Dinner with Walt

all things Walt Whitman

Dinner with Walt - all things Walt Whitman

Edward Carpenter, Farewell Message

While conducting research on Edward Carpenter, I stumbled upon a beautiful piece, Farewell Message left by Edward Carpenter to be Read over his Grave, written by Carpenter in 1910.

Carpenter had left a request for this to be read at his grave after his death, but unfortunately Carpenter’s wish was not fulfilled. This was not discovered until sometime after his death in 1929.

Carpenter’s Farewell Message is amazingly beautiful prose from an illuminated soul…


Farewell Message left by Edward Carpenter to be Read over his Grave

I SHOULD like these few words to be read over the grave when my body is placed in the earth, for though it is possible I may be present and conscious of what is going on, I shall not be able to communicate.

Too much, perhaps, is made of Death by us little mortals; and I think sometimes that we grieve too hardly over those that are gone. Of course, the parting from the daily sight and touch of dear friends is hard, very hard–but I doubt if after all this parting is so complete as we sometimes think. Who is there who has not felt the presence of one who has departed–as presence remaining still near him for weeks, months, and even years, and touch him so nearly that almost the voice could be heard and the form seen? Who is there who has not been conscious of strange intimations thus coming to him as from another world? Does it not seem, after all, that the friend is there, only speaking to our hearts more deeply, more intimately, more tenderly than in the ordinary life?

Nor need we be afraid of death, either for ourselves or for our friends, as if it were an evil or a harmful thing, lying ever in wait for us. On the contrary, it is surely a perfectly natural event, and part of the wholesome order of the world, as we see every day of our lives. Birth does not seem to us an evil thing, but rather a strange and wonderful passage from some other state of being into this present existence; and so death–which in many ways is the counterpart of birth–would seem to be just such a wonderful passage out of this world again; one perhaps out of many, many such passages which the far-journeying soul of man must make, under the wing of the ever-biding Presence.

Nor would one perhaps–even in the chance were offered–wish to escape dying. That would hardly be desirable. For since everyone has to die–and such countless millions have made that passage into the unknown–there would seem to be something mean and unfriendly in trying to avoid the common lot. Better to share it frankly with others, whatever it may be. Probably indeed the escaping of this change would turn out in the end to be considerable loss instead of a great gain. Fancy anyone being condemned to live, now, for ever–and to wear out all his old clothes, and his old body, and all his old ambitions and passions, and to go on repeating the same old jokes and stories till even his old friends were worn out as well! What a Fate! But from such an end kindly Death does indeed deliver us.

And whatever the region to which we pass, Love saves us there, as it does here. It creates a world in which the soul can live and expand in freedom. The ties which bind us together here are not going to be snapt so easily as some of you may think. For indeed, I believe that those who truly love are already joined together in a world far beyond and behind the visible;–and in that world, they are safe–and their love is safe–from the storms of time and misadventure.

Therefore do think too much of the dead husk of your friend, or mourn too much over it; but send your thoughts out towards the real soul or self which as escaped–to reach it. For so, surely, you will cast a light of gladness upon his onward journey, and contribute your part towards the building of that kingdom of love which links our earth to heaven.
December 30, 1910




Beith, Gilbert. (1931). Edward Carpenter: In Appreciation. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

 Click here for more posts on Edward Carpenter.



Walt Whitman & Sir William Osler

As I’ve said before, one of many things about Whitman that I love most is the enrichment of the mind born out of studying him, his life and the historic events and people around him in his time. And what a truly historic person I have to share today! But first, please join me in a huge round of applause to my dear friend Ed (a fellow collector of Whitman for some 20+ years!) for the gift of this book; Walt Whitman and Sir William Olser:  A Poet and His Physician, by Philip W. Leon.

For the epigraph of the book the author selects two crowning quotes; one from William Osler and the other from Walt Whitman.  In these quotes, we see the genius in each of these two men as they write about one another:

William Osler on Walt Whitman:

In his 65th year, Walt Whitman was a fine figure of a man who had aged beautifully, or more properly speaking, majestically…I knew nothing of Walt Whitman and had never read a line of his poems – a Scythian visitor at Delphi!

– William Osler, 1919


Walt Whitman on William Osler:

As for Olser:  he is a great man – one of the rare men.  I should be much surprised if he didn’t soar way, way up – get very famous at his trade – someday.  He has the air of something about him – of achievement.

– Walt Whitman, 26 December 1888

Many people, including myself, believe Whitman to be a prophet and this should not be surprising given how right he was about William Osler.

