A visit to Walt Whitman (in 1886)

An interview from the Eagle's archives, in which Whitman reflects on his time living in Brooklyn.

May 31, 2019 Brooklyn Eagle History
Walt Whitman, Brooklyn's most famous poet. Overlay: AP Photo Background: AP Photo/Tony Camerano
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Today (May 31, 2019) marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of American poet Walt Whitman. The former editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (1846-1848) is best remembered for his poetry collection “Leaves of Grass” (1855), which he continued to rewrite until shortly before his death in 1892.

Whitman spent his last years in Camden, N.J., where the following interview took place. The interview was published in the Eagle on July 11, 1886. The only indication of the identity of the interviewer are the initials at the end: F.B.S. 

July 11, 1886

On first acquaintance, or perhaps even on second and third acquaintance, the unprepossessing city of Camden on the banks of the Delaware — a city which serves as an over the river suburb of cheap homes for the laboring Philadelphians — is not just the place that we believe a man of pronounced poetical temperament would select to settle down in for life. Yet its chief pretension to fame is the fact that it has been a long while the home of one of the most widely discussed poets in the United States.

In the last dozen years many a pilgrim from foreign lands has made the voyage over the Delaware and penetrated this border land of New Jersey solely because Walt Whitman lives in the locality. He came to Camden from Washington several years ago to reside with his brother; and here he has remained. The brother moved away a couple of years since, leaving him settled in a small house of his own in the care of a housekeeper. Looking in the Camden directory for his whereabouts the stranger finds this entry: “Walt Whitman, poet; house 328 Mickle street.” Probably there is not another directory anywhere in this democratic land of the free in which any one ventures openly to declare his calling to be that of a poet. Perhaps Mr. Whitman is not aware that he himself is so set down at home; but it is exactly for what he passes with all the people of Camden, and the man who made the directory probably did not stop to inquire twice about the fact.

When the street lamps were beginning to glimmer I made my way up Camden’s chief thoroughfare a distance of three blocks from the Market street Ferry, then down into a dusty street at the right, crossed next the track of the West Jersey Railroad, found Mickle street after an inquiry or two, and finally arrived at number 328, which designates a modest, two story, wooden house, painted brown. Almost every one in the neighborhood was on the doorsteps in the vicinity. Coming down the street, however, was a neat team, which soon pulled up before the house 328, bringing Mr. Whitman home from his regular afternoon ride into the country.

Having seen him once it would not be easy to mistake him for anybody else ever afterward; but one look revealed that he had aged and failed in health a great deal in the past seven years. He is not the same sturdy man he was in the days of the Centennial Exhibition, when his noble and attractive appearance used to catch the attention of crowds afternoons on Chestnut street across the river.  It is an effort now for him to walk at all and it was necessary to help him out of the carriage. But he is still the same genial, cheerful, hearty man as of yore, and he greets a friend or an acquaintance with as much cordiality and good spirits as ever.

There was a gentleman and his wife in the parlor, or study, who had also come over to see him this evening, and he insisted that all his visitors should go out to the dining room and take a cup of tea with him. Then everybody returned to the small study and sat down in the dark, for the heat and a stray mosquito or two made a light objectionable. The room was not crowded, but comfortably full. Mr. Whitman sat in a large rocking chair that was covered with a large skin of some animal which had long gray hair. A good natured coach dog soon joined the company with a social wag all around; a yellow cat purred at the open door leading into the hall when the gas illuminated the surroundings, and a pet parrot in an adjoining room said a word occasionally.

Mr. Whitman had many inquiries to make about Brooklyn, and apparently he found it a pleasant pastime to recall the years when he lived in that city. His last visit was five years ago, when he went to New York to read his reminiscences of Lincoln. “I am always interested in hearing from Brooklyn,” he said. “I should like very much to go over there now and cross the bridge, which has been completed, of course, since I was there. But I am unable to get about. Probably I remember Brooklyn as far back as any man living. I was born at West Hills, in the town of Huntington, and my parents removed to Brooklyn when I was a child of 3 or 4 years old. That was in 1822. I continued to live in Brooklyn all through my boyhood and considerably longer. We lived in North Portland avenue, over somewhere near the Navy Yard. Brooklyn was then a mere village governed by a board of trustees, and the president of this board was always the great cockalorum of the place.”

