Dinner with Walt

all things Walt Whitman

Dinner with Walt - all things Walt Whitman

Giving Thanks for Friends!

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

I have something special to share today!

After a busy and stressful year, this Thanksgiving–more than any other– I am thankful for the love and support of dear family and friends!
Whitman of course had many dear friends during his life, and Robert G. Ingersoll was no exception, he was a grand and important friend in Whitman’s life.

So to celebrate the love of friendships, I would like to share this piece a dear friend of mine wrote about Ingersoll. (Thanks Gerrie for this beautiful tribute to Ingersoll!).

Robert G. Ingersoll

(11 August, 1833 ~ 21 July, 1899)

A Tribute to Robert G. Ingersoll
by Gerrie Paino – 8 February, 2015

“The man who does not do his own thinking is a slave
and is a traitor to himself and to his fellow men.”
~ Robert G. Ingersoll

Long before the so-called “new atheists” raised their voices in a call for the end of superstition, religious orthodoxy and intellectual suppression, Colonel Robert Green Ingersoll took his place on history’s stage as America’s voicepiece for reason and liberty. A modern day Prometheus, he fought to bring enlightenment to minds enslaved by dogma and to spirits encumbered by fear. So large was this man’s presence, so immense his influence that, among supporters and detractors alike, his name, philosophy and views became commonplace subjects for discussion in households across the United States.

Ingersoll gained respect for his service in the Civil War and for his brilliance as an attorney; however, it was his unequaled gift as an orator that propelled him to fame, and, some might say, infamy. In a time before television, radio, or motion pictures, more people heard Ingersoll speak than anyone before in history. Crisscrossing the country on more than a dozen lecture tours between 1865 and his death at age 65 in 1899, he drew crowds that numbered in the thousands, speaking in every state in America with the exception of Oklahoma, Mississippi and North Carolina.

Bathed in the glow of the footlights, Ingersoll addressed his audiences for up to three hours, delivering his lectures from memory as his enthralled listeners savoured every word. When he’d finished speaking, they clamoured for still more. No wonder, when Mark Twain proclaimed after hearing Ingersoll speak: “I doubt if America has ever seen anything quite equal to it; I am well satisfied I shall not live to see its equal again… Bob Ingersoll’s music will sing through my memory always as the divinest that ever enchanted my ears. What an organ is human speech when it is employed by a master!”

The undisputed Prince of Orators, this giant of the Gilded Age numbered among his ardent admirers such luminaries as Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Thomas Edison, Clara Barton, Frederick Douglass and Andrew Carnegie. Yet Ingersoll was not merely the friend of the wealthy, powerful and influential. Indeed, he considered his self-imposed mission of working to liberate the oppressed and downtrodden a sacred trust. An outspoken champion of the rights and equality of Blacks, women, and children, he was also an anti-vivisectionist and proponent of birth control, science and evolution.

Well aware that many who agreed with his thoughts would suffer persecution, loss of livelihood and other hardships for daring to speak the truths they held in their hearts, Ingersoll stated: “I will do your talking for you. The church cannot touch, cannot crush, cannot starve, cannot stop or stay me; I will express your thoughts for you.” This dedication won him the love and respect of the common people as well as the social reformers of his day. Needless to say, his lambasting of orthodox religion also gained him no small number of detractors and adversaries. Undaunted, Ingersoll proclaimed: “I have made up my mind to say my say.” And so he did, fearlessly yet with kindness towards even his enemies who he often reflected were merely products of their conditions.

In light of his renown in the 19th century, it seems a curiosity that the name of Robert Green Ingersoll is so little-known today. This owes, in part, to the squelching of his voice by his religious opponents who, in defense of their beliefs, campaigned mightily against the man deemed, among other often-amusing epithets, “The Great Agnostic,” “Robert Injuresoul,” “The American Infidel,” “The Champion Blasphemer of America,” and even “The Plenipotentiary of his Satanic Majesty to the United States.”

Despite these sensational sobriquets aimed at painting Ingersoll in the blackest of lights, he led such an exemplary life that his opponents, despite prodigious efforts, became exasperated at finding him blameless and so stooped to fabricating lies. Among these, one religious paper reported: “We are told, on good authority, that Colonel Ingersoll’s only son was so addicted to cheap novel reading that his mind became affected thereby; that he was quietly removed to a private asylum, where he shortly afterward died.” Ingersoll, who rarely dignified these slanders with a reply, sent the following rejoinder to an inquirer who sent him the article in the mail:
1. My only son was not a great novel reader;
2. He did not go insane;
3. He was not sent to an asylum;
4. He did not die;
5. I never had a son!

Despite efforts by his detractors to defame Ingersoll and silence his voice, today’s freethinkers are rediscovering the Colonel and finding that his message is as potent and pertinent now as it was over a century ago. The twelve-volume Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, along with a wealth of other information, is easily accessed on the Internet. Discovering the man beneath the public persona requires a bit more effort; however, when unearthed, these peeks into Ingersoll’s private life bring our view of the man down from Mount Olympus and seat him even more firmly within our hearts.

