Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Letter From George Alfred Townsend

Creator: George Alfred Townsend

Date: September 23, 1868

Whitman Archive ID: med.00577

Source: Cleveland Leader 23 September 1868. Our transcription is based on a digital image 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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Congressmen in Washington—Schenck and Vallandigham—Breckinridge Homesick—Chase's Friends—General Alfred Torbert, Binckley and Walt. Whitman.

(Special Correspondence of Cleveland LEADER)
WASHINGTON, September 18.

The long upslanting side of Willard's Hotel, which has been dark as the catacombs these two months, flashed up last night with abundant gas, and the old familiar clink of whiskey glasses was shaken through the sash. This meant that Congress had come. Directly the great muffled body and dented granite face of "Bob" Schenck was seen coming up newspaper row. The young people who live there scented the familiar article of news and rushed upon him. Let nobody go by that row with any news concealed about his person. Murders are said to have been detected by creeping up Fourteenth street.


However the Capitol has been swept and garnished, re-painted in part, revarnished, and it is ready now to receive the lawgivers with all due stateliness. Before they meet in regular session the fine doors of Crawford will have been swung on the Senate side. If I am not misinformed the expense of casting them in Massachusetts has proved to exceed that of the House doors, which were cast in Munich. These new doors have some singular designs upon them, of which one is the rebuke of General Lee at Princeton by Washinton. On would think this neither an important nor a cheerful topic for so elaborate illustration. In like manner the pleasing but not very marked historical episode of Washington crossing Trenton bridge, strewn with flowers, is made the subject of another panel. Mr. Clarke, the architect, considers Crawford's door to be a finer work than Roger's, but it is certainly not as suggestive, and it will cost $75,000 to 30,000 paid for its companion. These doors are both to be placed in dark aisles of the Capitol, where they both embarrass travel and show to no effect. It is inexplicable that they cannot be exposed like the doors after which they were modeled upon the exterior of the Baptistery at Florence, in plain view of the public and lighted by all the open day. The explanation is that our climate is too severe for the fine details of the bronze work. Not to be captious, however, these two pairs of doors are surpassed by none in the world, save those original ones by Ghiberti, which are the suggestion and model of all others. Crawford had more grace and delicacy than Rogers; his figures are lighter and more correctly draughted; he worked more conscientiously, bestowing time and diligence upon his labors. Rogers will undertake to carve the side of a mountain in a month. He works with extraordinary rapidity, often upon several subjects at once. His achievements are in general bolder than Crawford's, but lacking in the element of repose and frequently very dramatic. Neither of them rank as sculptors of exceptional genius, but probably neither has ever done a positively bad thing. The later statuary about the Capitol is remarkable for its average uniformity. Powers, Rogers, Stone and Crawford differ little in rank; the latter will be considered for the next fifty years the most pleasing and conspicuous illustrator of national art in the first century of the republic. His statue of Freedom surmounting the Capitol, despite a good deal of adverse Bohemian criticism, will always be a strong and revered figure to Americans.


I mentioned Schenck above. The fight that he is to make against Vallandigham in his district ought to be one of the most extraordinary of the season. The contestants are not on speaking terms with each other. They are both positive men, beyond the common size physically, with energy and determination, and they represent respectively extreme partisan Democracy and extreme human Republicanism. The city of Dayton divides with Cleveland the reputation of being the most beautiful city in Ohio. There was no town in this country, not excepting Baltimore, where feeling ran so high in the war. Mobs were frequent, news papers were torn out, Vallandigham's door was beaten in with muskets, his friends went armed and people were shot dead. There the blood of Virginia and Long Island Sound meet, nearly equal in pride and intelligence, and both determined to conquer. And the men are different and like as their classes. Both of them take a "nip" when they need it, being of ardent temperaments, and Vallandigham has once or twice "steamed it" a little too hard. As an orator Vallandigham is the superior, having a fine complexion, large mouth and jaws, white laughing teeth, blue eyes, and a strong, sanguine presence, alive demagoguery, with spirits that rise as he makes the Irish women laugh and the hod-carrying boys yell for vengeance. Borne on the wings of passion and vanity from height to height of intensity, he would be no light opponent to any man, set before a mob of people like Marc Antony and willing to stir up mutiny. He retains a revengeful sense of his arrest during the war, is upon social terms with scarcely any Republicans of Dayton, and belongs to that large class of Northern Democrats who intend if they come into power to have personal or legal satisfaction out of anybody that pestered them during the war. Vallandigham is without convictions. His feelings are his principles. He is intensely selfish and his vanity is sensitive as mercury. By his gifts of oratory he keeps the mastery of the Democratic organization at Dayton, though the other Democrats of influence there are generally enemies of his. His greed for office and prominence results in the suppression of his rivals, and they become more embittered against him every year. He holds to the most honest, but the losing wing of the Democracy—the extreme fire-eaters. When the Democratic party triumphs, if ever, it cannot be that Pagan part of it, which is to succeed, the true Jacobins of the land whose editor is Marat Pomeroy, whose soldier is Santerre Forrest, and whose orator is Vallandigham.

