Conserving Walt Whitman's Fame: Selections from Horace Traubel's Conservator, 1890-1919 by Gary Schmidgall | NOOK Book (eBook) | Barnes & Noble
Conserving Walt Whitman's Fame: Selections from Horace Traubel's Conservator, 1890-1919

Conserving Walt Whitman's Fame: Selections from Horace Traubel's Conservator, 1890-1919

by Gary Schmidgall

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It is now difficult to imagine that, in the years before Whitman's death in 1892, there was real doubt in the minds of Whitman and his literary circle whether Leaves of Grass would achieve lasting fame. Much of the critical commentary in the first decade after his burial in Camden was as negative as that in Boston's Christian Register, which spoke of Whitman as


It is now difficult to imagine that, in the years before Whitman's death in 1892, there was real doubt in the minds of Whitman and his literary circle whether Leaves of Grass would achieve lasting fame. Much of the critical commentary in the first decade after his burial in Camden was as negative as that in Boston's Christian Register, which spoke of Whitman as someone who “succeeded in writing a mass of trash without form, rhythm, or vitality.”That the balance finally tipped toward admiration, culminating in Whitman's acceptance into the literary canon, was due substantially to the unflagging labor of Horace Traubel, famous for his nine volumes of Whitman conversations but less well known for his provocative monthly journal of socialist politics and avant-garde culture, the Conservator.Conserving Walt Whitman's Fame offers a generous selection from the enormous trove of Whitman-related materials that Traubel included in the 352 issues of the Conservator. Among the revelatory, perceptive, and often entertaining items presented here are the most illuminating of the Conservator's more than 150 topical essays on Whitman and memoirs by many of his friends and literary cohorts that shed new light on the poet, his work, and his critical reception. Also important is the richer understanding these pages afford of Horace Traubel's own sophisticated, deeply humane, and feisty views of America.

Editorial Reviews

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“In Gary Schmidgall's illuminating collection, we see more clearly than ever before Horace Traubel's vital role in shaping Whitman's reputation. As we read these selections, we witness Whitman move from the cultural periphery to the center, becoming a vital resource to modernists and serving as a touchstone for working-class and radical political activists. It was in the Conservator that many of the issues that continue to influence our interpretation of the poet were first framed. Schmidgall's perceptive introduction and careful selection of materials will enrich Whitman studies for years to come.”—-Kenneth M. Price, coeditor, Walt Whitman Hpertext Archive

“In his previous work Gary Schmidgall has already played a key role in the scholarly assessment of Traubel's importance as a promoter of Whitman's fame, an oral historian, a literary executor, and, in all, a subtle interpreter of the poet's life and works. With this new selection from the Conservator, we gain further insights into Traubel as a literary journalist, social critic, and pioneer in sexual liberation. The introduction and editing are done with the scholarly care, engaging style, and personal touch we have come to expect from Schmidgall. Whitman scholarship is deeply enriched by this project.”—-M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A&M University

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Conserving Walt Whitman's Fame


By Gary Schmidgall


Copyright © 2006 University of Iowa Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-87745-972-9



In perhaps the most revealing and poignant article reproduced in this volume, "Lincoln and Herndon," Horace Traubel explained his pride in being a "background man" to the spectacularly front-stage center Walt Whitman. In spite of the three early twentieth-century biographies by Mildred Bain, William English Walling, and David Fulton Karsner, Traubel has remained a largely unfamiliar figure—recognized among Whitman scholars, with a mixture of awe and disbelief, only for his staggering hoard of dictation. He has remained decidedly in the background.

With the appearance of the Conservator and Whitman's death, however, Traubel stepped vigorously, imaginatively, one might even say brilliantly into the foreground of the Whitman "movement," not to mention many other forward-thinking political, social, and cultural movements. It is therefore fitting to allow him center stage at the outset and to present the personality, the editorial worldview, the writing style—as well as the passion, common sense, and wit—of the editor of the Conservator. The following sampling of Traubel's editorials, articles, and reviews will serve to introduce a remarkable liberal thinker and relentless, if frequently quixotic, advocate for the political, social, and cultural agenda largely set forth in the poetry and prose of Walt Whitman.

