Skip to main content

Walt Whitman: The Author of "Leaves of Grass" at Home




His State of Body and Mind, His Hard Times and His Growing Fame, and What Publishers and Critics and Friends Think of Him and His Work.

Correspondence of The Republican.

CAMDEN, N. J., June 5, 1885.

Walt Whitman was 66 years old the last day of last month, and his friends are sure that he has a good deal in him yet. Though venerable-looking from his white hair and beard, his paralysis and the extra lameness that has fallen upon him of late, he really ages slowly in body, and in mind not at all. He still keeps throwing out little poems or prose articles every week or two, which not only indicate no failure, but show an increase of power and dexterity over former years. The late sonnet (so to call it) on Grant, "As One by One Withdraw the Lofty Actors," was written in an hour, at the hurried request of the editor of Harper's Weekly, early in April, for the expected death of the sick chieftain. Being pleasantly deceived (with all the world) as to that event, the poet subsequently added the second stanza, which gives it as published a graceful turn and reaction, and fits it for whatever might happen. Since the completion of "Leaves of Grass," Whitman has thus sent out quite a number of poems having their start from special occasions. He spends a couple of weeks on Barnegat beach, and the result is, "With Husky-Haughty Lips, O Sea," and "Patroling Barnegat." His old friend Brignoli, the Italian singer, dies, and he indites "The Dead Tenor." The rescue of Greely from an Arctic death, the Red Jacket memorial at Buffalo, and the completion of the great Washington monument are all commemorated in verse.

The poet and his works have developed and hardened slowly from the first, and have been tried by fire and failure. The original Brooklyn edition of "Leaves of Grass," in 1855, not only fell utterly flat and still-born in a literary way, but as a financial venture also. The second New York edition, of 1857, the same. The handsome third (1860-61) Boston edition, published by Thayer & Eldridge, commenced well and paid Whitman a small sum; but the breaking out of the civil war and the publishers' business failure put a summary stop to that issue. The fourth and fifth editions brought little profit; not enough to pay expenses. I shall skip W.'s three or four years in the secession war and his persistent labors in the army hospitals, which left him at the end with impaired health, finally resulting in a paralytic seizure, and come to a period which in my opinion has not been sufficiently dwelt upon.

Whitman's darkest times were from 1873 to 1876. In the first named year he had been struck down by paralysis; he was discharged from his situation in the United States attorney-general's office, and ceased to have an income; his poetic venture was unanimously agreed by the critics to be a failure; his book-agents embezzled even the little proceeds due him; the doctors at Washington gave him up and he came to Camden to die. I remember his languid appearance and slow gait as he got out in the air in summer weather, and walked with a cane along Stevens street, making frequent pauses to rest. He had also at that time just lost his deeply-loved mother and sister by death. If ever a life was under a cloud, Whitman's was along those years. Poverty was added to his other troubles. The papers mentioned him only with mockery. Even then, however, his natural buoyancy of spirits stood him in hand, amid domestic grief, bodily weakness, and, worst of all to a poet, the lack of any audience for his writings. On the text of his being in need, the New York Herald published a half-column editorial full of sneers and irony, headed, "Walt Whitman's Wants—a Public." Among the rest Bayard Taylor in the Tribune lost no occasion of giving a sarcastic fling. The Philistines complacently settled that after a brief life the poetry of the future was dead and buried. Whitman had made a good fight, but the fates were adverse. Like the doom of Hector in the Iliad, Jupiter holding the scales, the side of the warrior inclined to Hades, "and Phœbus Apollo left him."