Against the beaming face of Vallandigham pit the square and pitted countenance of Schenck, with his great rock of an underjaw, his almost repulsive shudder, his half-palsied arm, the ferocious humor of his smile, the thick, flat rolls of his dry, sandy hair, his great square head, with a face of so intense expression that it seems never to know pensiveness or repose. To this man as a stranger, you will affix a merciless and tiger character and dislike him from the beginning. So injured by nature, he has no appearances in his favor to move masses of men. But for nearly thirty years he has commanded public office from his neighbors. His power is in his earnest character, his genuine sincerity of hear, and his consistent devotion to his friends and his principles. No man is so belied by his face, yet there are abruptnesses in his character not unlike it—a tremendous, bomb-shell hate with an eternal fuse lit underneath it, for any base nature, any forswearer of his country or human rights, any sneaking friend or cowardly or ally. For passions like his own he is generous, unable to be driven from his friends, a forgiver of all errors but dishonor. As a speaker he is strong, rapid, vehement, always on the attack; his integrity is pure; in obstinacy he is a Massena among Marshals. It is this man who is to battle for his seat with Vallandigham, and who can doubt the result? The one, willful, sturdy, holding his friends with looks of steel, rising upon successive idiosyncrasies to be better appreciated every year, the other experiencing the penalties of selfishness in constantly declining regard, and with all his superficial superiorities to find at last that the greatest of the talents in sincerity.


Breckinridge and Mason are still in Canada, the latter living upon a fair income, probably derived from C.S.A. funds entrusted to him to keep, the former maintained by contributions from his friends. Breckinridge is the most popular man in the State of Kentucky yet. General Markland said to me yesterday that if he were to be allowed to return there that would put him back in the United States Senate directly. He is a man of sophomoric talents, with a second-hand poetic temper, and a magnetism that does for genius. He was flattered into rebellion and wrecked himself and State by accepting it. His influence in consenting to the breaking up of the Union extended tar into the South, and changed the loyalty of many a man to whom ruin followed. Sad is his condition to-day—an American who has felt the fever of an ardent public life and yet must live in the mollusk dominion of Canada, hear their almshouse jabber of government, and see upon successive terraces of flunkeyism the Queen's leech reign, while over the little line of water questions agitate the great state worthy of its proportions!

One time in the summer of 1867 I was writing watering-place letters for the Boston Post. At Montreal I came to the end of my purse and was obliged to remain at the St. Lawrence Hall till I could get a remittance from Boston. The town became more repulsive to me than I could ever have thought of any city so pleasantly situated. I got up in the morning and drank the tepid rain water that they call "Plantagenet." Then I bought one of the dreary Montreal newspapers, full of provincial political wrangling over the live question as to whether her majesty should not take off mourning bonnets, whether Sir John McDonald was an orange or a blue, or if Develin would take the hustings with Mr. McGee. To this sort of life the marvelous activity of the Long Island clam seemed to me most metropolitan. Breakfast brought florid faced cockneys; at dinner there were Americans—ladies and men—making haste to go to the train and walk under the flag again. I alone could not go. One day standing at the depot I saw the train go out, when a seedily genteel man said to me:

"She's gone again!"

"Yes! I wish I could go in her."

"I have wished that every day for two years!"

He shook his head sadly.

"I can't go till things change!" he said, "It's d-d insufferable, it's misery here! I shall go crazy. I was a confederate and daren't go back!"

He was pointed out to me at the hotel as Jake Thompson.


Brown, who made the speech some time ago, so extensively circulated, upon the Democratic Chase movement, is a young lawyer, not above twenty-seven years old, living at Versailles, I think, Southern Kentucky, of which he is a native. He and many others identified with that movement sought to have Chase nominated at Chicago, or tailing, afterward to "spring" him upon New York. Brown, I believe, has never held office. His speech is pretty much of a newspaper letter, a style of oratory that is more effective in these practical newsy days than mere declamation. The best speeches now-a-days are made to correspondents. They reach a million ears at once. The politician says the words and the correspondent makes the gestures. By the time it gets to the people, therefore, if there is any hypocrisy in the speech there's a beautiful antidote in the dumb-action. The politician says that he lays his hand upon his heart and swears: the correspondent standing behind gets it in his pocket and puts out his tongue. This has been reduced to a pertinent little game called "The Capital." The State of Kentucky, with 80,000 Democratic majority, without a daily Republican newspaper, with half the troops she furnished the Federal army handling Wade Hampton's ballots, is an exemplification of the depth of prejudice left by slavery. The Kentuckian would rather not be man than permit his "nigger" to be one. Fiankeying on this question, he is back in the deep ruts of rebellion again. And there can be no Republicanism unsound on this question. It is the touch-stone!


It is barely possible that the people of the State of Delaware may have public spirit enough to send Alfred Torbert to Cangress. He was a most gallant Lieutenant of Sheridan, a modest and prompt gentleman, master of his profession, and while the State of New Jersey owes to him the organization of her renowned soldier of the Union in Delaware, a State which gave Dupont, the admiral, to the navy, as Torbert to the army.

