Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Personal Memories of Walt Whitman

Creator: Alma Calder Johnston

Date: November 1891

Whitman Archive ID: med.00594

Source: Bookman 46 (November 1891): 404–413. 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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*Certain passages in this article appeared in the volume Walt Whitman, as Man, Poet and Friend, and are here reproduced by permission of the publisher, Mr. Richard G. Badger (Boston).—EDITOR'S NOTE.


MY ACQUAINTANCE with Walt Whitman began in 1874, when his book, Leaves of Grass, was sent to me by the man whom I afterward married. The work held me; yet at times it filled me with nervous repulsion, and I would throw the volume to a top shelf and rush from the house to a nook in the forest, feeling that I would not, could not, touch it again. "My words itch at your ears till you understand them," he had said. Sometimes a sentence would fill me with sublime exaltation; fogs of doubt would roll away, and the eternal light of faith make "Not the good only, justified: what men call evil also justified."

Inspired with gratitude for the enlightenment his words had given me, I wrote to Walt Whitman, but received no reply. I think I did not ask nor expect one, but in my letter I said I hoped some day to see him. A year or more passed; then, while I was attending the Centennial in Philadelphia, a friend, Caleb Pink, called one Sunday morning to take me to Whitman's home in Camden. I was silent during the journey, hoping, fearing, considering phrases with which to introduce myself. My escort was also a stranger to Whitman, with a vague sympathy for him,—eccentric man and so-called poet. My heart was palpitating, my nerves tingling, and every sense was alert as we entered the little house. Crossing the narrow hall, I saw through an open door, seated in an armchair, the large grey-clad figure I had pictured; the dome-shaped brow, the smiling eyes, the snowy hair and beard. I paused—my nervousness quite gone—feasting my eyes, warming my heart,—when lo! He stretched out his great hands, calling "Alma!" and instantly I was clasped in his arms and given the hearty kiss that welcomes a kindred spirit. The greeting was so spontaneous and simple that its utter unconventionality seemed the most natural thing in the world. It was Walt Whitman!

We spent many hours together in after years, when he was Mr. Johnston's guest and mine. He had become "Uncle Walt" to the children I mothered. Besides the photographs he had taken of himself with them another picture is vivid to me:—I see him walking up and down in the morning sunshine, the trees of Central park, opposite our door, for a background, a baby boy in his arms, his white beard mingling with the yellow curls.

He was an industrious worker, having learned by unflinching energy "the divine power to use word." The floor of his room was strewn with scraps of paper,—turned envelopes, the blank spaces of erased manuscript, the backs of old letteres,—all bore his patient scribblings; thrift, and the habits formed in days when paper was dear, had made him economical. Newspapers from which extracts had been cut, books reviewed, and to be reviewed, lay everywhere. He never had a table large enough—I am not sure any table could have been made large enough—so the floor served the purpose. On occasion, I would appear with basket and broom. "Now, Alma! Now, Alma!" he would exclaim with uplifted hand; and the same arguments that had always been urged before, on the necessity of a "clarin' up," the same yielding, with reservations by each of us, the same apprehensive watchfulness on his part, with much raillery and audacity on mine, would send his bushy

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eyebrows up into a pointed arch, while his blue eyes danced with amused alarm.

One day, from among the scraps about his chair, which I placed before him, assorted, I read a couplet at which I exclaimed, "Uncle Walt, you have written these lines at least a dozen times, and each time made them worse!" Taking the papers and reading them in turn, he looked up with the whimsical smile I loved to provoke, and said, "Do you know, Alma, I have been trying to work the pretty out of that!" Whereupon I tried to persuade him that to work the rhyme out of stanza which naturally rhymed, was a big a piece of affectation as to hunt for jingles to end prosy paragraphs. Another time, in all seriousness, I ventured to criticise the title and the opening line of one of his most virile poems.

"What you really mean, Uncle Walt," I boldly declared, "is 'Woman waits for me.' By making it a woman, you put a most objectionable barrier before a great truth, and naturally, timid souls will shy at it; the road is not so easy, when one is in pursuit of truth, that the Leader himself should put hurdles in the way."

Our discussion had begun in desultory fashion at breakfast, and we had lingered after the table was cleared and the other members of the family had gone their various ways, to business and to school.

