Dinner with Walt

all things Walt Whitman

Dinner with Walt - all things Walt Whitman

123rd Anniversary of Whitman’s Death

Today, dear readers, marks the 123rd anniversary of Whitman’s death. A dear friend of mine, a wonderful Robert G. Ingersoll enthusiast, shared the letter below that Ingersoll wrote Whitman in December, 1891. It is as meaningful today as it was 122 years ago. Thanks Gerrie!

 

December 29, 1891

My dear Whitman,

I am glad that you have lived long enough to know that your Leaves of Grass will live forever—long enough to know that your life has been a success—that you have sown with brave and generous hands the seeds of liberty and love. This is enough—and this is a radiance that even the darkness cannot extinguish.

Maybe the end of the journey is the best of all, and maybe the end of this life is the beginning of another, and maybe the beginning of that is better than the ending of this.

But however and whatever the fact may be, you have lightened the journey here, for millions of your fellow-men. In the great desert you have dug wells and planted palms. As long as water and shade are welcome to the faint and weary, your memory will live.

Wishing you many, many days of health and happiness, and with a heart full of love,

I remain,

Yours always,

R. G. Ingersoll

*****

One last farewell letter arrived to Whitman from Ingersoll, just two days before Whitman died:

New York, N.Y.

March 24, 1892

My dear friend,

I am pained to know that you are suffering more and more, but was glad to know that your brave spirit has never been bowed–and that in all your agony your heart keeps sweet and strong.

I think of you a thousand times a day–and of the great good you have done the world. You have written such brave, free, and winged words–words that have thrilled and ennobled the hearts and lives of millions–that my admiration has deepened to obligation.

Again I thank you for your courage, and again I lovingly say farewell–and yet I hope to see you soon.

Yours always,

R. G. Ingersoll

*****

Links to previous posts on Whitman’s death:

2012

2013

2014

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1869 Letter to Whitman from Dr. William A. Hawley

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Whitman received countless letters from people the world over. In Traubel’s Volume 4 of With Walt Whitman in Camden,  there’s a very poignant letter to Whitman from a Dr. William A. Hawley, from Syracuse, NY. The letter is dated, August 10, 1869 and was sent to Whitman while he was still in Washington D.C. at the Attorney General’s Office. *

Of course we know that Whitman very rarely discarded anything. Twenty years after the date of the letter, on Saturday, March 16, 1889, Whitman passes this on to Horace Traubel for his ever-growing collection of Whitman materials. Whitman says of the letter, “It’s from one of the unknowns—or the less knowns: he’s a doctor of the homeopathic stripe: he sends his picture: there’s something tender and beautiful to me in his few words: he does not pile it on—is simple, says a little, does not overdo it.”

After reading this touching letter, I felt a personal connection to what Dr. Hawley had to say to Whitman. I did a bit of Google-sleuthing and found some interesting information on Dr. Hawley that I will share after the letter below. Here’s the letter:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

 

It’s a rather disappointing tale in what happens next between Whitman and Dr. Hawley. If we fast-forward seven months to Thursday, October 31, 1889, we learn Dr. Hawley paid a personal visit to Whitman at his home in Camden. Whitman tells Traubel in Vol. 6 of WWIC:

     “I had another visitor today—a man, Hawley—from Syracuse or Rochester—a doctor, medical doctor. He bought 2 copies L. of G.: one for himself, one for a friend in the city—Kent, was his name, I think. He says he told Kent he was going to devote this afternoon to this visit, and then Kent, who knew nothing about me, gave him money for the book—probably from a curiosity to know how the wild beast looked at close quarters. O yes! Hawley was a medical doctor—a homeopathist. He even started to talk about me—discuss me physically—but I would have none of it—told him I was not open to discussion at that point.”

Recall I earlier described this visit as rather disappointing; surely Dr. Hawley was delighted to finally meet Whitman in the flesh, some twenty years after his touching letter to Whitman. But as we see by Whitman’s account above, W. almost seems annoyed at Dr. Hawley’s presence, as least as it is retold to Traubel.

