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Biography of Horace Traubel

Horace L. Traubel

photograph of Horace Traubel Horace Traubel is best known as the author of a nine-volume biography of Whitman's final four years, Walt Whitman in Camden. He visited the poet virtually daily from the mid-1880s until Whitman's death in 1892, and he began taking copious notes of their conversations in March of 1888. Every night he transcribed his notes and published three large volumes of them (1906, 1908, 1914) before his death, leaving behind manuscripts for six more. His original goal had been to bring out one volume a year until all were in print, but the final two volumes did not appear until 1996, over a century after they were written.

Traubel described himself as Whitman's "spirit child," and for the twenty-seven years he lived on after Whitman's death, he served the poet as a dutiful son: he became the most active of Whitman's three literary executors (the other two were Richard Maurice Bucke and Thomas Harned); he founded, edited, and published The Conservator, a journal dedicated to keeping Whitman's works alive; he published his own Whitman-inspired poetry and prose in three large volumes; and he carried on a tireless correspondence with Whitman enthusiasts around the country and around the world, weaving together an international fellowship of disciples who worked to assure Whitman's immortality.

Only thirty-three years old at the time of Whitman's death, Traubel had already known the poet for nearly twenty years. Born and reared in Camden, New Jersey, Traubel first met Whitman soon after the half-paralyzed poet decided to live in his brother George's Camden home in 1873. Traubel was then not yet fifteen years old, but he soon became Whitman's companion; they took walks and discussed books endlessly. At first, the young man's relationship with Whitman caused something of a scandal; Traubel recalled that neighbors went to his mother and "protested against my association with the 'lecherous old man'" (Traubel, "Introduction" ix).

Following his master's footsteps, Traubel stopped his formal education by the age of twelve and spent his teenage years learning the printing trade and newspaper business; after leaving school, he became a typesetter, a skill he would employ throughout his life as he often set the type for his monthly journal and for his various pamphlets. By the time he was sixteen, he had become foreman of the Camden Evening Visitor printing office. After that, he worked in his father's Philadelphia lithographic shop, was a paymaster in a factory, and became the Philadelphia correspondent for the Boston Commonwealth. None of these jobs paid well, but they gave him a wealth of experience, a confidence in his writing skills, and an understanding of how words could be made public and powerful through the labor of printing. Traubel's middle name was Logo, a sign of the faith in words his father Maurice—a German immigrant artist—instilled in him.

As a young adult, Traubel became increasingly involved with radical reformist thought and persistently urged a reluctant Whitman to admit that Leaves of Grass endorsed a socialist agenda. Traubel was indefatigable in his support of Whitman's work, and he made sure that the major radical leaders of his day read and discussed it. He founded the Walt Whitman Fellowship International and served as its secretary-treasurer from 1894 until a year before his death.

His own books can be read as socialist refigurings of Whitman's work, each of his titles subtly adjusting Whitman's terminology: Chants Communal (1904) took the individualistic edge off of Whitman's "Chants Democratic;" Optimos (1910) redefined Whitman's "kosmos" a an optimized "cheerful whole" (qtd. in Bain 39); and his ecstatically revolutionary essays, Collects Conservator, which he began two years before Whitman's and continued until his own death in 1919, was an influential organ of radical ideas about everything from women's rights to animal rights. Every issue began with one of Traubel's idiosyncratic "Collect" essays, always written in his repetitive, staccato style.

Traubel traced his liberalism and egalitarianism not only to Whitman but to his hybrid heritage, especially to his father's Jewish background; he said he loved "being a Jew in the face of your prejudice and your insults (qtd. in Wiksell 119). He always retained his democratic identification with the persecuted and remained a dedicated political and intellectual radical. He kept up a tireless correspondence with leftist and reformist political and artistic figures—excluding Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman, and Upton Sinclair—and he was involved with the Arts and Crafts movement and helped published The Artsman from 1903 to 1907, espousing the belief hat radical reforms in art, design, and production were essential to social reform.