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Our conversation turned to modern education, upon which his views were frequently radical. He was impatient of time and effort given to the study of foreign languages, to the neglect of the wealth of expression lying unused in our own, although he did not disapprove of picturesque foreign phrases or of slang that grew out of unwonted conditions. He resented forms that repressed originality. "It seems to me," he said, "the present style of education is all wrong. Children should first develop physically, they should learn to love Nature, become familiar with Nature, get into harmony with Nature's laws, absorb sunshine and air. I think everybody loves Nature, though he may not know it.—Let's get out the old nag and go for a drive!"

I recall that as we drove along a country road in the unfrequented ways beyond Central Park, I suggested that a recognition of Nature's laws was all that was required for an acceptance of his poems, Leaves of Grass, and that the simile he used most frequent to illustrate the growth of thought ought not to prove offensive, since ideas were conceived, nourished, born in language and sent out to propogate their kind without anyone being shocked by the process. And so, in that much-maligned poem, A Woman Waits for Me, the impersonal woman might be considered quite philosophically, if the wording were put a trifle differently.

His elbows on his knees, his hands loosely holding the reins over what he termed "the old nag," as she walked through a bit of woodland, the poet's look was on the horizon. After my bold assertion of his mistake, I waited a long time in silence for reply. At last he straightened up, tightened the lines, started the mare at her best gait, and in the clear upper tone of his many-keyed voice, said, "Alma, there is a good deal in what you say." I made no answer, but I was greatly elated, for I was weary of explaining to his opponents the large truth behind his words. Since he was then at our house revising the 1882 edition of his poems, I anticipated the omission of the objectionable particle of speech. But the poem remained unchanged by him, A Woman Waits for Me!

This reminds me of a gathering of writers in our library on the arrival of the news that Whitman's publishers, Fields and Osgood, had broken their contract with him. During his stay in Boston at the time of their acceptance of Leaves of Grass, he had written frequently to us of his enjoyment of the hospitality of Emerson, Alcott, Longfellow. His gratification deepened at the printing of the revised edition. "Everything is just as I like it," he wrote me in the long and descriptive epistle that preceded the postcard heralding his return to our house in New York. Then came the blow of disappointment: yet, though he was baffled, beaten, uncertain what his next move should be, he was the same cheery guest he had always been. His friends and admirers, however, were not so philosophical as he; they did not hesitate to condemn the stupidity, the treachery, the short-sighted policy of the "double-distilled villains" who could reject such poems as A Woman Waits for Me.

Nevertheless, there was some argument among them, as to whether, for the sake of the rest of the work, the eighty lines to which the publishers objected, had not better be sacrificed; whether they were really essential to the whole, or whether conventionality might not better be somewhat catered to, considering the spirit of the age. Since a double standard of morality for the sexes was almost universally accepted, might not the assumed modesty of society be somewhat indulged?—Or should it be defied?—A flood of words poured forth: the younger men left their seats and all talked at the same time; in the vehemence of their argument, they quite forgot the presence of the author of the contested lines. To me, as I stood shadowed in the hall, his face was a study. He turned his head toward one speaker after another, his manner quite impersonal, though deeply interested, while the dis

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cussion continued to deal with truth and his work, until one of the young men broke out, "But what does Walt say? Let's hear from Walt!" Leaning forward, he cried in his clear, vibrant voice, "Why, boys, That's what it's all for!"

The matter was beyond argument; he had worked for truth alone; like a revelation they comprehended it. He had long since declared: "I have read these lines to myself in the open air. I have tried them by stars, rivers. I have dismissed whatever insulted my own soul or defiled my body. I have claimed nothing for myself that I have no carefully claimed for others on the same terms." The decision had long before been rendered to himself; the judgment was now

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announced to others; there was no appeal. Each of the "Literary Chappies," as he smilingly called them, took Walt Whitman's hand in good-night clasp and quickly went away.

Nothing so impressed me in all our intercourse as his universality: In all our familiar chats it seemed as if the Spirit of the Universe were represented. Large and small, strong and weak, sick and sound, wise and unwise, joyous and melancholy,—everything was included in his identity. In caressing our children, it was as if he embraced and kissed childhood; in addressing me, he spoke to womanhood.