In the late 1800’s, Dr. Osler was already a rising star at McGill University in Montreal and was quickly becoming a prominent Canadian physician. Dr. Osler moved from Montreal to Philadelphia in 1884 at the request of renowned physician Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, where he lived and worked for the next five years. At the urging of his friend and colleague Dr. Maurice Bucke[1]; Dr. Olser crossed the river from Philadelphia to Camden, NJ to offer his assessment of this ailing patient named Walt Whitman. After visiting Whitman, Dr. Osler reported to Dr. Bucke, “After a careful examination, [Dr. Bucke] seemed pleased that I was able to tell him, the machine was in fairly good condition considering the length of time it has been on the road.” (23). Dr. Osler tended to Whitman for the next five years before moving to Baltimore to found the medical school at Johns Hopkins University.

Dr. Osler is still studied and revered by the medical community, the world over, and is widely considered to be the “Father of Modern Medicine.” In fact, in 1919 as Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, Dr. Osler was the “most famous doctor in the world.” This same year 1919, Dr. Osler wrote his Reminiscences about his relationship with Walt Whitman some thirty years earlier. Unfortunately he died that same year and his manuscript was never published. This book by Philip W. Leon is the first intact publication of Dr. Osler’s Reminiscences, a full 76 years after it was written.

This book is an important historical document about two extraordinary people. I can’t help but to suggest an alternate title for this book:  Two Brilliant Men:  The Father of Modern Medicine meets The Father of Free Verse.

Leon writes:

While their backgrounds differ in significant respects, Whitman and Osler had common interests in literature and medicine. Whitman had a lifelong fascination with medicine, even serving as a wound dresser to injured soldiers on both sides of the conflict during the Civil War.  Osler read widely among the best classical poets, and amassed an impressive personal library of rare editions. Both men exuded personal warmth and attracted disciples who worshipped their masters not only for their accomplishments in their professions but also for themselves and the quality of their lives. Books and articles about both men proliferate, and each of them has achieved a measure of immortality through this scholarly attention, which has continued through to the present. There is a Walt Whitman Association and there are Osler societies worldwide; these groups keep alive the memories of their exemplars.


William Osler 1880-1884 during which time he was visiting the ailing Walt Whitman.

William Osler
1880-1884 during which time he was visiting the ailing Walt Whitman.

[1] Dr. Bucke of course we remember was one of Whitman’s three literary executors and author of Cosmic Consciousness.



Osler image, Wikipedia 

Leon, Philip W. (1995). Walt Whitman & Sir William Osler. Toronto:  ECW Press.




A National Treasure Destroyed: The Story of Whitman’s Gold Watch

After suffering yet another paralytic stroke in June of 1888, in a severely weakened and fragile state of health, Whitman wrote a will at the urging of Dr. Bucke. In this lengthy Last Will and Testament, written in his own hand, he mentions his desire for who should have, among many other personal items, his gold pocket watch.  Whitman writesI give to Harry Stafford of Marlton New Jersey my gold watch. I give my friend Peter Doyle the silver watch.

Although many of those closest to Whitman in 1888 feared the worse for him and believed that he may pass at any time, Whitman lived for another four years. In January 1892 Whitman said to Traubel, “…it appears to me, Horace, my will is not yet right: it does too much in some directions, too little or nothing in some others.” Traubel agreed to summon (attorney and literary executor) Thomas B. Harned to oversee the requested changes. Traubel says to Whitman, “I shall go up to see him at once.” Whitman replies, “Yes, tell him there are some changes to make—that I am determined upon them.”

Later that same day, following lunch, Traubel and Harned returned together to Whitman’s home on Mickle Street. Harned asked Whitman if he wished to make changes to the will.  W. said:

“Yes, that was right. I want to make some changes in the will. It fails to satisfy me as it is. How can the changes be made? Will you have to rewrite the whole document?” “No, only add a codicil, which you will have to sign. Do you think you can sign it?” “Oh yes, I can—I must.” I passed into the next room and got H. a writing pad. He sat on edge of bed, pencil in hand. W. dictated several items, starting always, “I wish to leave”—$200 to Mrs. Van Nostrand instead of $1000, $200 to Walt Whitman Fritzinger, “to be invested for him,” he added, even stopping to spell this name, “a new baby—a dear little one—born a week ago, and named after me—yes, Harry’s boy.” Further changed the gold watch from Harry Stafford to H.L.T. and the silver watch from Pete Doyle to Harry Stafford and reduced Mrs. Stafford to $200, from $250 (though he contended it was $450), and then he asked, “And Mrs. George Whitman my executrix—eh? That is all fastened?” And after Harned’s “Yes,” “And Dr. Bucke, you Tom, and Horace, to have my papers—literary belongings of whatever character.” “That, too, is all down already, Walt.” “Well then you have the substance of my changes.”


