Read an Excerpt
Intimate with Walt SELECTIONS FROM Whitman's Conversations WITH Horace Traubel, 1888-1892
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2001 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One The Mickle Street Ménage
In March 1884 Whitman moved into and purchased for $1,750 the first and only house of his lifetime. This was the one time he had the funds to swing such an investment, he told Traubel, because "I was making money then-just after the Massachusetts expulsion [of the 1881 Boston Leaves]: the first Philadelphia edition [of 1882] netted me thirteen hundred dollars." The house, which he once referred to as a "little Camden shanty," was a small two-story tenement at 328 Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey.
Near a noisy ferry and train depot ( for service to the Atlantic Coast), the house was looked upon dimly by many of the poet's acquaintances. Elizabeth Keller, who was brought in to nurse Whitman for a little over two months just before he died, registered a comprehensively negative view of the house in her memoir, Walt Whitman in Mickle Street: "It was an unpretentious brown frame structure, sadly out of repair, and decidedly the poorest tenement on the block." Its situation, she adds, "was anything but inviting, and the locality was one that few would choose to live in." She also despised the "uninterrupted racket day and night" of nearby railroad traffic, even the "sharp-toned bell" of a neighborhood church and its "choir of most nerve-unsettling singers." A "disagreeable odor" from a guano factory across the river completed the picture. Inside the house, Keller noted the narrow hallways and staircase and a kitchen "so compactly filled that many people remarked its close resemblance to the cabin of a ship." And she expressed particular scorn for the chaos in Whitman's upstairs front parlor/bedroom, with its "hillock of débris."
The house is now a New Jersey State Historic Site and was recently renovated completely and returned to its state when Whitman lived in it. Mickle Street-except for Whitman's block-has since become Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, and 328 now stands (fittingly, for a poet who made a point of embracing "The crazed, prisoners in jail, the horrible, rank, malignant") opposite a very large penal institution.
Buoyant Dr. Bucke
"His method is peaceful, uncoercive, quiet, though always firm-rather persuasive than anything else. Bucke is without brag or bluster. It is beautiful to watch him at his work-to see how he can handle difficult people with such an easy manner. Bucke is a man who enjoys being busy-likes to do things-is swift of execution-lucid, sure, decisive. Doctors are not in the main comfortable creatures to have around, but Bucke is helpful, confident, optimistic-has a way of buoying you up." Thus Whitman sums up his impressions of Richard Maurice Bucke, one of the most important friends of his last two decades. Though a constant and important presence at Mickle Street, he in fact lived hundreds of miles away in the Canadian province of Ontario. Here, in more formal terms, is how Whitman described him in June 1891 in a letter of introduction to Alfred Lord Tennyson: "let me introduce my good friend & physician Dr Bucke-He is Superintendent (medical and other) of the big Insane Canadian Asylum at London Ontario-he is an Englishman born but raised (as we say it) in America."
Bucke, who visited Camden several times during the With Walt Whitman years, alone received an almost daily letter from Whitman in the poet's last years, and his advice on the management of Whitman's health care-and countless literary transactions-was much valued and often even followed. It was his recommendation that led to one of Walt's happiest male nurse experiences. For Bucke's moving farewell to Walt, see the chapter "A Voice from Death."
The friendship began in 1872, and Bucke's tenure as asylum director began in 1876; Whitman made one of his relatively rare long journeys to visit him and his wife there in the summer of 1880. Bucke published his idolizing Walt Whitman in 1883 (Whitman actually wrote many of the passages); Walt said of the book in 1889 that it "has my cordial regard" but that "the book is guilty, like the dinner [that honored his seventieth birthday], of being too honeyish." Bucke became one of Whitman's literary executors and in that capacity published two volumes of Whitman letters, Calamus: A Series of Letters Written during the Years 1868-1880 (1897; these were letters to Peter Doyle) and The Wound Dresser: A Series of Letters Written from the Hospitals in Washington (1898).