The dismal ebb was followed by a turn in the tide, which, moderate at first, has at least been perceptible ever since, and keeps running to this day. In the summer of 1876, still finding himself living, somewhat to his amazement, Walt Whitman brought out his "Centennial Edition" in two volumes, handsomely bound, with autographs and portraits from life in each book, and offered them from his sick-room, sold directly by himself, at the rather steep price of $10. From the date of that publication and offer Whitman's luck seems to have changed every way; his strength improved and he was able to travel. There was no rush of purchasers or public favor, but, as he drily expressed to me at the time, "Enough of both to swear by." The publication of these volumes, entitled "Leaves of Grass." and "Two Rivulets," aroused warm discussion in England, which was echoed in America. Robert Buchanan was particularly active in championship of the bard, and I have heard Whitman mention him with much gratitude and affection. Moncure Conway and William M. Rossetti were his good friends also, and to the latter Whitman wrote a letter which Rossetti printed, and circulated among the literary class in England. In this letter Whitman stated the facts as to his physical condition, and held this self-respecting attitude as to the proffers of help made to him by his British friends:— Though poor now, even to penury, I have not so far been deprived of any physical thing I need or wish, whatever, and I feel confident I shall not in the future. During my employment of seven years or more in Washington after the war (1865-72) I regularly saved a great part of my wages; and, though the sum has now become about exhausted by my expenses of the last three years, there are already beginning at present welcome dribbles hitherward from the sales of my new edition, which I just job and sell, myself (as the book-agents here for three years in New York have successively, deliberately, badly cheated me), and shall continue to dispose of the books myself. And that is the way I should prefer to glean my support. In that way I cheerfully accept all the aid my friends find it convenient to proffer. I heartily and most affectionately thank my British friends, and accept their sympathetic generosity in the same spirit in which I believe (nay, know) it is offered—that, though poor, I am not in want—that I maintain good heart and cheer; and that by far the most satisfaction to me (and I think it can be done, and believe it will be), will be to live as long as possible on the sales, by myself, of my own works, and perhaps, if practicable, by further writings for the press.  
Lists of purchasers of the $10 edition were sent over to Whitman, accompanied by the money. Tennyson headed one, Swinburne another, and Prof Dowden and Lord Houghton others. Among the names were those of G. H. Lewes, Vernon and Godfrey Lushington, Dante G. and William M. Rossetti, W. B. Scott, C. W. Reynell, Mrs Gilchrist, R. Spence Watson, J. Leicester Warren, A. G. Dew-Smith, George Saintsbury, Profs Atkinson and Armstrong, Mrs L. C. Moulton, J. Addington Symonds, Edward Carpenter, George Wallis, Rafe Leicester, George H. Boughton, Miss Blind, Ford Madox Brown, Philip Bourke Marston, Lady Hardy, H. J. Dakyns, J. T. and R. L. Nettleship, Francis Huetter, Hubert Herkomer and Seymour Thompson. All this was in 1876-7. Since that time the poet has been living here in Camden. The principal subsequent event has been the completion of "Leaves of Grass," and the bringing out of the book by Osgood & Co in November, 1881. The volume had been successfully launched, and was doing well when stopped by the interference of the Massachusetts lawyers. Then the poet has also published a prose volume, "Specimen Days."

Walt Whitman's health all these years has remained in a sadly shattered condition. He never got over the paralytic attacks in Washington following the war. He resides here, near the Delaware river, in a little cottage of his own, with a good "house-lady," as he calls her, to cook and care for him.—Mrs Davis, a sailor's widow, young and pleasant and evidently a benignant influence on the old poet's life. Whitman doesn't make much money. When the brief sway of the Osgood edition (some three or four months) was brought to an end by District Attorney Stevens's threat of prosecution J. R. Osgood & Co owed him about $500 cash for royalties. In payment of this the author agreed to accept the electrotype plates of the "Leaves," which were turned over to him, shipped to Philadelphia and from them David McKay, publisher of the latter city, issued in the latter part of 1882 two editions. Whitman received from them nearly $1300. For 1883 his royalties amounted to $300. For 1884 they sank to less than $200.