Above all else, Ingersoll relished the comforts of hearth and home. His beloved wife, Eva, along with his daughters, Maude and Eva, were the cause of his being. “They are my Holy Trinity, comprising the only Deity I worship,” he wrote in a letter dated 1870.
Ingersoll’s home was a joyful place, bustling with activity and visitors from morning till late at night. The rooms were filled with paintings, photographs, engravings, sculptures and books, the principle of which was an enormous volume of Shakespeare that Ingersoll referred to as his Bible and within whose pages were inscribed the dates of family marriages, births and deaths as other families would commonly record the same in their family Bibles. The second floor contained his study from which it was said Ingersoll never excluded anyone, saying he worked more easily with his family and visitors around him. An article of the Colonel’s day described the family home in Washington D.C. as follows:
“This prince of pagans occupies a handsome residence on Lafayette Square. On Sunday evenings the Ingersoll home is open to their friends, and these Sabbath symposiums are the most enjoyable of all the weekly round of social affairs that any season can offer. Ease and hospitality liven the air from the square tiled hall into which the vestibule opens to the remotest sanctum. Before the church bells have ceased tolling the faithful to the evening service people begin dropping into this charming home and the smooth face and round head of the host appears to the visitor in the hall with unhackneyed and cordial greetings. Adding to his own social attractiveness Colonel Ingersoll has a delightful family to make it more inviting to his guests…. For wit, eloquence and repartee Colonel Ingersoll finds no superior, and with a room full of friends about him his bon mots and epigrams are incessant.” (Washington Gossip column)

In addition to his pleasure in hosting guests, Ingersoll enjoyed literature, art, music, theatre, swimming, billiards, cigars, fine wine and good food, the later being amply demonstrated by his portly profile. Despite the urgings of his family to care for his health and lose weight, Ingersoll and exercise were barely on speaking terms, a fact the Colonel himself was not beyond turning into a matter of good humour.

Notwithstanding the abundance of happiness and mirth that often surrounded him, Ingersoll also possessed a depth of compassion that caused him to share the sadness and pain of others deeply. Mr. Isaac Newton Baker, Ingersoll’s secretary for nearly fourteen years, wrote of his esteemed employer: “He bore the burdens of others. His sympathies were so deep and wide and strong that while he ‘laughed with those who laughed’ he ‘wept with those who wept,’ and often have I seen him touched to tears at the tales of woe freely poured into his listening ears.”

Ingersoll’s compassion was equaled by his extraordinary generosity. “So large is his charity, so rich his tenderness, that intimately to know him means an incessant stimulus. One can almost literally warm one’s hands at him,” said the writer Edgar Fawcett.

Mr. Baker, the Colonel’s long-time secretary, wrote:

A hundred dollar bill was a frequent gift from his open hand, to say not a word of the thousands scattered in larger and smaller sums. He gave his advice freely to hundreds, — especially to the widow, the poor and defenseless, and tried many a case to a happy conclusion, not only without a fee, but himself paying all costs and disbursements… His office books were filled with accounts never collected, with charges never paid, and yet this did not check the flow of his extravagant generosity. He loved to give. He was princely in giving.

In one case where a thirty-thousand dollar fee came to him he instantly gave half of it to a young assistant to whom two or three thousand dollars would have been an ample and satisfactory return for the service rendered. In another case, on receiving a fee of fifteen thousand dollars, he immediately wrote a check for one third of the amount to the friend who had simply urged his selection as the best lawyer for the case. The unexpected gift enabled this friend to lift a mortgage that had long encumbered her home. (Robert G. Ingersoll: An Intimate View – Isaac Newton Baker)

Among his other gifts, Ingersoll possessed a quick wit and intelligent sense of humour with which he often delighted others. Whether arguing a case before the courts, entertaining guests in his home, or speaking from the stage to standing room only crowds, he easily provoked laughter from his listeners. He took particular pleasure in pointing out the absurdities of religion, but did so in a manner that made it nearly impossible for even the believers present to stifle their amusement.

Some, however, were not so charmed. Scores of ministers tried to dissuade their congregants from going to hear Ingersoll speak and Bibles and religious tracts were often on offer outside the auditoriums when the Colonel lectured. Ingersoll further provoked his religious adversaries by frequently scheduling his talks decrying religion on Sundays. It was not uncommon for theatres to bar “the blasphemer” from speaking, thus necessitating alternate venues be secured. Nonetheless, the theatres and halls were always filled to capacity, some attendees having travelled great distances to hear the great orator speak.

Ingersoll saw religion as the enemy of freedom, reason and science and relished his role in liberating minds from the slavery of orthodoxy. No religious teaching, however, incensed him more than the doctrine of Hell. “While I have life, as long as I have breath, I shall deny with all my strength, and hate with every drop of my blood, this infinite lie,” he proclaimed. “If there is a God who will damn his children forever, I would rather go to hell than go to heaven and keep the society of such an infamous tyrant. I make my choice now. I despise that doctrine.”

Ingersoll’s views on religion were so strong and his commitment to upholding his beliefs so unbending that he sacrificed what could have been an astonishing political career rather than stifle or deny what he held to be true. Although his speeches and campaigning helped secure office for many notable political figures, and despite his being the confidante of Presidents Garfield and Hayes, Ingersoll was repeatedly denied political appointments for fear any connection to “the infidel” and his anti-religious rhetoric would alienate those in office from their constituents.