Paradoxes come to mind in trying to capture Traubel's editorial personality: a polite, even-voiced lion rampant, his aggressions were wreathed in an air of diffidence. These qualities are notably on view in his two amusing reviews of the Bain and Karsner biographies of him. Particularly telling, in Traubel's whimsical-melancholic late style, is "Why Men Write," an essay on the furor scribendi that plays on the title of Bertrand Russell's Why Men Fight. It is a wry meditation on the book "disease" and the "book illusion," which he says is "hard to kill." Traubel, who clearly suffered from the writing disease, makes this splendid point germane for anyone thinking of writing a book: "No man has a right to write a book till he's tried not to write it." The items gathered here also offer an ample introduction to the Traubel and Conservator style, which (also paradoxically) builds up an eloquent, locomotive head of steam worthy of Whitman, but with a compact, plebeian vocabulary, the homeliest metaphors and similes, and none of the poet's penchant for flamboyant bardic gestures.

* * *

MARCH 1892 (3 : 4)

The Ethical Reasons for Social Reform

Horace L. Traubel

Reform may take the shape of destruction or development, or development may be regarded as a more subtle form of destruction. But if reform has its thousand variations, illustrations, activities and influences—of one weight or purport or another—it has common and general features, wherever it operates, which divide men between hatred and adoration.

Reform impeaches, questions, accuses, initially and to the end. It solicits institutions to produce their credentials. It demands that property shall submit to just ownership—that labor shall have its exact due—that science, art, literature may perform their best functions for society—that men, in fact, in all their relationships, whether to other men or to principles, shall have the largest opportunity, and, where mistakes or wrongs have been committed, whether historic or personal, the promptest and most generous redress.

But my friend, the merchant, who sat down to talk this thing over with me the other day, shook his head at all my notions. Said he: "You disdain peace, equanimity, order, law, the past; you prefer unrest; you prefer a pretender—that is to say, present an unreal life to usurp the place of the real. You call your work reform; I call it disaster. You try to argue yourself into a millennium, and only succeed in making worse a world which you already have condemned as bad enough. You are not satisfied to let those who now enjoy peace continue to enjoy it. You play the unbroken role of an unruly party to the social contract. You forget all the good we have in your hunt for blessings to come or yet to be achieved. Your hand spares nothing. You strike against the sacredness of the home by a claim that the area of woman's freedom should be enlarged. You shock and shatter the pieties and holinesses in religion by your ridiculous logic of religious succession and development—by your pretense that one religion is as good as another, or at least as holy as another. You would heedlessly substitute humanity for God, and the ethical verities, as you call them, for those eternal revelations which enshrine and guard the person of Jesus Christ. You laugh at time, as if all it had so far done was arrant folly—as if it was at best only preparation and entrance—as if it was in effect a prologue to a play. You teach men to rebel against conditions. To your peculiar constitution of mind, any question, any denial, is anywhere of equal cogency and right, society, or its status, having no reserves, no unimpregnable foundations or principles. With you nothing is fixed—everything is fluid—we are all in movement—society is an emigrant—we plant a standard on one spot to-day, and must advance it tomorrow. You knock at the door of capital and demand an equal place in its hospitality and benefit. No book, no class, no race escapes. You instill into innocent minds ambition, greed, discontent, irony. Once men were satisfied to live on grasses—to make life as simple as nature seemed to design it—to respect proprietorial divisions—to see in poverty such a charm as made them grateful, if not eager, to accept all its burdens.

"From you and yours came the French Revolution—a carnival of blood, inexcusable in inception and effect, an apt and graphic foretaste of what would again result with your success. If you are right, everything is wrong; if you are wrong, at least something in current institutions is right. You never seem to realize the measure and gravity of the issues you raise. Their contest will disrupt society. To you church, state, are absurd—men must be self-dependent, self-sufficient. You rob the citizen of his city, the patriot of his country, the religionist of his church—and you say to him that these are all trickeries, doing him no good, either in this world or the next, and that for him exists no resource but the path of individual effort and social self-denial. You strip the sky of hope, inject a doubt into the future, seize and cast away the motives to right conduct, disarm philanthropies—substituting a meagre figure of Justice, an idealist's skeleton, for the flesh and blood of a vital belief. If you had your sweep, if your broom had its boasted handle, you would brush all the stars out of the heavens and all inspiration out of the heart, and leave to man but the narrow strip of present disappointment for performance and duty. I cannot think of an institution to which, at one time or another, or in some form or another, or on some pretext or another, you have not addressed impertinent questions. What have you to do with foundations, anyway? Isn't it enough that the building is here? Occupy it, and make the most and best of it! Delve and hammer and suspect in your insane curiosity, and you will pull the whole structure down upon your head. I am tired of revolutionists and revolutions—of the cries of the dissatisfied—of these incessant complaints against conditions—of the unsexed women who clamor for 'rights' which dont exist, and of the worse men who measure themselves against their betters and jealously protest against privileges and pleasures they cannot share. You urge workingmen to organize. You press the infidel classes into union and combination. You flatter them all with an unction that never will give them peace in life hereafter. You regard any effort to protect law and order and existing institutions with animosity. Who have first rights? Not you—not the trespassers—not the community of saints and tramps with their perpetual finger of rebuke. I resent being taunted with the future, as if present and past were of no account—as if the things we think and do have no value or place. Your schemes are the effervescence of conceit. Let the earth have its content. It had an Eden once, and the revolutionists burst over the boundaries and destroyed all the crops. Man has had sour fruit or no fruit ever since."