Being reminded of his connection with the EAGLE in the days when that paper was in its infancy, Mr. Whitman replied that he believed that he was the third editor and that he succeeded a gentleman by the name of Arnold. “Mr. Van Anden owned the paper then, or a large share of it, I think,” he continued. “It was a small sheet, run off on a hand press, and had a circulation some where between 1,000 and 2,000 copies. I had a very good ‘sit’ of it there. The work suited me very well. It came around in the time of day that I like best for work. I used to walk down to the office between 8 and 9 o’clock. By 2 o’clock I was all through with my part of the work and adjourned. There was a city editor, who had an assistant. These two with myself composed the whole staff. We used to take things easy, for it was in the days before the telegraph and there was no great competition. One thing in particular I liked my position for: it gave me a seat at the theater every night. I had a seat reserved for me in the middle of the pit in the old Park Theater in New York. I used to take great pleasure in going to the opera. The opera of those old times was delightful. Then I used to go up to Niblo’s Garden, which was quite out of town at that time. It was the termination of one of the omnibus lines.

“But by and by Van Buren was put up for President. I mean his third nomination. The time when the Barnburners made such a rumpus. I was more fiery in those days than I am now. I took grounds against Van Buren and the party, which displeased Henry C. Murphy and other political lights of the time in Brooklyn, and, to put it in the common parlance, I was ‘bounced.’ I was editor at the EAGLE altogether about two years. I went down to New Orleans next and edited the Crescent a year. Then I returned to Brooklyn.

“My father was a carpenter and came into that trade by inheritance. So I set to work at it after I gave up editing newspapers. I built the building which is at 106 Myrtle avenue. Afterward I added an extension to it in the rear yard, where I did job printing in connection with my building enterprises. Before long, however, I got the chance to sell this place at quite a good penny and let it go. I had begun to think of making my fortune as a builder. I bought several lots on Cumberland street, between Fulton street and Atlantic avenues, where I put up five houses, all of which I sold at a good penny. I now had quite a little sum of money in hand. But I got a bee in my bonnet and took to the pen. I soon published ‘Leaves of Grass.’ I ought to have stuck to the building of houses and buying real estate. If I had I should be a man of means now. As it is I am only the author of ‘Leaves of Grass.’

“That is a book which is very well known,” said the lady visitor, in a low voice from her dark corner near the window. “I don’t believe anybody knows anything about those houses, Mr. Whitman.”

“No, I should think not,” said her husband, with emphasis. “Copies of the first edition of that volume are selling for about their weight in gold. I saw, only a day or two since, that one was sold at auction in London for $27.”

“I wish I had a hundred of them in hand,” said the author, laughing. “They cost me their weight when they were printed.”

In reply to a question about this first edition Mr. Whitman said it was put in type by two brothers — Scotchmen, named Boerum — who had a job printing office on the corner of Fulton and Cranberry streets. “They were just setting up in business and they were very anxious to get the work,” he continued. “I helped set part of the type myself. The edition was 1,000 copies — the ordinary edition of new books in those days. But there wasn’t a single copy sold, not a single copy. I couldn’t even give them all away. Many of them were returned to me with insulting letters.”

“Where do you suppose they have all gone?” the lady visitor asked.

“I haven’t any idea,” replied Mr. Whitman. “Where do the pins go? They all disappeared in a few years. I kept only one copy myself.,’

After the publication of “Leaves of Grass” Mr. Whitman became acquainted with most all of the younger generation of literary men across the river in New York, and especially with those who eventually enrolled themselves under the good fellowship of old Henry Clapp, who had been living a free and easy life in Paris and longed to establish a Bohemia in New York like Henry Murger’s “Vie de Boheme” in Paris. The headquarters — still well remembered — was at Pfaff’s restaurant in Broadway, near Bond st.

