Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman at Home

Creator: Foster Coates and Homer Fort

Date: May 25, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: med.00700

Source: Buffalo Sunday Express 25 May 1890: 3. Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue. Our thanks to Rob Marland for discovering this interview and drawing our attention to it. 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

image 1



A Call on the Old Man—He has Some
Strength, but Little to Say.


CAMDEN, N. J., May 23.—

What a quaint old town this is, to be sure. Its silence is almost idyllic. The sun shines out warm and bright to-day. The air is perfumed with the odor of lilacs. The grass is green, and the plants in the gardens are nodding and smiling in the warm sunlight. It is all in strange contrast to the bustle of the great Quaker City across the river. Camden has one claim to greatness. It is the home of Walt Whitman, and here that grand old poet is passing the last years of his life. In a few days he will have reached the seventy-first milestone. He is very feeble, being racked with paralysis, and on great occasions goes out of his house or sees visitors. Everybody knows him, and the residents of the place, who seem to be in no hurry and are ever ready to discuss with the visitor any topic, from Spenserian poetry to the tariff, never tire of talking about the author of "Leaves of Grass."

We had no difficulty in finding his home. The poet lives at No. 328 Mickle Street, in a little old house far from the noise of street cars and wagon traffic—a home of beautiful surroundings, where in the summer days the flowers bloom profusely, the birds sing sweetly, and nature is in its most gracious mood. Wisteria vines run hither and yon all over the little building that the poet inhabits. On the small door in large black letters we read this sign:


A ring at the door bell brought a young man, hatless and coatless, to answer our summons. He politely asked us in, but a shade of doubt gathered over his face when we said we had come on a pilgrimage to the old poet, and wanted to talk wtih him upon some of the questions that are interesting the world of letters to-day. We were ushered into a little sitting-room, and were greeted by a lady and gentleman seated opposite each other, gazing out upon the street, and seemingly taking life easy.

"I am afraid," said the lady, "that Mr. Whitman is so ill that you will not be able to see him. But I will tell him that you are visitors from New-York, and see what he says. I may add, however, that his doctors have instructed me not to allow him to talk very long."

We handed our cards to the lady in an apologetic way, and as she glanced at them and saw that we were newspaper writers, she said, as a smile passed over her face: "Do not ask him the old questions about his appetite and his sea-sickness if he will see you, but talk to him about something pleasant—about poetry, about some of the men and women he knows, about the flowers, the birds, anything in fact but himself."

In a few moments she returned with the anouncement that Mr. Whitman would be glad to see us in his room upstairs. "You may have just two minutes with him," she said, "for he is very feeble."

We walked up two half flights of narrow wooden stairs and were at the chamber of the poet. In response to our knock there was a pleasant "Come in." The room seemed at the first glance to be almost square, with a low ceiling and two windows looking into the street. There sat the venerable "good gray poet" in a large armchair, wearing a light blue overcoat or dressing-gown. He made a splendid picture as he sat there with the morning sunlight dancing in and out of the room and making grotesque figures on the wall. He had a leonine look. His long white hair fell partly over his face. And such a face! Strong, manly and full of human nature.

His gray beard, thick and fluffy, seemed to be scattered all over his huge chest. His shirt was wide open at the throat, exposing his large neck and part of his bosom. His steel gray eyes snapped with pleasure as he extended his large arm and big right hand. He did not look decrepit. There was a ruddy glow upon his cheeks, as if he had been exposed to the sun. He moved his arms easily, and in the brief conversation that ensued he would put his right hand to his forehead, as if pausing to think before speaking. His lower limbs were covered by some kind of cloth, stertched loosely over his knees.

If he could have stood up straight, he would have measured nearly six feet in height, and exhibited the frame of a man who, even now, at 70 years of age, weighs 200 pounds.

Racked with pain and rheumatic gout,
The aged poet, gray and stout,
Alone within his modest room
Sat weaving thoughts from fancy's loom.
He saw the years of youth and dreams
Gliding away like summer streams.
And in his soul a vision came
Of honor, friends and lasting fame.

We sat down near him and looked at his surroundings. The little room was almost covered with papers, magazines and periodicals. They lay around in heaps, on the floor and on the tables, and evidently had not been moved for many months. In fact, there was nothing to admire about the disorder of the room. The poet's bed was on one side of the room, not in a corner, but half way between one of the windows and the entrance door. It was about the only object in the room free from papers and periodicals. A clean white counterpane was neatly spead over it and tucked in carefully at the side. Right in front of the poet's chair was a large table, with a pyramid of old papers on it.

At the base of the pyramid there was enough clear space left on the table for the bard to lean over and write his name. His hands are not paralyzed and he can write his name in a bold, legible hand, which often he kindly does for autograph collectors. There was no attempt at bric-a-brac, pictures, or fairy-lamp ornamentation in the room. The walls were bare. Several chairs were scattered about, and the poet's pipe and tobacco lay carelessly on a small table.

