Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–1891: First Visit to Camden, September 8th and 9th

Creator: J. W. Wallace

Date: 1917

Whitman Archive ID: med.00587

Source: Our transcription is based on J. Johnston and J. W. Wallace, Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–1891 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1917), 89–106. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the interviews, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney, Shea Montgomerey, Ashley Price, and Nic Swiercek

FRIENDS, Etc., IN 1891

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The British Prince arrived in Philadelphia at noon on Tuesday, September 8th, after an unusually protracted voyage, having been delayed considerably by a storm in mid-Atlantic. I soon distinguished Dr. Bucke amongst the crowd on the wharf waiting the arrival of the ship, and with him were Horace Traubel and Whitman's nurse, Warren Fritzinger ("Warry"). I recognized Warry at once from his photograph, though the actual man looked better than the portrait, and he won my heart immediately. Horace Traubel, too, seemed a familiar figure, and quickly made me feel as though we were old and close friends. After clearing the customs and arranging for my baggage to be sent to Traubel's, we walked on together, Bucke taking my arm, till we came to a point where we had to separate, —Traubel to go to business and Warry to return home to inform Whitman of my arrival. Dr. Bucke and I then took a car into the town, where we had dinner together in a large restaurant in the "Bullitt Building." Returning to the street Bucke said: "Now we'll go see Walt." We walked down to the ferry, crossed over to Camden, and then took a cab to

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Mickle Street—"to Mr. Whitman's." We alighted opposite the door of the house and Bucke walked up to an open window on the ground floor, near which Whitman usually sat when downstairs, and looked in to see if he was there. As the room was unoccupied, he went to the front door, opened it, walked in, and turned to the left into the front parlour, I following him. We were joined immediately by Mrs. Davis, who shook hands with me very cordially and expressed her pleasure in seeing me. She then went upstairs to notify Whitman of our arrival, and we sat down to await her return. I looked round the room, illustrated and described in Dr. Johnston's "Notes," and examined the various photographs on the mantel-piece, amongst which I was pleased to see one of our "College" group, one of Dr. Johnston, etc. Mrs. Davis returned presently, saying that Mr. Whitman was awaiting us, and Dr. Bucke and I went upstairs, he preceding me and walking straight into the front room. As I followed I heard Whitman's voice: "Come right in! Have you got Wallace with you?" Then face to face with Whitman, and the grip, long and kind, of his outstretched hand.

"Well," he said, with a smile, "you've come to be disillusioned, have you?"

Of course I said that I had not, but with what words I do not know.

He was sitting in a chair near the stove, and I seated myself in a chair opposite to him, with Dr. Bucke to my left.

Of course I had had a previous conception of my own of Whitman and his room, derived from

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the descriptions and photographs by Dr. Johnston and others; and, equally of course, this was instantly corrected and supplemented to a considerable extent by the actual facts. But any partial sense of strangeness resulting from this was immediately offset by the unaffected and homely simplicity of Whitman's greeting, the first, kind grip of his hand, his look into my eyes, and his smiling suggestion that I should be "disillusioned."

Indeed, I was a little disillusioned. The reality was simpler, homelier and more intimately related to myself than I had imagined. I had long regarded him as not only the greatest man of his time but for many centuries past, and I was familiar with the descriptions given by others of the personal majesty which was one of his characteristics. But any vague preconceptions resulting from these ideas were instantly put to flight on coming into his presence. For here he sat before me—an infirm old man, unaffectedly simple and gentle in manner, giving me courteous and affectionate welcome on terms of perfect equality, and reminding me far more of the common humanity to be met with everywhere than suggesting any singular eminence or special distinction. Indeed it was our common humanity as it will appear when, as in Whitman, it is stripped of all that divides or disguises man from man.

I was to realize very soon after, as fully as any, the impressions of majesty, and of something in him "more than mortal," which others have experienced and referred to, but my first and predominant impressions on this first encounter were those which I have just described.

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No doubt Dr. Bucke's presence contributed to this sense of intimate and homely familiarity. For Bucke had already exemplified for us the same qualities; and Walt himself was hardly more simple and unaffected in his intercourse with all classes of people than was Bucke. It was very interesting to see them together. Bucke tall and powerful in physique, robust and virile, easy and unaffected in manner, and direct almost to bluntness in speech, his voice strong and slightly harsh, and addressing Walt, for all his profound reverence for him, with the careless ease and frankness of an equal comrade. Walt, originally robust and powerful as he, now grown old and feeble, presented a striking contrast with Bucke's more exclusively masculine nature by his exquisitely delicate sensitiveness, his gentleness and refinement of speech and manner, and also by his deep and sympathetic tenderness, "maternal as well as paternal."

I can only give disjointed scraps of the conversation, for it was late that night before I was free to write them down, and I had experienced so many new impressions, and had seen and heard so much of intense interest to me, that my memory could not hold all the details of the conversation. Of course even a complete record of the spoken words would only present the least important elements of the general effect upon me of this my first interview with Whitman. The changing expressions of the face, the look of the eyes, the wonderfully varied and subtle modulations of the voice, the pose and aspect of the whole figure, and the yet deeper, more potent, and indescribable

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influence of personality—these cannot appear in any record. I can only give such scraps of talk as I have preserved, and add some accounts of the impressions I experienced at different stages of our talks and afterwards.