Spirit of Tidiness: Mary Davis
Mary Davis was Whitman's live-in cook and housekeeper; her instincts for tidiness were regularly frustrated by Whitman's laissez faire attitude toward debris. Cruelly, Davis was chided sometimes by observers for her housekeeping, as Traubel records: "People often criticize Mrs. Davis because of the confusion apparent in the parlor and W.'s bedroom. The fact is W. does not encourage any interference even by her with his papers. She has been cleaning some this week, W. being rather disposed to joke about it. 'I hate to see things after they are "fixed." You get everything out of place and call it order.'" He varied the remark a week or so later, when Davis brought some books up from the parlor: "Now that the room is arranged I suppose I'll never be able to find anything any more."
In Whitman's correspondence from the "Horace years," references to Davis are invariably cordial. In one letter to Bucke, he even ascribes to her "that definite something buoyancy of presence." When she made a rare long trip (two weeks to Kansas City), her presence was missed. In his charming letter to her, Whitman assures her that his substitute cooks are giving him "plenty for my meals & all right." He also includes the droll news that "we've killed one of the roosters (he behaved very badly & put on airs)."
Clearly, Whitman rankled at having to submit to Davis's management: "Mary thinks men ain't much use for taking care of themselves nohow. I am keen about all that myself-jealous of my right to fall down and break my neck if I choose."
Asked about the quality of Davis's cooking, Walt told a visiting Bucke, "Always good-very good." He was reluctant to hurt her feelings, though, and Traubel tells us that, a few days before, Whitman had confided, "Mary's heart is all right-she studies to please me-to feed me right-but she lacks in that finer something or other which the best cooks possess-which is so inestimably precious to a sick man."
Far more treasured were Davis's services as guardian of access to Whitman, especially when someone fell out of favor-as apparently happened to one James Scovel: "Nowadays Mary will not let Jim Scovel come up at all-he is in disfavor! Oh! Mary is invaluable to me in such matters-and Warren [his nurse], too-but Mary, invaluable! The fellows come-they must see Walt Whitman: if only Mr. Whitman would see them for a moment! But no, Mary is inexorable-the Doctor has ordered that nobody see Mr. Whitman: Mr. Whitman is too sick, feeble, to be wearied by visitors, &c.&c. And that is her reception to interlopers."
And Davis had a way with the teakettle: "She hit the medium: tea is only good at one consistency-stronger or weaker than that, either way it is damnable."
But sometimes Davis was too strict, as Traubel notes: "Mrs. Davis yesterday persuaded boys on the street to take their firecrackers around the corner. W. objected: 'Don't send them away, Mary: the boys don't like to be disturbed either. Besides who knows but there may be a sicker man around the corner?'" A few days later, as the Fourth of July loomed, the boys still enjoyed Walt's forebearance: "There's a certain allowance of deviltry in all boys. The boys out in this street probably know there is a sore, nervous old man up in this room, so they fling their malignant rattle-snake poison about with special vehemence. Boys could not get along without that. But let them go on-don't interfere with them. It would worry me more to have that done than to bear the noise." When the Fourth arrived, Traubel reports, "W. stood the noise today heroically."
