Dinner with Walt

all things Walt Whitman

Dinner with Walt - all things Walt Whitman

Whitman autograph to B. H. Hinds

Dinner With Walt has acquired a second original Whitman autograph! Along with it comes an early American Civil Rights history lesson, one that has been lost in the shadows of the ages. But with thanks to Walt Whitman it’s once again brought back into the light of present day.

 

The year is 1868, just a few years after the close of the US Civil War. In Alexandria, VA, Catherine Brown, a 28 year old African American, US Senate employee (a laundress who had been promoted to a “ladies retiring room attendant,”) was ready to board a train to return to Washington, D.C. As she approached the platform to board the train, a railroad police officer stopped her and informed her that “because of her race” she could not ride in this car and needed to ride in the car “for the colored people in the front.” Undeterred, Ms. Brown stated to the officer, “I bought my ticket to go to Washington in this car, and I am going in it; before I leave this car I will suffer death.” Upon which the officer “violently ejected her from the car and she was dragged along the pavement” suffering numerous injuries.

 

Benjamin H. Hinds, a Special Agent of the US Treasury Department, had previously boarded the train and did not witness the atrocious incident as it occurred. Upon taking his seat, he had overheard the outrage and disgust of nearby passengers discussing the event. Hinds had been previously acquainted with Ms. Brown; he had known her for at least two years prior. Upon hearing of the event, Hinds went out to investigate what had ensued.

 

In his testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee, who later investigated the case, Hinds described how he approached Brown and “could see that she was badly injured and told her that if she would get into the car, [he] would go with her and see that she would not be molested.” The testimony also notes that “the two traveled together to Washington where she sought medical help and the injuries kept her in bed for weeks to come.”

 

Ms. Brown eventually sued the railroad company in the Supreme Court, and won a settlement. Follow these links below to read more about this historical case:

 

Wikipedia

Railroads and the Making of Modern America

 

Now for the Whitman part of the story, which leaves more questions than answers. At this time, in 1868, Whitman would have been working in Washington, D.C. at the Attorney General’s Office (thanks to his ardent supporter, William D. O’Connor who helped secure Whitman’s employment in the AG’s office). Whitman was not directly involved in this incident, however he had surely heard of it and undoubtedly followed the many news articles reporting it. Given Whitman’s humanitarian inclinations, one can, with certainty, surmise that Whitman would have strongly supported Ms. Brown’s case for justice. Futher, Whitman would have viewed Hinds as the humanitarian hero of this atrocious event.

 

Unfortunately, this brief inscription by Whitman to B. H. Hinds bears no date with which one might be able definitively link it to this specific event. Further research will be needed to determine what, if any, relationship Whitman and Hinds possessed. Were they mere acquaintances passing to/from on a train in D.C.? Or perhaps was Whitman endorsing his support to Hinds? Maybe Hinds encountered Whitman on a train and knew of Leaves of Grass and approached Whitman for his autograph? Only further research will reveal the rest of the story.

 

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David Karsner’s biography on Horace Traubel


 

Recall from an earlier post on Traubel, my awe and wonder on how Traubel pulled-off such a remarkable feat in documenting the extensive and lengthy conversations with Whitman. Traubel managed to amass an enormous collection of notes, enough in fact to complete a nine volume, “unconscious autobiography” (as Karsner calls it) about Whitman! So how did he do it? That’s the big question! In David Karsner’s fascinating biography of Horace Traubel, Horace Traubel, His Life and His Work; among many interesting facts and revelations on Traubel’s life, Karsner describes how Traubel accomplished this huge endeavor. But before Karsner writes about how he did it, he offers this on the relationship between the two men:

 

“Whitman acknowledged that Traubel understood him, perceived him, better than any other person. In compiling a record of their conversations, which is so accurate and faithful that it becomes almost a stenographic report, Traubel made use of a method.” (67). Karsner lets Traubel himself define his method: “My method all along has been not to trespass and not to ply him too closely with questions necessary or unnecessary. When a lull occurs I sometimes get him going again by making a remark that is not a question. Other times we sit together for long periods in silence, neither saying anything. One evening during which we had not done much more than sit together, he on his chair and I on his bed, he said: ‘We have had a beautiful talk – a beautiful talk.’ I called it a Quaker talk. He smiled quietly. At another time as we parted for the night he said, as he took my hand and pressed it fervently: ‘I am in luck. Are you? I guess God sent us for each other.’ Another good night had the words: ‘We are growing nearer together. That’s all there is in life for people – just to grow near together.'” (67).