Just two months later, on March 26th, 1892, Whitman died.  Upon his death as Whitman wished, Traubel received the gold watch.  (I seem to recall reading that Traubel wore that watch and showed it off at the annual Whitman Fellowship Dinners held on Whitman’s birthday. I’ll try to locate and share this missing piece of the story).


David Karsner’s bio on Horace Traubel, 1919


Many years later, in 1919, David Karsner, a longtime personal friend to Horace Traubel, completed a biography on Traubel; just months prior to Traubel’s own death. Karsner writes,

 “Traubel left no will. He had often said that he wanted his Whitman collection to go to the Library of Congress. The large gold watch which Walt Whitman had given to him in his will, he in turn requested that that be given to Malcolm Aalholm, his infant grand-son.  All other personal matters and effects come into the possession of Anne Montgomerie Traubel.”


The Destruction of the Watch

     In the article “Recollections of Charles Feinberg[1] by C. Carroll Hollis, we learn of the awful destruction of Whitman’s watch. Hollis writes:

 “Sometimes [Feinberg’s] generous enthusiasm for the Whitman cause had funny-sad consequences, as in the strange episode of Whitman’s watch. Some months after I met Charles, he asked me to come home with him for there was something he wanted to show me. On the way there he explained that in the mass of items he had received from Annie Traubel there was Whitman’s watch that he had willed to Horace. Horace’s son had died as a child, but there was a grandson (Gertrude’s son Malcolm) who had run away years before and had never kept in touch with the family. Even so, Charles reasoned, the watch really belonged to this boy (by then, of course, a grown man), so he hired a detective to track down the address (somewhere in Iowa, I believe).When the address was found, Charles carefully packaged the watch in a neat square box with plenty of padding, enclosed a little note explaining the background of the gift, congratulated the new owner on his unusual inheritance, and invited a reply about his Whitman interests and memories.

By that time we had reached Charles’s home, and as we entered he pointed to the hall table and said, “It just came back.” There was the unwrapped square package, opened to reveal the remains of the watch – the crystal shattered, the face crushed, with the hands awry, the spring unsprung and twisted around to make a little nest. No one looking at the now-shattered watch could miss what had happened: the grandson’s anger at his mailing address being discovered, the growing frustrated rage as he read Charles’s innocent letter, the renewed rejection of all that Whitman worship, and finally going to his work-table, seizing the hammer, and giving Walt Whitman’s Waltham Watch one well-aimed blow. One can even imagine the grim satisfaction in wrapping it up again and sending back this emphatic rejection. I may not remember everything about the incident, but I’ll never forget Charles’s honest distress, “What did I do wrong?” And to such an upright, decent man, it was a deep shock, I’m sure. I think I repeated the well-known truism that children of literary parents often reject their parents’ enthusiasms. Perhaps young Malcolm had had an overdose of the Whitman reverence that dominated the Traubel household.

So Charles’s well-meant gift may not have been seen that way at all but as a ploy to get him back into a family situation he could not stand. I doubt my attempts to explain away the occasion of Charles’s deep hurt were very helpful, but as we talked he seemed to get back his usual cheerful composure. Finally, I asked what he was going to do with it – try to get in touch with Malcolm again? repair the watch? throw it away? He replied, in a return to his normal bright manner, “Oh, I can’t throw it out! It’s still Walt’s watch, you know, so I’ll just keep it.”

I often wonder if Charles ever told Gertrude about the watch … and, indeed, to this day I don’t know what finally did happen to it. But certainly none of his other many benefactions was ever rejected.”


What may be the last interesting footnote in this story, Malcolm Wallace Aalholm, (born April 8, 1918 to Horace’s daughter Gertrude Traubel and NY architect Albert Clement Aalholm) died just this year, May 23, 2013 at age 95 in Parsippany, NJ.

As far as I have been able to tell, no one has ever been able to ascertain why Aalholm smashed Whitman’s watch. Obviously he possessed some deeply-rooted negative feelings of Whitman because he impulsively smashed the watch before considering the possibility that it could have some monetary value from which he possibly might gain by selling it. Whatever the motivation may have been for this unfortunate turn of events may never be known.


Ah yes!  You might wonder, what’s the story on the silver watch given to Harry Stafford after Whitman’s death!?!  That’s another story for another day…


[1] Feinberg, owner of Marathon Oil Co., amassed a massive collection of Whitman materials in his lifetime and donated all (well most of it, he sent many Whitman books, papers and materials to libraries across the US who otherwise had no Whitman materials to encourage and further the study of Whitman) the majority of the collection was sent to the Library of Congress. Feinberg died in 1988.



Traubel, Horace. (1906). With Walt Whitman in Camden (March 28 – July 14, 1888). Boston: Small, Maynard & Company. pp.306-312.

