Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–1891: Walt Whitman's Friends in Lancashire

Creator: J. W. Wallace

Date: 1917

Whitman Archive ID: med.00583

Source: Our transcription is based on J. Johnston and J. W. Wallace, Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–1891 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1917), 17–27. 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, Shea Montgomerey, Ashley Price, and Nic Swiercek

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THE little group of friends in Lancashire with whom Walt Whitman corresponded, near the close of his life, came together under the following circumstances.

In the year 1885 I lived with my father in a small house in Eagle Street, Bolton. My father was a millwright in the employ of a large engineering firm in the town, and I—then thirty-one years of age and unmarried—was an assistant architect. My mother had died in January of that year, and certain experiences of mine in connection with that event are recorded in a paper which Dr. Bucke afterwards published in his book on "Cosmic Consciousness." Soon after her death a few of my intimate friends, who often came singly to see me, began to make a special practice of coming each Monday evening, on the understanding that I should always be at home on that evening, and that each might expect to meet some of the others. It was tacitly agreed that our time together should not be spent solely in the discussion of current topics and events, but that some part of it should be devoted to subjects of more permanent interest and value. Thus began a series of weekly meetings which were soon felt to be profitable, as well as

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socially enjoyable, and were attended with increasing regularity and in larger numbers.

We never formulated any programme, however, nor thought of organizing a society for any specific purpose. We remained always, as we were at the beginning, a little company of men of widely different characteristics, ideas and training, who were united only in a common friendship. In nearly every case this dated from many years back, and in some cases from school days and early boyhood. The fact that I was the host, round whom the others gathered, made me the natural centre of the group (which was nick-named later by Dr. Johnston "The College"), but there was no attempt at leadership by any of us. We were all about the same age and belonged to nearly the same social stratum. Our number included a doctor, a clergyman, two lawyer's clerks, two bank clerks, a cotton-waste dealer, a hosiery manufacturer, another assistant architect, a newspaper editor, an accountant, and one or two artisans. We had no remarkable gifts or attainments, and the main difference between us and the majority of our class lay in our interest in some of the subjects we discussed with each other. When we were met together, however, we were conscious of a composite character and of a certain emotional atmosphere belonging to our group as a whole, which, during all the years that have followed, we have never met with elsewhere in the same degree. It resulted in part from our very diversity and from the curious way in which our several personalities seemed to fit in with each other, the limitations and idiosyncrasies of each being offset and har-

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monized by the complementary qualities of the rest. Its basic element was certainly friendship—hearty, full-blooded, intimate, free, of long growth and freighted with old associations. Another element, not less vital, was the almost religious character which our meetings developed as time went on. Religious in the ordinary sense of the word, however, they certainly were not. They expressed with perfect spontaneity the impulses and circumstances of the moment, ranging (frequently during the same evening) from good-humoured banter and uproarious hilarity to the deepest gravity and seriousness. Three of our number had gifts of humour and of flashing wit and repartee which could hardly be excelled anywhere, and there were times when the general full-throated laughter was almost deafening. But, because we were old friends who could talk together on any subject quite frankly and without fear of giving offence or of being misinterpreted, whenever the subject of conversation or discussion touched upon questions of religion or philosophy, we could each speak with an abandon and unconstraint impossible to us elsewhere. Each one of us felt that this friendly and perfectly free interchange of ideas on such subjects did us all an invaluable service. And there were times when it led us, by imperceptible stages, to a deepened intimacy, in which the inmost quests and experiences of the soul were freely expressed, and each grew conscious of our essential unity, as of a larger self which included us all.

Three or four of us had been for some time ardent admirers and students of Whitman, whom

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we regarded as the greatest epochal figure in all literature, and at our meetings he was frequently the subject of papers, readings, talk and discussion. In the year 1887 Dr. Johnston and I wrote a joint letter to him, enclosing a small gift of money, for his birthday, as an expression of our personal gratitude and affection, to which he responded by sending to each of us a brief but kind and characteristic note. We wrote again for each succeeding birthday during the next three years, and again near Christmas in 1889. In the year 1888, when he was for a long time so seriously ill that he was not expected to recover, he sent no reply; but in the following year he sent us a very kind note, with a paper reporting a public dinner to him; and in 1890 he sent us each a little book on Bruno, containing a preface written by himself, and some papers giving us an account of the celebration of his seventieth birthday. Dr. Johnston was then recovering from a rather severe illness and was advised to take an ocean voyage. He decided to go to America to see Whitman, and, during the very short stay possible to him, to visit Brooklyn, Long Island, etc., and afterwards to pay a hurried visit to relatives in Canada. A letter was written to Whitman asking for the favour of a brief interview—"if only for a few minutes"—and before Johnston sailed, on July 2nd, we gave him strict injunctions to record every word spoken by Whitman, with full descriptions of his appearance, and of his own impressions, as well as of places associated with Whitman which he might find time to visit. Hence the "Notes" by him included in this volume. He returned to us on August 8th,

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visibly and deeply influenced by his personal intercourse with Whitman, and a month later read to us is "Notes," which it was agreed to print in pamphlet form for private collections.

