“A Visit to Walt Whitman”
From James Huneker’s Ivory Apes and Peacocks
My edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is dated 1867, the third, if I am not mistaken, the first appearing in 1855. Inside is pasted a card upon which is written in large, clumsy letters: “Walt Whitman, Camden, New Jersey, July, 1877.” I value this autograph, because Walt gave it to me; rather I paid him for it, the proceeds, two dollars (I think that was the amount), going to some asylum in Camden. In addition, the “good grey poet” was kind enough to add a woodcut of himself as he appeared in the 1855 volume, “hankering, gross, mystical, nude,” and another of his old mother, with her shrewd, kindly face. Walt is in his shirt-sleeves, a hand on his hip, the other in his pocket, his neck bare, the pose that of a nonchalant workman—though in actual practice he was always opposed to work of any sort; on his head is a slouch-hat, and you recall his line: “I wear my hat as I please, indoors or out.” The picture is characteristic, even to the sensual mouth and Bowery-boy pose. You almost hear him say: “I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones.” Altogether a different man from the later bard, the heroic apparition of Broadway, Pennsylvania Avenue, and Chestnut Street. I had convalesced from a severe attack of Edgar Allan Poe only to fall desperately ill with Whitmania. Youth is ever in revolt, age alone brings resignation. My favourite reading was Shelley, my composer among composers, Wagner. Chopin came later. This was in 1876, when the Bayreuth apotheosis made Wagner’s name familiar to us, especially in Philadelphia, where his empty, sonorous Centennial March was first played by Theodore Thomas at the Exposition. The reading of a magazine article by Moncure D. Conway caused me to buy a copy, at an extravagant price for my purse, of The Leaves of Grass, and so uncritical was I that I wrote a parallel between Wagner and Whitman; between the most consciously artistic of men and the wildest among improvisators. But then it seemed to me that both had thrown off the “shackles of convention.” (What prison-like similes we are given to in the heady, generous impulses of green adolescence.) I was a boy, and seeing Walt on Market Street, as he came from the Camden Ferry, I resolved to visit him. It was some time after the Fourth of July, 1877, and I soon found his little house on Mickle Street. A policeman at the ferry-house directed me. I confess I was scared after I had given the bell one of those pulls that we tremblingly essay at a dentist’s door. To my amazement the old man soon stood before me, and cordially bade me enter.
“Walt,” I said, for I had heard that he disliked a more ceremonious prefix, “I’ve come to tell you how much the Leaves have meant to me.” “Ah!” he simply replied, and asked me to take a chair. To this hour I can see the humble room, but when I try to recall our conversation I fail. That it was on general literary subjects I know, but the main theme was myself. In five minutes Walt had pumped me dry. He did it in his quiet, sympathetic way, and, with the egoism of my age, I was not averse from relating to him the adventures of my soul. That Walt was a fluent talker one need but read his memoirs by Horace Traubel. Witness his tart allusion to Swinburne’s criticism of himself: “Isn’t he the damnedest simulacrum?” But he was a sphinx the first time I met him. I do recall that he said Poe wrote too much in a dark cellar, and that music was his chief recreation—of which art he knew nothing; it served him as a sounding background for his pencilled improvisations. I begged for an autograph. He told me of his interest in a certain asylum or hospital, whose name has gone clean out of my mind, and I paid my few dollars for the treasured signature. It is now one of my literary treasures.