Rubbed the Wrong Way: W. A. Musgrove
Whitman clearly could not seem to warm to this new nurse at Mickle Street. In July 1888 Horace observed Walt was "Depressed. Change of nurses has something to do with this. Musgrove is a cloudy man. I asked how M. got on. W. evaded the question by some general remark." Later Whitman mentions that he has taken a solitary bath, and Traubel records that Whitman "resents the attentions of Musgrove.... Musgrove rubs him the wrong way." But the sign that Musgrove's tenure was not up to cozy camerado standards is the day the rarely formal poet referred to Musgrove as "the gentleman who is here to assist me" (the first allusion to him, Horace notes, in two weeks). After a rousing conversation with Horace, Walt half-jokes, "Mr. Musgrove will step in presently and put me to bed with or without my consent." That Musgrove was strict is also suggested by how Walt laughs when Hamlin Garland overstays the two-minute interview he had been granted: "Mr. Musgrove was on nettles-the man overstayed his leave." On October 26, 1888, a letter from Bucke arrived from Canada; it included this news: "I do not hear good accounts of your present nurse (Musgrove) and I have just written to Horace about a young man whom I can fully recommend who is willing to go from here and take the place. His name is Edward Wilkins." Within a few days, the change is made behind Whitman's back, but Traubel remarks, "W. is eager for the change. Yet he hates to have Musgrove's feelings hurt." When the man's days were clearly numbered, Traubel summed up: "Musgrove is curt, rough, almost surly-creates a bad atmosphere for a sick room. 'He has done his best,' said W., 'but don't quite understand that I'm a peculiar critter mostly determined to have my own way-not to be unnecessarily interfered with even here, even in my incompetencies.'" When Musgrove settled up his pay with Tom Harned (1851-1921), a prosperous lawyer and friend who had charge of many of Whitman's financial affairs, he was "out of humor," which even Walt noticed: "He is put out-indeed I may say, mad." Still, Horace observes, "W. is glad of the change. That is easily seen."
A Touch the Patient Likes: Ed Wilkins
Edward Wilkins arrived at Mickle Street in early November 1888. Bucke clearly knew his man in recommending him. Horace's first reaction: "He was tall, young, ruddy, dynamic. W. regarded him approvingly. Ed had been writing. He stood, his arms folded up, against the foot of the bed. He was in his shirt sleeves. There was half a smile on his face." A few days later Walt remarked, "Ed is very stalwart-handled me well-helped me with the currying." Horace assessed the situation: "He takes to Ed. Calls him 'brawny-a powerful ally.' His first lament over Musgrove was his last." The next day William O'Connor was informed in a letter that Walt was now in the hands of "a clean strong kind hearted young Kanuck man." Walt came to dote on Ed and his ministrations, as these passages show:
I am coming to see that he is just the man I needed: he is my kind: he is young, strong: I felt immediate wholesome invigorating reactions under the spur of his treatment: he gives me a sort of massage.... I don't know what Ed thinks of me: I think he looks upon me favorably: I like him. I wrote Doctor [Bucke] so: he is just what he seems to be-straightforward, not inquisitive, hearty-best of all he is not intrusive: he does not push himself upon me. Does not insist ... [Ed undertook the violin while at Mickle Street, Horace reports:] Ed has a violin which he plays round the house. W's favorite piece in Ed's modest repertoire is Rock-a-bye Baby. Ed says quaintly: "I make it long for him-put in the chorus two or three times." [A few days later:] W. told Ed: "Play your violin: play it as much as you choose: I like it: when I am tired I will tell you to stop." Ed at first played in the next room. I advised him to play downstairs. But W. said to me on the side: "I don't altogether like the screeching, but I do altogether like Ed, so I can stand one for the sake of the other." [Horace to Whitman:] Ed seems to be the right fellow for you here: he suits you to a T. [Whitman's reply:] Yes: he is vital, easy, nonchalant, self-sufficient (in the right sense): he throws out a sort of sane atmosphere: I always find myself at home, at peace, with him. [Whitman a week later:] Ed is well fit in many ways: he is silent: moves about noiselessly: strong, faithful: has one quality significant above all, essential-the quality of touch: has a touch which the patient likes.
After about a year passed, Wilkins announced his resignation to Horace: "[Ed] told me of his resolve to go back to Canada Oct. 20. Had engaged with a veterinary surgeon to go with him on that date. This rather staggered me, as experience has shown how difficult it is to get a nurse for W. who combines qualities we desire and those which commend him to W." A week later Horace has not had the courage to tell Walt. Two weeks later Horace records, "[Ed] has spoken to W. about it. W. is 'adverse to a change'-greatly likes Ed-but would not advise him to risk his future, if it was risked, as it seemed to be, by staying." When Horace spoke of the virtues of a young black man working for Tom Harned, Whitman said: "Well-I have not the slightest objection in the world to a darky-not the slightest." A possible reason for Ed's defection is perhaps suggested by Horace's remark early in January 1889: "W. is so well now Ed has little or nothing to do. The other day E. complained." Walt, who had doted on Ed, wrote to Bucke, "we are all sorry Ed is going-every thing has been smooth & good ... no hitch or anything." Amid puzzlement over Ed's returning to a "less than a quarter of a horse town" in Canada and after interviewing several replacement candidates, Warren Fritzinger was engaged on October 21, 1889. Wilkins did indeed become a veterinarian and returned to the United States to practice near Indianapolis, Indiana, for many years.