This visit to Whitman had results later which were entirely unexpected by us at the time. Hitherto our correspondence with him had been as previously described, but it now entered on a new phase, and soon became continuous on both sides. On July 15th Whitman wrote me a very kind and affectionate note, reporting Dr. Johnston's visit to him that day; and he afterwards manifested his personal friendliness still further by sending me, at intervals, various magazines, etc., containing pieces of his own writing or articles relating to him. On August 15th he wrote again, sending me at the same time his "last screed" in The Critic, and saying: "I am getting uneasy at not hearing again from Dr. J.—no doubt he is all right and back there—send me a word immediately on getting this." I had already written him a long letter—which had not then been received by him—reporting Johnston's return, and thanking him for the gifts he had sent to me and for his great kindness to us both; but I cabled him at once, and wrote again for the outgoing mail, Johnston also writing. We had occasion to write very frequently after that. In one of the books he had sent me I saw an advertisement of a pocketbook edition of "Leaves of Grass" to be had direct from the author, and I ordered one immediately. Several copies were afterwards ordered for other members of our group—including a few for presentation, in which Whitman himself kindly

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wrote the inscriptions. In connection with these we gave him reports of some of our meetings, and descriptions of individual members of our group; a few of whom wrote to him. Dr. Johnston sent him copies of photographs he had taken in America—of Whitman himself, and of his house; of his friends Burroughs and Gilchrist and of their homes; and of scenes in Long Island and Brooklyn. Whitman was very pleased with the photograph of himself, and asked for the negative or a duplicate of it for publication. Near the end of November a copy of the pamphlet, "A Visit to Walt Whitman, etc.," was sent to him, and he at once expressed his cordial approval, and gave Dr. Johnston the addresses of several of his friends to each of whom he wished a copy to be sent. We forwarded to him copies of some of the letters received from his friends, and such books, magazines, etc., as were likely to be of interest or service to him. We had frequently to thank him for various gifts:—photographs of himself, etc.; copies of a book containing Ingersoll's lecture on him; copies, set up in type, of recent unpublished poems and prose writings, which appeared soon after in his latest book, "Good-Bye, my Fancy," of which he also sent us copies; and numerous magazines and papers. In this way it came about that soon after Johnston's visit we both found ourselves in communication with Whitman by every mail.

For the part which Whitman himself took in our correspondence, however, we were entirely unprepared. At the outset our only desire and hope had been to have the privilege of showing him,

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so far as we could, the profound appreciation, gratitude and personal affection which his books had aroused in us. We knew of his physical weakness and suffering, and of the difficulties these interposed in the way of such literary work as he was still able to do and of his ordinary correspondence. We had no claim whatever on his regard or attention, and we neither suggested nor looked for any response. It was, therefore, a continual astonishment to us, and indescribably affecting, to find him writing, however briefly, to either Dr. Johnston or myself—sometimes to both—by almost every mail, and sending books, magazines, and papers likely to be of special interest to us, with inexhaustible kindness and consideration, and ever-recurring messages of tender affection and blessing to us all. Nor did this cease till he was stricken down with his last illness, when Horace Traubel (who had previously written to us with great frequency) sent continual messages from him which he could no longer write himself. And his last letter of general farewell to all his friends, written February 6 and 7, 1892, at the cost of a very great and painful effort, was sent to us for facsimiles and distribution.

In addition to our correspondence with Whitman we also came into frequent communication with some of his chief friends in Europe and America—Horace Traubel, Dr. Bucke, Burroughs, Symonds, etc.—and with Mrs. Davis and Warren Fritzinger. In July 1891 Dr. Bucke visited England, and immediately after his arrival in Liverpool came to Bolton on the 17th and stayed with Dr. Johnston for three or four days before proceeding to

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London. I shall have occasion to say more about Bucke later, and it will be enough here to say that his visit was a genuine delight to us all, and that he left with us memories of a personality not unlike Whitman's in its robust manliness and democratic camaraderie and simplicity. At our first general meeting he read to us a message from Whitman, contained in a letter which he had received just before sailing: "What staunch, tender fellows these Englishmen are! When they take a turn—I doubt if a fellow ever had such a splendid emotional send-back response as I have had from those Lancashire chaps under the lead of Dr. J. and J.W.W.—it cheers and nourishes my very heart—if you go down to Bolton, and convenient, read publicly to them the last five or six lines as from my living pulse." That Dr. Bucke himself enjoyed his visit to us we had ample evidence both at the time and afterwards.

