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Walt Whitman: Is He Persecuted?



To the Editor of The Tribune.

SIR: No objection need be taken to your editorial of April 12 upon Walt Whitman. I differ with you, and your statements are in some respects inaccurate, but it is a legitimate attempt at a critical estimate. Nor would I, perhaps, ask leave, a fortnight later, to reply to your editorials on the same subject, of March 28 and 30, if I did not see them, like a new kind of dragon's teeth, springing up widely, as your exchanges will show, in the foul and copious abuse and insults journals of every description in this country are not ashamed to offer to a great genius, even when age, poverty, and illness have drawn around him their sad sanctuary.

In Mr. Whitman's case, the admitted facts are these: He is old, even less with years than noble service; his labors and emotions in the hospitals of the war have left him paralyzed; and he lives, wholly without personal means, in the humble dwelling of a relative. Under these circumstances, I see no reason for breaking the force of any appeal that might be made for him, however mistaken or injudiciously worded. But you discourage even sympathy when you represent, and cite Lord Houghton to prove, that the state of infirmity and dependence in which he lives is one of "modest simplicity, but not of discomfort." It appears that Mr. Conway, since his return to London, has published a card, taking the same Arcadian view. I never before heard the condition of being old, crippled, ill, and without money characterized in terms like these, and it strikes me that from such "modest simplicity," Lycurgus with all Sparta at his back, might recoil. But you go further, and in your comments upon Mr. Buchanan's letter you elaborately discredit the proposed purchase by friends in England of an edition of the stricken poet's works, an assistance and a homage which the case fully justifies; while the same splendid British testimonial, conceived in a spirit and form worthy of gentlemen, and as honorable in Mr. Whitman to accept as for them to bestow, your London correspondent, ingenious in insult, and as delicate as accurate, carefully degrades with the well-chosen epithets of "charity" and "alms." A good deal has been printed abroad upon this matter, but you find room only for excerpts from Mr. Buchanan's letter, which disconnection garbles, and for the despicable paragraph in which the slick and insolent swells of The Saturday Review mention the movement for relief as "a strangely impudent agitation." It seems to me that in the presence of the unmistakable shapes and shadows of an august need, to which manly hearts are everywhere responding, such an attitude ill becomes the foremost journal of America.

At such a time, too, and in such a connection, you reproduce the small and stale old slurs and figments invented twenty years ago, and kept in constant use by the enemies of the poet. In this there seems to be some vague and grotesque intention to make him at once criminal and ridiculous. I never heard that Henry Heine incurred infamy by being depicted in his shirt sleeves in the engraving prefixed to the Reisebilder; but the way you handle the similar picture of Walt Whitman, in his typical mechanic's costume, in the old quarto of ‘55, does not suggest an equal good fortune. At all events, since this is an affair of moral character, as well as a chronicle of small beer, let us be exact, and not call the shirt in the picture "flannel," when it is linen. However, a critic in Appletons' Journal, whose article contains less truth to the square than I thought type capable of, outdoes you by malignly making the shirt "red flannel," and adding "a blouse and tarpaulin'' as the favorite attire of Mr. Whitman! If such things must be confuted, I will say that the poet's aversion to "red flannel," which he never wears, is known to his friends; and the "blouse and tarpaulin" he probably reserves for his court-dress when Mr. Dana presents him to Queen Victoria.

As for the letter Emerson once wrote him, it was in no just sense of the term, as you charge, a "private" letter; it was originally published in THE TRIUUNE​ , and at the importunate and protracted solicitation of its editor; and if it was a private letter, and not proper for publication, how came THE TRIBUNE to be concerned in the transaction? The truth is that the letter simply contained an expression of opinion about a book, and was no more "private" nor reserved from print than scores of similar letters we see constantly in the French and English journals from Victor Hugo, Thiers, Quinet, Car yle​ , Garibaldi, Swinburne, and other celebrities. The fuss that has been made a out​ this document is preposterous; and the engraving of a sentence from it on the cover of the second edition of the book—what was it, at the utmost, but a logical step from the original publication by THE TRIBUNE, and a question, and a very small question, of taste simply? Furthermore the letter was not, as you allege, "impulsive," nor "extravagant," nor "written after the perusal of a few pages" of "Leaves of Grass." Mr. Emerson, every one knows, is eminently cool-hea ed​ , and not a man of impulse and ardor. What he wrote to Mr. Whitman, the letter itself shows, was written after he had possessed and read the book for some time; and it was his deep and deliberate judgment, which, no matter what may be said, he has never retracted. The further statement that Mr. Emerson was mortified to find that "innocent purchasers" had been beguiled by the publication of his indorsement of the volume into taking home "something impossible to be read aloud under the evening lamp," I find highly comical. I imagine Mr. Emerson's mortification at the discovery that some of these pretty lambs, tempted from their scrofulous French novel by his praise of Shakespeare into taking home to their families the volume of the mighty dramatist, had found their purchase was "something impossible to be read aloud under the evening lamp!" Fancy pater familias, by that serene light, treating the astounded circle to a reading from "Othello" or "Troilus and Cressida!" Is the "Inferno," for all its iron music, an evening lamp composition? If Mr. Bayard Taylor has not gone off again, like Waring, please ask him, fresh from his fine translation, which so delights German scholars here, whether "Faust" was written to be read aloud under the Argand. You will excuse a plain, unlettered man who ventures to think Rabelais good and great beyond even the lofty praise of Coleridge—but under what evening lamp does the stereoscope show views of those sublime farce-mountains, whose ranges of laughter and grandeur overshadow Christendom? Our translation of the Bible is already expurgated, yet even now so little is it fit for reading aloud under the evening lamp that Dr. Noah Webster, acting on Archbishop Tillotson's suggestion, tried to introduce a new version.