Whitman was understandably at this time in his life in a very weakened and fragile state of health, in fact, he told Traubel earlier this very same day, “My head has been in a queer chaotic condition—as though in a whirl of phlegm. I was not in my best condition…”

It does seem possible that Whitman in his cloudy-headed state had not made the connection of his present visit by Dr. Hawley as the same man who wrote the 1869 “tender and beautiful letter…“. Surely and sadly, this had to be a disappointment to Dr. Hawley to meet Whitman with some amount of disapproval on Whitman’s part.

 
So just who is this Dr. Hawley you ask? Well, as a result of a little Google-sleuthing, William A. Hawley was born August 28, 1820 and died May 16, 1891. As Whitman mentioned, Dr. Hawley was a homeopathic doctor who was very highly regarded both in terms of his interpersonal relations to those around him and in his career field. I found an obituary which provides further background information and reveals his significance to the homeopathic field of early medicine.

 

Dr. Hawley is buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse, NY.

 

* As background info, it is interesting to note, that in 1869, the date of Dr. Hawley’s letter, Whitman was working on his fifth printing of Leaves of Grass. While Whitman at this time was gaining some bit of prominence with his English audience, he was still mostly frowned upon with the US audience and still widely regarded with disgust and disdain. As such, it should not be difficult for one to imagine Whitman’s delight in receiving this very touching letter in 1869.

 

Credits:

Traubel, Horace. (date). With Walt Whitman in Camden, Volume 4 (January 21 to April 7, 1889).     Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 365.

Traubel, Horace & Traubel, Gertrude ed. 1982. With Walt Whitman in Camden, Volume 6 (September     15, 1889-July 6, 1890). Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern IL University. pp. 103.

Allen, Henry C., M. D., ed. 1891. The Medical Advance: A Monthly Magazine of Homeopathic Medicine.     Chicago, John Rice Miner.

 

 


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“? Insane Asylum”

In Whitman’s lifetime, he received many countless letters from people the World over.  Many of these people Whitman never met.  The varying content of the numerous letters covered everything on the spectrum from expresses of praise and love, and requests for autographs; to the far other side involving criticism and disgust towards the “dirty poet.”

In 1860, Whitman received a letter from a woman he had never met and after reading the letter, Whitman wrote on the envelope “? Insane asylum.” As Whitman passed the letter to Traubel, on March 8, 1889, for Traubel’s ever-growing collection of Whitman materials, Whitman asked Traubel to read it.

 

W. said: “It’s astonishing how many different sorts of reasons have been given by some people for liking and by many more people for not liking Leaves of Grass: then you’ll find one person liking in it what another person dislikes in it: it makes me dizzy trying to straighten out these extraordinary contradictions.” “Here goes for the other letter,” I said. “Yes,” said W., “read it: see what you can make of it: I have myself had various moods in the matter: I have not the right to determine percentages in a thing like this.” W. had repeated in ink on the end and across the face of the yellow envelope: Letter from Hartford.” He had written in pencil: “? insane asylum.” The envelope was not otherwise addressed or stamped. I asked him how it got into his hands. He said: “How?” and there stopped. Then he added: “Read it: you’ll find it raises more questions than you can answer.” “Did it raise more questions than you could answer?” He said “yes” and “read it” and didn’t seem to want to enlarge. So I let go.

                                                                              Hartford, July 11th, 1860.

