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.”