If I forget the tenor of our discourse I have not forgotten the immense impression made upon me by the man. As vain as a peacock, Walt looked like a Greek rhapsodist. Tall, imposing in bulk, his regular features, mild, light-blue or grey eyes, clear ruddy skin, plentiful white hair and beard, evoked an image of the magnificently fierce old men he chants in his book. But he wasn’t fierce, his voice was a tenor of agreeable timbre, and he was gentle, even to womanliness. Indeed, he was like a receptive, lovable old woman, the kind he celebrates so often. He never smoked, his only drink was water. I doubt if he ever drank spirits. His old friends say “No,” although he is a terrible rake in print. Without suggesting effeminacy, he gave me the impression of a feminine soul in a masculine envelope. When President Lincoln first saw him he said: “Well, he looks like a man!” Perhaps Lincoln knew, for his remark has other connotations than the speech of Napoleon when he met Goethe: “Voilà un homme!” Hasn’t Whitman asked in Calamus, the most revealing section of Leaves: “Do you suppose yourself advancing on real ground toward a real heroic man?” He also wrote of Calamus: “Here the frailest leaves of me…. Here I shade down and hide my thoughts. I do not express them. And yet they expose me more than all my other poems.” Mr. Harlan, Secretary of the Interior, when he dismissed Walt from his department because of Leaves, did not know about the Calamus section—I believe they were not incorporated till later—butWashington was acquainted with Walt and his idiosyncrasies, and, despite W. D. Connor’s spirited vindication, certain rumours would not be stifled. Walt was thirty-six when Leaves appeared; forty-one when Calamus was written.
I left the old man after a hearty hand-shake, a So long! just as in his book, and returned to Philadelphia. Full of the day, I told my policeman at the ferry that I had seen Walt. “That old gas-bag comes here every afternoon. He gets free rides across the Delaware,” and I rejoiced to think that a soulless corporation had some appreciation of a great poet, though the irreverence of this “powerful uneducated person” shocked me. When I reached home I also told my mother of my visit. She was plainly disturbed. She said that the writings of the man were immoral, but she was pleased at my report of Walt’s sanity, sweetness, mellow optimism, and his magnetism, like some natural force. I forgot, in my enthusiasm, that it was Walt who listened, I who gabbled. My father, who had never read Leaves, had sterner criticism to offer: “If I ever hear of you going to see that fellow you’ll be sorry!” This coming from the most amiable of parents, surprised me. Later I discovered the root of his objection, for, to be quite frank, Walt did not bear a good reputation in Philadelphia, and I have heard him spoken of so contemptuously that it would bring a blush to the shining brow of a Whitmaniac. Yet dogs followed him andchildren loved him. I saw Walt accidentally at intervals, though never again in Camden. I met him on the streets, and several times took him from the Carl Gaertner String Quartet Concerts in the foyer of the Broad Street Academy of Music to the Market Street cars. He lumbered majestically, his hairy breast exposed, but was a feeble old man, older than his years; paralysis had maimed him. He is said to have incurred it from his unselfish labours as nurse in the camp hospitals at Washington during the Civil War; however, it was in his family on the paternal side, and at thirty he was quite grey. The truth is, Walt was not the healthy hero he celebrates in his book. That he never dissipated we know; but his husky masculinity, his posing as the Great God Priapus in the garb of a Bowery boy is discounted by the facts. Parsiphallic, he was, but not of Pan’s breed. In the Children of Adam, the part most unfavourably criticised of Leaves, he is the Great Bridegroom, and in no literature, ancient or modern, have been the “mysteries” of the temple of love so brutally exposed. With all his genius in naming certain unmentionable matters, I don’t believe in the virility of these pieces, scintillating with sexual images. They leave one cold despite their erotic vehemence; the abuse of the vocative is not persuasive, their raptures are largely rhetorical. This exaltation, this ecstasy, seen at its best in William Blake, is sexual ecstasy, but only whenthe mood is married to the mot lumière is there authentic conflagration. Then his “barbaric yawp is heard across the roofs of the world”; but in the underhumming harmonics of Calamus, where Walt really loafs and invites his soul, we get the real man, not the inflated hum-buggery of These States, Camerados, or My Message, which fills Leaves with their patriotic frounces. His philosophy is fudge. It was an artistic misfortune for Walt that he had a “mission,” it is a worse one that his disciples endeavour to ape him. He was an unintellectual man who wrote conventionally when he was plain Walter Whitman, living in Brooklyn. But he imitated Ossian and Blake, and their singing robes ill-befitted his burly frame. If, in Poe, there is much “rant and rococo,” Whitman is mostly yawping and yodling. He is destitute of humour, like the majority of “prophets” and uplifters, else he might have realised that a Democracy based on the “manly love of comrades” is an absurdity. Not alone in Calamus, but scattered throughout Leaves, there are passages that fully warrant unprejudiced psychiatrists in styling this book the bible of the third sex.
