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‘I Have Let Whitman Alone’

Walt Whitman, 1880
Edy Brothers
Walt Whitman, 1880

In 1855 no one had yet heard anything like the raw, declamatory, and jubilant voice of the self-proclaimed “American, one of the roughs, a kosmos”—Walt Whitman, who in Leaves of Grass, his dazzling poetic debut, announced, “I celebrate myself,/And what I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Whitman was unequivocally declaring his own independence from poetic conventions and niceties. Here was a poet of the people for the people, without pretension or pomp, who wrote verse that captured everyday speech, both its fluency and its clank. “The best writing,” Whitman would say, “has no lace on its sleeves.”

In Walt Whitman Speaks: His Final Thoughts on Life, Writing, Spirituality, and the Promise of America, he again speaks to us, this time from his house at 328 Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey.* “I seem to be developing into a garrulous old man—a talker—a teller of stories,” he told his friend Horace Traubel, who was transcribing in shorthand most of what Whitman said to him during the last years of his life. By the time Whitman died in 1892, Traubel had accumulated about five thousand pages of these conversations, a monumental chronicle of Whitman’s reflections, ruminations, analyses, and affirmations.

Whitman and Traubel had been collaborating on this joint project since 1888. Although Whitman didn’t know exactly what Traubel was jotting down, he understood that Traubel would write of their relationship one day, telling him, “I want you to speak for me when I am dead.” As Whitman further explained, “You will be called on many a time in the future to bear witness—to quote these days, our work together, the talks, anxieties—the victories, defeats. Whatever we do, we must let our history tell the truth: whatever becomes of us, tell the truth.” He didn’t want to be mummified. “Do not prettify me: include all the hells and damns,” Whitman instructed. When Traubel read back to Whitman some of what he’d transcribed, as he sometimes did, Whitman replied with satisfaction, “You do the thing just as I should wish it to be done.” He had found his very own Boswell.

Whitman had first encountered Traubel about fifteen years earlier, shortly after the poet arrived in Camden in 1873. Traubel, then fourteen, was carrying a large stack of library books, and Whitman had joked about a boy who reads too much. They quickly formed a friendship; Traubel greatly admired the poet and his work, and they sat on the front stoop to discuss what they had been reading, or they would watch baseball games together on the Camden common. Initially, a number of people complained to Traubel’s mother that her son shouldn’t associate with such an old lecher, but Traubel volunteered to run errands for the increasingly infirm Whitman.

Whitman had moved into the home of one of his brothers after suffering a stroke, and though he regained some strength and mobility, he stayed with his brother George and his family, where his mother was also living. After her death, when the rest of the Whitmans left Camden, the poet purchased a small two-story row house on Mickle Street. By 1888, Traubel was stopping by every day, usually on his way home from nearby Philadelphia, where he worked as a bank clerk. As Whitman’s unofficial amanuensis, he answered Whitman’s letters, scoured Philadelphia for the kind of quill pen Whitman liked, and was soon marshaling Whitman’s friends to help pay for his caregivers and nurses. Traubel arranged benefit lectures to defray their expense, and he organized the birthday dinners and iced champagne that delighted Whitman. Efficient and methodical, Traubel also acted as liaison to several editors when Whitman was preparing his volume November Boughs. With Traubel’s assistance, he published late volumes such as a pocket edition of Leaves of Grass, a Complete Poems and Prose, the volume Good-bye My Fancy, and the “deathbed” edition of Leaves of Grass.

“I wonder whether you understand at all the functions you have come to fulfil here! that you’re the only thing between me and death?” Whitman exclaimed in 1889. As Whitman’s biographer, which is essentially what he had become, Traubel also sifted through the heap of manuscripts, letters, books, envelopes, magazines, and slips of paper strewn all over Whitman’s second-floor bedroom. “I live here in a ruin of debris—a ruin of ruins,” Whitman sheepishly admitted. If he proposed to burn or tear up a letter, Traubel intervened, and whenever the young man asked for some document, Whitman handed it over without protest.

