Dinner with Walt

all things Walt Whitman

Dinner with Walt - all things Walt Whitman

Happy 182nd Birthday to William D. O’Connor!

 

Not only is it a shiny new year; it’s also time to celebrate another very important person in Whitman’s intimate circle of friends. Today, January 2nd, is the 182nd birthday of William Douglas O’Connor (1832-1889). Whitman owes a great deal of his eventual success and recognition to the incredibly immense support William D. O’Connor bestowed upon him. O’Connor wrote the The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication (1866).

 

Here you can read a short bio on O’Connor and his relationship with Whitman at The WW Archive.

 

Someday in future posts, I’ll share more about this formidable yet tremendously-significant person in Whitman’s life, but what I want to share today is the highly emotional and quite curious first meeting of O’Connor and Horace Traubel. I say this meeting is curious because in my mind, it arouses some amount of suspicions about O’Connor’s sexuality.

 

In volume four of WWIC, Traubel, age 31, along with Dr. Bucke travel by train from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. to meet the very ill and weakened O’Connor, aged 57. The meeting takes place on March 2, 1889, just a few months before O’Connor dies.

Traubel writes:

 

Saturday, March 2, 1889

Hunting up Bucke at Dooner’s, according to appointment, we took together the 8.31 train from Broad Street. We had a comfortable ride. Talked of things in general. A great deal about Walt and O’Connor. Discussed things ahead—the way out of inevitable difficulties. It was a clouded day. There was no rain. Now and then the sun would break through. Past Wilmington. Past Baltimore. This was my initiation trip south of Wilmington. I shall never forget the first glimpse of Washington: the dome of the Capitol: white—half hid in the mist: elevated above the red brick of a building on the road.

Of course everything made me think of W. The buildings everywhere. The Capitol. The Treasury. Here O’C. worked, and W., and Burroughs. It was all W.’s stamping ground. It has been the environment of his daily life. Was in his books. In his memories as he talked to me from day to day. I felt all sorts of things as I went and looked about. Just as we had been saying: “This is America!” I found myself saying: “This is Walt: Walt is this!”

O’Connor’s little house. Two stories. Brick. The door was opened by Nellie. We were ushered into the little parlor. Talk. Quick questions and answers. Nellie said: “I am glad to see you both at last.” And she added: “William is impatient: he has been asking ever since Walt’s post came: when will they be here? when will they be here?” She went up to William. We looked at the pictures on the wall. Among them was one of Victor Hugo. Nellie called from upstairs: “Come up, Doctor.” B. started off saying: “You come too: she means both of us.” To the second floor. To William’s room.

We stayed about two hours and a half, all told—most of the time immediately with O’Connor. There were two communicating small rooms. In the front room were the beds and chairs. Two windows. In the back room were O’Connor’s books—what he called his “study.” Nellie, “knowing Walt’s fondness for details,” knowing, as she said, that he would ask us “all sorts of minute questions” when we got back, took us about into every nook and corner. Showed me O’Connor’s Donnelly manuscript, his collection of Bacon books, the place in which he did most of his work. He preferred this room. Nellie was very quiet, subdued, equable. She seemed well. O’Connor himself sat in the front room sidewise next the bed in a big arm chair. He looked mighty, but ill. No color in his face. His eye was lustreless—tired. He was stout, even thick—almost fat. When aroused, animated, the color would mount to his cheeks and his eyes would flash. Noble head, just stubbled with gray. He has a little cold, which made his voice a bit husky—but his voice was nevertheless very musical. Hands almost as beautiful as Walt’s. O’Connor greeted us with great cordiality. At once after our hellos he sort of gestured back to himself and said: “Well: here I am: or, rather, here are my remains!” He was in a jubilant mood. Nellie said: “You have stimulated him: I have not seen him so for two years.” William himself said: “You fellows are wine to me.” He looked me all over: “So you are Horace? so you are Horace?” Then he laughed, turning to Nellie: “Here he is, Nellie! see him: he is the youth in our story—its poetry, its prophecy, made visible.” To Bucke: “You know, Doctor, Horace is the romance of it all: with Walt, with us, in our notes, in our thoughts, it has been Horace, Horace, Horace: he is the wonderchild of our pilgrimage.”

Nellie sent for William’s Doctor, Hood. She wished Hood and Bucke to compare notes. Hood came in a few minutes. Bucke went downstairs to meet him. William turned again to Nellie. “Well—he’s here, Nellie: he’s Walt’s: he’s ours, too: how can he prevent himself from being ours, too?” Then to me: “Tell us about yourself first—then about Walt: yourself first: you have been a mystery figure to us: draw aside the curtain—bare yourself to us!” He laughed. “Oh Nellie! I’m glad he came before it was too late! It might have been too late!” Bucke called Nellie from the foot of the stairs. The instant Nellie had left the room William looking straight at me reached out both his arms. “Come!” he said. I went to him: he took both my hands: he drew me to himself—kissed my lips and eyes and brow: he pressed my body against his. His eyes filled with tears.