He gets an occasional lift from the periodicals: Harpers have paid him pretty well.—$100 for "Song of the Redwood Tree," $30 for the 22-line piece, "With Husky-Haughty Lips, O Sea," $50 for the nine-line piece, "Of that Blithe Throat of Thine," and the same sum for the late little piece, "As One by One Withdraw the Lofty Actors." The "Critic" also accepts and pays for all he sends them. These, however, it must be confessed, are the exceptions which prove the rule. It is a curious fact that "Leaves of Grass," while known and discussed in the literary circles of all lands, has yet obtained no first-class publisher (with the exception of Osgood) but has gone from pillar to post even to this day. Some of the past negotiations about its publication would yield interesting items. At the instance of a personal friend, years ago, Ticknor & Fields came very near publishing it, and after seriously entertaining the idea, only decided adversely because "it would militate against their other issues, poetry, etc." The senior of the firm said to this friend, "I have thought seriously of the subject; there is money in the book as well as genius—but upon the whole, situated as "​ we are, it will not do for us to take hold of it." The friend alluded to (J. T. Trowbridge) also talked with Lee & Shepard of Boston, who thought it over. Mr Lee finally said frankly: "From mere considerations of policy, I wouldn't to-day put our names to a first edition of Byron, or even of the Bible. When Walt Whitman has become a standard book like them, as I suppose he will, any firm will be glad to publish him."

Generally as the current sets against him in conventional circles, it must be confessed that the old poet is not without stanch defenders. One excuse for the overstrained friendliness of certain essays about him is to found in the fact that the majority of notices are fearfully the other way; another is the man's personal magnetism. A friend said to me the other day: "Hardly any one gets acquainted with Walt Whitman without wishing to write something about him." Then there is a more practical purpose. The essential object of Dr Bucke's late book was avowedly to put on record the statistical facts of Whitman's life, and as many characteristic anecdotes, personal sayings and doings, and little side-lights of him, as could be authentically gathered for future use, now while he is living. Then it is well known among his friends that while apathetic to mere eulogy, and even adverse to it, Walt Whitman looks kindly on any skilful presentations, reports, literary pen-pictures and genre bits about himself, his fortunes, his career as author, or even his sickness and poverty, and is more or less willing to assist in those anecdotes and statistics. I have heard him say he believes a perfectly legitimate part of any new poet, artist or reformer, is to aid in making himself truthfully known by these means. He was much pleased with Oscar Wilde's remark: "A true artist does not care so much for praise; what he cares first and last for, is to be understood." I was present one evening lately at a literary reception where among other topics W. W. was discussed, and I must say pretty well buffeted. But one old fellow, apparently the only Whitmanite present, got in a staggerer, when the head of the opposition asked triumphantly, "What answer could be made to the arguments." "Answer!" said he, "I should only answer as Carlyle did to Lewes—'It is the wild cry of amazement from the spooneys that Titan is not a spooney, too.'" A conventional poetry reader, venturing for the first time amid the mazes of "Leaves of Grass," is much like a man who, having never seen anything of nature but "works of art" or choice gardens, is put in contact with real woods and mountains, savage rocks, or especially with the sea itself, and the waves eternally rolling. Says John Burroughs:— It is a kind of disloyalty to nature to say Whitman has no form. He has not form as a house, or a shield, or a heart, or a molder's pattern, or a sonnet of Hood's, or a dainty bit of verse by Longfellow has form; but he has form as a tree, a river, the clouds, a cataract, a flash of lightning, or any vital and progressive thing has form, and this is all the form he aims at. The truth is, sweet poets, elegant poets, learned, correct, beautiful poets, are not rare, in our age, but powerful poets, poets who can confront and compel the gigantic materialism of our times and land, and who by dint of inward native force can rise above the poetic and literary consciousness with which the very atmosphere is rotten, are rare, and it seems are misunderstood when they come. The trouble with Whitman is, he gives us something more and better than mere literature or art, and the main influence of his poems is in the direction of health, character and manly activity, and can never be to beget a critical, sophisticated, or over intellectual race, which is the tendency of literary culture as such.  