     Know Walt Whitman that I am a woman! I am not beautiful, but I love you! I am thirty-two years old. I am one of the workers of the world. A friend carelessly lends me Leaves of Grass for a day. Stealing an hour from labor I take it out for a walk. I do not know what I carry in my arms pressed close to my side and bosom! I feel a strange new sympathy! a mysterious delicious thrill! what means it? It is the loving contact of an affinite soul blending harmoniously with mine. I begin to know Walt Whitman. I have not yet seen him. I feel that I must be alone. I turn my steps to “Zion’s Mill” a cemetery. The sun shines, the air is clear and fine, the birds trill songs, love songs, songs of praise for the boon of existence, or chirrup amorously to each other. They do not hesitate to tell their love: why should I? I seat myself under a tree and muse a moment. A lovely panorama is before me. Hartford and the surrounding country. I hear no human voice, see no human form. The ashes of the dead are spread around me. “Did I say the dead?” I am alone. “Am I alone?” I could sit thus forever with my newly-found soul. But somebody whispers, open your book! What care I for books now (though loved companions ever before). I have that which is better than books. The book opens itself. What do I behold! oh! blessed eyes! I see the image of the great beloved soul, which has already embraced encompassed me. Blessed be thy father and thy mother and the hour of thy conception. Oh! rich is America in her noble, manly, fearless son.

     Know Walt Whitman that thou hast a child for me! A noble beautiful perfect manchild. I charge you my love not to give it to another woman. The world demands it! It is not for you and me, is our child, but for the world. My womb is clean and pure. It is ready for thy child my love. Angels guard the vestibule until thou comest to deposit our and the world’s precious treasure. Then oh! how tenderly, oh! how lovingly will I cherish and guard it, our child my love. Thine the pleasure my love. Mine the sweet burden and pain. Mine the sacrifice. Mine to have the stinging rebuke, the shame. I am willing. My motives are pure and holy. Our boy my love! Do you not already love him? He must be begotten on a mountain top, in the open air. Not in lust, not in mere gratification of sensual passion, but in holy ennobling pure strong deep glorious passionate broad universal love. I charge you to prepare my love.

                                                I love you, I love you, come, come. Write.

                                                                                Susan Garnet Smith
                                                                                Hartford, Connecticut

 

     I said to W.: “Why did you write ‘? insane asylum’ there?” He asked: “Isn’t it crazy?” “No: it’s Leaves of Grass.” “What do you mean?” “Why—it sounds like somebody who’s taking you at your word.” He said: “I’ve had more than one notion of the letter: I suppose the fact that certain things are unexpected, unusual, makes it hard to get them in their proper perspective: the process of adjustment is a severe one.” I said: “You should have been the last man in the world to write ‘insane’ on that envelope.” Then I added: “But the question mark saves you.” W. said: “I thought the letter would mystify you: but no—you seem to have a defined theory concerning it.” I denied this. But I said: “You might as well write ‘insane’ across Children of Adam and the Song of Myself.” He said: “Many people do.” “Yes,” I replied: “they do—but you don’t.” He assented by a nod of the head: “I suppose you are right.” I said: “We will go far ahead some day: do you think the marriage system will remain where it is now?” “That’s impossible.” I asked: “Then what will it lead on to?” He said: “To something in which the law will have little or nothing to say—in which fatherhood and motherhood will have everything to say.” I said: “When you say that, Walt, you practically proclaim this woman sane, don’t you?” He said: “That’s the way it looks to you, does it?” I said: “I don’t know who she was, good or bad, wise or foolish: her letter itself is extraordinary in what it offers, in what it imposes.” W. smiled. “You are eloquent: yes, convincing: you are perhaps putting my felt and not said things into words.” I asked him: “Haven’t you many such things in Leaves of Grass? things felt, atmospheric, not said? This woman has applied you.” W. said: “I don’t know how much validity your argument would possess in a court of law but it has extraordinary force here, now, in this room, as we talk together man to man, without quibbles on either side.” I said to W.: “A woman I knew once asked a man to give her a child: she was greatly in love with him: it was not done: he did not care that much for her: he said to her, ‘all children should be love children’: then he thought she might repent if the thing was done: after his refusal she said: ‘Now I suppose you despise me.’ He said: ‘Despise you? no: I respect you: I feel that you have conferred the highest honor on me.’ Years after, he met her again. She was married—had children. But she said to him: ‘I still love my dream-child best.'” Walt beamed upon me, half in tears, half choked: “Oh Horace! how beautiful, wonderful, final, that is! some things go way beyond anything else—entail incalculable, inestimable, suppositions. I’m glad you told me the story: it’s so unexampled—so like nothing but itself.” Then he paused. “And the moral of it is—”: he said that and stopped as if for me to fill it in. “That the Hartford woman honored herself and honored you.” He said then earnestly: “Yes: no doubt that’s the only conclusion that is justified.”