But there is rude red music in the versicles of Leaves. They stimulate, and, for some young hearts, they are as a call to battle. The book is a capital hunting-ground for quotations. Such massive head-lines—that soon sink into platitudinous prose; such robust swinging rhythms,Emerson told Walt that he must have had a “long foreground.” It is true. Notwithstanding his catalogues of foreign countries, he was hardly a cosmopolitan. Whitman’s so-called “mysticism” is a muddled echo of New England Transcendentalism; itself a pale dilution of an outworn German idealism—what Coleridge called “the holy jungle of Transcendental metaphysics.” His concrete imagination automatically rejected metaphysics. His chief asset is an extraordinary sensitiveness to the sense of touch; it is his distinguishing passion, and tactile images flood his work; this, and an eye that records appearances, the surface of things, and registers in phrases of splendour the picturesque, yet seldom fuses matter and manner into a poetical synthesis. The community of interest between his ideas and images is rather affiliated than cognate. He has a tremendous, though ill-assorted vocabulary. His prose is jolting, rambling, tumid, invertebrate. An “arrant artist,” as Mr. Brownell calls him, he lacks formal sense and the diffuseness and vagueness of his supreme effort—the Lincoln burial hymn—serves as a nebulous buffer between sheer over-praise and serious criticism. He contrives atmosphere with facility, and can achieve magical pictures of the sea and the “mad naked summer night.” His early poem, Walt Whitman, is for me his most spontaneous offering. He has at times the primal gift of the poet—ecstasy; but to attain it he often wades through shallow,ill-smelling sewers, scales arid hills, traverses dull drab levels where the slag covers rich ore, or plunges into subterrene pools of nocturnal abominations—veritable regions of the “mother of dead dogs.” Probably the sexlessness of Emerson’s, Poe’s, and Hawthorne’s writings sent Whitman to an orgiastic extreme, and the morbid, nasty-nice puritanism that then tainted English and American letters received its first challenge to come out into the open and face natural facts. Despite his fearlessness, one must subscribe to Edmund Clarence Stedman’s epigram: “There are other lights in which a dear one may be regarded than as the future mother of men.” Walt let in a lot of fresh air on the stuffy sex question of his day, but, in demanding equal sexual rights for women, he meant it in the reverse sense as propounded by our old grannies’ purity leagues. Continence is not the sole virtue or charm in womanhood; nor, by the same token, is unchastity a brevet of feminine originality. But women, as a rule, have not rallied to his doctrines, instinctively feeling that he is indifferent to them, notwithstanding the heated homage he pays to their physical attractions. Good old Walt sang of his camerados, capons, Americanos, deck-hands, stagecoach-drivers, machinists, brakemen, firemen, sailors, butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers, and he associated with them; but they never read him or understood him. They prefer Longfellow. It is the cultured class he so despises that discovered, lauded him, believing that he makes vocal the underground world; above all, believing that he truly represents America and the dwellers thereof—which he decidedly does not. We are, if you will, a commonplace people, but normal, and not enamoured of “athletic love of comrades.” I remember a dinner given by the Whitman Society about twenty years ago, at the St. Denis Hotel, which was both grotesque and pitiable. The guest of honour was “Pete” Doyle, the former car-conductor and “young rebel friend of Walt’s,” then a middle-aged person. John Swinton, who presided, described Whitman as a troglodyte, but a cave-dweller he never was; rather the avatar of the hobo. As John Jay Chapman wittily wrote: “He patiently lived on cold pie, and tramped the earth in triumph.” Instead of essaying the varied, expressive, harmonious music of blank verse, he chose the easier, more clamorous, and disorderly way; but if he had not so chosen we should have missed the salty tang of the true Walt Whitman. Toward the last there was too much Camden in his Cosmos. Quite appropriately his dying word was le mot de Cambronne. It was the last victory of an organ over an organism. And he was a gay old pagan who never called a sin a sin when it was a pleasure.