Dinner with Walt

all things Walt Whitman

Dinner with Walt - all things Walt Whitman

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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