 
Karsner picks back up on the big question, writes:

 

“One might wonder how Traubel was able to report Whitman so accurately in the flash and current of their talks. On many occasions there was a third, or even a fourth person present in Whitman’s room at the same time. Traubel’s skill on such occasions was put to the triple, or quadruple, test. In the first place, Traubel had read endlessly and deeply in his youth. He absorbed what he read. No matter who Whitman mentioned in the literary firmament Traubel had heard of or knew something of the work of the person Whitman was talking about. He could not have done the work at all had he not possessed a wide knowledge of writers and literature. Frequently, in the dim-lighted room Traubel would be able to make hurried notes while the conversation flowed. At other times this could not be done. Again, Traubel’s retentive mind and an almost perfect memory enabled him to put down on paper the entire conversation immediately after he left Whitman’s presence each day. Sometimes his notes were written on the ferry boat going to Philadelphia.” (68).

 
I speculated in a previous post that Traubel must have developed his own style of shorthand to enable him to get his thoughts down on paper quickly. I am fortunate enough to have a handwritten letter by Traubel and if you take a close look at it, you can see his writing style. While legible, it is obvious that Traubel had in fact developed his own style of shorthand. Take a look at Traubel’s handwriting.
 
I leave you with a final poignant passage on the relationship between the two men. Invoking Whitman’s own regard for nature, Karsner writes:


 
“Whitman was to Traubel what the sun, the rain and the wind are to the earth. Traubel, the earth, absorbed all of Whitman, the elements; and out of Traubel’s own soul and brain grew the perfect fruit…” (69). “The two men stood together, in life, as in immortality. Their names will be as inseparable in history as they were in the sunset of Whitman’s life.” (69).

 

 

Karsner, David. Horace Traubel, His Life and Work. New York:  Egmont Arens. 1919.

 

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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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Giordano Bruno

Today is a great day indeed! Not only does today mark the First day of Summer, it is also the day I add a new and highly-prized gem to my Whitman book collection! I know, these are two totally unrelated events, but the fact that today is “the longest day of the year” means I have ‘more time’ to enjoy my new treasure!

 

The book is a first edition copy of Giordano Bruno: Philosopher and Martyr, published by David McKay in 1890. It consists of two addresses about Giordano Bruno, one delivery by Daniel Brinton and the other by Thomas Davidson. Walt Whitman wrote the short preface.

 

If you know anything about Whitman, you may know that he loved most the ‘radicals and rebels.’ Giordano Bruno certainly fit into those categories in his day. Bruno was an early philosopher and astronomer and in 1600 was burned at the stake for the charge of heresy. You can learn more about Giordano Bruno here.

 

This book is special not only because Whitman wrote the preface for it, but this particular book is more spectacular because it was handled by Whitman himself and autographed by him in blue pencil! It’s a remarkable treasure! It also contains the signature of Horace Traubel’s daughter, Gertrude Traubel. It likely came into Gertrude’s possession, along with all of the other books, letters, and memorabilia that Traubel had collected from Whitman, after her father died in 1919. Follow this link to the Mickle Street Review to learn more about Gertrude Traubel and her role in furthering the knowledge of Walt Whitman and her father, Horace Traubel.

 

There are numerous references of the Bruno book documented by Traubel in volume six of With Walt Whitman in Camden. There are a few references in particular that are interesting in relation to this book, on Monday, February 24, 1890, Whitman and Traubel discuss the preface Whitman is to write:

 

“(Traubel) received a letter from Brinton this morning, saying the Bruno matter would be in type the last of this week. Not having time to go down to W.’s I sent him a note by mail. The first thing now after shaking hands (he was in his room as usual, reading) he said: “I had your note this morning, and”—putting his hand into his inside vest pocket and drawing forth an envelope boldly addressed “Dr. Brinton”—”here is a word or two—probably 5 or 6 lines—impromptued today. They may do—may not: I can hardly say: you will know, I am sure. Send them to the Doctor if you think they will serve his purpose. I am sure I feel it an honor to be asked, and am glad to have my word go in there, for I feel it is in good company.” I met Davidson yesterday and he told me his own speech was to go along with Brinton’s. “And he tells me Walt Whitman is to write the preface.” I laughed at the idea of “preface,” though sure W. would write a few lines, as now he has done. At first he was going to sign simply “Walt Whitman”—but his final thought was to write—”Impromptu words of Walt Whitman”—and so it stands. “I must have proof,” he further said. I put in—”I’ll tell Brinton you want proof and plenty of copies!”—to which with laughter—”Yes, that is better still: that is a point we must not forget.”