While he was with us Bucke urged me in the strongest terms to accompany him on his return to America, as it would almost certainly be my last opportunity of seeing Whitman. Horace Traubel and his wife had urged the same course, inviting me to stay at their house, and had pressed its advocacy on Bucke as well. But circumstances seemed to make it impracticable and I had to decline. The suggestion was not a new one, for the "College" friends had urged it some time previously, and had even suggested the particular ship which I should take (the British Prince, on which Johnston had sailed), and the date of sailing and had offered—as a birthday gift—to pay my passage. I had told Whitman about it at the time

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in a letter, and had also told him that I could not see my way to do as they wished. It was characteristic of him that he at once wrote me a longer and even kinder letter than usual, conveying his "thanks to the dear friends for urging you to come on a trip to America," which he described as largely on his account, and thanked me for considering it, adding: "but I feel that your decision in the negative is the best and wisest and approve it decidedly." I have always thought his reply a perfect example of tender consideration and courtesy.

Three or four weeks after Bucke's visit, however, circumstances changed unexpectedly and I found that it would be possible, after all, to visit Whitman, and I decided to do so. Dr. Bucke, who was still in London, had booked his return voyage on the Majestic, sailing from Liverpool on August 26th for New York; but we found that all the berths were already engaged not only on this but on every other ship sailing on or about that date for New York or Philadelphia. Dr. Johnston had been able, the year before, to do an important service for the captain of the British Prince, and now enlisted his aid. Eventually he telegraphed that a berth had been given up on his ship sailing august 26th, and that I could have it on immediate application. This was at once engaged; and thus it was arranged that I should sail not only on the same day as Dr. Bucke but on the very date and in the ship my friends had suggested some time before his arrival!

On August 24th Dr. Bucke returned to Bolton, having previously visited Tennyson, bringing with

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him Edward Carpenter, on whom he had called, and whom we now met for the first time; some of us to recognize him later as the most important of contemporary English poets and writers, and the most penetrating and luminous interpreter of Whitman. Dr. Bucke offered to await my arrival in Philadelphia, and it was agreed that after a visit to Whitman, I should accompany him at once to his home in Canada, stay there for two or three weeks, and, after one or two other visits, return to Traubel's in Camden, and visit Whitman from there at my leisure.

At a general meeting of our friends the same evening Dr. Bucke was urged (on Traubel's previous suggestion) to give us an address on Whitman as a basis for subsequent discussion and talk. He seemed very diffident, saying that he was no speaker and advising us to ask Carpenter instead, but finally yielded on condition that I should first read something from "Leaves of Grass," "to set the ball rolling." With his approval I selected and read "By Blue Ontario's Shore," and he then gave us, quit informally and conversationally, the weightiest and most impressive address we have ever heard. ("He carries heavy guns," Whitman had said of him in a letter to me.) His subject was Cosmic Consciousness—more especially as illustrated in Whitman. He told me later in Canada that my reading had suggested the subject of his talk by recalling to him the circumstances of his own illumination in 1872 (since recorded in his book, "Cosmic Consciousness," p. 7), for, by a curious coincidence, I had read the poem he himself had read to his two friends, H. Buxton

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Forman and Alfred Forman, immediately before his illumination took place. When writing his book, he told me in a letter that it was his address in Bolton which had started him on it.

Two days later, August 26th, we both sailed from Liverpool; he to New York, and I on a much slower boat to Philadelphia, where he was to await me.

As I looked back, during the voyage, on the succession of events which had followed our first letter to Whitman in 1887, brining us into close relationship with him and his friends, and which had brought about—so unexpectedly, and in the face of apparently unsurmountable obstacles—my present pilgrimage, I felt as though I were encompassed by invisible agencies of amazing beneficence, animating all phenomena and operating alike in Whitman, his friends and in all persons, events and circumstances, yet of whom Whitman seemed the focal centre of expression. Are there not times when the reader of "Leaves of Grass" is overpowered by a similar feeling?


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