Their routine continued with rare exceptions, and by 1891 Traubel felt so close to the poet that he was married in his house. Traubel and Whitman could sit together in silence for long periods, but then Traubel might encourage Whitman, trying nonetheless “to not trespass and not to ply too closely with questions necessary or unnecessary,” as he later said. But he pushed back against some of Whitman’s biases, both men enjoying the give and take. Traubel was a committed socialist, which Whitman decidedly was not. “How much have you looked into the subject of the economic origin of things we call vices, evils, sins?” Traubel gently needled his friend. Smiling, Whitman replied with good humor, “You know how I shy at problems, duties, consciences: you seem to like to trip me with your pertinent impertinences.”

In turn, Whitman would tease Traubel, promising him revelations that he never delivered, such as the secret he described as “the one big factor, entanglement (I may almost say tragedy) of my life about which I have not so far talked freely with you.” Prodded, Whitman demurred. “Some day the right day will come—then we’ll have a big pow-wow about it.” The right day never came. “There is something furtive in my nature,” Whitman once told a friend, “like an old hen.” If Whitman did in fact reveal a secret, perhaps about his sexuality, Traubel didn’t record it, although he seems to have recorded everything faithfully and to have fulfilled his promise not to sanitize or censor.

Traubel’s great achievement lay in these transcriptions; the first volume, With Walt Whitman in Camden, was published in 1906 as a kind of daily diary of Whitman’s talk. As the younger man explained:

I have let Whitman alone. I have let him remain the chief figure in his own story. This book is more his book than my book. It talks his words. It reflects his manner. It is the utterance of his faith. That is why I have not fooled with its text. Why I have chosen to leave it in its unpremeditated arrangement of light and shade.

The result is Whitman whole, presented informally and without polish; it reveals the breadth of his interests—from science and literature to petty gossip: “a human phonograph,” one reviewer called it. Whitman emerged as spirited and vain, judgmental and broad-minded, stoic and easygoing, enduringly warm-hearted—not unlike the courageous and brash poet who had promised in 1855 “a perpetual journey,” perpetually unfolding in a verse where “past and present and future are not disjoined.”

For though he savored untrodden paths and the open road, Whitman was also the poet of the city. “New York’s the place!” he told Traubel. “If you wish the profound, generous, encompassing things, New York is your natural center of gravity.” In 1881, in the sixth edition of Leaves of Grass, he was calling himself “Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son.”

Yet Whitman adored Washington too. “I was always between two loves at that time,” he explained to Traubel. “I wanted to be in New York, I had to be in Washington: I was never in the one place but I was restless for the other: my heart was distracted.” Washington offered fine scenery, “plenty of hills, and a noble river,” he said. And there Whitman had met the handsome young horsecar conductor Peter Doyle, an Irish native raised in the South and recently a soldier in the Confederate army; he and Whitman were intimate, loving companions until 1873, when Whitman left the capital.

Traubel’s devotion to Walt Whitman was complete and lifelong. Part acolyte, part sympathetic confidant, and part son, Traubel has more or less disappeared from history except for his attachment to Whitman. And yet by the time of his death in 1919—the centenary of Whitman’s birth—many of Traubel’s own writings had been translated into German, French, and Japanese; he was known in America and abroad as a committed socialist and humanitarian, and what Helen Keller called a champion “of liberty, of manhood and womanhood, of justice and righteousness.” Eugene Debs said of Traubel that he “has the clear vision of a prophet, the analytical mind of a philosopher,…the heroic soul of a martyr, and the unpolluted heart of a child.”