The idea! that the great books—the books of inestimable value—the seminal and eyclopædic books that keep the form and pressure of the time and create new ages—should be brought to the test of evening-lamp elocation! I never read, I never expect to read, a book greater, nobler, more useful, more illuminated, than Swedenborg's "Treatise on the Organs of Generation;" and it is to be condemned, I suppose, because not suited to the purpose of the private Murdochs of the center-table! As for "Leaves of Grass" the case happens to be quite different, and I assure you that I have heard it read aloud, very often, "under the evening lamp," and in very high and pure society too; as indeed it may well be, for it does not contain, from title page to colophon, one impure thought or indecent word—not one;—the plan of the work having excluded those freedoms rightfully permitted nevertheless by art and need to all great geniuses, and practiced upon occasion by all, from Æschylus and Aristophanes to Shakespeare and Moliere. And I beg to add that one of the most intelligent and appreciative tributes ever paid the book, which you imagine must be hidden away in darkness "from the eyes of woman and youth," is the article entitled "A Woman's Estimate of Walt Whitman," published in The Boston Radical, and written by an English lady, as spiritually noble in mind and soul as she is beautiful in person, and whose position in society equals the best in London. In fact, all you say in this connection implies the gravest misapprehension of the character of "Leaves of Grass," and the social rank and moral qualities of its readers.

You are no less gravely mistaken when you think our literary people have been friendly to its author; and strange indeed is your fancy that "general indignation" and "American authors residing in Washington" replaced the position of which he was robbed by Mr. Secretary Harlan. In this affair of the clerkship, my friend Mr. Stedman has already printed his disclaimer. I will add that I never knew Mr. Stedman to be second in any good work when he could be first, but in this case he simply had no opportunity, and was not even in Washington. The following are the facts: When Mr. Harlan became Secretary of the Interior, he announced that the Department was to be run "on the principles of Christian civilization." These he proceeded to illustrate by sitting in judgment on a copy of "Leaves of Grass," purloined for the occasion from a private drawer in the author's desk; and further by removing Mr. Whitman from office for having published the book, then out of print, ten years before. The clerkship of which the poet was deprived had been gotten for him with some difficulty by Mr. Ashton, then Assistant Attorney-General; and the one which replaced it in the Attorney-General's office, Mr. Whitman owed to the same constant kindness. With the exception noted by Mr. Stedman, no authors in Washington or elsewhere had anything to do with the matter. The expulsion was treated by the literary people with perfect indifference or hearty approval, being commonly regarded as a good joke; instead of "the general feeling of indignation" you fancy, there was a general feeling that Mr. Whitman was served just right; and you will see by the newspapers of the day that the incident only made him the target for mockery and abuse. Three months later, in a pamphlet, I did my best to secure for the infamy of Mr. Harlan's action lasting remembrance; and you will find that then, nearly every leading journal, reviewing me, expressly slurred over, extenuated or defended the deed of the Secretary. There are two or three exceptions, but my well-filled scrap-book shows that "the general feeling of indignation" expressed in the literary and other journals of the time was not by any means lavished on Mr. Harlan, who indeed had every reason to feel very comfortable, until the rolling wave of European rebuke taught him and his supporters that there was literary honor and conscience outside of America.

I will add here that the advance in prices since 1861 made the pay Mr. Whitman received, like all our salaries in this city, a small affair; but he always lived frugally, and hoarded his narrow means in the service of the neglected and forgotten, and the surplus you appear to blame him for not accumulating he spent for others, much of it in small sums constantly sent away to assist poor soldiers or their families in different parts of the country, and much in the hospitals which remained here long after the war, and in which to the very last he continued his pathetic and unmortal walks of comfort and charity.