 

On Thursday, April 3, 1890, Traubel writes: “I left with him a big bundle of Bruno books sent to me by Brinton. He smiled upon the bundle. “It is a liberal one, anyhow—no doubt a plenty; and we will try to do justice to it.”

 

Perhaps this book now in my possession was one in that stack that Traubel carried to Whitman’s home on April 3rd 1890!?!

 

In another even more remarkable passage – while visiting Whitman on Saturday, April 5, 1890, Traubel writes:

 

“Informed me he had “sent off a number of the Bruno books today. ” On the table a blue-pencilled memorandum that he had done so to Tennyson, Symonds, Rossetti, Dowden, Sarrazin and some others. He offered the mem. to me. “Suppose you give it to Dr. Brinton to show him how we are bestowing the books.” I suggested retaining till next week—he might have more to send: which he acquiesced in. One copy addressed to Dowden and endorsed, “Walt Whitman America,” he asked me to put in the P.O. as I passed.”

 

A reference to a blue pencil! Perhaps the very pencil that Whitman used to sign this book now in my collection!?! Marvelous! Here is the book:

 

 

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Handwritten Letter from Horace Traubel

 

With as much eagerness and ‘hunger’ as Traubel exhibited when receiving letters and memorabilia from Whitman himself, I too am thrilled and delighted to acquire an original handwritten letter by Horace Traubel. The letter is a significant addition to my ever-growing collection of Whitman (and Traubel) “heap of nothings and somethings,” – the description Whitman himself used for his own collection of books, papers, letters and memorabilia.

 

Written 105 years ago, to the day, its recipient is unknown as it is addressed ‘Dear Friend’. As best as I can transcribe Traubel’s handwriting, the letter says:

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The provenance of the letter is the estate of Gene DeGruson, a noted literary collector.

It’s also interesting to note that DeGruson also possessed a handwritten and signed manuscript of Whitman’s poem, Ah, not that Granite Dead and Cold, that was later published as Washington’s Monument that sold at auction for the staggering price of $57,750!

 

I can assure you, dear reader, I paid far less for the Traubel letter, but nonetheless, it’s a gem and I am very pleased to acquire it. With a hearty salute to Traubel, “I attach the letter here:”

 

 

 

 

Traubel, Horace. (1906). With Walt Whitman in Camden (March 28 – July 14, 1888). Boston: Small, Maynard & Company. pp. 3.


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Another 328 Mickle Street story

Interesting, in this new book I’m reading, Keller describes the condition of the house when Whitman purchased it in the winter of 1884-5. Keller writes of the house:


 

 

Fast forward to 1906, 14 years after Whitman died – here’s an image of Whitman’s house from a postcard I recently added to my collection. The exterior of the house looks to be in pretty good shape. The house, at that time, was still embroiled in a bit of a squabble, but looks good.

 

 


Fast forward again to 2012 – here’s an image of the house from my visit in March. Not too bad for a 165 (+/-) year old house, huh!?!

 

 

Keller, Elizabeth Leavitt. Walt Whitman in Mickle Street. New York:  J. J. Little and Ives Company, 1921. pp. 18-19.

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Walt Whitman in Mickle Street

I’ve recently acquired a new treasure for my collection! The book, Walt Whitman in Mickle Street, by Elizabeth Leavitt Keller, who served as a nurse to Whitman in his last remaining years of life.

From the Editor’s Note, “While nursing her patient, Walt Whitman, during his last illness, she learnt much about his personality and home life, and much also about his unselfish friend and housekeeper, Mrs. Davis. The desire to tell the truth about the whole case – so often misunderstood or distorted – …

 

Ms. Keller writes, “my second great desire – to set Mrs. Davis in her true light…” And she notes in the Preface, “One gentleman (Mr. James M. Johnston, of Buffalo), who has read the manuscript, and for whose opinion I have the greatest regard, remarked as he returned it: ‘It appears to me that your main view in writing in this was to exonerate Mrs. Davis.’” Keller further confirms, “He had discovered a fact I then recognized to be the truth.”

 

If you’ve read this post, you’ll recall the drama that ensued after Whitman’s death concerning Mrs. Davis and Whitman’s house. This should be an interesting read, and one that I hope does in fact “exonerate Mrs. Davis.”

 

One last note of interest, you might notice the image above of the frontispiece of Keller’s book. It’s a 1908 painting of 328 Mickle Street by Marsden Hartley. Remember him, there’s an interesting connection between him and Horace Traubel. Someday in a future post, I will share more about Marsden Hartley.