A reporter for the Chicago Tribune, referring to the Colonel in the week following his death, wrote: “Splendidly endowed as he was, he could have won great distinction in the field of politics had he so chosen, but he was determined to enlighten the world concerning the Mistakes of Moses. That threw him out of the race.”

When faced with the choice of silencing his voice in order to win the Republican nomination for Governor of Illinois, Ingersoll refused, boldly stating:

“Goodbye, gentlemen! I am not asking to be Governor of Illinois … I have in my composition that which I have declared to the world as my views upon religion. My position I would not, under any circumstances, not even for my life, seem to renounce. I would rather refuse to be President of the United States than to do so. My religious belief is my own. It belongs to me, not to the State of Illinois. I would not smother one sentiment of my heart to be the Emperor of the round world.” (Ingersoll the Magnificent – Joseph Lewis)

Ingersoll died peacefully in the presence of his beloved wife, Eva, at Walston, the beautiful home of his daughter and son-in-law in Dobbs Ferry, New York. News of his death filled the Ingersoll home with literally thousands of messages of sorrow, consolation and praise for the man who had captured the hearts and minds of so many, from the common people to the rich and powerful.

“No other loss, outside of my own family, could have filled me with such sorrow. The future historian will rank him as one of the heroes of the nineteenth century,” exclaimed women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Her sentiments were echoed by Mark Twain who wrote: “Except for my daughters, I have not grieved for any death as I have grieved for his. His was a great and beautiful spirit.”

A Washington correspondent said of Ingersoll “It is hard to write about the Colonel and not indulge in what would seem to strangers to be extravagant praise.” Indeed, it seems impossible to make the acquaintance of this giant of freethought even now and not come to love, respect and admire the indomitable spirit of a man so brilliant yet also so warm and approachable.

Walt Whitman stated, “America doesn’t know today how proud she ought to be of her Ingersoll.” Those words ring as true now as they did when Whitman first expressed them over a century ago.

No doubt, Ingersoll would be pleased to know his voice has not been silenced and that the torch he carried has been taken up by new hands, anxious to spread the light of liberty and reason to an America perhaps in more need of that message today than it was in Ingersoll’s lifetime.
 
“Nothing is greater than to break the chains from the bodies of men –
nothing nobler than to destroy the phantoms of the soul.”
~ Robert G. Ingersoll
 
Liberty, Reason

 

 

 

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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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Happy 182nd Birthday to William D. O’Connor!

 

Not only is it a shiny new year; it’s also time to celebrate another very important person in Whitman’s intimate circle of friends. Today, January 2nd, is the 182nd birthday of William Douglas O’Connor (1832-1889). Whitman owes a great deal of his eventual success and recognition to the incredibly immense support William D. O’Connor bestowed upon him. O’Connor wrote the The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication (1866).

 

Here you can read a short bio on O’Connor and his relationship with Whitman at The WW Archive.

 

Someday in future posts, I’ll share more about this formidable yet tremendously-significant person in Whitman’s life, but what I want to share today is the highly emotional and quite curious first meeting of O’Connor and Horace Traubel. I say this meeting is curious because in my mind, it arouses some amount of suspicions about O’Connor’s sexuality.

 

In volume four of WWIC, Traubel, age 31, along with Dr. Bucke travel by train from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. to meet the very ill and weakened O’Connor, aged 57. The meeting takes place on March 2, 1889, just a few months before O’Connor dies.

Traubel writes:

 

Saturday, March 2, 1889

Hunting up Bucke at Dooner’s, according to appointment, we took together the 8.31 train from Broad Street. We had a comfortable ride. Talked of things in general. A great deal about Walt and O’Connor. Discussed things ahead—the way out of inevitable difficulties. It was a clouded day. There was no rain. Now and then the sun would break through. Past Wilmington. Past Baltimore. This was my initiation trip south of Wilmington. I shall never forget the first glimpse of Washington: the dome of the Capitol: white—half hid in the mist: elevated above the red brick of a building on the road.

Of course everything made me think of W. The buildings everywhere. The Capitol. The Treasury. Here O’C. worked, and W., and Burroughs. It was all W.’s stamping ground. It has been the environment of his daily life. Was in his books. In his memories as he talked to me from day to day. I felt all sorts of things as I went and looked about. Just as we had been saying: “This is America!” I found myself saying: “This is Walt: Walt is this!”

O’Connor’s little house. Two stories. Brick. The door was opened by Nellie. We were ushered into the little parlor. Talk. Quick questions and answers. Nellie said: “I am glad to see you both at last.” And she added: “William is impatient: he has been asking ever since Walt’s post came: when will they be here? when will they be here?” She went up to William. We looked at the pictures on the wall. Among them was one of Victor Hugo. Nellie called from upstairs: “Come up, Doctor.” B. started off saying: “You come too: she means both of us.” To the second floor. To William’s room.