I went back to my seat. He said: “Now I’m happier!” and he added passionately: “Thank God you didn’t come too late! thank God! thank God!” And he also said: “When you get back to Walt tell him you are mine as well as his—tell him that in our brotherhood you don’t belong to one of us but to all of us!” He said: “I sit here all day, every day, and do nothing but think of Walt.” I said: “That’s what Walt does there all day thinking of you.” He nodded: “Yes: I have felt that it must be so: events have drawn us closer together than ever.” He talked of November Boughs. “I do not think Walt has said enough about the elder Booth: what he said he said with eloquence and has my approval: only, there was too little of it: there should have been more. I have wished to write to Walt about it but everything has stood in the way. I intended one letter for Booth alone: one letter, too, for the book as a whole.” Contrary to W.’s fear expressed to me William does like the book.

A sob burst from his throat. A smile broke out all over his face. He reached out: took my right hand between his right and left hands. “Horace: you must return as my delegate to Walt: take my body and take my soul, with you: set them down at his doorstep, under his feet, across his pillow: anywhere, so that he may know I have survived whole and entire and complete in the old faith: to this message I consecrate your journey back to Camden.” He dropped my hand. Sank back in the chair. Closed his eyes. I was all broken up. He said then looking at me again: “You are the next of your race, but not the last: God was good: I thought I was never to see you, but here you are, the child of our flock, talking to me, face to face, in a man’s voice: now I can die contentedly: my cup is full—my joy (though with sadness in it, too) is rounded and whole.” What could I have said to all this? “I have said to Nellie: ‘It will never happen,’ but she always said, ‘He will come.’ Even yesterday after Walt announced that you were preparing to take the trip I said, ‘It will never happen,’ and Nellie kept on saying, ‘He will come.’ This morning I felt half buoyant yet half doubtful still. I said, ‘Nellie, do you still think he will come?’ and she said, ‘William, I am sure of it: even now he must be on the way.’ And here you are! God was on my side after all. I run my pennants up up into the air and fill the skies with my cry: Victory is mine forever!” I was not prepared for such an incident. He shook me to my foundations.

I asked William: “What broke you up?” He answered at once: “Overwork.” I asked: “Is life hard in the Departments?” He said: “If you take it seriously, yes: I took it seriously.” I asked: “How did Walt manage not to break down?” “Oh! by not working hard. He would come in of a morning, sit down, work like a steam engine for an hour or so, then throw himself back in his chair, yawn, stretch himself, pick up his hat and go out.” Then O’Connor was grave. “But that was the making of him: don’t mistake that. If he had been any other sort of fellow we never should have had Leaves of Grass.” O’C. said again: “Two things in Walt we must always bear in mind: they explain so much: his prophetic nature and his masterly composure.” I said: “Yes: if it wasn’t for that masterly composure he’d be dead today.” O’C. said: “Undoubtedly—not dead today, dead long ago!” Smile. O’C. added: “I of all men should know what that signifies: if I had had that composure I would not be where I am today: but the Irish in me won’t do for me what the Dutch in Walt does for him.”

We had to leave at 3.30. William said: “I hate to have you go.” I said: “We hate to go.” Bucke too: “Yes, William: we hate to go.” I felt that we were going for good. I was sure I would never see him again.

William said: “Your visit has not been an invasion: it has been an illumination. Your departure will leave me in the darkness.” I said: “I’d rather you had felt like saying, ‘leave me in the light.'” He looked at me, all eyes: “You are a wise son of your father: it will be that: you’ll leave me in the light.” Bucke said: “We are hoping seeing us will help you as seeing you has helped us.” William said: “After the immediate shock of your leaving me is gone I have no doubt the rest will be a glad memory.” Nellie stood just outside the bedroom door watching us. She seemed habitually restrained and composed. Bucke and William and I were face to face. William looked up at us. He held one of Bucke’s hands and one of mine. Nellie moved off towards the stairway, choked. William said: “Well.” Bucke said: “William!” I said: “Love always!” No more. William reached his hand to Bucke’s face: “Bucke, you’re true blue!” And then he pulled my head down between his two palms and kissed me: “You are the pride of the flock!” Bucke and I edged off towards the door. Outside we waved back our salutations which he returned. Then I saw his head drop on his breast. Nellie was waiting for us at the foot of the stairs. “It has all been beautiful,” she said: “he will carry it with him into the next world.” So we left.

 

Here’s what I find most curious is in this passage above:

The instant Nellie had left the room William looking straight at me reached out both his arms. “Come!” he said. I went to him: he took both my hands: he drew me to himself—kissed my lips and eyes and brow: he pressed my body against his. His eyes filled with tears.”