The son of a German Jewish immigrant lithographer named Maurice Traubel and Katherine Grunder, who was not Jewish, Traubel briefly worked for his father, though he had literary aspirations, and while a bank clerk in Philadelphia he served as that city’s correspondent to the Boston Commonwealth, contributing hundreds of pieces, mainly on political topics such as women’s rights and race relations. He also wrote editorials and small literary reviews for other papers, helped establish a speakers’ club where topics ranged from Arctic explorations to copyright law, and was instrumental in the founding of the Philadelphia Ethical Society. In 1890 he launched the journal The Conservator to foster communication among liberal groups, and in 1904 he gathered forty of his own prose poems in a volume called Chants Communal—no doubt a tribute to Whitman’s “Chants Democratic”—that intended to inspire working people and plead for inclusiveness, equality, and love.

Yet it’s for his devotion to Whitman that we recognize Traubel’s name. Each day for four years, Traubel copied down Whitman’s conversation on scraps of paper, stuffed them in his pockets, and then, to keep them fresh, transcribed them immediately on returning home. When he published the first volume of With Walt Whitman in Camden, he opted for completeness over selection. No doubt Traubel was after something like Whitman’s own poetry: “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

The first volume sold poorly, which endangered the publication of a second. But With Walt Whitman in Camden, volume 2, did appear in 1908. Unfortunately, it tried the patience of many a critic, precisely because it was Whitman unedited, which meant it was loaded with big chunks of repetitive, irrelevant, and tedious material. The fawning of his friends, the inclusion of laudatory correspondence, and the trivial and digressive nature of the conversations often muffled Whitman’s far more cogent remarks on writing and writers or on his war experiences. Still, Traubel had supplied literary historians, scholars, biographers, and Whitman fans with a rich resource that would be mined for years and years to come.

And he kept at it. While preparing another book of his own poems, he worked on a third volume of Whitman’s conversation, which covered the years 1888 and 1889. It was published in 1914, the last volume to appear in Traubel’s lifetime. With his finances precarious, his travels and writing incessant, and some of his friends sent to prison for protesting America’s involvement in World War I, which he deplored, the exhausted Traubel suffered mild heart attacks and a minor stroke. In the fall of 1919 he died; he’d said he heard Walt Whitman calling.

Traubel had been working on the fourth volume of With Walt Whitman in Camden, which wasn’t published until 1953, edited by the Whitman scholar Sculley Bradley; in 1964, volume five appeared, edited by Traubel’s daughter, Gertrude; the sixth installment of conversations, which she had also worked on, came out in 1982, and the seventh in 1992. In all, there were nine huge volumes—the last two not published until 1996. The sum total is extraordinary: an invaluable compendium of observations, insights, overtures, obsessions, and empathy from “an outdoors man,” as Whitman said, “serving an indoor sentence.”

But the material begs for compression. Traubel’s transcriptions are cumbersome, redundant, and taxing even for the most ardent Whitman admirer. Thus in choosing selections, I have omitted his commentary on local Camden weather and politics, free trade, money matters, or the negotiations for his tomb at Harleigh Cemetery, as well as discussion of the temperature in his room (too hot), his ailments, and the back-and-forth with obsequious disciples. Some of this material may be important for scholars, but I’ve tried to choose the pronouncements, whether about America, nature, his poetry, art, or about other writers, that can stand alone or, better yet, provide for the reader the good company that Whitman generously afforded me.

I found him to be a remarkable man, alert and engaged and without regret, a democrat in all things although not without his prejudices. He firmly believed that freedom rightfully belongs to every person, but he had never been an abolitionist (he distrusted political radicalism of every kind), nor could he fully embrace racial equality. Yet Walt Whitman remains an original. Proud never to have backed down or away from what he wanted to do, he did not mask his own wish, even his burning need, to be recognized. As he speaks of life and death and the cosmos, he again bids us today, as he has always done, “Be of good cheer, we will not desert you.”