We stayed about two hours and a half, all told—most of the time immediately with O’Connor. There were two communicating small rooms. In the front room were the beds and chairs. Two windows. In the back room were O’Connor’s books—what he called his “study.” Nellie, “knowing Walt’s fondness for details,” knowing, as she said, that he would ask us “all sorts of minute questions” when we got back, took us about into every nook and corner. Showed me O’Connor’s Donnelly manuscript, his collection of Bacon books, the place in which he did most of his work. He preferred this room. Nellie was very quiet, subdued, equable. She seemed well. O’Connor himself sat in the front room sidewise next the bed in a big arm chair. He looked mighty, but ill. No color in his face. His eye was lustreless—tired. He was stout, even thick—almost fat. When aroused, animated, the color would mount to his cheeks and his eyes would flash. Noble head, just stubbled with gray. He has a little cold, which made his voice a bit husky—but his voice was nevertheless very musical. Hands almost as beautiful as Walt’s. O’Connor greeted us with great cordiality. At once after our hellos he sort of gestured back to himself and said: “Well: here I am: or, rather, here are my remains!” He was in a jubilant mood. Nellie said: “You have stimulated him: I have not seen him so for two years.” William himself said: “You fellows are wine to me.” He looked me all over: “So you are Horace? so you are Horace?” Then he laughed, turning to Nellie: “Here he is, Nellie! see him: he is the youth in our story—its poetry, its prophecy, made visible.” To Bucke: “You know, Doctor, Horace is the romance of it all: with Walt, with us, in our notes, in our thoughts, it has been Horace, Horace, Horace: he is the wonderchild of our pilgrimage.”

Nellie sent for William’s Doctor, Hood. She wished Hood and Bucke to compare notes. Hood came in a few minutes. Bucke went downstairs to meet him. William turned again to Nellie. “Well—he’s here, Nellie: he’s Walt’s: he’s ours, too: how can he prevent himself from being ours, too?” Then to me: “Tell us about yourself first—then about Walt: yourself first: you have been a mystery figure to us: draw aside the curtain—bare yourself to us!” He laughed. “Oh Nellie! I’m glad he came before it was too late! It might have been too late!” Bucke called Nellie from the foot of the stairs. The instant Nellie had left the room William looking straight at me reached out both his arms. “Come!” he said. I went to him: he took both my hands: he drew me to himself—kissed my lips and eyes and brow: he pressed my body against his. His eyes filled with tears.

I went back to my seat. He said: “Now I’m happier!” and he added passionately: “Thank God you didn’t come too late! thank God! thank God!” And he also said: “When you get back to Walt tell him you are mine as well as his—tell him that in our brotherhood you don’t belong to one of us but to all of us!” He said: “I sit here all day, every day, and do nothing but think of Walt.” I said: “That’s what Walt does there all day thinking of you.” He nodded: “Yes: I have felt that it must be so: events have drawn us closer together than ever.” He talked of November Boughs. “I do not think Walt has said enough about the elder Booth: what he said he said with eloquence and has my approval: only, there was too little of it: there should have been more. I have wished to write to Walt about it but everything has stood in the way. I intended one letter for Booth alone: one letter, too, for the book as a whole.” Contrary to W.’s fear expressed to me William does like the book.

A sob burst from his throat. A smile broke out all over his face. He reached out: took my right hand between his right and left hands. “Horace: you must return as my delegate to Walt: take my body and take my soul, with you: set them down at his doorstep, under his feet, across his pillow: anywhere, so that he may know I have survived whole and entire and complete in the old faith: to this message I consecrate your journey back to Camden.” He dropped my hand. Sank back in the chair. Closed his eyes. I was all broken up. He said then looking at me again: “You are the next of your race, but not the last: God was good: I thought I was never to see you, but here you are, the child of our flock, talking to me, face to face, in a man’s voice: now I can die contentedly: my cup is full—my joy (though with sadness in it, too) is rounded and whole.” What could I have said to all this? “I have said to Nellie: ‘It will never happen,’ but she always said, ‘He will come.’ Even yesterday after Walt announced that you were preparing to take the trip I said, ‘It will never happen,’ and Nellie kept on saying, ‘He will come.’ This morning I felt half buoyant yet half doubtful still. I said, ‘Nellie, do you still think he will come?’ and she said, ‘William, I am sure of it: even now he must be on the way.’ And here you are! God was on my side after all. I run my pennants up up into the air and fill the skies with my cry: Victory is mine forever!” I was not prepared for such an incident. He shook me to my foundations.

I asked William: “What broke you up?” He answered at once: “Overwork.” I asked: “Is life hard in the Departments?” He said: “If you take it seriously, yes: I took it seriously.” I asked: “How did Walt manage not to break down?” “Oh! by not working hard. He would come in of a morning, sit down, work like a steam engine for an hour or so, then throw himself back in his chair, yawn, stretch himself, pick up his hat and go out.” Then O’Connor was grave. “But that was the making of him: don’t mistake that. If he had been any other sort of fellow we never should have had Leaves of Grass.” O’C. said again: “Two things in Walt we must always bear in mind: they explain so much: his prophetic nature and his masterly composure.” I said: “Yes: if it wasn’t for that masterly composure he’d be dead today.” O’C. said: “Undoubtedly—not dead today, dead long ago!” Smile. O’C. added: “I of all men should know what that signifies: if I had had that composure I would not be where I am today: but the Irish in me won’t do for me what the Dutch in Walt does for him.”

We had to leave at 3.30. William said: “I hate to have you go.” I said: “We hate to go.” Bucke too: “Yes, William: we hate to go.” I felt that we were going for good. I was sure I would never see him again.

