Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: A Visit to Walt Whitman

Creator: William Hawley Smith

Date: November 1909

Whitman Archive ID: med.00573

Source: The Conservator 19 (November 1909): 136–137. Our transcription is based on a photocopy 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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A visit to Walt Whitman

On a hot August afternoon, in 1889, my wife and I went to call on Walt. We had no letters of introduction, or credentials of any kind. We were just "anybody". We knocked at his door, and a stout and hearty young man, in his shirtsleeves came to find out who was there. We asked him if we could meet Mr. Whitman, and he said: "Come in, and I'll see." He showed us into the front room, at the left of the hall, and then went to make inquiry for us. He immediately came back and said: "Mr. Whitman will be in in a few minutes." Then he went away. We sat down on a lounge that was at the rear of the room, and put in our brief wait in looking at the thousand-and-one things of interest that were everywhere about us. These so absorbed us that we did not hear the footsteps of the old man as he came down the hall. As it happened, our backs were toward the door when he reached it, and the first we knew of his presence was when he said, in the sweetest and most engaging voice I ever heard: "Well, friends!"

We turned, and there stood Walt, "framed", as it were, by the door-casings. It was a picture never to be forgotten. He wore a long gray gown that reached to the floor. The collar was wide and turned back, and there was fine lace at the ends of the full sleeves. The light from the windows fell on the left side of his face, and illumined his hair and beard against the4 shadows it formed on the right. Wife has always said he looked like a god. Never having seen a god, I cant say whether she is right or not. But I do know this—that nay god might well be proud to look as Walt did as he stood in the door that August afternoon! We moved forward and shook hands with him, and told him who we were and where we came from. Then he entered the room and sat down in his large arm-chair by the window. We chatted with him for an hour, talking of all sorts of things. He was as genuinely interested in us as if we were old friends. And he would have been the same to anyone else that he was to us. He had no pets.

A good deal that was said, on both sides, was everyday talk. He made no grand-stand play, nor did we. We just "visited", like "lovers and friends". But he said some things that are well worth telling. Wife said to him: "I should not have wondered so much if you had written what you have at your present time of life, but that you should have done it when you were a comparatively young man is a marvel to me." And Walt replied: "Well my friends who have known me longest have told me, many times, that I always was a kind of an old critter!" When we spoke of our home in Illinois he said: "You live in a great State. Indeed, the whole West is wonderful—so full of possibilities, as yet undreamed of." And then he added, after reflecting a moment: "I think my poems are like your West—crude, uncultured, wild in spots; but as the years go by, and they are turned over and over, as your prairies are, I believe they will produce bountiful crops!" Could any faith be finer than that?

I asked Walt if he ever intended to compile all he had written, poetry and prose, in one volume, and he told me that he had just done that very thing, and that a special limited edition of six hundred copies of such a revision had just come from the press. I asked again: "Could one of us common folks get a copy of this edition, or are they all spoken for?" To which he replied (and his answer shows the old man just as he was in so many ways): "Why, anybody can have one of the books, if he can stand the price; but they come pretty steep.""How much?" I inquired. "Six dollars," he said; and the way he said it implied that he felt it was rank robbery to charge as much as that for any book that he had ever written. I kept on: "Where can I get one of them?""O, I have some here in the house," he replied. "If you want to take it with you I'll send up stairs and have one brought down." I told him I would be much obliged if he would do so, and handed him the six dollars on the spot. He called to his housekeeper, who was in a room down the hall, and asked her to go up and get a book for me, which she did forthwith. That is how I came into possession of volume number one hundred and sixteen, Ferguson Brothers and Company, Philadelphia, special single volume edition of six hundred copies. The text is identical with that now printed in two volumes, which I think are from the same plates. But I like this book just a little better, getting as I did. I rejoice more, though, that the book is not "limited", but that all who will can have a copy as good as the best, at a merely nominal price. That is the democracy in the premises that would suit Walt.

Just after I got the book the young man who had admitted us came into the room. He was a railroad employee, and was just going out for his night run. He had his lantern on his arm and his long-visored cap was drawn well down over his forehead. He came in to say "So long" to Walt before going on duty. Walt gripped his hand heartily, and then gave him a salute as he went out into the street. When we came away Walt sat in his arm-chair, and held wife with his right hand and me with his left, and said: "So long, my young friends! Expecting the main things from you who come after!" That was his farewell.

I guess life is worth living. Love to all the crowd.

William Hawley Smith


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