Traubel, Horace. (1996). With Walt Whitman in Camden (October 1, 1891 – April 3, 1892). California:  Oregon House. p. 289.

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

Recollections of Charles Feinberg


Ten Notebooks and a Cardboard Butterfly Missing from the Walt Whitman Papers

Ten Notebooks and a Cardboard Butterfly Missing from the Walt Whitman Papers. 1954 Library of Congress publication

Ironically and appropriately enough for today’s date, December 7th, the 72nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, what I present to you today is a 1954 publication by the Library of Congress, authorized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ten Notebooks and a Cardboard Butterfly Missing from the Walt Whitman Papers.

This thirty-eight page bound document prepared by the Acting Librarian of Congress details the temporary transfer and the loss of several items of the Thomas B. Harned Whitman Collection from the Library of Congress. As the threat of World War II loomed upon the US in the early 1940’s, the entire Whitman collection was moved from Washington D.C. to an unnamed “Mid-Western library”[1] as a means of protecting it, should D.C. become under attack from enemy forces.

The intro page of this document written by the Acting Librarian reads:


Ten Notebooks and a Cardboard Butterfly Missing from the Walt Whitman Papers

Thomas B. Harned of Philadelphia was one of the three literary executors of Walt Whitman among whom the poet’s manuscripts were divided at his death in 1892. In 1917-1918, Mr. Harned presented his share of the papers, which included a group of 25 notebooks, to the Library of Congress, where they are designated as the Walt Whitman Papers. The notebook collection was made available for general consultation in 1921, and from 1925 on was used extensively by students of American Literature.

In 1942, the Walt Whitman Papers, in sealed packing cases, were evacuated from Washington for war-time security, and were kept in a separate and continuously guarded area of a Mid-Western library until their return to the Library of Congress, with seals unbroken, in early October 1944. When the collection was unpacked it was discovered that 11 items – 10 notebooks and the cardboard butterfly – were missing.

Searches were immediately instituted. It was at first supposed that the missing pieces had been misplaced, despite precautions, during the procedures of evacuation. These searches proved fruitless. It therefore soon became necessary to face the possibility that the missing items had been deliberately removed at some time prior to the evacuation of 1942. Studies were made to collect every scrap of evidence regarding the use and users of the Papers from 1925 on and the assistance of the investigative agencies of the Federal Government was enlisted. For the want of a periodic piece-by-piece inventory of the very miscellaneous contents of the Papers, it is not possible to state the latest date at which they were intact. There is, however, evidence from records of use of individual pieces that the group of notebooks was intact as late as April 1941.

The purpose of the present circular (prepared on advice of the Federal Bureau of Investigation) is, in Part I, to identify and describe the missing pieces. Because the Library had made for itself no copies of these pieces, the descriptions are based upon extracts and other data contained in published books, and particularly in The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, edited by Emory Holloway (New York, Doubleday, Doran, 1921), vol. 2, p. 62-97, and upon Photostats made from the originals before their disappearance for two Whitman scholars, Prof. William L. Finkel and Prof. Ernest E. Leisy, and now by them made again available for the Library’s use. It is thus possible to reproduce here portions of all the missing items.

It is urgently requested that any person who has any knowledge or well-founded supposition of the whereabouts of the missing times, at present or any time since they were separated from the Whitman Papers, will not fail to communicate such information to the Chief of the Manuscripts Division, Library of Congress, Washington 25, D.C. All information received will be treated as confidential and will be acted upon with caution and tact. The only object in soliciting this cooperation is to restore the integrity of this important collection.

In Part II, the manuscripts in the Library of Congress relating to Walt Whitman are described.

Verner W. Clapp

Acting Librarian of Congress

Washington 25, D.C.


April 1954


Forty-one years passed without a trace of the missing notebooks. Then in January of 1995, a *BIG* discovery, four of the ten missing notebooks and the cardboard butterfly were discovered and have been returned to the Library of Congress. Follow the link below to discover how the missing items were located, confirmed to be the missing originals and returned to the Library.


Missing Whitman Notebooks Returned to Library of Congress


1995 article from the Library of Congress “Civilization Magazine” announcing the return of four of the missing notebooks and the cardboard butterfly.


Sadly, still to this day, some sixty years later, there are still six Whitman notebooks that remain missing. How many more years will pass before they are discovered!?! Will they ever be discovered!?!


[1] An interesting (maybe only to me) footnote in this story, the “continuously guarded Mid-Western library” where the Whitman Papers were temporarily relocated in 1942 just happened to be Denision University in Granville, OH, just a few miles from my own home!




“? Insane Asylum”

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

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


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

                                                                              Hartford, July 11th, 1860.

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

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

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

                                                                                Susan Garnet Smith
                                                                                Hartford, Connecticut


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


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


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



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


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.