William said: “Your visit has not been an invasion: it has been an illumination. Your departure will leave me in the darkness.” I said: “I’d rather you had felt like saying, ‘leave me in the light.'” He looked at me, all eyes: “You are a wise son of your father: it will be that: you’ll leave me in the light.” Bucke said: “We are hoping seeing us will help you as seeing you has helped us.” William said: “After the immediate shock of your leaving me is gone I have no doubt the rest will be a glad memory.” Nellie stood just outside the bedroom door watching us. She seemed habitually restrained and composed. Bucke and William and I were face to face. William looked up at us. He held one of Bucke’s hands and one of mine. Nellie moved off towards the stairway, choked. William said: “Well.” Bucke said: “William!” I said: “Love always!” No more. William reached his hand to Bucke’s face: “Bucke, you’re true blue!” And then he pulled my head down between his two palms and kissed me: “You are the pride of the flock!” Bucke and I edged off towards the door. Outside we waved back our salutations which he returned. Then I saw his head drop on his breast. Nellie was waiting for us at the foot of the stairs. “It has all been beautiful,” she said: “he will carry it with him into the next world.” So we left.

 

Here’s what I find most curious is in this passage above:

The instant Nellie had left the room William looking straight at me reached out both his arms. “Come!” he said. I went to him: he took both my hands: he drew me to himself—kissed my lips and eyes and brow: he pressed my body against his. His eyes filled with tears.”

 

Keep in mind the year was 1889 and the social norms of those times were dramatically different than those of present day, but what I question is why did O’Connor wait until his wife Nellie left the room to kiss Traubel on the lips and press his body to Traubel’s?

What do you think? Are my suspicions unfounded? Is this merely an emotional and dying man expressing his love and passing that love on to the next generation? Or is there something more to this?

Before you decide, let me mention the one other significant piece to this puzzle: the very fact that O’Connor offered unyielding support to Whitman from 1860-1889. Recall that Whitman was widely criticized in conservative Victorian America for his overtly sexual poems, particularly those in the homosexually-charged Calamus cluster of poems. And yet O’Connor risked his own employment, his own reputation, and stood in strong defense of Whitman against all the oppressors and naysayers.

I may be way off track on this, but my question: what would make O’Connor so impassioned to staunchly defend this dirty poet for nearly 30 unwavering years if he himself did not (at least on some occasions) possess some degree of homosexual feelings?

William D. O'Connor signature in the Dinner With Walt collection.

William D. O’Connor signature in the Dinner With Walt collection.

Credits:

O’Connor image, Library of Congress

Traubel, Horace. (date). With Walt Whitman in Camden, Volume 4 (January 21 to April 7, 1889).     Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 552-563.

O’Connor signature, Dinner With Walt collection

 

 

 

 

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Happy 155th birthday to Horace Traubel! (Helen Keller Tribute)

Today, December 19th is the 155th birthday of Horace Traubel. I was initially uncertain what to write about this brilliant man, when by mere happenstance, I discovered the perfect gift! I’ve long known that Helen Keller was a great admirer of Horace Traubel. This shouldn’t be too surprising given the fact that Keller, like Traubel, was a “suffragist, a pacifist, a radical socialist and a birth control supporter.” “Keller was a member of the Socialist Party and actively campaigned and wrote in support of the working class from 1909-1921. She supported Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs in each of his campaigns for the presidency.” (Source: Wikipedia).

Keller, as well as Traubel and two hundred other supporters, were in attendance at the Whitman Centennial Dinner in New York on May 31st, 1919. Keller was called upon to offer remarks about Whitman, but changed the course of the program and instead talked about Traubel. Here’s what she said which brought the large crowd of attendees to a standing ovation:

Dear Comrades and Fellow-Admirers of Walt Whitman: I came here to listen, not to speak. But, since the Chairman has called upon me, being a woman, I avail myself of this opportunity to talk. There are so many here paying eloquent tributes to Walt Whitman, I want to say a word to the chiefest of his lovers, Horace Traubel.

To stand up here and talk about Horace Traubel is like proclaiming the charms and the desirability of one’s sweetheart from the housetops. The truth is, I love Horace Traubel. To discuss him in this public fashion is, therefore, somewhat embarrassing, especially as this is our first meeting. But since we are all “comrades and lovers,” you will let me tell of my admiration and affection for one whom we all love.

There are two men in Horace Traubel. I suppose that is why we love him twice as well as we love other men. He is a mystic, and he is a realist. His heart is full of dreams and ardent sentiments, and yet he is a most profound observer of men and their actions. He has thought out a scheme of life for himself. His interpretation of the world we live in, while deeply poetical, is very practical and human. He loves the just and the unjust, the wicked and the good, the rich and the poor, because of the inclusiveness of his nature. These antitheses are revealed in his writings. He is angry with evil; he hates injustice and wickedness. But he holds out his kind hand to sinners and draws them to him with cords of human love. There is but one thing he asks of men and women—that they shall love one another. His kindness and magnanimity are inexhaustible. Indeed, there is something of the Savior about his interest in human beings, and his sympathy with their struggles. To him neither the individual nor the crowd is vile. He finds in each man and in the mass beautiful, common, elemental qualities of humanity. It is upon these qualities that Horace Traubel rests his hopes for the future. For him love, valor, self-sacrifice and the free spirit exist, and they are the only vital facts of life. They constitute the important and essential part of his scheme of a better world. Yet he penetrates far into the structure of our social order, and comprehends what is wrong with it. It is here that the mystic and the realist clasp hands. He is the great Optimist, and his work is wholesome and encouraging. His dream is persuasive and inspiring.

