Dinner with Walt

all things Walt Whitman

Dinner with Walt - all things Walt Whitman

Horace Traubel Birthday!

Today, December 19, 2014, marks the 156th birthday of the close personal friend and Whitman biographer, Horace Traubel. I would like to share a poem befitting of this occasion, written by Traubel himself on the dedication page to his 1904 book, Chants Communal.

Worn with the burdens of rebellious years,
Across the sea’s scan matching birth with death,
Like ships sky-sailed that earthward come no more,
Love’s dreams must vanish down the edge of sight,
All spent ahead where life will follow-on:
Celestial children, soon beyond my reach,
Entering the unseen port to wait for me.


In Whitman’s own words, here’s a birthday greeting that Whitman wished to Traubel on December 19, 1888:

“I don’t congratulate you—I congratulate myself, others: if you were as lucky as I was in your birth then you must feel rich indeed! Here’s love for all the rest of your birthdays!”


In remembrance of Horace Traubel and with sincere gratitude for his enormous contributions to further the love and legacy of Walt Whitman –
Happy Birthday!


Links to previous articles on Horace Traubel:

Horace Traubel
Handwritten Letter from Horace Traubel
David Karsner’s Biography on Horace Traubel
A December 19th Birthday
Happy 155th Birthday to Horace Traubel: A Helen Keller Tribute
Horace Traubel Grave


Traubel Portrait: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
Traubel, Horace. (1904). Chants Communal. New York: Albert and Charles Boni.
Traubel, Horace. (1914). With Walt Whitman in Camden, Volume Three. (p. 332). New York: Mitchell Kennerley.


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.


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






Happy 155th birthday to Horace Traubel! (Helen Keller Tribute)

Today, December 19th is the 155th birthday of Horace Traubel. I was initially uncertain what to write about this brilliant man, when by mere happenstance, I discovered the perfect gift! I’ve long known that Helen Keller was a great admirer of Horace Traubel. This shouldn’t be too surprising given the fact that Keller, like Traubel, was a “suffragist, a pacifist, a radical socialist and a birth control supporter.” “Keller was a member of the Socialist Party and actively campaigned and wrote in support of the working class from 1909-1921. She supported Socialist Party candidate Eugene V. Debs in each of his campaigns for the presidency.” (Source: Wikipedia).

Keller, as well as Traubel and two hundred other supporters, were in attendance at the Whitman Centennial Dinner in New York on May 31st, 1919. Keller was called upon to offer remarks about Whitman, but changed the course of the program and instead talked about Traubel. Here’s what she said which brought the large crowd of attendees to a standing ovation:

Dear Comrades and Fellow-Admirers of Walt Whitman: I came here to listen, not to speak. But, since the Chairman has called upon me, being a woman, I avail myself of this opportunity to talk. There are so many here paying eloquent tributes to Walt Whitman, I want to say a word to the chiefest of his lovers, Horace Traubel.

To stand up here and talk about Horace Traubel is like proclaiming the charms and the desirability of one’s sweetheart from the housetops. The truth is, I love Horace Traubel. To discuss him in this public fashion is, therefore, somewhat embarrassing, especially as this is our first meeting. But since we are all “comrades and lovers,” you will let me tell of my admiration and affection for one whom we all love.

There are two men in Horace Traubel. I suppose that is why we love him twice as well as we love other men. He is a mystic, and he is a realist. His heart is full of dreams and ardent sentiments, and yet he is a most profound observer of men and their actions. He has thought out a scheme of life for himself. His interpretation of the world we live in, while deeply poetical, is very practical and human. He loves the just and the unjust, the wicked and the good, the rich and the poor, because of the inclusiveness of his nature. These antitheses are revealed in his writings. He is angry with evil; he hates injustice and wickedness. But he holds out his kind hand to sinners and draws them to him with cords of human love. There is but one thing he asks of men and women—that they shall love one another. His kindness and magnanimity are inexhaustible. Indeed, there is something of the Savior about his interest in human beings, and his sympathy with their struggles. To him neither the individual nor the crowd is vile. He finds in each man and in the mass beautiful, common, elemental qualities of humanity. It is upon these qualities that Horace Traubel rests his hopes for the future. For him love, valor, self-sacrifice and the free spirit exist, and they are the only vital facts of life. They constitute the important and essential part of his scheme of a better world. Yet he penetrates far into the structure of our social order, and comprehends what is wrong with it. It is here that the mystic and the realist clasp hands. He is the great Optimist, and his work is wholesome and encouraging. His dream is persuasive and inspiring.

That is why we love Horace Traubel.


Now as for the gift I mentioned, here it is! It’s a rare 1930 video of Helen Keller along with Ann Sullivan, her tutor, teacher, mentor and lifelong companion, describing how this brilliant, amazing and triumphant woman learned to overcome the enormous challenges of her disabilities. It is a truly remarkable and touching story.



In remembrance of Horace Traubel and with sincere gratitude for his enormous contributions to further the love and legacy of Walt Whitman –

Happy birthday!



Schmidgall, Gary, ed. (2006). Conserving Walt Whitman’s Fame. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. pp.401-402.

Helen Keller on Wikipedia

Helen Keller on You Tube



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!



A December 19th Birthday!

Happy 154th Birthday to Horace Traubel!!!

Earlier this year, in my birthday tribute to Whitman, I wrote,


“Happy [193rd] birthday to an enlightened, benevolent, inspiring, noble and wonderful old man!”


