‘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…

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