Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–1891: General Impressions of Whitman's Personality

Creator: John Johnston

Date: 1917

Whitman Archive ID: med.00015

Source: Our transcription is based on J. Johnston and J. W. Wallace, Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–1891 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1917), 218–227 For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the interviews, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney and Said Hail Fallaha

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IN the foregoing pages I have included every scrap of Whitman's conversation which I was able to note down after each visit to him, with a few brief descriptions of the impressions made upon me at different times by his personality. I have also reported such visits to places associated with him, and to persons who knew him, as are likely to be of interest to students of his works.

In doing so I have included much that is of only slight intrinsic importance, but which, I trust, will add to the completeness and verisimilitude of the story as a whole. And a full transcript of Whitman's conversations, however trivial the themes of some of them may appear, will present a more faithful picture of him, as I saw him from day to day, than any selections can.

A report, however, which is restricted to the mere words spoken by Whitman, without the accompaniment of his living voice and presence, necessarily omits the most vital elements of the impression he made upon one during an interview. And these can only be described very imperfectly.

In every man one becomes quickly aware of a total expression of personality, which is vastly more self-revealing than his immediate words andd actions,

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but which it is very difficult to describe. This difficulty is especially great in the case of those in whom the inner life is of exceptional depth and range.

It was this indefinable, incommensurable element in Whitman's personality which gave it, as Carpenter has noted, a suggestion of "immense vista or background." What this background was can only be partly divined, according to the capacity of the reader, after long study and absorption of "Leaves of Grass" as a whole.

We may trace its influence, however, in the extraordinary effect which Whitman's personality had at times on those whose natures were attuned responsively to his, as illustrated by the analogies which some of them have used in trying to describe it. His influence is said to have been akin to that of Nature in her grandest scenes, as if in him Nature seemed personified. Thoreau wrote, after an interview, followed by reading the second edition of his book, "he occasionally suggests something a little more than human." He has often been described as looking at times "like a god." And to Dr. Bucke, during the period of exaltation which followed his first interview with Whitman, it seemed certain that he was "either actually a god or in some sense clearly and entirely preter-human."

Such descriptions of the occasional effect of Whitman's personality will only seem extravagant to those who have not yet realized the significance of much that is implicit in "Leaves of Grass." For the divine life which is at the root of every human soul, however deeply buried in his or her

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subconscious nature, had in Whitman risen into clear consciousness and dominating power, "dazzling and tremendous as the sun." The same essential life underlies all objective nature, and its self-realization in a great composite personality like Whitman's—so rich in broadest human sympathies and tenderest sensibilities, and so deeply interfused with the concrete material world—was inevitably attended by the kinship of his personal influence with that of "the eloquent, dumb, great mother" herself.

His illumination, in which "Leaves of Grass" had its origin ("O heaven! what flash and endless train of all!") had been accompanied by a liberation and vast expansion of consciousness and vision, and by a readjustment of all the diverse elements of his nature, which related them thenceforth with the universal and eternal. In this was his home, withdrawn and silent, from which he drew his inspiration and power. It was this—together with his long, resolute and uncompromising faithfulness to the promptings of his deepest nature—which invested him with the personal majesty which, with all his simplicity and spontaneity, always characterized him. And this was the main source of the silent influence of his personality and bodily presence.

He knew the futility of any attempt to give direct expression to this inner life in words. Even in "Leaves of Grass," in which he seeks to convey it, he uses Nature's method of indirections—with occasional clues which can only be understood by those who are approaching the same levels of life and experience. He knew that "there is

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little or nothing in audible words," that "all merges towards the presentation of the inaudible words of the earth," and that "the masters know the inaudible words of the earth and use them more than audible words." These are the real burdens of his book, and they were the chief factors in his personal influence.

Knowing this I never attempted, during my talks with him, to question him or draw him out on any subject of philosophy or literature, and I was quite satisfied to deal with him on the ordinary surface level of everyday affairs, and to leave him to the free play of his own volition. No matter how trivial the subject of conversation might be, the impression he made upon me was always akin to that of his books, and in no way inferior to it.

An apt student of "Leaves of Grass" soon becomes more or less aware of the oceanic vastness and depth of the emotions in which it had its origin, of the all-enclosing range of its subject matter and of its deep and many-folded meanings; and also of the organic inter-relationship of all its diverse elements and their fusion into a living unity in Whitman's identity. It is this fact which makes its full meaning so elusive, and any complete account of it impossible, and which compels its best exponents to confess their own inadequacy. And a similar confession must be made about every attempt to describe Whitman's personality from the outside.

It is obvious that the accounts of him which I received from two or three of his early associates on Long Island, and from some others better

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equipped who knew him later, are absurdly superficial and limited. But the reports and descriptions which have been written by men nearer his own stature—though invaluable to students of Whitman—are also to be read with discrimination and caution. For these, too, reflect the limitations and idiosyncrasies of the writers, and reveal Whitman only as he appeared in relation to themselves, at the time and under the particular circumstances of their association. All need to be read in the light of the full and intimate expression of himself—from full maturity to old age—which Whitman has given us in his writings, and upon which our understanding of him must primarily rest. And of course this applies also to my own account of him, as I saw him from day to day at a period very near the end of his life.

