Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman's Work

Creator: Anonymous

Date: November 6, 1881

Whitman Archive ID: med.00556

Source: The Philadelphia Press 6 November 1881. Our transcription is based on a digital image of a clipping in the Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1842-1937, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 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

image 1





The Distinguished Subject of Much Obloquy
Returns from Boston, Where for Three
Months He has been Supervising the
Publication of Leaves of Grass.


The name and occupation of the best known literary man in the State of New Jersey are given in the Camden Directory thus: "Walt Whitman, poet, Stephen and West Streets." There is only one other Whitman in the Directory and he is a bricklayer. Probably there are not a dozen people in the poet's neighborhood who have read more than the merest fragments of his work, but everybody knows him, and the deck hands on the ferry-boats between Camden and Philadelphia are his companions every pleasant night, no matter how cold it is, for the poet likes the night air and rides back and forth on the ferry for an hour at a time, always keeping in the teeth of the wind. He stands head and shoulders above the crowd of men and women who jostle one another in hurried journeys to and from the ferries. He wears a great cape overcoat of soft gray cloth, which falls below the knees, and a broad-brimmed white felt hat almost as wide as the strong shoulders, over which a wild growth of white hair and beard blown by the wind. Speaking of the s of the poet's work, his labor objected man never got intofort poems from hem, but these have which he did not publish, as, for instance, one of his latest poems written this summer which was rejected by Harper's Magazine with a polite note from the editor to the effect that "the readers of the magazine would not be able to understand it." But a Boston publisher has just collected together and printed the first complete edition of Leaves of Grass, fragments of which have excited in past years the bitterest criticism, and after three months' work in Boston, working with the printer at his case, the author of these poems returned to his home at Camden on Thursday. The deck-hands and gate-keepers on the ferries, who have known the stalwart figure in past years, noticed its absence during the summer months, and marked its reappearance in the midst of the wind and storm of Thursday night. True to his old habit, the poet spent an hour or more on the ferry, swinging pendulum-like between this city and Camden.


A PRESS reporter who conversed with him at that time stood close to the poet, on his windward side, to hear all that he said. Among the chief characteristics of the venerable man is the perfect frankness with which he speaks of his critics and commends them, the unaffected way in which he recalls his own errors and failures in the past, and his unconcern for what the world shall say of him in the future, and these characteristics were manifest in the interview which followed on the deck of the ferry-boat and afterward in the poet's "den" on the top floor of the little brick house in which he lives.

James R. Osgood, the Boston publisher, was the only man, Walt Whitman said, who had offered to publish his book without excluding any of the lines which many critics had long ago condemned. This was the reason why Leaves of Grass was published in Boston instead of nearer home.

"Did you find the literary society of Boston more sympathetic than any other, as Bostonians say it is?"

"In one respect I did. The people there are undemonstrative, exclusive, and their blood chills me, for I call myself a Southerner. But I think they have greater perception and are more intuitive in their judgment. Speaking solely of myself, every one there treated me kindly, and the young people made a great deal of me, but, perhaps, that was on account of my gray hair. The publishers were capital fellows. I had a desk at the printing-house, and superintended everything, even the type in which the book was printed, and they made my task very enjoyable. In fact, I think I should like to bring out a book every year if it could be done in that way. I spent considerable time in New York and a number of weeks on Long Island, my native place. What is the literary society of New York? I can't answer that. I like the city itself exceedingly, and I think it will in a short time become a cosmopolitan city such as there is not at present in the world. Don't ask me to class Philadelphia with Boston, New York, or the wide-awake Western cities. I never heard that Philadelphia had any literary perception, fine taste, or judgment. It is a place for material things and conservative people, for fat conventionalities and well-established customs. I cannot class it with other cities, and you must not compel me to talk about it. So many of my good friends are here that I must call it my home. There are men and women—not here though—who bear my intuition and understand by their hearts. But it is not always agreeable to be too well understood or to have others know more than you would have told them. In Boston I found some of these people."


"Orthodox poetry has turned up its nose, Mr. Whitman, at many of your works, and I have seen it stated somewhere that the earliest edition, printed in 1856, fell, as it were, still born from the press, not twenty copies, not ten, being sold. Is that true?"

"Yes, and I remember that presentation volumes were mostly returned to their author, some with insulting notes. The London Critic called for 'the executioner's whip.' 'Beastly' was the reiterated epithet of the Saturday Review, and I believe it still sticks to it. Another paper called the book a 'gathering of muck,' and still another, the Christian Examiner, described it as 'a crazy outbreak of conceit and vulgarity.'"

It is a matter of record that the second edition of the work which Mr. Whitman refers to was undertaken by a Broadway publishing house, but was hardly out when it was thro up in terror and disgust and the author notified by the firm that they would have nothing to do with such a book, and the contract was cancelled. The third and fourth and fifth ed—Whitman growing worseevery time— no better. No copies worth mentioning were sold of any issue. Criticism throughout was little less than a howl, and was occasionally tempered by the fierce charge of obsceneness. In the face of the convictions of the world, of relatives, of the publishing and critical powers the poet worked against a unanimous remonstrance. He has steadily adhered to his style, his purpose, and to what he calls his ideal. To one who knew him well Walt Whitman once confessed that he was "the most phlegmatic, self-set, and egotistical of beings, and secretly one of the haughtiest, or he would have gone under long ago."

The truth of this was plainly written on his face when he said yesterday, while he sat in his "den" surrounded by a litter of books and papers: "When Osgood wrote me, offering to publish my book, I replied: 'Not unless you publish all of it. I must overlook the work myself and you must humor me in letting me have things my way.' The publishers yielded and I am much indebted to them for the way in which they did it."

"You have eliminated, then, none of the lines which were deemed objectionable?"

"Not a word has been changed. I have taken out several passages, which were duplicates of others written at long intervals of time, but the work is complete as a human body."


Twenty-five years of fighting public opinions have made the poet callous as to what the public think. The obloquy and disappointments which his works have all along brought upon him are a part of the pleasant remembrances of his youth. One of these reminiscences relates to his clerkship in the Treasury Department at Washington shortly after the war. The first edition of Leaves of Grass fairly launched, the book and the author, as far as noticed at all, were derided, lampooned, and yelped at. When the few readers the book ever had at that time finished talking about it the Hon. James Harland, high Cabinet officer, began by summarily ejecting the author from Government service. A Massachusetts man, James T. Trowbridge, made an appeal in his behalf, but the Hon. Salmon P. Chase, the next Secretary of the Treasury, peremptorily refused, saying that he "would not and could not place gentlemen, the clerks in the Treasury Department, in the position of being forced to associate with such a person as the writer of Leaves of Grass."The book at that time was less than a quarter as large as the complete edition, and fair criticism of it was as impossible, Walt Whitman says, as it would be to tear an arm or leg from the human body and try to give its full value.The poet often dwells upon the fact that his work has been twenty-five years in building, and he adds that the whole affair is like an old architectural structure, the parts of which look rather odd to the casual observer until all are put together, and the poet shows that he has had a definite idea all along. In this way Walt Whitman says that he has now added to the "complete structure" several poems never before published and he will say nothing more for the entire work. The Osgood edition of Leaves of Grass was issued on Friday and the first copies of the book reached the author yesterday. He turned one of them over seriously and said that his life work was there represented in four hundred pages, and he added, "I have nothing to take back:"

"As I grow older," said he, breaking off, "I am more and more ready to take the good there is in men and authors, without concerning myself about the bad. Of the American poets I like Bryant better than Longfellow or Whittier, and Emerson better than either. I could not tolerate Poe a few years ago, but now I am getting to like him."


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