 Dr Bucke's book has lately been republished in Great Britain (Wilson & McCormick, Glasgow, Scot.) with a supplement by Prof Edward Dowden entitled "English Critics on Walt Whitman." These critiques are from the most competent and scholarly men of letters in England, and almost without exception they regard him as a great poet,—Rossetti calls him "beyond compare the greatest of American poets, and indeed one of the greatest now living in any part of the world. He is just what one could conceive a giant to be, if all the mental faculties and aspirations of such a being were on the same scale with his bodily presence. We should expect his emotions and his intellectual products to be colossal, magnificent, fervid, far-reaching, many-sided—showing the most vivid perceptions and the strongest grasp. This is what we find in Whitman. He is not insensible to grace, nor yet to art, for his mind, besides all its other large endowments, is distinctly that of a poet; but the scale of his intuitions, his sympathies, and his observation, is so massive, and his execution has so wide a sweep, that he does not linger over the forms and finish of his work—not at least over forms or the finish of such sort as most poets delight in, though he has his own standard of performance which he willingly and heedfully observes." The views of a late review of "Leaves of Grass" at Dresden, Saxony, are thus summed up in a letter to Whitman:— He says that your chief task is to be the poet of the present time; that you are the greatest poetical representative of what is generally called the distinctive characteristic (hauptmoment) of German philosophy. He says that in our present day there are two great philosophic tendencies: First, the English, treating of objective realities, of evolution by inductive methods; second, the German or psychological method, busying itself with being rather than doing, persisting that external existences are not independent of the soul, and are, as it were, its powers and not its chains. He gives a long translated quotation to prove that your poetry represents this tendency, not in a mechanical or systematic manner, for example, as Spencer, but by helping us to see "objects of thought in their reality with our own eyes." He finds in your poetry proofs of the divine in all things; even in evil; contending that this pantheism is not immoral as represented by you, since you see the world in the shape of an ascending series of struggles and conquests. As a politiker you are a strict democrat in literature. He says you would continue to be a democrat even though it were proved that a better order and well-being resulted from monarchical rule, because democracy puts man in direct contact with life and nature. In summing up, he says that your poetry unites three qualities. First, a large and deep understanding; second, a poetical wealth; third, a personal influence ("not a book but a man").  
 An old Philadelphia sculptor who read "Leaves of Grass" said to me: "The opposition to the book comes mainly from that kind of persons—there will always be a large percentage of them—who, in walking through the statue gallery, leave nineteen-twentieths of the ideal and material show, and devote their eyes and thoughts solely to that certain subordinate remaining twentieth, indispensable to art-completion, never to be construed with reference to itself, but with reference to the ensemble"

A long criticism in the "Century" some time since by E. C. Stedman says, "Whitman has derided his compeers," and speaks of his "intolerant strictures on the poets of his own land." Not so at all; Mr Whitman, to my knowledge, habitually mentions Bryant, Emerson, Longfellow and Whittier with the highest respect, and considers it lucky for America that poets so manly, sane and sweet should have given the birth-start to her verse. I have heard him "stand up" for all of them strongly, and for Tennyson too. Mr Stedman is also wrong in supposing that W. W. "complains" of his treatment. While he practically puts his hand to establishing, diffusing, explaining his own work, his poems and himself, I think the ranks of authors never before afforded a specimen of such genuine indifference to either neglect, abuse or praise. There is in a now discarded preface to one of the poet's earlier books the following paragraph: "The United States have established these bases (viz., materials, products, worldly prosperity, inter-communication, common schools, equal suffrage and civil and ecclesiastical freedom,) upon scales of extent, variety, vitality and continuity, rivaling those of nature; and have now to proceed to build an Edifice upon them. I say this Edifice is only to be fitly built by new arts and literatures, especially the poetic. I say a modern image-making creation is indispensable to fuse and surmount the modern political and scientific creations, and to define and express America."

Back to top