In Miriam's Heritage, a story written by me before my marriage and published by Harper Brothers, a headline quotation from Whitman had, by a printer's error, been made to say, "Have I not said the Universe was nothing better than the best woman?" When I later showed him my work and lamely apologized for what appeared a lack of comprehension of his lines "The Universe has nothing better than the best Womanhood," I was relieved to have him remark smilingly, as he handed the book back to me, "Maybe that is what I mean, after all!" He often seemed to invite my criticism; and since the severest fault-finding brought only that sudden uplift of the brows and that quizzical smile to his eyes and lips, my audacity was often tempted into expression. One instance was connected with the lines:

Let the preachers of creeds never dare tomeditate alone upon the hills, by day orby night!
If one ever did once dare he is lost!

I declared it should read, "The creed is lost." The only verbal reply I can recollect ever receiving is that already mentioned, when I would have the prophet and defender of womanhood express its universal rather than its individual demand.

The claim of individuality pressed him closely. He saw that the danger of socialism lay in the absorption of identities, and troubled himself little about its politics, or, indeed, the politics of any party; they were each but a part of the All, and a state of necessary ferment from which was to come the wholesome government by and of and for individuals "fit for these States.""Remember," he had enjoined, "government is to subserve individuals."

I say an unnumbered new race of hardy andwell-defined women is to spread throughall these States.
I say a girl fit for these States must be free,capable, dauntless, the same as a boy.
His ready adaptation to place and people made him an ideal guest; always prompt at each family gathering, always radiantly cheery, kindly, communicative; always scrupulously neat in person—putting his bedding to air and his clothing into place, before leaving his room in the morning. He was usually traceable from the early shower-bath to the breakfast-room by his song. It seemed as if he rose, lilting some melody. As he went about his chamber he chanted in tenor voice some psalm, or some vagrant thought he was putting into rhythm, or perhaps, a half-remembered ballad. His voice would rise to exultancy, pause abruptly, or drop as suddenly to a low, murmured refrain, as the exigencies of dressing seemed to require attention. Occasionally he demanded help in a lusty call for "Al!"; hereupon Mr. Johnston, or his eldest son, Albert, would hasten to lend a youthful hand to the partially paralysed body, which had poured its vigour into the suffering soldiers of our Civil War. With his strength the poet had also spent all the money and time at his disposal; to give back what we could, in return for such sacrifices, was to us a happy privilege.

It is a pleasure to read in Specimen Days (page 113) Whitman's reference to this visit: "In old age, lame and sick, pondering for years on many a doubt and danger for this Republic of ours—fully aware of all that can be said on the other side—to find in this visit to New York and the daily contact and support of its myriad people on the scale of the ocean

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and tides, the best, the most effective medicine my soul has known. After many years (I went away at the outbreak of the Secession War, and have never been back to stay since), again I resume the crowds, the streets I know so well."

On the occasion of another visit, in the midst of his record of street scenes, water vies, saunterings in Central Park, and meditations on what he called "top-loftical" phrases of wealth—not to be envied or admired—he describes with graphic pen (page 136) his being a guest of Sorosis, when this earliest of women's clubs went down the Bay on the tug Seth Low, to accompany its president, Jennie June Croly, on her departure for Europe. Although he was quite reluctant to accept the invitation from the club, which, as member and officer, I had urged upon him, his pleasure at the gratification afforded by his presence, was unmistakable. Then he suddenly tired of it and retreated to the pilot house, remaining there until luncheon was served.

At table, we were delighted by an unexpected witticism from the Good Grey Poet when, in response to the demand for a speech, he declined to follow a Mrs. King and a Mr. Prince, since he himself was a plebeian! But the applause that greeted it drove him into his shell again, and he made no allusion to the social part of the trip in a newspaper article which he sent to me, entitled, A Gossipy Letter from Walt Whitman, published July 3, 1878, in the New York Times. His habit of viewing "Walt Whitman" impersonally, made unexpected and undesired notice of himself embarrassing to him. To him, all persons, peoples, including himself, represented qualities, principles, types. He was enthusiastic over the appearance of the "young fellows" on board the training-ship Minnesota, as specimens of American manhood,—as "a splendid proof of our composite race." I wonder if there are now any of those youths who recall his visit on May 26, 1879!

About this time two accidents occurred at our house that might have tried his nerves. Entering his room one morning, I noticed an odour that made me sniff the air, saying, "Something has been burning here, and it is not tobacco!" (Walt Whitman never touched tobacco.) "I thought I smelled smoke when I got up to put out the light," he answered, rather ruefully, adding, "I read myself to sleep.""And I tell you what else you did, Uncle Walt," I responded, laughing. "You twisted the window curtain into a rope and tied it up as far as you could reach—oh, you've done that before! —and the wind tossed that knot over the gas globe, and away went that curtain in a flash!"

