Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: The Lounger

Creator: Jeannette Gilder

Date: November 29, 1891

Whitman Archive ID: med.00593

Source: The Critic 16 (29 November 1891): 307–308. Our transcription is based on a digital image 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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The Lounger

I LIVED WITHIN thirty miles of Walt Whitman all summer but it was not until the week before I returned to town that I determined to make a Camden pilgrimage. There were four pilgrims—two little girls, a young lady and myself. The day was a beautiful one, cold, crisp and clear—just the day for a visit to a poet. There is that about Camden which dissipates any poetic preconceptions one may have in visiting that Jersey town. One would as soon expect to find a bard in Long Island City. Even the poet's house has no outward appearance of sheltering any but an ordinary tenant beneath its roof. A two-story-and-a half frame building, painted a dark brown, with the upper shutters closed and the edges of the loose-fitting lower window-sashes stuffed with newspapers to keep out the wind beating down from the north greets the searcher after No. 328 Mickle Street. At the curbstone is a block of white marble with the initials 'W. W.' cut into it and the door-plate imparts the further information that 'W. Whitman' can be found by pulling the bell-handle. I pulled it, and a young man in his shirt-sleeves, with a short pipe in his mouth, opened the door. "Walt" was not down stairs yet, but if we would wait in the parlor he would be told that we were there.


THE ROOM in which we found ourselves was comfortable enough, but suggestive of anything rather than poetry. The only things that relieved its prosaic aspect were a violin and a music-stand wit ha few sheets of music lying on it. After a while the young man returned and said that 'He' was not able to come downstairs, but that we might go up if we would. The first door at the end of the hall, front, was the one we were to pass through. We climbed a narrow stairway and knocked for admittance. 'Come in,' said a feeble but familiar voice. I opened the door, and stood for a moment on the threshold before I could find my voice to speak. Seating in a big rocking-chair with a grey fur rug thrown over the back, wrapped in a gown made of a grey blanket, sat the 'good grey poet.' I had not seen him for three or four years, and he was very much changed. His body was thinner than I had ever seen it, but the fine head crowned with its white hair was unaltered.


WHAT HAD STARTLED, not to say shocked, me upon opening the door was the appearance of the room as much as the appearance of its occupant. The blinds were closed and there were no curtains at the windows, and it was no easy matter to pick one's way across the sea of old newspapers that surrounded the poet. The office of the exchange reader on a daily paper was never so littered. These papers were the accumulation of years, to judge by their dates; and so was the dust upon them, to judge by its thickness. A table stood opposite Mr. Whitman, and this too was stacked, as high as it would hold, with newspapers. A little space had been left, just big enough to hold an inkstand but not big enough to use as a desk, for when the poet wrote his name in a book for me, he had to hold it on his knee. A hot wood fire burned in an old-fashioned 'air-tight' stove, guiltless of blacking, and on the opposite side of the room stood a big double-bed that had not yet been made up. Any one with the bump of order even half developed would have been driven wild by the appearance of the place; but the poet did not seem to mind it at all; and what surprised me greatly was, that amid all this confusion he seemed to know just where to lay his hand upon anything he wanted. He would dive into the enormous pile of newspapers at any angle, and always fish out the book or the picture or the manuscript that he wanted. He spoke quite feelingly of the comfort of his surroundings and of the good care that was taken of him, but spoke very despondently of his health. His mind, he sad, was generally very clear, but every now and then his head would feel 'like an apple-dumpling,' and he would have to stop reading or writing and rest.


I HAD A SMALL CAMERA with me, which I had brought 'with intention,' and I asked Mr. Whitman if I might take a picture of him. He was good enough to say that I might, so I opened one of the blinds and asked him to sit quietly for a moment as it would take some little time to get a picture, the room being so dark.'Now,' said I, 'sit just as you are—don't move;' and I took off the cap. What was my horror when, right in the midst of the exposure, the old bard waved his hand majestically, and turning towards the window exclaimed 'The sun is coming out now!' Luckily I had another plate, with which I got a fairly good picture—one that will at least serve as a memorandum of the poet amid his unique surroundings. But the first one was nothing but chaos with a ghostly shape in the foreground that bore little resemblance to anything human.


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