That is why we love Horace Traubel.

 

Now as for the gift I mentioned, here it is! It’s a rare 1930 video of Helen Keller along with Ann Sullivan, her tutor, teacher, mentor and lifelong companion, describing how this brilliant, amazing and triumphant woman learned to overcome the enormous challenges of her disabilities. It is a truly remarkable and touching story.

 

 

In remembrance of Horace Traubel and with sincere gratitude for his enormous contributions to further the love and legacy of Walt Whitman –

Happy birthday!

 

Credits:

Schmidgall, Gary, ed. (2006). Conserving Walt Whitman’s Fame. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. pp.401-402.

Helen Keller on Wikipedia

Helen Keller on You Tube

 

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Vindication arrives for Traubel!

It may be helpful to read this previous post first, but today while researching another topic over at the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, I stumbled upon an article that convincingly settles my mind on whether or not Horace Traubel did in fact, turn his back on Warren Fitzinger.

 

You might recall that Warren had agreed to stay-on and care for Whitman in the last remaining years of Whitman’s life. According to Whitman’s last nurse, Elizabeth L. Keller, author of the book Walt Whitman in Mickle Street; Whitman executors Thomas Harned, Horace Traubel and Dr. Bucke feared that Whitman might pass at any time and urged Warren to stay and assist with Whitman’s care with the promise, according to Keller, that “should he remain to Whitman’s demise, they would stand by him and see him placed in some good way of earning a livelihood.” (121).

 

What I found to be most unsettling in Keller’s book was the slanderous charge where she alleges after Whitman’s death, Warren sought out the assistance for employment from the three executors who “turned their back on him” and offered no support.

 

What I found today at the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review is an article written in 1994, by Joann P. Kreig, “Letters from Warrie” which offers convincing evidence to contradict the story of the broken promise as Keller alleges.

 

Kreig states that Traubel wrote a letter to his close acquaintance, J.W. Wallace in Bolton, England on August 16, 1893. In the letter, Traubel writes, “Harned got Warren a good job in Camden which he forfeited by misbehavior. Say nothing of this.” Kreig goes on to speculate that the natural assumption here is that this was never told to Keller, perhaps to save embarrassment to Warren for whatever the misbehavior may have been that led to his termination of employment. Further along in this article, Kreig offers another passage written by Traubel to Wallace as supportive evidence. On August 12, 1893, Traubel writes, “Harned got Warry a place in the Camden Safe Deposit Company’s building as a watchman but he acted rather unreputably [sic] and they would not keep him. I tell you this frankly because you have always unduly coddled him. And yet I wish no other but Johnston to see what I have written here.”

 

Further research will be required to determine what, if anything is known about the ‘misbehavior’ that Warren exhibited. But what is convincingly evidenced here is that Traubel, Harned and Bucke did follow through on their word and did not, in fact, turn their backs on Warren when he requested their assistance.

 

And regarding the issue of Mary Davis and the lawsuit against the Whitman estate for unpaid services (in which she successfully won a settlement), Kreig references another letter by Traubel to Wallace, from January 18, 1894. In the days before the trial began, Traubel writes, “[If she would have simply] brought the bill to me and Harned, we would not have paid but would have advised George [Whitman] to meet her and make some amicable arrangement.”

 

In the footnote, Kreig writes, “Trauble and Harned evidently forgave Mary Davis, for she was invited to the International Whitman Fellowship birthday dinner on May 31, 1895, and attended. (Letter of Traubel to J.W. Wallace, June 2, 1895).”

 

So there we have it, rest a little easier my friends. While Elizabeth Keller was present in Whitman’s home and had the opportunity to observe Whitman and his close acquaintances, her book is merely a worthy biography on Mary Davis. Much of  what Keller alleges as slanderous truths against Whitman and his close acquaintances have been refuted.

 

Mary O. Davis

 

Credits:

Keller, Elizabeth Leavitt. Walt Whitman in Mickle Street. New York:  J. J. Little and Ives Company, 1921.

 

Kreig, Joann. (Spring, 1994). Letters from Warrie. Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. http://ir.uiowa.edu/wwqr/vol11/iss4/2/

 

Image:

Walt Whitman Archive. http://whitmanarchive.org/criticism/disciples/traubel/WWWiC/8/whole.html

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Eugene V. Debs

 

I’m taking a slight detour from Whitman and reading a bio on Eugene V. Debs.  While I’ve yet to see evidence that Whitman and Debs met in person, there is a very established and strong bond in friendship between Debs and Horace Traubel. In fact there are many pictures that can be found online of the two men together.

 

I also have confirmation that he met and greatly admired another personality that Whitman too greatly admired, Robert Ingersoll.   Debs introduced Ingersoll at a speaking engagement as “the greatest orator in the world.” Debs was hugely influenced by Ingersoll and later became a great orator himself.