To see the embarrassed droop of his majestic figure, and the plaintive look, so child-like, on his dignified face, was irresistibly funny, and I laughed till he feebly joined me, as he looked up at the tinsel threads still hanging from the blackened gilt cornice. I assured him that I was glad he had slept soundly, for had he seen that swift blaze he would have had a fright. "Now," I added, "we will have the piece of oriental gauze taken down from the other window, and you shall have the unveiled sunshine you love!"

The bric-a-brac and other ornaments of a guest-room, which he termed "gimracks," had been removed before he came; now he gazed unhindered at the squatter settlement that reached to our vine-covered back-yard fence, and beyond that to the block-away terminus of the Fourth Avenue surface cars (which made going down town easy for him), and farther on, to the horizon, where sparsely filled squares stretched to the East River; all this lay unscreened before him. Goats, geese, chickens, and innumerable children wandered over the grass about a whitewashed cabin, which was always being undone and made over—a neat and not unpicturesque huddle of a dwelling, full of uncounted children, with whom we were sufficiently intimate to hail cheerily, when their doings were, or were not, to our liking, and who cheerily saluted the kindly old man who

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smiled and waved his hand to them from the open window.

The second accident came neared being serious than the first. I was at my desk in a neighbouring room, when I heard a tremendous crash. Rushing through intervening doors and passages, I found Walt Whitman standing ashy white, and the huge pier-glass which had filled the space between the windows lying in a thousand fragments on the floor. In falling, it had struck the foot of the bed, the table, and the chair in which he had been sitting at his writing.

"You are not hurt? You are not hurt?" I kept gasping, while I looked at the heap of débris—the silvers of thick glass, the fragments of carved wood, the chunks of plaster of Paris—"You are not hurt?"

"No, no, not a bit! I heard it slip and jumped from under. I don't see why it should fall!"I did. He had been using its supporting marble shelf for a foot-rest, just as the children had not infrequently used it for a seat. I tried to smile, but turned faint, with thinking of what might have been! Getting his hat, I insisted on our leaving the house until the muss be cleaned up, and jestingly taking him by the shoulders, with a weak pretence at giving him a strong shake, I said, "It is plain to be seen you are a much nimbler old gentleman than we take you for. Now understand this, if you say one word about broken mirrors, or a third thing's going to happen, or even allude to such ideas as signs and omens, I shall call you a superstitious old humbug!"

At that time the residences on Fifth Avenue ended abruptly at Eighty-sixth Street; just beyond, the grassy knolls of an old fruit orchard had become a rural beer garden. Leaning somewhat heavily on my shoulder, he crossed the street with me, and then, seated on one of the benches beneath a gnarled old apple-tree, we told each other stories of "when I was young," and from well-stored memories drew poems learned long ago. Robbins hopping at our feet, and goats scrambling on the rocks above our heads, were our only observers. As sunlight faded, we returned to the house, where order had been restored. A water-colour scene on Long Island shore, by Silva, covered the broken spot in the wall where the mirror had hung. The incident, never mentioned, was apparently forgotten, and I am sure Walt Whitman enjoyed the simplicity thereafter established in his room.

On the occasion of his visits, there were usually other guests in the house, mostly young folks, who now proudly recall "the time they met Walt Whitman." Each evening, groups of personal friends and specially invited acquaintances, among them artists, actors, musicians, and writers, came and went. Whenever Whitman was weary of the admiration they gave him—and that was often early—he would rise with gentle dignity, wave a farewell and, leaning on his cane, leave the room. The guests would soon leave and the house be quiet for the night; as there was no traffic on the avenue, all was still until the vegetable wagons rolled in from the truck gardens not far out—and then we listened for the poet's morning song.

In each prolonged talk with Walt Whitman, when his exalted viewpoint had been attained, one had clearly the consciousness that "All exists from some long previous consummation." Not infrequently he turned the vision of his telescopic soul to the future of America. In his later publication, I find many passages that were displayed to me in embryo. His largeness of view, his recognition of the "inherencies of things," and the consequent acceptance of events and reconciliation with them, became to me a lasting inspiration. No lines of his, no sentences ever recorded, mean more to me than these, which include and harmonise the Predestination of Calvin with the Free Will of Wesley: "Each of us inevitable," "Each of us limitless," in which the seeming fatalism is balanced by universality; and, "Whatever can possibly happen at any time is provided for," which opened the way for that glorious declaration:

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Though I come to my own in a thousand orten million years,
I can take it now, or with equal cheerful-ness I can wait.