In condemnation of the act of official persecution committed by Mr. Secretary Harlan there was one ringing article from the pen of Henry J. Raymond; a noble editorial in The Boston Commonwealth, written, I hope I may properly say, by Mr. Frank B. Sanborn, and valiant letters in three or four journals by Col. R. J. Hinton. The public prints teemed with comment, but this is all, or nearly all, we have to show to the credit of our literati in this connection. The affair, in fact, sufficiently indicates in outline the attitude held before and since by the literary class toward the poet.

That class you assail Mr. Buchanan for censuring. I want to put in a word here for Mr. Buchanan. Since every hand just now appears to be raised against him, let me advance the fact, which I see stated in a newspaper, that before he published in The London News the letter you treat so contemptuously he sent Walt Whitman a draft for $100. While you are strenuously denouncing his opinions and deriding his metaphors, forgive me if I think this manly action, like the drums heard by Socrates, will prevent some of us from hearing what you say. Few will care for mere flaws in the rhetoric of a young poet, whose Scottish heart at the earliest rumor of a good man's distress, outleaped his words in such a deed. I infer from what you tell of his letter—which you don't print—that it was a plea for succor which showed undue literary fervor; and it appears that this was owing to the fact that he thought the man and poet whom he loved was starving. God grant we may never have to record of him a fault less proud than this, in which I recognize, as in the recent letter of John Swinton, the spirit that was stout in a good cause one immortal day behind the pikes and hurdles—the good red blood and gallant perfume of Bannockburn! For all the rest, I have only to say to him, in the words of Grant's armorial legend, "Stand fast, Craig Ellachie!" You think it mere "recklessness" in him to charge that the literary class of American persecute our poet. Whenever he wants facts to sustain that charge, American authors will owe it to the magnanimity of Walt Whitman if the disgrace they to-day are clumsily trying to hide does not come out with torrent fullness in names and dates and specifications. You allow, justly, "the fine humanity and integrity of Walt Whitman's nature;" party, uniting with the very distinguished American author, their host, to persuade an English gentleman not to present the letter of introduction he bore from an imminent English nobleman, by representing that Mr. Whitman, to whom it was addressed, was "nothing but a low New-York rowdy"—"a common street blackguard." When this lead from the biography of Truthful James, which also forms a fine illustration of Chesterfield, has been sufficiently pondered, you can perhaps decide the difficult question whether it can properly be considered "persecution" to insolently meddle with one's private letters, to intercept one's foreign visitors, and to give a man of "fine humanity and integrity" such a character as the epithets and adjectives I have cited convey. Meanwhile, Mr. Buchanan, to whom I offer the above as an instance of the way the man has been treated, may like to see a specimen of the candid treatment give the man's book; and I beg to show him this other distinguished American author, favorably, if feebly, reviewing "Leaves of Grass" in The North American, even linking it with Greek poetry in his panegyric; but this long ago, before the storm began; and after, several times, notably in a recent Harper, when the wind is nor'-nor'-west, and he no longer knows a hawk from a hern-shaw, reviving the fine Cambridge image of the "b'hoy," and prating about the book being "cleaned"—he who had said, before he thought it popular to pander, that it contained "nothing grosser than some passages in Homer," and "not a word meant to attract readers by its grossness!" But perhaps he now thinks Homer also should be "cleaned." From a jundred similar instances of such Spanish-Inquisition candor and good-will. Mr. Buchanan may like to turn to a lower class in this centennial exposition; and we will show him for example, Littell's Living Age, in which he will never find any of the fine reviews of Walt Whitman which star the European journals, valuable and interesting of course to eclectic minds, such as this periodical pretends to cater to; but only, instead, put in to do the poet harm, the dull insults of Peter Bayne—Peter Bayne, the purblind devotee of weak superstition, whose essays in criticism, marked by such merits as sneers at the radiant thoughts and truths of Shelley, made our literary people curl their lips until their hats came off, and who won his first title to their consideration by showing that if he could not understand Walt Whitman he could defame him. Or if Mr. Buchanan wishes to go still lower into the efforts of the literary class to create that unjust odium around our poet, which they well know performs all the effects of persecution, we will dredge for him in the great sink of 20 years of newspaper, scu rility​ and outrage. What will he think, for example, of t is​ gem, cut by an eminent hand, in The Boston Transcript of April 1—within a fortnight: "Like a maniac or a beast, he (Whitman) has proved himself incapable of observing the commonest respect to the modesty of human nature, to say nothing of conventional manners, and it has been simply impossible to have him about!" This is a single brilliant from a carcanet of such—an excerpt from an April Fool's-Day article, actually—ludicrous as it may seem—written to rebut Mr. Buchanan's charge, and to prove that to publicly blacken a man's characters, wholesale and broadcast, is not to persecute him! It is uttered of a man whose "truth and whole-hearted benevolence"—whose "fine humanity and integrity" you certify; whole personal behavior and the conduct of whose life have been marked by an imperial simplicity, purity, and decorum never yet denied by the worst enemy of his works whose prejudice or hatred stopped at the boundary of a lie; whom Lincoln admired, whom Sumner revered, whom Longfellow, I remember, came to see in the hospitals, and Tennyson has invited to visit him in England! Copenhagen promulgates hill Paris lauds him; in Dublin University, Tyrell, the editor of "Euripides," lectures on him; in the University of London Clifford makes for him the just and haughty claim that more than any poet he contains cosmic emotion—the feeling inspired by the sense of the infiniverse; and meanwhile here he is proclaimed so vile, so lawless, that it is impossible to have him about! The grave has hardly closed over the first of modern German poets, Freiligrath, when the man he covered all over with ardent eulogy, hailing his works as the dayspring of a new and grander poetry, is publicly advertised in his own country as a maniac or a beast—and show me the literary man or the journal that takes up the brutal and infamous slander! Here his days have been succor, and abroad his works glory; but they lampoon him; they pasquinade him; they cabal against him; they write him down in the newspapers and magazines; they intrigue with foreign sub-sub-editors to belittle or to blackguard him; they use all the subtle and unseen methods and machinery of the ring; they make him walk, as Tennyson says with his head in a cloud of poisonous flies; they embarrass, embitter, and make life hard for him; they assert derelictions, whisper vices, and look crimes, they sew​ for him disgust in the homes and insults in the streets; they make existence for him a cave of tragic shadow freaked with light that resembles gloom. Meanwhile, you think it "recklessness"—"simply preposterous"—to charge that he meets with "persecution" or "scorn." Accept my sincere compliments—the trophies of Miltiades will not let you sleep, and your wish to emulate Cervantes as the master of irony! God forbid that I should say one word to discourage that late repentance Mr. Rossetti. Rightly thinks the literary portion of Walt Whitman's countrymen owe him. But it is not my fault if the last fortnight's journals reaching Mr. Buchanan, did not convince him, if he ever doubted it, of the entire tenability of his position, and show him our wits and scholars sustaining and justifying in their own persons his fine image of the dying eagle, wearily flying, pursued by prosperous rooks and crows!