 


From ‘Walt Whitman Speaks’

America must welcome all—Chinese, Irish, German, pauper or not, criminal or not—all, all, without exceptions: become an asylum for all who choose to come. We may have drifted away from this principle temporarily but time will bring us back. The tide may rise and rise again and still again and again after that, but at last there is an ebb—the low water comes at last. Think of it—think of it: how little of the land of the United States is cultivated—how much of it is still utterly untilled. When you go West you sometimes travel whole days at lightning speed across vast spaces where not an acre is plowed, not a tree is touched, not a sign of a house is anywhere detected. America is not for special types, for the caste, but for the great mass of people—the vast, surging, hopeful, army of workers. Dare we deny them a home—close the doors in their face—take possession of all and fence it in and then sit down satisfied with our system—convinced that we have solved our problem? I for my part refuse to connect America with such a failure—such a tragedy, for tragedy it would be.

America has its purpose: it must serve that purpose to the end: I look upon the future as certain: our people will in the end read all these lessons right: America will stand opposed to everything which means restriction—stand against all policies of exclusion: accept Irish, Chinese—knowing it must not question the logic of its hospitality.

I look ahead seeing for America a bad day—a dark if not stormy day—in which this policy, this restriction, this attempt to draw a line against free speech, free printing, free assembly, will become a weapon of menace to our future.

I anticipate the day when some wise man will start out to argue that two and two are not four but five or something else: history proving that two and two couldn’t be four: and probability, too: yes, more than that, the wise man will prove it out of his own consciousness—prove it for somebody—for a few: they will believe in him—a body of disciples will believe: then, presto! you have a new religion!

I like the scientific spirit—the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine—it always keeps the way beyond open—always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake—after a wrong guess.

[Jefferson] Davis was absolutely without lubricity. Was like a general, having made a mistake, with time for retrieval—but was too proud to unbend, to acknowledge his mistake. If you grant that, then goodby science—to the devil with progress! The top-most glory of science, our science, today—is its spirit of tolerance—its broad human spirit of acceptance—its admission equally of every view—making dogma of none. Davis was of a damned bad type—of the type which, liking cabbage (to give a homely instance) or onions, would damn anybody who does not. But that is not modern—that is not up to us—we have reached beyond and beyond. The South has had some of the best samples and some of the meanest. I have seen Davis often—we measured him long ago. It would not be well to have an America of such men.

Politics for politics’ sake, church for church’s sake, talk for talk’s sake, government for government’s sake: state it any way you choose it becomes offensive: it’s all out of the same pit. Instead of regarding literature as only a weapon, an instrument, in the service of something larger than itself, it looks upon itself as an end—as a fact to be finally worshipped, adored. To me that’s all a horrible blasphemy—a bad-smelling apostasy.

I take it there are qualities—latent forces—in all men which need to be shaken up into life: to shake them up—that is the function of the writer.

The secret of it all is, to write in the gush, the throb, the flood, of the moment—to put things down without deliberation—without worrying about their style—without waiting for a fit time or place. I always worked that way. I took the first scrap of paper, the first doorstep, the first desk, and wrote—wrote, wrote. No prepared picture, no elaborated poem, no after-narrative, could be what the thing itself is. You want to catch its first spirit—to tally its birth. By writing at the instant the very heart-beat of life is caught.

A woman I knew once asked a man to give her a child: she was greatly in love with him: it was not done: he did not care that much for her: he said to her, “all children should be love children”: then he thought she might repent if the thing was done: after his refusal she said: “Now I suppose you despise me.” He said: “Despise you? no: I respect you: I feel that you have conferred the highest honor on me.” Years after, he met her again. She was married—had children. But she said to him: “I still love my dream-child best.”

It does a man good to turn himself inside out once in a while: to sort of turn the tables on himself: to look at himself through other eyes—especially skeptical eyes, if he can. It takes a good deal of resolution to do it: yet it should be done—no one is safe until he can give himself such a drubbing: until he can shock himself out of his complacency. Think how we go on believing in ourselves—which in the main is all right (what could we ever do if we didn’t believe in ourselves?)—a colossal self-satisfaction, which is worse for a man than being a damned scoundrel.

  1. *

    This essay will appear, in somewhat different form, as the introduction to Walt Whitman Speaks: His Final Thoughts on Life, Writing, Spirituality, and the Promise of America, edited by Brenda Wineapple, to be published by the Library of America in April.