It was waiting with his "equal cheerfulness" that, accompanied by Samuel Loag, of Philadelphia, I found him in the winter of 1885, in poverty, ill, and alone. The day was stormy, the streets were icy, and it was with great difficulty—in fact, after several full-length tumbles by us both—that we reached the house in Mickle Street, Camden.

Our first rap brought no response, but a second was answered by a voice from an upper window, calling, "Come in! Come in!" Looking up through the mist of the descending sleet, we saw the venerable face of Walt Whitman leaning out above us. His room, littered with more than the usual number of papers scattered about, was cold. The remains of a meal stood on a chair. I looked toward the arm-chair; above two blankets loomed the head I loved and revered. To keep back emotion, I made a great fuss about the general untidiness of the place, while Mr. Loag rebuilt the fire. It was already late afternoon and our time was short. I was glad I could manage to brew some tea, and equally delighted to make the old, slow, quizzical smile play again over his beloved face.

Then Mr. Loag and I began some serious questioning. "It is not so bad as it looks, Alma," the poet replied. "I have a nice young fellow coming in every morning to get me up and make breakfast, and he comes back every afternoon as soon as his bank closes and gets me my supper; and we have some good talks together, he and I. Don't think I'm deserted!"—for I was on my knees sobbing beside him. "I can't stand it, Uncle Walt. I will not! I am going to take you home with me!" But I found him, even though tearful in sympathy with my grief, quite inflexible. Life in New York had become too strenuous for him.

"Don't think I wouldn't enjoy it, but those literary chaps won't let me alone. It is all good, but there is too much of it! I'm a kind of curiosity in New York. Folks keep coming every day and every night to see me, and it sort o' uses me up." The arched point in his brow, the whimsical smile, pacified me. "And here nobody bothers you by cleaning up!" I said, quite ashamed of my outburst. "Well, I will let you alone if you will have a housekeeper." After some arguing, he consented, and soon was made comfortable for the remainder of his days; for it was ignorance of his condition and not indifference that had caused temporary neglect. Not long afterward, I met the "nice young fellow," Horace Traubel, who so faithfully ministered to Walt Whitman in his hours of greatest need.

A letter lies before me written in the poet's large, open hand, and dated,

328 Mickle Street, Camden, N. J.,
March 4, '85.


Your letter comforts and touches me deeply, and I am not sure but it would be a good arrangement not only for me but for all 'round. But for the present I shall keep on here. Alma, I have had a friend move in, Mrs. Davis, strong and hearty and good-natured, a widow, young enough; furnishes me my meals and takes good care of me. ...I am feeling quite well for me as I write this. I shall never forget your kindness and generosity to me. I am in good spirits as I finish this. Love to Al, and May, and all.


I visited him repeatedly while Mary Davis devoted herself to his care. He enjoyed being the host, and I ate of his corned beef and cabbage and berry pie with good relish. At my last visit, he sat by the window of his sitting-room in the arm-chair he afterward willed to us. He was then very feeble. We had talked disconnectedly—with eloquent pauses—of immorality, of the indestructibility of things physical and things spiritual; of "things that cohere and go forward and are not dropped by death"; of Death disassociated from disease as

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Life is ever disassociated from disease; of Death as feminine, a Strong Deliveress. Yet we were not unmindful of the insight, the comprehension, the experiences, that weakness and pain bring to the Soul, and so accounted valuable a long and intimate acquaintance with Death—familiar contemplation giving new knowledge of Life.

"I do not know what is untried and afterward," I quoted, "but I know that it is sure, alive, sufficient." He nodded his head. I rose to leave him. We knew our hands clasped and our lips touched for the last time. When I left home, I had resolved there should be no tears. "My rendezvous is appointed," I murmured, as I kissed him. "The Lord will be there and wait till I come on perfect terms." Pausing on the opposite sidewalk, I returned the salute of his hand, uplifted in the open window. The horse-car came. It was empty, and the woman of me broke down! Struggling with handkerchief and purse, I yet glanced at the conductor's face. He brushed the back of his hand across his eyes.

"You've been a-saying' good-bye to Walt Whitman? I know him," he said.


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