 

As for now, I’m going to read Walt Whitman in Mickle Street.

 

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


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328 Mickle Street

Walt Whitman's house

Walt’s house, 328 Mickle Street, has an interesting story all its own. In Volume One of With Walt Whitman in Camden there is a discussion of a need to get Walt’s affairs in order as there is fear of his imminent death. Whitman was asked if he yet owed anything on the house. Whitman responds:

 


 
Now, where the story of the house on Mickle gets most interesting – fast forward to 1893, a year after Walt’s death. Whitman’s longtime housekeeper, Mary Davis, brought a lawsuit against the Whitman estate, claiming she was owed yet for services she rendered to Whitman and was never paid. What follows is the sordid sort of thing right out of a modern day soap opera! From the Walt Whitman Archive:

 

    “Davis occasioned a rift among Whitman followers when she

brought a lawsuit against the poet’s estate claiming that she was owed a

considerable sum for unpaid nursing duties performed in the last years

of Walt’s life.13 The suit was brought against George Whitman, the

principal beneficiary of the estate, who was represented in court by

Thomas Harned. In July of 1893 Traubel gave Wallace his side of the

story, beginning with the statement that Mrs. Davis’ claim was “fraudulent” and would never be won. He explains that according to U.S. law her acceptance of her part of the legacy (Whitman had left her $1000) bars her from making further claims. As to the merits of her bill for nursing from 1885 to 1892, he argues, “From ’85 to ’88 Walt had no nurse-needed none-(for he went about himself with perfect ease)and from 1888 on, when the need was evident, we furnished and hired the man.” Her housekeeping, he says, was so lacking that “Mrs. O’Connor, Mrs. Johnston, Mrs. Harned and others of the women friends of Walt were always protesting that it was our duty to get rid of Mrs. Davis & see that Walt had quarters conducive to comfort & health. But for the desperate objections that we knew Walt would make, we would never have submitted him in his sickness to her housekeeping, which was considered deleterious in the highest degree” (July 16, 1893).


There is a subplot to all of this, however, having to do with the

house on Mickle Street which Harned and Traubel were eager to acquire.

In Whitman’s will of 1891 the property at 328 Mickle Street was

left to Walt’s sister-in-Iaw, Mrs. George Whitman, with the proviso that

the property be used to support his retarded brother, Edward. Mrs.

Whitman died in August of 1892 (five months after Walt’s death) and

Edward died in November of the same year. This meant that George

Whitman became the principal beneficiary of Walt’s estate, and Traubel

and Harned were trying to get George to turn the house over to them for

preservation. In January of 1893 Traubel wrote to Wallace of his hopes

that now that Eddie was dead, the Whitman estate would give the house

up for preservation so that the money already raised, from Whitman

admirers, for its purchase could be used for repairs and as an endowment.


In August he had the key to the house in his pocket, but

complained that “George cannot be made to see that the house should

not be sold but preserved” (August 7, 1893). In November he fulminated

against George and other members of the Whitman family who

were holding out over “this paltry few hundred dollars yet were content

in W’s lifetime to leave him in the hands of his friends” (November 13,

1893).


Even if George had been willing to turn the house over to Traubel

and Harned, there was a hindrance in the form of Mrs. Davis and her

foster son, Warry. According to Elizabeth Keller, Mary Davis had

convinced George Whitman’s wife that she was entitled to a sum of

money to cover expenses she had incurred as Walt’s housekeeper, but

when Mrs. Whitman died her husband did not share this opinion

(Keller, 182-183). He refused to consider Mrs. Davis’ claim, and Mrs.

Davis refused to leave the premises. In July of 1893 Traubel, with

Harned, who was acting as George’s attorney, attempted to force Mrs.

Davis and Warry to vacate the premises. Obviously the two executors

thought that by supporting George’s position they would secure their

own designs on the property.


Traubel was infuriated by the Davis claim: “It is enough to stir up

his [Whitman’s] poor dead bones,” he cried to Wallace. His frustration

increased when others of the Whitman circle of admirers did not agree

with him on the matter. It was his contention that “Walt never contracted with Mrs. Davis except that he would waive rent for the house and she would waive charges for board. We always knew of this arrangement” (January 26, 1894).