The very great superiority of Whitman's personality to any other that I have known—in its amplitude and grandeur, its rich and warm humanity and in delicacy of perception and feeling—while it seemed to set him apart in spiritual isolation and to give him at times an air of wistful sadness, emphasized and drove home the lesson of the perfect equality and simplicity of his bearing towards all with whom I saw him, or of whom I heard him speak. It was as spontaneous and unaffected as the naïve and innocent acceptance of a child, and one could not doubt that it expressed his real and constant feeling. In him the two complementary sides of the religion outlined in "Leaves of Grass "—the divine pride of man in himself and an outgoing sympathy which

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amounted to self-identification with all others—were extraordinarily developed and in perfect balance.

This twofold character was to be seen in all his intercourse with others. He had the refinement and delicate courtesy of speech and manner as well as the lofty port of a very great noble—of one who (to use the proud words of Robert Burns) "derived his patent of nobility direct from Almighty God."

He represented a new type, as yet rare, but which his example and influence will help to make common in the future; that of one of the average workers and mass-peoples of the world, who, remaining where he is, exemplifies in himself all that is of value in the proudest aristocracy or the noblest culture when set free from all taint of superciliousness or exclusiveness. And he exhibited a corresponding type of manners, which included all that is excellent in preceding or existing types, and added new ones—of an indescribable freshness and charm—which are to be found only in Democracy, and which are indispensable henceforward in any complete ideal of humane culture and behaviour.

His surroundings were those of the average citizen he represented, and he lived in a plain, old-fashioned house which had not the slightest pretension to gentility or art, and which might have belonged to a small tradesman or superior artisan. His style of living was similarly of the most unaffected and homely simplicity. On its level the humblest might approach him freely and on equal terms, while the proudest would find in him a

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natural dignity and perfect breeding superior to his own.

He had in a supreme degree the qualities and demeanour which made one feel immediately and entirely at home with him, with no barriers between. The cordial loving-kindness of his smiling welcome, the firm grip of his hand, his tender and gentle courtesy, his perfect ease and unconstraint of manner, with its freedom from any conventional pretence or affectation, his unassuming equality of bearing, and the quiet sincerity, naturalness and simplicity of his speech, all combined to give one an extraordinary sense of intimate and deep-seated relationship. His talk adapted itself with spontaneous grace and appropriateness to every passing theme, trivial or important, and, on due occasion, he spoke with an unadorned eloquence and elevation which rose to grandeur.

He had too fine a sense of the significance of words, and he was too scrupulous and veracious in his use of them, to be a rapid talker, though he spoke with unhasting fluency and freedom. His accent and articulation were of a purity and clearness entirely free from any local peculiarity or mannerism. And on the occasions when he used a slang word or Americanism he did so with the deliberation of an artist selecting the exact pigment his purpose required. His voice was always musical ("a tender baritone") and the most flexible I have ever heard, with a marvellous range of modulations and of delicate subtleties of tone and expression.

He was always calm and restful in manner and benignant in appearance. Sitting erect, his

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shoulders well back and his hands usually resting on the arms of his chair, his complexion of a fresh, rosy clearness and his clothing and linen spotlessly clean, he appeared the embodiment of a strong, well-poised soul, of rare purity and sweetness, serenely wise and loving. Even when his physical condition was at its worst his composure and gentle affectionate courtesy never failed. And when he was feeling better his smiling cheer and geniality were like the sunshine.

He responded cordially to all genuine affection, and it pleased him to note any true appreciation of his work. But he loved truth too much to wish his friends or readers to be under any illusions about him, or to imagine him better or greater than he actually was. This trait appeared again and again in his conversation and letters, as it does in his book. He recoiled from everything which seemed to ignore his essential unity with all his fellows, and his participation in their mortal limitations and shortcomings. He regarded his proudest distinction as amounting to no more than a fuller realization in himself, and the expression in his book, of things which are latent in every human soul, constituting its true nature and only awaiting recognition and unfoldment. He was conscious of failure to fully achieve his own aims, and he looked to future bards to carry his work to further heights.

In relation to others he was pre-eminently a great loving nature, full of tenderness and sympathy. One felt this on first coming into his presence, and the impression deepened as time went on. His tenderness was wonderful, at once paternal and

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maternal—the expression of a strong, virile nature of unfathomable emotional depths and of an exquisite delicacy and sensibility of soul. He was not demonstrative; he had the fitting reticence and reserve of a proud, sensitive spirit who dislikes sentimentality and make-believe, and prefers always to be understood intuitively and by indirections. But it revealed itself not only in his beautiful consideration and loving-kindness, and in his face, voice and manner, but it seemed to radiate from him in an influence that could be felt.

The depth and fulness of his affectional nature, his fine sensibility and his all-embracing sympathy, had laid him exceptionally open to wounds, and burdened him with a full share of the sorrows of others. His one-time splendid health had been wrecked by the physical and emotional strain of his immense labours in the hospitals during the war, and for over eighteen years he had suffered in varying degrees from the paralysis which had been one of their results. At different times he had been very near to death, and now only six months of waning life remained to him. No wonder, then, that when in repose his face showed deep traces of pain and suffering. But these only added to the heart-stirring impressiveness of the mingled tenderness and grandeur of his whole appearance and manner—as of a hero now drawing near his release after long and arduous campaigns in the service of his fellows; battle-worn and weak in body, but victorious in soul and advanced in spiritual mastery by long and dread initiations of suffering; every narrowness of the personal self giving place to a serene universality

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of spirit, his whole nature becoming as sweet and full of contentment and trust as a little child's; and everything given up to love and to such service as he was still able to render.

Whatever defects of character or manner he may have shown in earlier life, or on other occasions, no defects were ever observable in my own intercourse with him, and his life during that period seemed to me a crowning manifestation of the spirit revealed in his book. And to witness it was to feel absolute assurance of its inherent immortality and triumph.


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