Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: A Visit to Walt Whitman

Creator: William Summers, M. P.

Date: October 18, 1888

Whitman Archive ID: med.00539

Source: The Pall Mall Gazette 48 (Thursday, October 18, 1888): 1–2. 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, Nic Swiercek, and Shea Montgomerey

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IT was on a clear, bright, sunny day in the month of September that I crossed by the ferry the Delaware river for the purpose of seeing for the first time in my life the "good, gray poet" Walt Whitman. Whitman is now seventy years of age—he was seventy on May 31 of the present year—and he is living in poverty and retirement at Camden, in the State of New Jersey, over against the Quaker city, Philadelphia. On reaching Camden I made inquiry of all and sundry as to which was the house of Walt Whitman, the poet. Nobody seemed to know anything either of the man or of his works. "Does he live in Mickle-street?" I asked. "I don't know, but I dare say he does," was the only reply I could get. So true is it of the poet, as well as of the prophet, that he is not without honour save in his own country. However, after much fruitless search, I succeeded in finding the abode in which the poet dwells—a two-storied cottage, No. 328, in "long, unlovely" Mickle-street. Armed with a letter of introduction from an intimate acquaintance and friend of Whitman, I inquired whether it would be possible for me to see him. After a brief delay I was informed that the doctor forbade too much talking and excitement, but that the poet would be glad to see me for a short space of time. I was then ushered into his bedroom, where I found him seated amid a litter of books, manuscripts, and papers. He was dressed in a loose-fitting blue serge coat, and wore the large, soft drab cloth hat with which those who are acquainted with the portrait in "Specimen Days and Collect" are familiar. His reception of me was most kind and cordial. Without any unnecessary delay, or any beating about the bush, he proceeded at once to talk with the utmost freedom and ease about himself and the world at large:—

"I am still very sick," he said. "For the last twenty years I have had attacks, what I call 'whacks,' of paralysis. In all I have had six of these 'whacks;' the others have lifted off after a while, but this is the most serious and obstinate of all: it has not lifted off yet, and does not seem like as if it would lift. My first attack came upon me when I was at Washington in one of the Government offices nearly twenty years ago. By the way, few people realize how near this country was to going to the devil twenty years back. What many people call slavery, and what, I suppose, even I call slavery, found much greater favour at the North, and especially in New York, than is usually believed. There was a sort of impalpable movement, an undercurrent, a subterranean something, which militated against the rapid triumph of Lincoln. I remember hearing Lincoln himself say, with much force and emphasis, how cautious he was obliged to be, because he had to contend with an enemy at the rear as well as with the enemy in front. I was myself in favour of the Union and the war, but I had friends at the South of whom I was fond, and whom I liked very well. I went first of all from Brooklyn to Washington to nurse some of my friends. I went as a sort of amateur volunteer. We have a phrase, 'on his own hook.' Well, I went just like that: I went 'on my own hook.' All around Washington there were towns, or rather clusters of hospitals, for the sick and wounded. At one time there would be as many as fifty or sixty thousand sick and wounded in that district. I remained there during the war, and I guess it was there that, as a consequence of the exposure and fatigue, I laid the seeds of my malady.

"I came originally," continued Whitman, "from Long Island. Paumanok, you know, is the old Indian name of the island. It was settled first by the Dutch, and then by the English. I was born here, at Huntingdon" (saying which Whitman drew with his stick a map of Long Island, and pointed out the relative positions of Huntingdon, Brooklyn, and New York). "From Long Island I went with my parents and settled at Brooklyn. I set up a paper of my own, and afterwards contributed to a larger newspaper. Well, I continued to live there for many years; in fact, till I went to Washington at the time of the war. But I made journeys, excursions, détours. I went to New Orleans and lived there awhile, and afterwards returned to Brooklyn by way of the great Lakes, Michigan, Huron, Erie and the Niagara Falls. It is at the West, in the States that border, or rather edge, on the Mississippi, that the future of this country lies. The seaboard, Atlantic States retain English habits and traditions; it is at the West that the true America is to be found.

"But how are you getting on on your side?" asked Whitman, pulling himself up at this point, as if he were conscious that he had for the present done quite enough talking about himself. I answered his question as well as I was able, speaking hopefully of the prospect in the old country, but saying that the Irish difficulty was of course the great obstacle that lay in our path. For my part, I said, I thought Mr. Gladstone had got the root of the matter in him, as I could not for the life of me see why the Irish should not be permitted to manage their local affairs, as the thirty-eight States of the Union were permitted to manage theirs."But," I continued, "I should like to hear your opinion. What do you think, Mr. Whitman? Are you able to folow our English politics?"—"No," he replied, "I am not able. I'm 'bluffed' just as much as you are. I don't think one way, and I don't think another way. I'm just puzzled. Some of my friends are very certain about it, but I am not certain. I can't say that I am sure Mr. Gladstone knows what he would be at. Let me see, what is the poet's phrase? It seems as if there was no 'leaf, herb, or medicine' that would cure Ireland's disease. However, if I were a young man as you are, I would certainly throw myself into the conflict on the side of the Irish. I have many kind friends who write to me from Ireland in favour of Mr. Gladstone's policy; and my wish, my desire, my animus, would certainly be on the side of the just, wise, brave, and sensible Irish people. Still, as I said, I am puzzled. It seems as if nothing would help Ireland at all. The country appears to be under a spell—an incantation. For the last thousand years or so no good appears to have come out of anything on Irish soil.""If that is the case, what is the reason?" I asked. "Is it the land, or the people, or the treatment to which the people have been subjected? You remember your own verses to 'Old Ireland'?

Yet a word, ancient mother,
You need crouch there no longer on the cold ground with forehead between yourknees,
O you need not sit there veil'd in your old white hair so dishevell'd,
For know you the one you mourn is not in that grave.
It was an illusion; the son you love was not really dead.
The Lord is not dead; he is risen again young and strong in another country.
Even while you wept there by your fallen harp by the grave,
What you wept for was translated, pass'd from the grave.
The winds favour'd and the sea sail'd it,
And now with rosy and new blood, moves to-day in a new country.

"Do not the Irish prosper when they come to the new country?"

"Yes," said Whitman, "that is so, especially in the matter of politics. Politics," he continued, with a merry twinkle in his eye, "politics in this country means getting anything from one to ten thousand a year, so that there is plenty of scope for the Irishman here. Politics with us, the same as with you, is in a very mixed and chaotic condition just now, but no doubt good will issue out of all this agitation and discussion and simmering of thought. With us the mugwump is the most promising element in politics, but it is afraid to speak out its whole mind quite fearlessly on all public questions. Many people are afraid of the newspapers. Still, as I said, the mugwump element is the best we have got."

"I noticed, Mr. Whitman," I here interposed, "that you were writing when I came to see you."

"Yes," he said; "I was writing to a friend."

"Do you think you will be able to give us any more poems like these?" I asked, pointing to the volume of 'Leaves of Grass' which I carried in my hand.

"I guess not," he replied, with a mixture of sadness and resignation.

I felt that I had trespassed quite long enough on the old man's time and attention, so with many thanks for his kindness, and with the expression of a hope that he might speedily recover from his affliction, I bade him a friendly adieu. It was with regret that I parted from him—his talk was so eloquent, so free, and so flowing, and there was withal an air of genius and distinction about him. He is, I should say, in some respects, fit to take rank with men like Victor Hugo and Thomas Carlyle, and is beyond question one of the most striking personalities and one of the most typical and representative characters that the great Republic of the West has hitherto produced.


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