On January 31 (1894) the jury awarded Mrs. Davis $500 and the case

was finished. The cost to the Whitman estate, Traubel informed Wallace,

would be about $1,000. While he does not say so, one can imagine

his distress at this since it appears to have been at least part of George

Whitman’s reason for not giving the Mickle Street house to the literary

executors as they had hoped. On March 3 Traubel wrote to Wallace that

he no longer believed George would either give them or sell them the

house. “He is absolutely an ass, and I know no man meaner in the face

of facts which would move any other human being I know to generosity

and appreciation.”

 

As dramatic and no doubt stress-inducing this was at the time, this story ends with a good conclusion. Sadly though, Traubel did not live long enough to see it finally come to a close. Upon George Whitman’s death, the house was transferred to Walt’s niece Jessie Whitman (Thomas Jefferson Whitman’s daughter). Geoffrey Sill writes:

 

 

Click to visit The Walt Whitman House. (Now operated by the New Jersey Division of Parks and Foresty).

 

Credits:

 

Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/roomofmyown/573031217/

 

Traubel, Horace. (1906). With Walt Whitman in Camden (March 28 – July 14, 1888). Boston: Small, Maynard & Company. pp. 291.

 

Krieg, Joann P. (1994). “Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.” The Walt Whitman Archive. http://www.whitmanarchive.org/criticism/wwqr/pdf/anc.00688.pdf

 

Sill, Geoffrey M. (1998). “Minkle Street House.” The Walt Whitman Archive. http://www.whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/encyclopedia/entry_33.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

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With Walt Whitman in Camden

 

So I finished With Walt Whitman in Camden Volume 1 (March 28 – July 14, 1888) by Horace Traubel.  I thought I’d share my impressions:  Traubel’s documentation is truly remarkable, amazing and superb! You know that old saying about ‘wishing to be a fly on the wall’ in order to be a unobtrusive observer?  That’s what Traubel has allowed his readers to become, a fly on Whitman’s wall.

 

It’s not difficult to see that Traubel did in fact, visit Whitman on a daily basis, for there are daily entries.  But what is so impressive is Traubel’s ability to so thoroughly document the discussions that both he and Whitman had and, so many other discussions by visitors that surface in Whitman’s life during this period. Many times these discussions are repetitive and sometimes even mundane, but collectively, they allow a Whitman-egghead like myself to see the “true critter” he was.

 

I have no concerns understanding how Traubel managed to share letters and photos, they’re documents – written proof. What I am not certain of is how Traubel managed to pull off his well-done feat of documenting Whitman’s discussions. This will be a topic for future exploration and discussion on my part, but I speculate that Traubel must have developed his own style of shorthand with which he used to document so many of the various lengthy verbal discussions.

 

Whitman has many times stated he does not like to be asked questions. One thing I find noteworthy in the Whitman/Traubel relationship is that Traubel found his own ‘crafty way’ of getting information and opinions out of Whitman without asking the dreaded, direct and pointed questions.  It is well documented that Whitman’s bedroom was a ‘mess’ – stacks and scraps of papers, letters, books, and various gifts given to Whitman littered his room.  Whitman liked no one to touch his stacks, and considered it all to be a  “heap of nothings and somethings.” Traubel, in his thirst for acquiring and documenting letters and many other various items of interest of Whitman’s developed a sly way of obtaining these documents.  Over and over it is noted that Traubel would, “kick a stack of letters on the floor with his foot” or “shift a stack of papers on the table.” This subtle technique always grabbed Whitman’s attention who would invariably ask, “what is it that you found there?”

 

So much of Volume 1 is centered on Whitman’s very fragile health. It is quite well documented how phsyically limited and fragile he was in these days. It is often noted by doctors who visited him, and even Whitman himself, that he hangs on death’s doorstep. Although not directly stated, and he himself no complainer of the trifles of life, he must have suffered immense pain as medicine and medical knowledge was only in its infancy during Whitman’s time. I feel safe in knowing that as fragile as he was as detailed in Volume 1, there are 8 more volumes in this series to read and I am mostly undisturbed by his ailments – I know that Whitman will survive for another 4 years. I look forward with much anticipation to starting volume 2 and sharing Whitman’s ‘next adventures’ in his life.

 

While not directly related to this volume, I would like to share that prior to beginning this series, I purchased a little 3.5 inch by 5.5 inch green notebook. My little green notebook has 11 full pages of my own entries of the humorous, odd and otherwise noteworthy tidbits from volume 1. Unbeknownst to me, Whitman himself carried his own little green notebook. Justin Kaplan, in his biography of Whitman, notes: “On and off since about 1847 he carried with him a 3.5 inch by 5.5 inch pocket notebook bound in green boards with a leather backstrip and three leather loops along the side edges to hold a pencil.”

 

 

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