 

Keep in mind the year was 1889 and the social norms of those times were dramatically different than those of present day, but what I question is why did O’Connor wait until his wife Nellie left the room to kiss Traubel on the lips and press his body to Traubel’s?

What do you think? Are my suspicions unfounded? Is this merely an emotional and dying man expressing his love and passing that love on to the next generation? Or is there something more to this?

Before you decide, let me mention the one other significant piece to this puzzle: the very fact that O’Connor offered unyielding support to Whitman from 1860-1889. Recall that Whitman was widely criticized in conservative Victorian America for his overtly sexual poems, particularly those in the homosexually-charged Calamus cluster of poems. And yet O’Connor risked his own employment, his own reputation, and stood in strong defense of Whitman against all the oppressors and naysayers.

I may be way off track on this, but my question: what would make O’Connor so impassioned to staunchly defend this dirty poet for nearly 30 unwavering years if he himself did not (at least on some occasions) possess some degree of homosexual feelings?

William D. O'Connor signature in the Dinner With Walt collection.

William D. O’Connor signature in the Dinner With Walt collection.

Credits:

O’Connor image, Library of Congress

Traubel, Horace. (date). With Walt Whitman in Camden, Volume 4 (January 21 to April 7, 1889).     Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 552-563.

O’Connor signature, Dinner With Walt collection

 

 

 

 

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Looking for Whitman, Bucke & Traubel in Ontario

Next up for Dinner with Walt – another Whitman literary vacation! I’m heading up into Ontario in a few weeks to retrace some of Whitman’s travels. (See Walt Whitman’s Diary in Canada).

First stop will be in Sarina, Ontario. On June 18, 1880, Whitman wrote of Sarina in his diary:

Next stops will be London and Hamilton, Ontario to visit what’s left of two former insane asylums where Dr. Maurice Bucke worked. I have not yet written much about him, but Dr. Bucke was a very important and colorful character in Whitman’s life. Dr. Bucke was the longest serving Superintendent of the London Insane Asylum (1877-1902). Dr. Bucke’s work in the psychiatric field is renowned and was revolutionary for this period of time in the area of mental health services. Prior to Bucke, many of the practices in the asylums were quite horrific, involving restraints (various shackles and wooden cages where people were confined in order to control and attempt to calm them. Funny, but I can’t imagine being hunched down on all fours and locked in a wooden crate to have much of a calming effect). But Dr. Bucke’s progressive philosophies and practices did away with the mechanical restraints.  He believed that the insane would fare much better to be in the open air, to play organized sports and to work with their hands in flower and vegetable gardens.

Someday in future posts, I’ll share more on Dr. Bucke, he was a very interesting man with many interesting stories of his own! No wonder he was a close personal friend to Whitman. After Whitman’s death, Bucke was one of the three literary executor’s to Whitman’s estate.

As I mentioned, there are remaining remnants of Dr. Bucke’s asylum in both London and Hamilton Ontario (now abandoned and rumored haunted). Follow the link below for an interesting read on the history and current conservation plans of the London asylum:

London Psychiatric Hospital, History & Conservation Plans

 

This might be a good place to share my copy of Dr. Bucke’s 1901 master work, Cosmic Consciousness. The books is a first edition, signed by Dr. Bucke. Included with the book is an original handwritten letter by Dr. Bucke to a Mr. Thomas Lacey, Esq. Notice Dr. Bucke’s return address label is the London Asylum.

 

Assuming I’m able to leave the asylums (my partner threatens to leave me at one of the asylums and sometimes even I agree that might be an appropriate place for me!).  But the next stop will be Bon Echo Provincial Park where Horace Traubel spent his last days alive.

You may recall my mention of Bon Echo from a previous post about Horace Traubel, but here’s the interesting part below:

“Traubel attended one last centenary event—the August dedication of a huge granite cliff at the Bon Echo estate in Canada, to be named “Old Walt” and inscribed with Whitman’s words in giant letters. On 28 August Traubel, while sitting in a tower room where he could look out on Old Walt, shouted that Whitman had just appeared above the granite cliff “in a golden glory.” “He reassured me, beckoned to me, and spoke to me. I heard his voice but did not understand all he said, only ‘Come on'” (qtd. in Denison 196). Traubel died at Bon Echo on 3 September and was buried in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden, close to Whitman’s tomb.

Thanks to Wikipedia, here’s a photo from the dedication at Bon Echo. Horace Traubel is not in the photo, presumably due to his ill health. But what is most remarkable is that Traubel lived to see this event, as he had wished, but sadly his life ended shortly after this dedication. Here’s the photo taken at the August 1919 dedication:

Check back soon, I’m certain I’ll have interesting stories and at least one big surprise to share after this trip!

 

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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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