Noble Drubber: Warrie Fritzinger
Warren Fritzinger was already known at Mickle Street before he was hired for regular service (Mary Davis had cared for Captain Fritzinger, his seafaring father, for nearly ten years). "I like him very much," said Walt in June 1888, "he is such a lusty fellow-has been about the world so much-is a sailor." Walt was also very fond of Warrie's brother, Harry. Just before his marriage Harry visited Mickle Street: "I felt quite solemn about it," Walt wrote in a letter, "(I think more of the boy, & I believe he does of me, than we knew)-He kissed me & hung on to my neck-O if he only gets a good wife & it all turns out lasting and good"; in a letter to Bucke the next day he ends, "One of my two boys 26 yrs old was married last evn'g-he came yesterday to talk ab't it & hung on my neck & kiss'd me twenty times."
Soon Warrie ("my sailor boy") and Walt were on very good terms. After just two days on the job, Walt summarized: "Warrie and I come to understand each other pretty well-very well. I like his touch and he is strong, a font of bodily power.... As I was saying, I liked his touch-like to have him around-he has that wonderful indescribable combination-rarely found, precious when found-which, with great manly strength, unites sweet delicacy, soft as a woman's, gentle enough to nurse a child."
Walt particularly relished Warrie's abilities as a masseur: "Warrie rubs me every day-or twice a day-pummels me." "Warrie is a noble drubber [massager] himself: he handles me like a master-and the best thing about him is not his strength but his magnetism: he is electric to the last degree-never man more so. I don't think he can be beat. Ed Wilkins was strong, too-but lacked in many ways Warrie's peculiar gifts." The massages were daily, he tells Bucke, "generally just before going to bed." Walt wrote to Bucke in December 1889, "have had a good currying bout-I sometimes fancy I get the vitalest ones I ever had f'm my present nurse-young & strong & magnetic he is." Fritzinger also took lessons from the head masseur of Dr. Mitchell's Orthopedic Hospital to improve his massaging skills.
Excerpted from Intimate with Walt Copyright © 2001 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsContents Introduction....................vii
I The Mickle Street Ménage....................3
Serendipity: Visitors and Vignettes....................11
Walt on Walt....................23
Walt on the Whitman Family....................33
Walt on Images of Himself....................39
Memories of Long Island, Brooklyn, and Manhattan....................44
Walt on the Literary Life....................62
Before Leaves of Grass....................69
About Leaves of Grass....................71
Individual Poems and Sequences....................83
Printing Leaves of Grass....................89
Leaves of Grass and the Critics....................97
III Avowal Letters....................123
Walt and His Inner Circle....................132
A Flaminger Soul: William Douglas O'Connor....................141
Magnificent Potencies: Robert Green Ingersoll....................144
Walt and His Boys....................147
Walt's "Big Secret"....................154
IV Views of America....................161
Affection, Love, and Sex....................171
The Woman Sex....................175
Memories of Washington and the Secession War....................179
Turned to a Generous Key: Abraham Lincoln....................189
Walt and the Bard....................211
Sweet Magnetic Man: Ralph Waldo Emerson....................216
Oxygenated Men and Women: Walt'sPantheon....................222
Music, Opera, and Marietta....................238
Walt's Way with Words....................247
Walt on Various and Sundry....................256
V "A Frightful Gone-ness"-The Physical Decline....................269
"A Voice from Death"-The Last Months....................276
"The Last Mile Driven"-The End....................281
"The Touch of Peace"-Mortuary....................284
The Burial House at Harleigh Cemetery....................290
The Last Hurrah: May 1919....................293