Take my friend as typifying the potential conservative forces of our time—the powers that be—the bayonets and guns of dominating institutions. By ways subtle and direct, question is resented, the present is exalted into the perpetual. We are invited to worship the social "one true god," that is, political and religious and capitalistic orthodoxy, and the "son whom god hath sent," that is, the state and the church and capital. If we blaspheme, woe be to our future. It will be all thorns, all refusal and contumely, all hatred and submission—if the "one true god" have his way.

To re-form, to re-make, is of course serious business. It means new combinations, fresh inspirations, new heights scaled, broader moral altitudes attained. It means to re-mould the social and political world to the likeness of justice. It demands devotion, skill, thought, dream, sacrifice, courage, daring. It sets one hour for silence and another for speech; it names one place for one man and another for his co-worker; it fixes values, times, situations, as never before; it in fact possesses, commands, sustains, ennobles.

My merchant-man shrinks from the trial. He is not so certain of his condition that he invites the winds to blow and the artillery of reform to play upon him. After all, he lives in a glass palace, whose fragility must lie in wreck at last.

What does it indicate, this cry of the human heart for a better future, for kinder fates: of the unhoused and unclothed for houses and clothing, of the overloaded for rest, of the slave for freedom, of the prisoner for opportunity?

My merchant again smiles upon me. "You flaunt your ethical reasons," he expostulates. "It is an ugly red rag. I do not like it, and its legend is socialism, anarchism, murder. Ethics means rest, and you bring war in its name, and I protest." "But what of your gentle Jesus? Did not he, too, project the sword?" My friend shakes his head. "He did not, his followers, alas! too often!"

Lift the secret from a few specifications of the program of reform.

To reform society to a juster acknowledgment of woman: what does it include? Her enfranchisement—not as a voter (the paltriest of the debts due her), but as an individual. It asserts and defends her integrity as a unit in the social compact—as a figure one, to be counted forevermore in the list of spiritual populations. No longer left to hang upon the life and favors of men, or absorbed and lost in some other individuality, sinking power and vista in the slavery of domestic thrall-dom, we cannot deny her all the opportunities which her brain and heart may seize and profit by. This will add to the sum of her and of the race's life. This is not destruction.

What will reform bring the workman? Again, a larger field, and not the favor but the justice of god. It will translate man back or advance him to his estate as man—it will forever end his career as a machine—it will forswear for him all service for which he has not due—it will broaden and lift and sweeten his life—it will give the dim, laborious ways the aromas of sympathy, give the laborer the instant wealth of self-respect. Is this destructive? It will adjust man with man, or tend so to adjust the social angles. Out of it will spring a peace. It will give and spur the workman to a spiritual activity impossible under prevailing conditions. It will put the emphasis on the worker, not on his product. It will esteem the soul above all estrangements—all attempts to confuse it with money-making and greed, with foolish and suicidal accumulation.

Reform in literature will take books from the cloister and closet and give them to man—will fit beauty to use, dream to fact, and make it brave in its declaration, broad in its purposes and affections. It will invite the scholar out of his library to the urgent, throbbing highways of the actual.