I do not propose to discuss here "Leaves of Grass." My regard for the work antedates by several years my acquaintance with the author, and no one can justly ascribe it to the bias of personal friendship. It was morning in the world with me when I first read those mighty pages, and felt to my imnest soul the vast charm of their sea-like lines and superb imagination; and today, after many years have passed, I never open the book without receiving again that supreme impression of its wild delicacy and splendor. To all its wondrous recreation of the actual orb of things gross and delicate; its consummate art of selection and coordination; the grand felicity of its apt and agreeing rhythmus, like the copious and unequal pouring of the breakers on the sands; and the sublime and living beauty interfused with the whole—it appears that many are insensible; and it makes me tolerant when I see, for all his more conventional form, so many also insensible to the gorgeous and lofty sanctus of so great a poet, in prose and verse, as Victor Hugo; or when I muse on Voltaire and Marmontel, abler far than our critics, deriding or denouncing the barbaric yawp of Shakespeare. Be it so: we can well pardon blindness—or could, were it not for its resultant bitterness. If my voice could weigh in the debate I see rebeginning, I would ask for Walt Whitman nothing but the candid effort at a fair interpretation of his writings, which his admitted genius deserves. To-day, as ever, even in his age, his poverty, his infirmity, no friend of his could desire a worthier tribute than fair play and justice toward the sublime and honest book to which he has given his life. This he has never received. It is idle to say, with the editor of The London News, that "he is the martyr of a theory." Even if true, what excuse would that be for persecution? I fancy Alva saying of the corpses of the Netherlands, or Torquemada of those that shrieked away their lives in fire in Toledo, "They are the martyrs of a theory." What theory confers on those that differ the right to torture? But Walt Whitman has never had even the poor justice of being made to suffer for his real views. The theory of his work he himself has stated, in masterly English, in the preface to his first edition, in the letter to Emerson prefixed to his second, and in the work itself; and I for one am willing he should be tried upon it. It has never received the least consideration; but instead, there has been slander, furious and atrocious, and the perusal of his writings precisely in the spirit of a dirty boy who read the Scriptures, to put lewd meanings upon texts in Deuteronomy and Kings. I might ask, in this day of costly testimonials, when rich givers around, whether the man by whom New-York and our country in this age will one day be chiefly remembered, as England lives in the memory of Shakespeare, is to languish away his few remaining years in neglect and poverty at Camden? Rather let me ask, recalling the thrilling thought of St. Albans, whether it is only death that will open to him the gates of a good fame, who more than most deserves it in his life? Shame on us if this prove so—and if when he leaves us for the land of souls, some friend should have reason to recall the stern and bitter words of Boccacio​ over the corpse of Dante—"He has gone from Florence to a people sane and just!"

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