Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–1891: Visit to Brooklyn

Creator: John Johnston

Date: 1917

Whitman Archive ID: med.00585

Source: Our transcription is based on J. Johnston and J. W. Wallace, Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–1891 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1917), 63–66. 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, Aubrey Streit Krug, and Shea Montgomerey


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AT 2.40 p.m. I took train for Brooklyn, which I reached about 6 p.m., and went to 79 North Portland Avenue—the residence of Mr. Andrew H. Rome—where I received a most cordial welcome from him and his good wife, who is my wife's cousin.

In our talk, Mr. Rome told me many new and interesting details of Whitman's early life—how he became acquainted with him, and the difficulties they had with the printing of the first edition of "Leaves of Grass." "Whitman," he said, "always earned his own living, was liked by everybody, was never in a temper, never swore, to his knowledge, but once, and then extremely mildly, at something in a newspaper of which he disapproved; never spoke disparagingly of anyone or anything was not then a brilliant conversationalist, though he talks more now, and had the knack of drawing other people on to talk of what they knew best about," etc.

The rest of our conversation was about Annan and Annan folks—for Mr. Rome, like myself, is an Annan man—and much did I enjoy that talk about my dear old home, three thousand miles away.

I have reason to believe that Mr. Rome is the friend in Brooklyn referred to on page 25 of Dr. Bucke's book.

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Friday, July 18th.

—Morning gloriously fine. In company with Mr. Rome, who took me through many of the public buildings, I visited the corner of Cranberry and Fulton streets, where Whitman's first edition of "Leaves of Grass" was printed—at Mr. Rome's office. I afterwards crossed the Fulton Ferry to New York; rode down the whole length of Broadway; walked back to Brooklyn over the magnificent Brooklyn Bridge, and was much impressed by the superb view over the whole bay, with its splendid shipping, and all the shows of Manhattan—really the finest spectacle of the kind I have seen.

Saturday, July 19th.

—Another morning of splendid sunshine tempered with a gentle breeze.

After a visit in the morning to Coney Island—a favourite haunt of Whitman's in his youth—I spent the afternoon at Fulton Ferry—another of Whitman's youthful haunts—on the boat called the Fulton, and there I had another slice of good fortune.

As one of the deck-hands saw that I was going to photograph from the deck, he suggested that I should ask the pilot to allow me to go on the upper deck. This I did, and the pilot's reply was, "I guess you can, if you want to." I gladly went; and, after a little while, we got into conversation, in the course of which I asked him, "Did you ever hear tell of Walt Whitman?"

He looked up quickly and said, "Do you mean Walt Whitman the poet?"

"Yes," I said. "Do you know him?"

"I should think I do!" He replied, "Why,

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he used to come on this very ferry-boat, when I was a young fellow, nearly every day, and go backwards and forwards with us for an hour at a time."

"Indeed," I said. "What was he like at that time? Tell me about him, as I'm much interested in all concerning him. I've been to see him at Camden."

"You have?" he said. "I hear he is very feeble now. When I knew him he was a fine, strappin' fellow, tall, broad-shouldered and straight; walked with a slow, steady swing. He was a slow speaker. He did not talk much, and seemed to prefer hearin' other folk talk. He took a long time tellin' a thing, but, when he'd done, you'd know what he meant. He had a kind word for everybody and from everybody, for everybody liked him. I have good reason to think well of him; for when I had typhoid fever he used to come every day with fruit and delicacies, and sit with me for an hour or two at a time, when I knew he could ill spare it, as he had his duties to attend to. Yes, I have a very great regard for Walter." (This was the first time I had heard anyone call him "Walter," and he often spoke of him by that name.) "There was a little book of his I used to be very fond of, called 'Leaves of Grass.' Do you know it? I've heard that some folks don't like him for some of the things in that book; but they needn't come around this ferry and say anythin' agin' Walter Whitman."

I asked him to write his name in my book, and I found it to be John Y. Baulsir—one of "the Balsirs" mentioned in "Specimen Days." He

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said that he had known several of the other pilots mentioned there—John Cole, pilot of the Union, who was a pilot still; George White, Luther Smith, and Bill White, who died suddenly and alone at his post, in the very chair in which I was then sitting.

He afterwards told me the following incident which he had witnessed: "Walter" and he went one Sunday morning to Trinity Church, Brooklyn, and Whitman forgot to take off his hat. One of the church officials requested him to remove it, but in such a low voice that he did not hear him; and thinking that he was defying him, he deliberately knocked it off; whereupon Whitman stooped down, picked it off the floor, and twisting it into a kind of rope—it was a soft felt—he seized the man by the collar and struck him with it on the side of the head three of four times, and then walked out, followed by the red-faced official, who vowed he would have him arrested.¹

I spent a couple of hours in that pilot's wheelhouse, chatting to him, looking at the stream of passengers, and enjoying the breeze from the river, the ceaseless movement, and the brilliant and varied panorama of "Manhattan from the Bay."

¹ On my afterwards telling this to Mr. John Burroughs, he said it was the only instance he had ever heard of Whitman resenting anything.


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