“I used to go to Pfaff’s nearly every night,” Mr. Whitman went on. “It used to be a pleasant place to go in the evening after taking a bath and finishing the work of the day. When it began to grow dark Pfaff would politely invite everybody who happened to be sitting in the cave he had under the sidewalk to some other part of the restaurant. There was a long table extending the length of this cave; and as soon as the Bohemians put in an appearance Henry Clapp would take a seat at the head of this table. I think there was as good talk around that table as took place anywhere in the world. Clapp was a very witty man. Fitz James O’Brien was very bright. Ned Wilkins, who used to be the dramatic critic of the Herald, was another bright man. There were between twenty-five and thirty journalists, authors, artists and actors who made up the company that took possession of the cave under the sidewalk. Pfaff himself I took a dislike to the first time I ever saw him. But my subsequent acquaintance with him taught me not to be too hasty in making up my mind about people on first sight. He turned out to be a very agreeable, kindly man in many ways. He was always kind to beggars and gave them food freely. Then he was easily moved to sympathise with any one who was in trouble and was generous with his money. I believe he was at that time the best judge of wine of anybody in this country.”

When the talk drifted around to inquiries how Mr. Whitman passes his time at present, the lady visitor asked him if he was writing anything.

“No,” he said, “I don’t write anything now. Any little task exhausts me. I keep up my spirits, but my strength won’t stand any extra demands. I go out to ride with my horse and carriage two or three hours every day. I don’t know how I could get on if I could not have that ride. It refreshes me a great deal. When at home I read much of the time, chiefly newspapers and magazines. Books tire me nowadays. I have got a volume of Scott’s poems, however, that I bought fifty years ago, which I read still more or less every week. A great many persons send me regularly papers, magazines and various publications. Mr. Gilder sends me The Century, which I find much pleasure in reading. I read everything that I find interesting, and I try to keep abreast of modern literature.”

“Did you read Froude’s ‘Life of Carlyle?'” was one of the questions asked.

“Yes, I read it with great interest, and I sent Froude a letter of thanks for the work. I think he executed a difficult task nobly. He has given a wonderfully vivid portraiture of Carlyle. I have read the ‘Reminiscences,’ Mrs. Carlyle’s ‘Correspondence,’ and much of the other work that has been published about Carlyle since his death. It hasn’t altered my respect for him in the least. On the contrary it has increased it. I can accept him, ill temper and all, just as he was.”

Mr. Whitman did not care to express any opinion about who of the present generation of American authors would be likely to be remembered fifty years hence. “Don’t ask me any questions,” he said; “for I can only answer you as I do people when they ask me about what I think happens after death. I have no opinion to offer. I have a curiosity to know.” He reads the novels of Howells, James, Miss Murfree and others, and whatever poetry comes along in the magazines. He had found, however, that James is growing rather tedious. Howells’ “Apprenticeship of Lemuel Baker” he considered entertaining, and he thought “The Prophet of Great Smoky Mountain,” by Miss Murfree an exceptionally strong and interesting book.

Mr. Whitman is very careful how he expresses an ill opinion about any one or their work. The lady visitor pronounced him a charming old gentleman; and this, it is declared, is the universal agreement of his neighbors and many acquaintances. He is popular; every one with whom he comes in contact likes him, whatever their mind may be respecting his published works. He is social, kindly and considerate, while thoroughly natural and unconventional. He has a large number of personal friends and many callers. His last appearance in public was at the Chestnut street Opera House in Philadelphia, the last day of April, the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, when he told of his acquaintance with Lincoln and read the well known poem, “My Captain, Oh, My Captain.” There was a large audience and Mr. Whitman took back to Camden with him for the entertainment he had afforded the Philadelphians about six hundred dollars. A good fortune has not incumbered him with worldly possessions; but he would take life very comfortably were he not under the constant dread of another attack of apoplexy. Since last Summer, when he had a slight attack of that nature, he has been cautious about going away from home. He cannot even drive his own horse, his strength is so uncertain. Until his friends, several months ago, presented him with the horse and phaeton, he was obliged to confine his journeys to the sidewalk in front of the house and to an occasional short ride in the uninviting bobtail horse cars that crawl around Camden’s dusty streets. One of his disappointments is the postponement indefinitely of the visiting of his many acquaintances and friends in England.

— F. B. S.

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