of July 31, 1875. [back]

2. Whitman suffered a stroke in 1873 that left him partially paralyzed and recovering for several years. [back]

3. Kristian Elster (1841–1881) was a Norwegian novelist whose work focused on cultural conflict, as in his 1872 pamphlet, "On the contrast between the western and the eastern parts of Norway." According to Carl Roos, Elster was a friend of Björnstjerne Björnson (1832–1910), Norwegian poet, dramatist, and novelist; see Orbis Litterarum, 7 (1949), 51n. [back]

4. Founded in 1772, the Norwegian Society was originally a literary gentleman's club for Norwegian students in Copenhagen. In 1818, five years after the original club was discontinued, a new gentleman's club was formed under the same name. [back]

5. For Idé og Virkelighed was a journal published from 1869 to 1873 by Schmidt, Rasmus Nielsen, and Björnstjerne Björnson. [back]

6. Björnstjerne Björnson (1832–1910), Norwegian poet, dramatist, and novelist, was co-editor of Schmidt's journal. In his January 5, 1872 letter 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; see notes to Whitman's March 19, 1874 letter to Schmidt. [back]

7. Ole Bornemann Bull (1810–1880) was a popular Norwegian violinist and composer. [back]

8. Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875) was a Danish author best known for his work on fairy tales and children's stories, including "The Little Mermaid," "Thumbelina," and "The Emperor's New Clothes." In his letter of January 5, 1872, Rudolf Schmidt observed to Walt Whitman: "Hans Christian Andersen would perhaps not make you very great joy, if you did know him personally." [back]

9. King Christian IX (1818–1906; reigned 1863–1906) of Denmark and his son, Crown Prince Frederick VIII (1843–1912; reigned 1906–1912). [back]

10. Francis Bret Harte (1836–1902) was an American author who wrote on California pioneering efforts. From 1868 to 1871, Harte was editor of the literary magazine The Overland Monthly, for whom he penned his 1870 elegiac "Dickens in Camp," a poetic obituary for Charles Dickens. [back]

11. Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835–1910), better know by his pen name, Mark Twain, was an American humorist, novelist, lecturer, and publisher. Twain is best known for authoring such novels as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894). Twain attended Whitman's New York lecture on the death of Lincoln in April 1887. He also contributed to Thomas Donaldson's fund for the purchase of a horse and buggy for Whitman (see Whitman's September 22, 1885, letter to Herbert Gilcrist), as well as to the fund to build Whitman a private cottage (see Whitman's October 7, 1887, letter to Sylvester Baxter). Twain was reported in the Boston Herald of May 24, 1887 to have said: "What we want to do is to make the splendid old soul comfortable" (Clara Barrus, Whitman and Burroughs: Comrades [New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1931], 268). [back]

12. The German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) was famous for The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) and Faust (1808), in which Faust sells his soul to the devil. [back]

13. Johann Christoph Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805) was a German philosopher, poet, and playwright. [back]

14. Martin Luther (1483–1546) was a theologist, a priest and German monk, best known as the iconic figure of the Protestant Reformation. [back]

15. Whitman responded to Schmidt's "national brag" for Denmark by saying "a note like that coming from Denmark is a little like a meteor challenging Jupiter: still, it's harmless" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, March 13, 1889). [back]


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