Dinner with Walt

all things Walt Whitman

Dinner with Walt - all things Walt Whitman

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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