 

Expect to see lots more here on Debs. He was a man who much like Whitman strongly supported the ‘everday working man’ and the Women’s Suffrage movement of the time. I recently toured the Debs home in Terre Haute, IN. Among many other interesting historical relics, in his bedroom hang 2 framed photo’s of Walt Whitman and a card with Whitman’s autograph.

 

Stay tuned, there will be lots more to share about this great man, Eugene V. Debs…

 

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August 29th, Edward Carpenter

 

Happy 168th Birthday to Edward Carpenter!

 

Edward Carpenter, (August 29, 1844 – June 28, 1929).  Carpenter was a British socialist, writer and poet, philosopher, early gay activist and intimate friend of Walt Whitman.

 

Take a look here at the Whitman Archive for more info on Carpenter. The intimate letters he and Whitman shared back and forth are beautifully written, truly remarkable, and noteworthy in their own right.  Traubel shares many of the Carpenter letters in his With Walt Whitman in Camden series.

 

Stay tuned, I’ll share highlights from some of those letters and more about Carpenter in future posts.  He is a man worthy of his own website – I suspect there to be many sites out there in the websphere already dedicated to this brilliant man.  Let me know if you find some good ones!

 

But for now, Cheers to this brilliant, courageous and wonderful man!

 

 

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Mary O. Davis

So to answer a question from a former post, yes – Mary Davis has been exonerated! Elizabeth Leavitt Keller’s book, Walt Whitman in Mickle Street, has been immensely thought provoking; however I am feeling ‘heavy-hearted’ after finishing it. I thank Ms. Keller for writing a book that is so antagonistic to all other works about Whitman. I am glad to have this personal account of a person so closely, and thanklessly, involved in Whitman’s life.

 

The book is really a biography of Mary O. Davis. It is very clear the author wholeheartedly supports Mary’s side of events and at many times is a bit harshly (even overly) critical of Whitman: critical of his beliefs and attitudes, the “unstructured” way he lived his life, his social status and so on. (It’s not too difficult to understand how Whitman’s eclectic ways would be challenging to the structured life Mary lived: breakfast prepared early in the morning, chores completed throughout the day and sleep of course followed at night. In contrast, Whitman was spontaneous, he ate when he was hungry, he slept when he was tired, and he did whatever he pleased and did not follow a structured timetable of living.)

 

Scholars have Traubel to thank for his tremendous contribution to the Whitman chronicle, but a BIG THANK YOU is also due to Mary Davis, a person in the Whitman story who is most often easily overlooked. Mary is the unsung hero who cared for Whitman for the last seven years of his life, the author even notes, “Mrs. Davis closed his eyes after his death” (175). Given the favorable volumes upon volumes written about Whitman it does seem very deserving that a bit of attention is delivered to a person that devoted seven years of her life to look after Whitman.

 

Whitman came to meet Mary after he purchased his house in the winter of 1884. The author describes in vivid detail the condition of the house, “…it was a coop at best, sadly out of repair, poorest tenement in the block…” (18) and describes how Whitman, in part due to his weakened health, stopped by Mary’s home nearly every day for meals. Keller goes into great detail about how Mary felt sorry for the old man, “…the poor old man had long been a secret prisoner upon her tender heart…” (11). Keller acknowledges that Mary was “totally unacquainted with his writings and considered him a little off.” (12). Mary believed that “if she didn’t look after him, no one else would.” Mary’s concern for Whitman was ever-consuming, “when the poor old man was not in sight, he was so much upon my mind I couldn’t pass one peaceful hour.” (15).

 

And then unfolds the big surprise! On page sixteen, the proposition by Whitman that binds the two of them together until Whitman’s death: “…one morning in late February, while he was sipping coffee, he told her he had a proposition to make. He said: ‘I have a house while you pay rent; you have furniture while my rooms are bare; I propose that you come and live with me, bringing your furniture for the use of both.'” Keller recounts that Whitman “continued to broach this topic daily until Mrs. Davis, who remained firm for awhile, at last began to waver…Mrs. Davis at last gave a reluctant consent.” (16). In much of the rest of the book, Keller illustrates how Mary spent the next seven years catering to Whitman’s every whim.

 

I do not refute the notion that Mary was very loyal, generous and worked very hard for Whitman – she cooked his meals, looked after and repaired the house, even, according to Keller, paid various bills with her own money. (We do know Whitman was bad with money, this fact is well documented; he was even once sued for non-payment of a debt and lost the case. Lacking the money to settle the debt, he in-turn paid the debt off in an art painting and in other material goods). Mary carried water up and down the stairs before Whitman had running water; she mended his clothes, even once sewing her own lace edging around the collar and cuffs of a shirt, which pleased Whitman, he “kept this shirt for special occasions.” (45). (Whitman is wearing the shirt in the Thomas Eakins portrait).

 

It would be very difficult to argue that Mary did not work very diligently for Whitman. Although the author is hesitant to state it outright, clearly Mary must have enjoyed being with Whitman, she was not ‘forced’ to remain with Whitman. She could have left any time of her free will, she even had several opportunities to make a departure, but she chose to stay, time and time again.

 

I mentioned previously I felt ‘heavy-hearted’ after finishing this book, there are primarily two reasons for that feeling and both will require further research on my part to fully verify the factualness of Keller’s side of the story.