Reform in social life will induce us to rate the singer above the echo of his song, to respect individuality as much in the parlor as on the forum, to deal out the currency of a full regard. It will lead us away from dress to men—from trappings, from trimmings, from china, from big dinners—from the satiety of artifice to the constant stimulation of art, and then from art to nature, where all appeal is final. It will not honor a man for his set, but for his character; it will not applaud an outworn chivalry, a gilt-edged gallantry, but will insist upon frank speech and upon the inner and essential heroism. The parlors tend to make cowards of us all; but by and by will come a new order by which a man visiting his neighbor will not be asked to leave his honesty and his opinions in the hallway with his hat. And this is but the door to the temple; for in the domestic privacies it will institute a thousand changes, vital for the development of a saner, sweeter, more fertile manhood.

And in political economy? Suppose all government were done away with by the decree of reform, would not humanity be left with all due provisions for its safety?—for the same humanity which creates these governments when they are fresh and young and react fire upon its enthusiasm, may learn to despise the grayed and fossiled institution when at last it blocks and baulks or would aim to halt the march of progress. This is not destruction. It calls upon first principles. It throws man back upon himself, there to question and make life redolent of noble effort. It solicits of the heart and the brain to know where more vitally than with them can lie the weapons of labor, the streams of moral affirmation.

These are only indicative lines. But we are required to ponder them. They do not mean destruction. They mean life, renewed life—a morning and a fresh day dedicated to discovery, to those eternal facts of the soul with which alone come health and eternity. Do not believe the doubters. Do not linger with disease. The past has served us well. It has taught us things to do and things to avoid. But aspiration is not content to stay in the old household till its walls totter and fall. Its days are sworn to freedom, for ever-added stores of moral fact. Society is built upon its moral forces. The usual reasons for reforms are the totality of experience. Experience apprises us of mal-adjustments, of disorders, of ineffectiveness, of social waste. Repair, rebuild, fill the sunshine with faithful practice! Is life for the meals we eat and for sleep, for the sensual, for the abandonment of passion, for the amassing of money, for the accentuation of divisions and differences? or is it for character? If it is for character, then reform finds its ethical reasons deep-based in the influences which will enrich character. Man will not "mortise himself in granite," as has been said, till his wandering ambitions and ideals find fulfillment in the majesty of personal endowment. This is what we have proposed to discuss to-night.

* * *

MAY 1892 (3 : 39)

Rhodes Triumphant

Horace Traubel

Before you get up from your knees let me throw in a few gratuitous reflections. While you are still eating dust let me remind you of a history and a situation. I have nothing against Rhodes. Rhodes is dead. My fight is never with a man's self but with his mistakes. Sometimes the motive of a villain's crime is purer than the motive of a saint's virtue. I am not concerned or willing to weigh Rhodes or pass upon him as a scoundrel or gentleman. But there are events we may not forget. While we remain on our knees we may regard the still small root of his vicious seedplot.

Rhodes bequeaths power, money. From what source did he draw power and money? You think it a miracle of philanthropy that he has created a few paltry international scholarships. But of what are his scholarships constituted? Remember the economic history of South Africa. Remember Rhodes. Analyze his record. Remember the dead Boers. Remember the living Boers. Yes, remember the dead and living Englishmen. They haunt this dead man's will. They agonize in his benefactions. The scholarships will cry out for mercy to an outraged humanity.

You too easily forget. I do not ask you to remember in order to revenge. I ask you to remember in order to be merciful. To be merciful, not to the crimes of the oppressor, but to the souls of the oppressor first and then of the oppressed. For his victims do not really need mercy. Rhodes needs mercy. Rhodes dropt over Africa like a shadow. He sowed hatred. His successors will reap what he sowed. The soil will give back his venomous impulse.

You too easily forget. You see this man's dollars. But I would rather you saw his deeds. If I robbed your brother on the highway and offered you the result you would scorn my felony. But if I rob your brother in a style less vulgar you smile over my gift and award me a laudatory epitaph.

Excerpted from Conserving Walt Whitman's Fame by Gary Schmidgall. Copyright © 2006 University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS.
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Meet the Author

Gary Schmidgall is a professor of English at Hunter College, the City University of New York, and the editor of Intimate with Walt: Selections from Whitman's Conversations with Horace Traubel, 1888-1892 (Iowa 2001). His other Whitman books are Walt Whitman: A Gay Life and Walt Whitman: Selected Poems 1855--1892. He has also published books on Shakespeare and on the relation between literature and opera as well as a biography of Oscar Wilde.

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