General Torbert lives at Milford, the second town in population in the State, where he is but recently married to a young and beautiful lady, and in possession of more than competence, he is willing to devote himself to the intellectual and political improvement of that fertile commonwealth, where s to be found the most genial climate, the richest lands, the oldest farms, and the largest variety of fruits and cereals in the United States. It is the American Brabant, with two afflictions only, a nigger tearing Democracy and an ignorant aristocracy. General Torbert, until his marriage, lived upon his salary only as a regular army officer, yet out of it he maintained the large family of an indigent mother, and all his own possessions were his tent and his sword. He closed for Sheridan the last campaign in the valley by striking the retreating carcase of Early, so that it disappeared like the melting snow.


Rollins and McCulloch between them seem to be menœuvering to divide the new supervisorships, so that Seymour shall get half the patronage of the treasury, an institution which my friend Allen of the Intelligencer calls the Radical Sebastopol. I do not believe that Rollins is a principal in this transaction, but there are Republican folks here pushing for these supervisorships, and sooner than be personally disappointed they are willing to compromise with the enemy.

"Take half, Rollins" they urge, "and of course put me in the half you get."

You understand, no doubt, that Rollins has to appoint these supervisors and McCulloch confirm them. McCuloch will not confirm Rollin's appointments unless the latter appoints half of them Seymour men. It is impossible to believe that Mr. Rollins will make any such dangerous compromise, however much Congressmen and others may ask him. He is a good man, with a besetting amiability that is his weakness. He is the teacher of the Bible class in Byron Sunderland's church, a favorite with newspaper people, and therefore Binckley, his prosecutor, has been scorched for the recent investigations he undertook in New York. Binckley is a flue looking, talented man, with a ring in Johnson's nose, beaten out of the brass foundry in his own countenance. He belongs to a class of men that we never forgive for turning up too high, having never heard anything about them previously. He belongs to a class of men that we never forgive for turning up too high, having never heard anything about them previously. From newspaper reporting and reading medicine, Binckley suddenly arose to the ear-trumpet of the administration, and we newspaper men descended from noble families, who have been coming up to our present greatness from generations, permit no other pretenders. Not claiming myself, so exalted a lineage, and having a tolerably decent respect for an adventurer if he rides boldly and shows parts, I refrain from expressing myself upon Mr. Binckley further.

Walter Whitman, the foot marine, boatswain's whistle to the ship Optimist, a sort of John Baptist to the Great American Poet coming, went out of town all blowing of beard and naked of throat last night. He is a great, hairy fellow with a baby's eyes, extravagant of dress, looking like a Genoaese sailor, with a shirt folded away from his throat down to the crease of his hair between his breasts. These children of nature must have the camel's hair girdle and the ostentation of wild locusts, else we might mistake them for artificial creatures, like the Dunkers, the Dervishes, and the wearers of the Grecian bend. Whitman is really an earnest man, of reading and experience, but fettered by the character that has been composed by the character that has been composed for him. He also is a treasury clerk and the great show of that bureau. Said I to him, some time ago, sitting at his window:

"Why don't you make your poem rhyme? At any rate, why don't you measure it? Many things strange, quaint and graceful that you say are lost to the masses because you offend their ear and outrage method."

"I don't think so," he said, "Nature doesn't teach us in that way. Look out this window! Yonder are foliage of various colors, successions irregular of landscapes, water now, now height, an abrupt sail, a sudden bird piping. They are not in cadences or measures; some are long, some short. It is the chorus of all these, the harmony of their dissimilarity, that they please."

Whitman's place is like Marlowe's, a strong precursor of some great poet who will know what he wants and means; for to be frank, I do not believe that Walt Whitman has got more than the buzz, the suggestion, the vague apparition of a great poem. He has "sniffed" a giant in the air and is feeling for him. He hasn't caught the giant yet, but he has felt out a good many less things that we hadn't perceived before. What art is, or whether its laws draw the poet away from nature, may make good disquisitions, but we cannot, even for better poetry, carry the language back to barbarism, so that hawks and kites may talk in it. Neither can we pull down the architectures because they are too uniform for nature. It is a good deal for a man, though he be a poet, to discover the limits of what man can do before he begins a job, and also to ascertain with tolerable definiteness what he wants to do. Walt Whitman has begun with neither of these processes. He is like an Indian chief, singing the praises of his forefathers and himself to a violent dance, tomahawk in hand, warpaint on, shaking his scalps at heaven and uttering his "barbaric yawp." A dreadful spectacle of imbecile ambition, explainable only on the theories of nature, rum and vanity, he chants himself into ecstacy, believes himself the very biggest Indian, and is incomprehensible to nobody else, if to himself.

Yet the man has devouter admirers than Mr. Whittier or Mr. Longfellow, as I suppose Brigham Young has more than the Archbishop of New York. Himself is much of his reputation. He is feeling away for that giant steadily, walking in the White House Grounds under the tress, searching, searching! The great epic, encyclopedia, chorus of America, is what he wants. Perhaps that will be found by somebody who never searched for it. Perhaps it is not to be a poem at all. But here we get to Walt Whitman's own vague domain. As a character in this great epic of action we are living, may his holiday be pleasant!



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