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