Traubel's radicalism did not come without cost. His one stable, salaried position was as a clerk in a Philadelphia bank, a job he began during the last years of Whitman's life and held until 1902, when he published an attack on one of Philadelphia's most powerful businessmen. Under pressure from the bank, Horace resigned and began a life of self-imposed poverty, living on the meager proceeds from his writings and gifts from his supporters.

His principled decision affected more than just himself, for by then he had a family to support. Traubel had married Anne Montgomerie in Whitman's home 28 May 1891; their daughter Gertrude was born the following year, and their son Wallace the year after that. In 1898, young Wallace died of scarlet fever. Three months later, Horace's beloved father committed suicide. Horace, however, was always on the rebound and refused to allow personal tragedy to drain his optimism and energy. He enlisted his wife and remaining child in his causes: Anne became associate editor of The Conservator in 1899, and Gertrude, whom Horace and Anne educated at home, joined the staff of the journal when she was fourteen.

During the decades after he quit his bank job, Traubel lived an energetic life. He read most nights until four or five in the morning, then took the morning ferry to Philadelphia so he could work in his garret office on Chestnut Street. While riding the Camden ferry in 1909, he was trampled by a horse and suffered severe rib injuries. By 1914, his health had become a major concern, as rheumatic fever left him with a faulty heart valve. The outbreak of the Great War was particularly traumatic for his pacifist and believer in universal brotherhood. and over the next few years he steadily declined, suffering his first heart attack in June of 1917, the night before Gertrude's wedding in New York. He suffered additional heart attacks during the next year, and in the summer of 1918 he had a cerebral hemorrhage. He and Anne moved to New York in the spring of 1919 to be close to Gertrude and their new grandson. Traubel was determined to live through the centenary anniversary of Whitman's birth, and on 31 May he attended the New York celebration, where he was given a standing ovation by two hundred Whitmanites (including Helen Keller) in attendance.

Traubel attended one last centenary event—the August dedication of a huge granite cliff at the Bon Echo estate in Canada, to be named "Old Walt" and inscribed with Whitman's words in giant letters. On 28 August Traubel, while sitting in a tower room where he could look out on Old Walt, shouted that Whitman had just appeared above the granite cliff "in a golden glory." "He reassured me, beckoned to me, and spoke to me. I heard his voice but did not understand all he said, only 'Come on'" (qtd. in Denison 196). Traubel died at Bon Echo on 3 September and was buried in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden, close to Whitman's tomb.


Bain, Mildred. Horace Traubel. New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1913.

Denison, Flora MacDonald. "A Dedication and a Death." Walt Whitman's Canada. Ed. Cyril Greenland and John Robert Colombo. Willowdale, Ontario: Hounslow, 1992. 196-200.

Karsner, David. Horace Traubel: His Life and Work. New York: Egmont Arens, 1919.

——. Collecta. New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1914.

——. "Introduction." Leaves of Grass and Democratic Vistat. By Walt Whitman. London: Dent, 1912. vii-xiii.

——. Optimos. New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1919.

——. With Walt Whitman in Camden. 9 vols. Vols. 1-3. 1906-1914. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961; Vol. 4. Ed. Sculley Bradley. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1953; Vol. 5. Ed. Gertrude Traubel. Carbondale: U of Southern Illinois P, 1964; Vol. 6. Ed. Gertrude Traubel and William White. Carbondale: U of Southern Illinois P, 1982; Vol. 7. Ed. Jeanne Chapman and Robert Maclsaac. Carbondale: U of Southern Illinois P, 1992; Vols. 8-9. Ed. Jeanne Chapman and Robert Maclsaac. Oregon House, Calif.: W.L. Bentley, 1996.

Walling, William English. Whitman and Traubel. 1916. New York: Haskell House, 1969.

Wiksell, Percival. "Horace Traubel." The FRA 7 (1911): 117-121.

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