 

After Whitman’s death, Horace Traubel went on to write and achieved some amount of notability on his own.  However some scholars argue that without Walt Whitman, there would be no Horace Traubel. Many of those same scholars contend that Traubel’s written poems in Optimos were merely mirrored versions of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.  But what I find unique in this passage is the illustration that Traubel influenced Whitman as much as Whitman influenced Traubel. 

 

Oh yea, what do you think about this lady’s letter to Whitman…?  Was she insane? I can’t help but wonder, if instead a young man had written this or a similar sort of letter to Whitman expressing praise and new-found love in the poet, would he have believed the letter writer to be insane!?! 

 

Credits:

Traubel, Horace & Ann M.  (1953). With Walt Whitman in Camden (January 21 to April 7, 1889). Philadelphia. University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 312-314.

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Edward Carpenter, July 1874

I want to share a stirring and brilliant passage I read today in With Walt Whitman in Camden.  The passage below is a portion of a letter written by Edward Carpenter to Walt in 1874. Carpenter was an English poet, an early gay activist and a close friend of Walt’s. There’s a photo in the book of Carpenter from 1874, and wow! I have to say, he was quite a looker! But to Walt, he writes:

It is enough to live wherever the divine beauty of love may flash on men; but indeed its real and enduring light seems infinitely far from us in this our day. Between the splendid dawn of Greek civilization and the high universal noon of Democracy there is a strange horror of darkness on us. We look face to face upon each other, but we do know. At the last, it is enough to know that the longed-for realization is possible – will be, has been, is even now somewhere – even though we find it not. The pain of disappointment is, somewhere, the joy of fruition. Perhaps it will be, in time, with you in the New as with us in the Old world. Slowly – I think – the fetters are falling from men’s feet, the cramps and crazes of the old superstitions are relaxing, the idiotic ignorance of class contempt is dissipating.  If men shall learn to accept one another simply and without complaint, if they shall cease to regard themselves because the emptiness of vanity is filled up with love, and yet shall honor the free, immeasurable gift of their own personality, delight in it and bask in it without false shames and affections – then your work will be accomplished: and men for the first time will know of what happiness thy are capable.

Of this resplendent letter, Walt says:

 

It is beautiful like a confession:  it was one of Carpenter’s first letters. I seem to get very near to his heart and he to mine in that letter:  it has a place in our personal history – an important place. Carpenter was never more thoroughly Carpenter than just there, in that tender mood of self-examination. Introspection! I am afraid of it, generally: just enough of it is good, too much of it is a disease:  most people don’t stop with just enough. Carpenter is a thoroughly wholesome man – alive, clean, from head to foot.

 

I find Carpenter’s conviction for the longing of a man to be able to openly love another man and express his love without inhibition, compunction or repercussion; to be as perfect and meaningful today as it was when first written in July of 1874. Carpenter was a brave and bold man to express this sentiment in 1874; when it was most certainly illegal for two men to be in homosexual contact.

 

Today’s society has greatly advanced, in some regards, since 1874, but I feel that “strange horror of darkness” as Carpenter writes, does still exist in the 21st Century nearly as it did in the 19th Century. The World today continues to struggle with the subject of homosexuality and Carpenter may be disappointed to know that we have yet – 137 years later – learned “to accept one another simply and without complaint.”

 

 

Traubel, Horace. (1906). With Walt Whitman in Camden (March 28 – July 14, 1888). Boston: Small, Maynard & Company. pp. 158-161.

 

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