Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Whitman's November

Creator: Anonymous

Date: August 27, 1888

Whitman Archive ID: med.00631

Source: Morning Oregonian 27 August 1888: 2. 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 and Sabrina Ehmke Sergeant

image 1



The Poet Rallies from His Illness and Is
at His Work Again.


Much Reduced in Flesh and Spirits, but Able to
Finish His Book—The Clos-
ing Scene.


Philadelphia Press

About six weeks ago the children on Mickle street, below Fifth street, in Camden, were asked to play on the north side of the street, for Walt Whitman, the poet, whose frame house stands on the south side, was ill. A few days since the children took their velocipedes and skipping ropes back to the south side, for the poet was much better.

Since the 3d of June his big arm-chair, which has stood for so many years facing the window on the first floor, has been empty, and the frame of which has lacked the picturesque, kindly face, with its background of flowing white hair. On that day Mr. Whitman was stricken and has kept his bed ever since until Monday. The poet was spending the day, Sunday, as has been his custom for the last four years, with a friend, Thomas Harned. During the afternoon he drove out in his carriage with another close friend, Dr. Richard M. Buck, of London, Ont. After the drive the partial paralysis came on and with it an incoherence of thought and speech which threatened to leave the poet's mind in a state of coma.

Dr. Buck is the surgeon-general of the Dominion of Canada and a specialist on diseases of the mind. He has studied Mr. Whitman's case, and on the evening of the attack advised the poet's friends to talk and question him uninterruptedly, that his mind might be kept awake and his thoughts active.

The week following was filled with premonitory symptoms, and at the end of the seven days the stroke of paralysis came in all its severity, and the poet was relegated to his bedroom, with Dr. N. M. Baker to nurse him.

The nurse found his position something of a sinecure, for his patient would have none of him and it was only by anxiously watching for an opportunity that the young doctor was ever able to render the poet a service. Mr. Whitman's life is a solitary one and he has grown independent of physical aid. Though a very old man he preferred to help himself rather than rap with his big cane, which is always at his elbow, for others. In the morning the sound of his shoes on the bare floor of his bed room, as he completed his toilet, by stamping his foot in it was the first intimation the nurse would receive that his patient was up and doing. The poet likes to be alone unless his friends are his companions, and of late months rarely sees the casual visitors who cross the river to see the man whose books they may have read and whose personality they may admire.


Alone with his housekeeper he reigns undisturbed in the two-story frame house, editing his random verses and essays and watching the children from his leather chair at the window. In the morning after breakfast his housekeeper asks him with as much regularity and solemnity as though she were saying grace:

"And what will to-day bring forth, Mr. Whitman?"

"I wonder, Mary," the poet returns, as he raises from the table. For three years this little dialogue has been spoken. It shows Walt Whitman's "sweet content" what each day of what he calls the closing season of his life. One of Mr. Whitman's closest friends says that the first intimation he received of the poet's recovery was when he noticed that the mass of books, newspapers and manuscripts which litter the front sitting room had broken forth in the invalid's bedroom, and swamped it. Mr. Whitman's study, or wherever he works, is the ideal of that multitudinous individual's opinion—the general reader's—of what a literary man's workshop should be. He believes that the place for anything is the place where he puts it, and his housekeeper dares not for her life's sake "tidy up" the heaps of papers, books and pamphlets which fill his room.

During his illness he rose at 9 and 10 and read his letters as he ate his breakfast. After breakfast he showed the diversity of his choice in newspaper literature by reading the Press, Record and New York Herald. In past days the poet read the papers throughout, to-day he but skims them, sufficiently, however, to talk intelligently on all that most deeply interests the public. In the afternoon he wrote letters to his friends, answering the many notes of inquiry and sympathy that his illness had called forth.


In the evening Horace Traubel, the treasurer of the Contemporary Club and one of Mr. Whitman's oldest young friends, would assist the poet in editing his new book. When one of the Press men called to see Mr. Whitman the other day he found him sitting in an armchair in his bedroom with the proof sheets up to his knees. A writing pad was on his knee and numerous photographs of Elias Hicks, of whom the poet was writing, were scattered over the room. The poet has fallen away somewhat since his illness. He spoke slowly and with apparent difficulty.

"I call it my war paralysis," said the poet. "The doctors and I have agreed to call it that, and perhaps you had better use the term. It came immediately after the war. I was filled with emotion, with excitement, hope and energy then. It has visited me six or seven times since, leaving me each time a little weaker and shakier. This time has been a pretty bad one—as bad as any of them. And then old age—and infirmities all make me a little weaker. I have been a prisoner in this room for six weeks, but we think we are going to make a little rally.

"You see, we are at work," he added, raising the writing-pad in his lap.

"And what is the book going to contain?" someone asked.

"Essays and swept-up memoranda," returned the poet; "poetry, additional poems fit to be put on as an annex to 'Leaves of Grass.' I would have had it finished if this trouble had not caught me tripping. We have decided to call it 'November Boughs.' It will have a tinge of the closing season about it."


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