Intimate with Walt Whitman

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  Introduction I am disposed to trust myself more and more to your younger body and spirit, knowing, as I do, that you love me, that youwill not betray me—more than that (and in a way better thanthat), that you understand me and can be depended upon to rep-resent me not only vehemently but with authority.  —Walt Whitman to Horace Traubel On a “rainy & dark & raw” March day in 1888, Walt Whitman wrotesomewhat forlornly to his journalist friend William Sloane Kennedyfrom Camden, the rather gritty New Jersey town across the DelawareRiver from Philadelphia: “Nothing new in particular with me—more or less evidences of gradual physical deterioration—but spirits good— appetite &c fair—& you know I begin my 70th year now in ab’t twomonths—thank God indeed that things are as well as they are.”Little could Whitman have imagined that, two days later, somethingnew and remarkable would happen to change the four remaining yearsof his life—and cause him many times to thank God that “things are aswell as they are”—for on March28 commenced the most astonishingoral history project in all of American letters. On that day twenty-nine-year-old Horace Traubel began to record, in a personal form of short-hand, what he thought were the salient portions of his almost daily con-versations with the most famous resident of Camden—and, one mightventure, of America. Traubel, indeed, tells us that one day a letter ar-rived from Great Britain at 328 Mickle Street addressed simply “WaltWhitman, America,” and the old poet was delighted at how smartly ithad reachedhim.The very first of the more than 1.9 million words transcribed were asimple “At Walt’s this evening.” Titled With Walt Whitman in Camden ,the first volume of these conversations was published under Traubel’ssupervision in 1906. He brought out two more volumes before he died in1919; only in 1996 did the final eighth and ninth volumes appear.Inevitably, much in these nearly 5,000 pages is mundane andephemeral: Horace’s daily eyeball on Walt’s look and mood, housekeep-ing affairs, and the inconsequential comings and goings of friends andstrangers. The intrepid reader can be forgiven for thinking certain topicsvii  become beaten like the proverbial dead horse. Several in Walt’s circle(though not Walt himself), for instance, were keen on the debate overauthorship of the plays of Shakespeare; this subject frequently surfacesat Mickle Street. Then one thinks of the extended lucubrations over thegoodness or badness of photographic, painterly, and sculptural imagesof the poet, not to mention page upon page of jawboning about thedesign and printing of Whitman’s books that only a bibliographicalscholar could dote on. And many of the hot political and cultural issuesof Whitman’s day, chewed over at length, are of small interest now.That said, With Walt Whitman in Camden must still be accounted auniquely rich resource, for running through it are veins of pure gold. Itis laced with so many passages crucial for a full, rounded, and, finally,humane understanding of America’s first great national poet. Whitmanmade much of the charisma of the individual human voice, and nothingon the wide shelf of Whitman’s own writings and all the commentary onhim gives a more vivid sense of the poet’s actual, personal voice thanTraubel’s nine volumes. They also give us much of more specific import,that is, observations and assertions that Whitman (being America’s“Good Gray Poet”) would never have dared to voice in public or in print:candid views about himself; revealing retrospects on his purposes andmethods in composing his poems; superbly philosophical or trenchantsquelches of his critics; poignant memories of his past life and friend-ships; provocative, often coruscating comments on American society;and rousing views, both hostile and honeyed, on literary celebrities andpublic figures.Perhaps most valuable are the many remarks Whitman threw off en passant that resonate as credos fundamental to our understanding of Leaves of Grass . Nor of small price is the wonderful window providedhere on Whitman’s sense of humor (there was a theory abroad in his day that he had none) and on just how the “critter” Whitman actuallyexisted in the America he so enthusiastically celebrated. There is muchserendipitous hilarity in these pages but also, at the other extreme,many a wrenching, deeply moving, or epiphanic passage. These veins of critical gold are mined in the following pages—but not exhaustively,for there is no substitute for the experience of reading all from beginningto end.Young Traubel had first met Whitman in 1873, when he was a teen-agerand the then more-notorious-than-celebrated poet was fifty-four,gray-bearded, and already seriously incapacitated by various ailments.Traubel, like Whitman, had left school at the age of twelve and was in1888 a clerk in the Farmers’ and Mechanics’ Bank on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. As the months of daily visits passed by, he became Whit-man’s alter ego, factotum, and liaison with the local press and many avisiting stranger, as well as his increasingly overworked amanuensisand, crucially, a manager of the poet’s financial and printing affairs.Introductionviii  Traubel’s loyalty and the regularity of his visits to the little, ram-shackle two-story house were staggering. A passing remark he made to-ward the end of his four years of service—“Never miss a morning”— was almost true: the days he records not appearing or being out of townare extremely rare. When he did miss a day, it was usually a Sunday. Af-ter one Sunday in which he had been absent, Traubel notes that Whit-man “greeted me as ‘a stranger.’” Once, when he missed two consecu-tive days, Traubel records that Whitman “called out ‘Horace’ with greatcordiality—took and held my hand—said, ‘I had wondered what hadbecome of you: was going to send up to ask tomorrow.’ I explained myabsence—he assenting, ‘I know—it was all right—I am not disposed toquestion it. But we missed you.’”Traubel’s daily visits were frequently multiple. “Four times there to-day—8 a.m.  —5:30 p.m.  —8 p.m. and again on return from Philadelphiaat midnight,” he records; then, a week later: “The fourth time at W.’s at12:40.” Gradually, however, he concluded there was an ideal time to ac-cost and record: “Eight o’clock is his good hour invariably if there is agood hour in the day. For that reason I have mostly made it the hour forconsultation.” Rarely did he arrive after 9  p.m. In the event that Waltwas not in a consulting mood, Traubel knew well enough to beat a hastyretreat: “I did not prolong my stay,” he notes of one April day, “W. not ingood talking mood. In such cases I never linger.”ThepracticalresponsibilitiesTraubelbegantoshouldergrewsteadilyas Whitman’s health continued to deteriorate. Especially onerous wasthe correspondence he undertook on the poet’s behalf. In the days afterthe first serious health scare of June1888, Traubel records, “Wrote a dozen replies. Sometime W.’s correspondence gets voluminous andkeeps me working steadily until daybreak.” In the last months this taskmade heavy demands: “I suppose 25 or 30 letters in all today.” Soon itwas encroaching on his break time at work (“Wrote 12 or 20 letters be-tween times at the Bank”) and on his home life: “Up home then and thewhole evening spent writing letters to W’s friends, Europe and home.” A couple of weeks later an aghast Traubel remarks, doubtless with acramped writing hand, “My letter-writing is assuming enormous pro-portions, but I must stick to it.” Sometimes the “news” at Mickle Streetwould change even before Traubel could get a batch of letters into themail: “Striking change in W. My many exuberant letters of forenoonalready knocked off their feet.”The help of most lasting significance that Traubel offered Whitman,of course, concerned the major publications of these last years: Novem-ber Boughs (1888), the nine hundred–page Complete Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman (1888), and the final, or so-called deathbed, edition of Leaves of Grass (1892). The day Whitman formally announced his intention to hand over the November Boughs manuscript to a printer, he warned Traubel, “I shall need to enlist you as my co-worker. I amphysically helpless. I could not do this work alone: I seem every day to be Introduction ix

September 2019

Sep 10, 2019
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