Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman: The Athletic Bard Paralyzed and in a Rocking Chair

Creator: J. B. S.

Date: May 21, 1876

Whitman Archive ID: med.00526

Source: The World 21 May 1876: 1. Our transcription is based on a photocopy of a microfilm copy of an original issue. 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 Shea Montgomerey

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So much has been printed lately about Walt Whitman that his case assumes fresh interest. Robert Buchanan's gushing eulogium and Moncure D. Conway's acrid remarks upon it are only two of a dozen writings in which attempts are made to sift his merits as a man of genius and to describe his lamentable present condition of life. He lives in Camden, N. J., right across the Delaware from Philadelphia. There I visited him the other morning.

He was alone in a pleasant parlor at the corner of West and Stevens streets. His seat was by the widow. The floor around it, and one or two chairs near it, were strewn with scrawled half-sheets of note-paper, freshly opened letters and torn envelopes. A pocket ink-bottle and a pen lay on the marble-topped stand before him and a lead pencil on the window-sill at his elbow. He looked like a diseased Druid. The Walt Whitman, whose gray mane I had seen swishing in the wind against the cheeks of Washington car-drivers and Broadway omnibus-drivers in the old days when that rough companionship was most natural to him, was not wholly undistinguishable, but sadly broken. Long white hair, a long white beard and moustache, a florid face with spirited blue eyes, a gigantic frame withered with paralysis and encased in a shirt thrown open clear below his corded neck, a gray coat and trowsers, a black vest and shoes tied with leathern strings—this was the Walt Whitman who now excused himself from rising. On a distant sofa lay the broad-brimmed white hat which he has worn for nearly a quarter of a century.

His tone and manner were perfectly cheerful, and went far to explain the affectionate interest he is said to inspire in most people who personally approach him. In answer to my inquiries he described some features of the vicinity in Camden, talked of the Centennial Exhibition, and was finally drawn to speak of his own concerns by my remark (glancing at the papers surrounding him) that he "seemed to be still at it."

"O, yes," said he, "I hav'n't given up yet by any means. Just now though I have been wrestling with the letters of some friends. I got a letter this morning from Joachin Miller—did you ever see his handwriting?"


"Well, it's more than I can make out. The letter lies down there on the floor somewhere. I can't read it."

"You and Mr. Miller are friends, then?"

"He comes over here to see me. He interests me; I like him. What some would call his egotism, or his vanities, attach me to him."

Soon after there was an opportunity to ask how long ago Mr. Whitman himself began his studies as a bard. He answered slowly:

"About twenty years ago. Yes; it was just about twenty years ago when I made the first splurge."

"And you have written a good deal since besides 'Leaves of Grass?'"

"Yes. What I have written has accumulated until I suppose it must now amount to some seven or eight hundred pages."

"Years ago I read 'Leaves of Grass;' and from what then appeared and has since been said on the subject of your work I suppose you to have had a plan."

Whitman gazed earnestly for a moment, then turned his face tranquilly towards the window and rested his cheek upon his hand.

"I'm almost tired," he said, in a tone of mingled patience and fortitude, "of talking of that. I set out with a design as thoroughly considered as an architect's plan for a cathedral. None of the poets had touched exactly what I wanted to do. It seemed to me that all had fallen short of getting down deep into the appreciation and sympathies of the mass of mankind. Of course, I can in a brief conversation only suggest what I mean. Shakespeare's poems of war and passion, Milton's allegories, and the poetry of men like Tennyson and Longfellow—in fact, all the poetry I had ever read, all seemed to fall short of touching the people of the world in their very cores of understanding and desire. I set out to illustrate, without any flinching, actual humanity. I proposed to myself a series of compositions which should depict the physical, emotional, moral, intellectual and spiritual nature of a man."

"That man being yourself?"

"That man, for purposes of illustration, being myself. My work is extremely personal—rightly considered so—and on the fly-leaf of each volume I have put my photograph with my own hand."

"Does your age or any personal sketch appear?"

"I shall be fifty-seven years old the last day of this month."

"Excuse the interruption. You were explaining the plan of your work?"

"You can see that I had first to deal with the physical, the corporeal, the amative business—that part of the nature which is developed so strongly between the ages of twenty-two and thirty-five. It is that part of my endeavor which caused most of the harshest criticism, and prevented candid examination of the ensuing stages of the design. Still I have gone on adding, building up, persevering as far as I am able to do so, in my original intention. I suppose I may fail, as many others have failed, in fully expressing myself. The difficulty is not in knowing what a man wants to say, but in formulating it, articulating it. Still, I shall continue to work ahead."

"Nothing seems to have embittered you."

"Not at all" (with a pleasant laugh). "The fact is, I'm not at all disappointed. I'm rather surprised than otherwise that there should be so much interest just now, and controversy over what I have done. I didn't think anything of the kind would come so soon. Indeed my work is so different from the accepted forms of poetry that it could not and cannot be expected to make its way readily through the world. A letter which I received from an eminent man in England yesterday partly explains the matter, perhaps, though I can't say how far he is correct. He speaks of the critics and periodicals, and says that beyond them is a mass of active intellects in Great Britain—intelligent and healthy-minded people everywhere—who are unsatisfied with that kind of verse which restricts itself within the old epical and lyrical barriers."

"You have some zealous friends in England, judging from Mr. Buchanan's recent letter?"

"Some excellent ones. Over there in the corner is a pile of my books, for which I have just received an order from England."

"I notice Buchanan's letter has been bitterly assailed?"

"If that letter could have been submitted to me before it was printed," said Whitman, "I should have done my best to stop the publication of it. Since it has appeared I can make no public objection to it. It expressed for me so much kindness and even reverence, and contained among other things such an amount of truth in regard to the action towards me of publishers and booksellers in the United States, that I cannot now properly criticise it."

"The booksellers have not been friendly, then?"

"Certainly not. I have printed my own works, and am now printing them in two volumes, for sale. I do it in a way that would excite the derision of the booksellers. The volumes consist of "Leaves of Grass" and "Two Rivulets," the latter consisting of verse and prose. I sell them from here."


"No. Still many people take them at the rather extravagant price of $5 a volume."

In subsequent conversation Mr. Whitman said in respect to his condition in life:

"Well, you see, here I am. I am living here at my brother's house. I have lived here for the last several years because they had plenty of room. But there is as purely a business arrangement about it as yours at an inn. I pay, of course. I am very poor, yet not a beggar. A paralysis of the left side, which chiefly affects my left leg and thigh, hinders me. But my chief trouble of late has been a stomachic and liver affection. This bothers me greatly."

Whatever else may be said, there is nothing about Walt Whitman that denotes him as a seeker for mere alms. Even his five dollars a volume is not too big a price for any admirer of his to pay for such a rare collection.

J. B. S.


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