 

The first notion that stands out and weighs heavy on my mind is when the author, Ms. Keller, is hired by Dr. Bucke to look after Whitman. In preparing Ms. Keller for her duties, Dr. Bucke had stated to her, “not to let Mary in Whitman’s room, that she was unrefined, ignorant, unreliable and dishonest.” (151).

 

WOW! What a blow from a man who lived in Canada, many miles from Whitman’s home in Camden and other than what Traubel may have told him by correspondence, could not have known much of the daily interactions between Mary and Whitman. Ms. Keller assumed round-the-clock duties in providing care for Whitman, and as such, she had an up-close look at the workings in the Whitman household. She quickly discovered that Mary was very kind and that without her Whitman would not have thrived as well as he had. Ms. Keller takes it upon herself to write a letter to Dr. Bucke in support of Mary, Dr. Bucke responds that he “is pleased to know he had been misled.” (158).

 

More research is needed to verify where and how the negative feelings about Mary originated with Dr. Bucke. It troubles me to think of the lack of human dignity shown to Mary by the Whitman executors -Traubel, Harned, but especially, Dr. Bucke. I believe this lack of disregard to be inconsistent with what Whitman himself represented. It might not be too difficult to understand this lack of concern for Mary – keep in mind the era, this was post-slavery, pre-women’s right America. Women were, especially in this day, ‘second class citizens.’ But in my mind, here is the confounding issue with this, Whitman himself would not have stood for this. Remember Fanny Wright! (Fanny Wright was an early American feminist who Whitman proudly and strongly supported).

 

Besides, Mary could not have been ‘that bad’ – she was an animal lover! When she moved in with Whitman, she brought along “her family of birds – a robin she had rescued from a cat, a pair of turtle doves and a canary – she attached to the kitchen ceiling. She made a little place in the shed for her cat’s bed, and found a shelter for a few hens in the small outhouse. Her dog [Watch], more aristocratic, slept on the lounge.” (24). Ok, here is a good place to mention that that little yellow canary has an interesting story all its own! Whitman was quite fond of the canary, that “cheery canary had done its part in helping beguile the irksome hours…” (114). Keller writes, “during inclement weather she [Mary] found in her canary bird a valued assistant, and knowing the old man’s fondness for the little fellow, she would at times stealthily place the case in his room…” (93). Keller acknowledges Whitman’s pleasure with the yellow bird, Whitman wrote in correspondence, “Dull weather, the ground covered with snow, but my little bird is singing as I write.” (93). Whitman even wrote a poem about that canary, My Little Canary Bird. That ‘cheery little canary’ is still around, some 120+ years later, it’s housed at the Bolton Museum in Lancashire, England, follow the link for a picture of the little canary bird. In 1987, Ed Folsom wrote an interesting article on the history of that canary bird for the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.

 

The other issue I find deeply unsettling is the promise that Whitman’s executors made to nurse Warren Fritzinger when he agreed to stay and assist Whitman. Often described by scholars as Whitman’s favorite nurse, Warren was Mary’s adopted son. Twenty-five years old, he had been a sailor and had recently returned to Camden, intending at some point to return to the sea. His arrival to Camden just happened to coincide with the departure of Whitman’s previous nurse, Ed Wilkins. The year was 1889 and as it had been for the past several years, Whitman’s health was quite fragile. Executors Harned, Traubel and Dr. Bucke feared that Whitman might pass at any time and urged Warren to stay and assist with Whitman’s care with the promise, according to Keller, that “should he remain to Whitman’s demise, they would stand by him and see him placed in some good way of earning a livelihood.” (121)

 

Now the unsettling part – fast forward three years later after Whitman had died, Warren having faithfully completed his promise to stay and care for Whitman, sought out the promised assistance from the executors for help with employment and none was given, they turned their back on him. (180). Warren did manage to secure a few jobs on his own, but sadly, the “naturally light-hearted and always appearing happy” (22) young man died in 1899 at the age of 33.

 

If this account of the broken promise is true, it most certainly leaves a huge stain of disappointment in my mind to the integrity of Traubel and Dr. Bucke. I have great fondness and adoration for Horace Traubel and this account troubles me. I don’t want to believe that he did not honor his word to Warren. I do hope to find evidence to contradict this. Tune-in reader, I hope to share more on this someday in another post!

 

 Whitman and Warren Fritzinger, 1890. (click photo for more info)

 

Book credit:

 

Keller, Elizabeth Leavitt. Walt Whitman in Mickle Street. New York:  J. J. Little and Ives Company, 1921.

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Robert G. Ingersoll

Whitman had many close friends and admirers in his day, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, the eulogy of Walt Whitman was delivered by a man that Whitman respected and shared a close friendship, Robert G. Ingersoll. Wikipedia notes that, “The eulogy was published to great acclaim and is considered a classic panegyric.”

 

In my Whitman collection, I have a copy of the Address at the Funeral of Walt Whitman, by Robert G. Ingersoll.  Printed in 1976 by ManRoot.

 

I visited the resting place of Ingersoll on a recent visit to Arlington National Cemetery. Below the names of him and his wife, reads:  “Nothing is grander than to break chains from the bodies of men – nothing nobler than to destroy the phantoms of the soul”

 

Ingersoll is buried in Washington D.C. at Arlington National Cemetery. (Section 3, Lot 1620, Grid S-16.5).

 


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