"I am glad to see you, sit down," said Mr. Whitman after a cordial handshake. Leaning back, he said he was unable to get to his bed, a few away, without assistance.

I would like to talk to you at length and ask many questions, but I cannot," he said. "Say to the boys that my heart is in the highlands with them. You see, I am whacked and banged up so with paralysis that I am not fit for anything. It is the direct result of my war experience many years ago. My brother was wounded and I went to him. I exposed myself and from that time I have never been the hale and hearty man that I was previously. I sit here from day to day, read the papers when I can and keep quiet. Not long ago I went to Philadelphia and had something to say before a club. It is a great trial for me to get away from my room. I do not write any now and have nothing unpublished."

The poet paused, put his hand to his head a brief moment and in answer to questions said: "Yes, I have many visitors, and it warms the cockles of my heart to have my friends drop in and shake me by the hand. Sir Edwin Arnold called upon me and we had a friendly time of it. I have never read his 'Light of Asia,' but I have heard others speak highly of its merits. Arnold writes to me now and then. Yes, I have met a good many poets in my time, but I cannot talk at any length about them. The apostle, or rather the former apostle of æstheticism, Oscar Wilde, is a friend of mine. I like Oscar Wilde very much, and have had some genial, companionable hours with him. Outside of his long hair—he has it cut now—and his Bunthorne attitudinizing, I found him a whole-souled and natural fellow. Arnold, of course, I have not seen as much of as Wilde, but I like him."

Mr. Whitman then spoke of being in New-York over two years ago, and speaking at Madison Square Theater one afternoon on the anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, when he stirred everybody by reciting "Captain, My Captain!" James Russell Lowell and Edmund Clarence Stedman, the poets, were there to hear him and chatted with him after his discourse. Mr. Stedman called upon Mr. Whitman at his hotel and made his stay in the city pleasant. Speaking of these two poets, Mr. Whitman was warm in their praise. He said that he had so many friends who were bards that he could not criticise any of their works because it might seem invidious.

At this juncture in the interview the old man became anxious to show that he could use his arms with ease, and he swung them around and over his head several times. In talking about his strength, or rather lack of strength, we were afraid that he would come to the appetite question and would refuse to talk any more, but he seemed more in a literary than in a gastronomic mood. He continued: "You ask me about contemporary literature, and if I think literature in America is deteriorating. Well, I must confess that I have not given the subject any study. I do not keep up as I should. Things are moving with a rapid pace. Since I published my 'Leaves of Grass' in 1855, nearly 35 years ago, many, many volumes of poems and literary works have been published. If I were not a sufferer from paralysis perhaps I could better keep up with current literature. In order to criticise the works of poets here and in England I would certainy like to be thoroughly well posted. It would not be fair to criticise works that I have not read. I am not a pessimist. I see that the march of progress cannot be stayed, and but for these pains that keep me inactive, I would be, I hope, in the swim."

The old poet moved about uneasily in his chair as he spoke, and seemed like a great wounded animal eager and anxious to arise in his majesty and do something. But the paralysis of which he spoke chained him to his chair.

"I am afraid," he went on, "that I am not a safe critic to follow. Of course I do read some newspapers, some books and some magazines, but I am not sufficiently well informed to give an opinion on this or that man's work. I only know this: That it is the golden age for literary workers. They are paid better for their productions now than ever before. The publishers get up their books in better style than ever before. Americans are a busy rushing people, but have time to pause and listen to the Muses, and if they sing in tune our people are ready to applaud. Our literary workers have done wonderfully good work and will do better. Sitting here in my quiet little home, away from the hurly burly of the big cities, here, where there is no malice, and where every man or woman who rises is judged solely on his or her merits, I see the bow of promise in the sky. It is well for the future of literature. There is no cause for complaint. There are scores of promising young men and women in this country, and the banner of American literature will never trail in the dust. The standard has been set high, but I have no fear in my soul that Americans will not reach that standard."

The old man turned his face away from us looked out the window for a moment, and I fancied that there was a tear of regret in his eye.

"How I wish I was strong!" he said.

He seemed to be getting tired, and we arose to go. We had conversed longer than his visitors are usually allowed to converse. He bent forward, shook us cordially by the hands, and said: "I am glad you came. I wish I could talk longer. Remember me to all my friends, and above all do not forget to say to them that my heart is in the highlands with them. Good by."

As we passed out of the room the old man picked up a magazine and began to read. At the door, as we passed into the street, we met a postman with an armful of letters from many parts of the country, some of them asking for autographs, but the majority bringing good wishes from friends, who hoped that the old poet's 71st birthday would be full of sunshine and happiness.



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