Dinner with Walt

all things Walt Whitman

Dinner with Walt - all things Walt Whitman

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

 

Credits:

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/

 

Image:

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

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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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328 Mickle Street

Walt Whitman's house

Walt’s house, 328 Mickle Street, has an interesting story all its own. In Volume One of With Walt Whitman in Camden there is a discussion of a need to get Walt’s affairs in order as there is fear of his imminent death. Whitman was asked if he yet owed anything on the house. Whitman responds:

 


 
Now, where the story of the house on Mickle gets most interesting – fast forward to 1893, a year after Walt’s death. Whitman’s longtime housekeeper, Mary Davis, brought a lawsuit against the Whitman estate, claiming she was owed yet for services she rendered to Whitman and was never paid. What follows is the sordid sort of thing right out of a modern day soap opera! From the Walt Whitman Archive:

 

    “Davis occasioned a rift among Whitman followers when she

brought a lawsuit against the poet’s estate claiming that she was owed a

considerable sum for unpaid nursing duties performed in the last years

of Walt’s life.13 The suit was brought against George Whitman, the

principal beneficiary of the estate, who was represented in court by

Thomas Harned. In July of 1893 Traubel gave Wallace his side of the

story, beginning with the statement that Mrs. Davis’ claim was “fraudulent” and would never be won. He explains that according to U.S. law her acceptance of her part of the legacy (Whitman had left her $1000) bars her from making further claims. As to the merits of her bill for nursing from 1885 to 1892, he argues, “From ’85 to ’88 Walt had no nurse-needed none-(for he went about himself with perfect ease)and from 1888 on, when the need was evident, we furnished and hired the man.” Her housekeeping, he says, was so lacking that “Mrs. O’Connor, Mrs. Johnston, Mrs. Harned and others of the women friends of Walt were always protesting that it was our duty to get rid of Mrs. Davis & see that Walt had quarters conducive to comfort & health. But for the desperate objections that we knew Walt would make, we would never have submitted him in his sickness to her housekeeping, which was considered deleterious in the highest degree” (July 16, 1893).


There is a subplot to all of this, however, having to do with the

house on Mickle Street which Harned and Traubel were eager to acquire.

In Whitman’s will of 1891 the property at 328 Mickle Street was

left to Walt’s sister-in-Iaw, Mrs. George Whitman, with the proviso that

the property be used to support his retarded brother, Edward. Mrs.

Whitman died in August of 1892 (five months after Walt’s death) and

Edward died in November of the same year. This meant that George

Whitman became the principal beneficiary of Walt’s estate, and Traubel

and Harned were trying to get George to turn the house over to them for

preservation. In January of 1893 Traubel wrote to Wallace of his hopes

that now that Eddie was dead, the Whitman estate would give the house

up for preservation so that the money already raised, from Whitman

admirers, for its purchase could be used for repairs and as an endowment.


In August he had the key to the house in his pocket, but

complained that “George cannot be made to see that the house should

not be sold but preserved” (August 7, 1893). In November he fulminated

against George and other members of the Whitman family who

were holding out over “this paltry few hundred dollars yet were content

in W’s lifetime to leave him in the hands of his friends” (November 13,

1893).


Even if George had been willing to turn the house over to Traubel

and Harned, there was a hindrance in the form of Mrs. Davis and her

foster son, Warry. According to Elizabeth Keller, Mary Davis had

convinced George Whitman’s wife that she was entitled to a sum of

money to cover expenses she had incurred as Walt’s housekeeper, but

when Mrs. Whitman died her husband did not share this opinion

(Keller, 182-183). He refused to consider Mrs. Davis’ claim, and Mrs.

Davis refused to leave the premises. In July of 1893 Traubel, with

Harned, who was acting as George’s attorney, attempted to force Mrs.

Davis and Warry to vacate the premises. Obviously the two executors

thought that by supporting George’s position they would secure their

own designs on the property.


Traubel was infuriated by the Davis claim: “It is enough to stir up

his [Whitman’s] poor dead bones,” he cried to Wallace. His frustration

increased when others of the Whitman circle of admirers did not agree

with him on the matter. It was his contention that “Walt never contracted with Mrs. Davis except that he would waive rent for the house and she would waive charges for board. We always knew of this arrangement” (January 26, 1894).


On January 31 (1894) the jury awarded Mrs. Davis $500 and the case

was finished. The cost to the Whitman estate, Traubel informed Wallace,

would be about $1,000. While he does not say so, one can imagine

his distress at this since it appears to have been at least part of George

Whitman’s reason for not giving the Mickle Street house to the literary

executors as they had hoped. On March 3 Traubel wrote to Wallace that

he no longer believed George would either give them or sell them the

house. “He is absolutely an ass, and I know no man meaner in the face

of facts which would move any other human being I know to generosity

and appreciation.”

 

As dramatic and no doubt stress-inducing this was at the time, this story ends with a good conclusion. Sadly though, Traubel did not live long enough to see it finally come to a close. Upon George Whitman’s death, the house was transferred to Walt’s niece Jessie Whitman (Thomas Jefferson Whitman’s daughter). Geoffrey Sill writes:

 

 

Click to visit The Walt Whitman House. (Now operated by the New Jersey Division of Parks and Foresty).

 

Credits:

 

Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/roomofmyown/573031217/

 

Traubel, Horace. (1906). With Walt Whitman in Camden (March 28 – July 14, 1888). Boston: Small, Maynard & Company. pp. 291.

 

Krieg, Joann P. (1994). “Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.” The Walt Whitman Archive. http://www.whitmanarchive.org/criticism/wwqr/pdf/anc.00688.pdf

 

Sill, Geoffrey M. (1998). “Minkle Street House.” The Walt Whitman Archive. http://www.whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/encyclopedia/entry_33.html

 

 

 

 

 

 

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