Here today on December 19th, I wish to express this this same sentiment to another great man, Horace Traubel.


With much thanks to the Indiana State University for making this available, I found quite a gem that really is a perfect and beautiful tribute to the life of Horace Traubel. This memorial is a truly transcendent document and is decorous of such an important man to the life and story of Walt Whitman. Edited in1920 by Flora McDonald, this exceptional tribute is peppered with Traubel’s own thoughts, words and poems. It details Traubel’s last days of life at the dedication of “Old Walt” in Bon Echo, Ontario; and contains images of Traubel that I have not before seen.


So today, with love, gratitude and remembrances to the life of Horace Traubel, I invite you to read “The Sunset of Bon Echo.”


Below is a poem written for Horace by his wife Anne. Unfortunately, he did not live to see this lovely poem. He died a few months prior.



Written for his birthday December 19th, 1919

By, [his wife] Anne Montgomerie Traubel


He is not something in the light –

He is the light.

Light that is life –

Life that is love.

Love that he has made as common as bread,

And touched to immortality.




Vindication arrives for Traubel!

It may be helpful to read this previous post first, but today while researching another topic over at the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, I stumbled upon an article that convincingly settles my mind on whether or not Horace Traubel did in fact, turn his back on Warren Fitzinger.


You might recall that Warren had agreed to stay-on and care for Whitman in the last remaining years of Whitman’s life. According to Whitman’s last nurse, Elizabeth L. Keller, author of the book Walt Whitman in Mickle Street; Whitman executors Thomas Harned, Horace 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).


What I found to be most unsettling in Keller’s book was the slanderous charge where she alleges after Whitman’s death, Warren sought out the assistance for employment from the three executors who “turned their back on him” and offered no support.


What I found today at the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review is an article written in 1994, by Joann P. Kreig, “Letters from Warrie” which offers convincing evidence to contradict the story of the broken promise as Keller alleges.


Kreig states that Traubel wrote a letter to his close acquaintance, J.W. Wallace in Bolton, England on August 16, 1893. In the letter, Traubel writes, “Harned got Warren a good job in Camden which he forfeited by misbehavior. Say nothing of this.” Kreig goes on to speculate that the natural assumption here is that this was never told to Keller, perhaps to save embarrassment to Warren for whatever the misbehavior may have been that led to his termination of employment. Further along in this article, Kreig offers another passage written by Traubel to Wallace as supportive evidence. On August 12, 1893, Traubel writes, “Harned got Warry a place in the Camden Safe Deposit Company’s building as a watchman but he acted rather unreputably [sic] and they would not keep him. I tell you this frankly because you have always unduly coddled him. And yet I wish no other but Johnston to see what I have written here.”


Further research will be required to determine what, if anything is known about the ‘misbehavior’ that Warren exhibited. But what is convincingly evidenced here is that Traubel, Harned and Bucke did follow through on their word and did not, in fact, turn their backs on Warren when he requested their assistance.


And regarding the issue of Mary Davis and the lawsuit against the Whitman estate for unpaid services (in which she successfully won a settlement), Kreig references another letter by Traubel to Wallace, from January 18, 1894. In the days before the trial began, Traubel writes, “[If she would have simply] brought the bill to me and Harned, we would not have paid but would have advised George [Whitman] to meet her and make some amicable arrangement.”


In the footnote, Kreig writes, “Trauble and Harned evidently forgave Mary Davis, for she was invited to the International Whitman Fellowship birthday dinner on May 31, 1895, and attended. (Letter of Traubel to J.W. Wallace, June 2, 1895).”


So there we have it, rest a little easier my friends. While Elizabeth Keller was present in Whitman’s home and had the opportunity to observe Whitman and his close acquaintances, her book is merely a worthy biography on Mary Davis. Much of  what Keller alleges as slanderous truths against Whitman and his close acquaintances have been refuted.


Mary O. Davis



Keller, Elizabeth Leavitt. Walt Whitman in Mickle Street. New York:  J. J. Little and Ives Company, 1921.


Kreig, Joann. (Spring, 1994). Letters from Warrie. Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. http://ir.uiowa.edu/wwqr/vol11/iss4/2/



Walt Whitman Archive. http://whitmanarchive.org/criticism/disciples/traubel/WWWiC/8/whole.html


Eugene V. Debs


I’m taking a slight detour from Whitman and reading a bio on Eugene V. Debs.  While I’ve yet to see evidence that Whitman and Debs met in person, there is a very established and strong bond in friendship between Debs and Horace Traubel. In fact there are many pictures that can be found online of the two men together.


I also have confirmation that he met and greatly admired another personality that Whitman too greatly admired, Robert Ingersoll.   Debs introduced Ingersoll at a speaking engagement as “the greatest orator in the world.” Debs was hugely influenced by Ingersoll and later became a great orator himself.


Expect to see lots more here on Debs. He was a man who much like Whitman strongly supported the ‘everday working man’ and the Women’s Suffrage movement of the time. I recently toured the Debs home in Terre Haute, IN. Among many other interesting historical relics, in his bedroom hang 2 framed photo’s of Walt Whitman and a card with Whitman’s autograph.


Stay tuned, there will be lots more to share about this great man, Eugene V. Debs…



Walt Whitman Library

Here’s a peek at my ever-growing collection of Walt Whitman (Horace Traubel, Edward Carpenter and John Burroughs) collections.

(Use the scroll buttons below the image for additional photo’s).


Whitman Library

Picture 1 of 12


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.