W. W."What sort of trip have you had? Well, you are welcome to America, and welcome to Walt Whitman. But you have come to be disillusioned!"

"I have written a letter to Dr. Johnston which I have purposely kept back till now. I will add a few lines after supper, saying that you are here, and it will be mailed to-night."

"What a splendid lot of fellows you have in Bolton!"

J. W. W."I am afraid there is an exaggerated notion here of what we are. We are only commonplace fellows who happen to be good friends."

W. W."Oh! we size them up pretty well, and succeed better than you do with us. We all swear by them here."

Dr. B."Horace has had a letter from Symonds this morning and will let you have it tonight."

W. W."Have you read it?"

Dr. B."Horace read it to me as we were waiting for Wallace. I guess Symonds is in a bad way—dying. I don't mean that he will die in a few days, but in a few months likely. He talks of having his 'Warry' with him in Florence—someone to attend to him." (W., evidently affected, listening silently, except for an occasional "Oh!"—spoken with great tenderness.)

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After a pause, Dr. B."Of course he's been ill a long time."

W. W."Yes. He's like a—" (I didn't catch the word)—"as we call it; but the divine Soul shines through it all.—That's his portrait, Wallace" (pointing to end of mantel-piece).

I took it down, looked at it, and passed it to Dr. B.

Dr. B."How old is he, Walt? Sixty?"

W. W."I should say he must be six or seven years younger than that."

Dr. B."There can't be any immediate danger. Someone has asked him to write a life of Michael Angelo, and he had some thought of doing it. So he's likely to live some time yet."

W. W."Yes; just hanging on, like me."

(Dr. Bucke said to me afterwards, with reference to the abrupt way in which he had told Walt that Symonds was very ill, that the best plan always was to tell him the worst right off. Then, if he found that things were not so bad, he was relieved and pleased.)

W. W."There's a fine group of friends at Melbourne. One of them, Bernard O'Dowd, writes to me and gives me quite interesting off-hand pictures of Australian life, sheep-walks, grazing, etc. They have a bell-bird there, as they call it, a bird about so high," (indicating the height with his hand) "with a note like the striking of a bell, and with an undertone of something weird and plaintive. Barny has traveled a good deal and is quite a 'Leaves of Grass' fellow. There are about twelve persons in the group, some of them women. They meet frequently—Sunday even-

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ings, etc.,—at O'Dowd's house. Barny sends me sketches of them."

I suggested that I might write to O'Dowd, mentioning Hutton, (one of our group who had been in Australia and whose wife in an Australian) and W. at once gave me his address, Dr. Bucke pronouncing it "a good scheme."

Dr. B. Speaking about some book belonging to Walt said he hoped it was not lost, and then laughed heartily and looked significantly at the litter of papers and books on the floor described in Dr. Johnston's "Notes."

W. W."You may laugh at my want of order, but I have given it up. The exertion is too much for me, and when I have read a paper I just drop it on the floor."

Dr. B."Walt, I'm going to take Wallace to Fairmount Park to-morrow."

W. W."Yes, he should see it."

Dr. B."And Anne" (Mrs. Traubel) "and Mrs. Bush will go with us. Will you come?"

W. W."No, I think I must not do so. I should like to come."

Dr. B."I will not urge it, as it involves three or four miles of rough jolting road in the town itself."

W. W."My bladder trouble must be remembered too. I soon fill up. I am like the man whom the doctor ordered to drink a quart of a certain liquid. 'But, doctor, I only hold a pint!' My friends do not realize my condition. They persist in imagining that I am like them."

Later he said that he would go downstairs, and called for Warry to assist him. Dr. Bucke and

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I left the room and went down to the front parlour in which we had previously sat. Here Bucke took a seat in the corner to the left of the doorway and near the front wall, and I seated myself on his right. Opposite to us, in the corner to the right of the window, stood Walt's huge arm chair, presented to him by Thomas Donaldson's family. Walt followed us, stick in hand, and as he advanced to his chair, he called my attention to it, saying: "Have you noticed my chair? It is strong and timbered like a ship. I thought of sending one like it to Tennyson."

Dr. B."How would you get it to Tennyson?"

W."I thought once of sending it by the Smiths, but I think I will ask Herbert Gilchrist to take it. He is going to England soon, and he knows the way about. He know Hallam well."

Here Mrs. Davis came in with Whitman's supper, which she placed on a light table before him, with a cup of tea, etc., of which he partook, speaking only at intervals.

W."My supper is my main meal now. My breakfast used to be, but I have changed that, or it has changed itself."

Lifting up a volume of Scott's poems near him he held it towards me, saying:—

"Wallace, here is a book I have had for the last fifty years. It is an inexhaustible mine of interest. I used to read it and re-read it and re-read it, and now I read the interminable prefaces and notes. They are full of meat. What a talker Scott was!"

J. W. W."Have you read Scott's Diary recently published?"

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W."No; do you think I should do?"

(Later) "Wallace, if any of your friends like good eating, Mrs. Davis cooks a dish of tapioca and stewed apples together, which is very good, and which I am having now."

He invited me to a cup of tea, but I declined, as we