Essays and Reviews
by Terry Whalen
"The Modern Athenium"
107 North Portland avenue, June 14 . Dear Son-I
got home all right Saturday night-and have been having
quite a good time. There is nothing very new-mother
is well as usual. I shall print my college poem in a
small book -it will be small-and is intended as the
beginning of a larger one-I am having it set up at the
printing office-will send you one in ten or twelve days.
Pete, how are you getting along?-I suppose on 14 the
same as when I was there-I see by the papers that the
head men have mostly migrated from Washington, and that
it is said to be hot and dull enough there. Do you see
anything of Mr. Tazistro? I received the letter he sent
to the office for me. I am writing this in the house
on Portland avenue. We are having a showery afternoon.
Good-by, my darling boy-and I will try to write again
soon (and a more interesting letter). Walt."
is the letter I find on opening at random the new volume
of letters of Walt Whitman to his young friend Peter
Doyle. It is not a letter, certainly, of any startling
literary quality or intrinsic interest. Barring the
signature, it is not the sort of letter which would
arrest attention, or invite one to read further. It
is, indeed, startlingly commonplace, startlingly illiterate,
for the man who could say "Afoot and lighthearted,
I take to the open road."
us see what he will do when he tries "to write
a more interesting letter." I transcribe the one
next following, written four days later.
June 18, 1872.
Pete-I am having a better time here than I had my last
visit. The weather is very pleasant-pretty hot during
the middle of the day, but mornings and nights perfect.
No moonlight walks out beyond Uniontown here-but I go
on the river and cross to and fro in the pilot house.
Last night was beautiful. Saturday I spent at Coney
Island-went in swimming. Mother is only middling-has
some pretty bad spells with rheumatism- will break up
here and go with my brother George to Camden, N.J.,
in September. I suppose you got a letter from me last
Saturday, as I wrote you the day before. Pete, dear
son, if you should want any of your money send me word.
It is either $120 or $130 (I am not sure, but I have
a memorandum in my desk at Washington). I am feeling
real well, and hope you are, too, my loving boy. Walt."
this is not much more interesting than the other, and
yet they are both very fair examples of the whole correspondence,
which ranges from year 1868 to 1880, and embraces over
a hundred letters and notes. I fancy the average reader
of ordinary culture will lay the book down with a strange
surprise. I confess that I did; and I venture to take
myself, not as a critic at all, but merely as an average
reader, one of the thousands of persons of ordinary
education who read new books, and care something for
poetry and prose, and care to know something of the
poets and prose writers of their own time. One who has
the habit of reading, even slightly developed (and,
perhaps, more slightly pursued), will have had the preconceived
notion of a man of letters, as a man of some scholarship,
some critical insight, some philosophic bent, however
small. He will expect to find in any leading writer
a modicum of entertainment or instruction, a grace of
diction, a felicity of phrase, a force of expression,
an incisiveness of thought. He will hope to come side
by side with a trained mind which can help him in the
perplexities of life, or which at least; can offer him
some amusement. He will, in short, expect to find in
his man of letters a person of more learning and weight
than himself. When he recalls the large array of English
writers, he thinks of them surely as men of greater
distinction and learning than their fellows; of greater
refinement, of greater culture, of surer taste. Their
books, which he fondly calls immortal, seem to him something
far other and better than he himself could produce;
he holds them in a regard almost amounting to reverence.
To such a reader the poems of Whitman, however strange
they may seem at first, must in the long run make some
appeal. He must come to feel, unless he be hopelessly
blind, that here, amid all its crudities, there was
at least originality, force, imagination, sincerity
and truth. He must come to feel the genius of Whitman.
And he will feel it, if you please, in spite of, not
because of, these crudities, these violences, these
infelicities and absurdities which our friends, the
Whitmanites, would persuade us to accept.
in the letters there is not a ray of genius, not a spark
of wit, not a trace of critical insight, or philosophic
ability, or interesting discourse whatever. There is
an interminable waste of small talk, tedious, flat,
and humorless to a degree. As a side light on Whitman's
character, as a help to estimating his genius, the little
book is invaluable, as a contribution to American letters,
to that body of original literary work which we have
added to the English language, they have not the least
value whatever. So that I say, thinking of Whitman's
considerable fame and his more considerable worth as
a poet, one reads these letters with a strange surprise.
it possible that the same man could have written "Leaves
of Grass," that prophetic book, and in his commoner
moments have penned these ungrammatical pages of trivialities?
it seems. And I wish I could reconcile the two phenomena.
Let us admit for a moment that the letters are as worthless
as I say. What then? Other great writers have written
sorry productions before now, and we try not to let
that influence our judgment of their better things.
When we think of Wordsworth, we think of the "Immortality
Ode" and the poem on daffodils,
wandered lonely as a cloud,"
a dozen beautiful lyrics, which remain unsurpassable;
we forget the yards of tiresome verse which he persisted
in producing without the assistance of the muse-without
the breath of God, if I may say so.
leave his musty platitudes to our friends the Wordsworthians.
And so, in a different way, with Browning. Granted that
he was the greatest of the Victorians; granted that
the greater part of voluminous work is so keen and lyrical
and so full of vitality that we cannot imagine it ever
going into oblivion; nevertheless there are whole passages,
whole poems, that we could spare without a pang. When
we think of Browning, we think of "Home Thoughts
from Abroad," or "A Death in the Desert,"
or a score of other masterpieces of poetry; we do not
think of "Mr. Sludge the Medium." We leave
that for the Browning societies.
too, of Whitman. Whatever time cares to preserve of
his poetry will endure. Whatever is necessary and beautiful
to men in it will never be allowed to perish. And for
the rest, for the mistaken and inept vagaries of illiteracy
and caprice, who cares? They will atrophy and drop away
under the gentle treatment of oblivion. We shall still
have the inspiriting strain of his manly call for freedom;
we shall still have the riches of his wholesome and
rugged poetry. And that is surely enough.
even that hardly reconciles a lover of literature to
this "Calamus," as the volume of letters is
called. I fancy I see in every man of genius two men-the
man and the genius. These two are not altogether separate
and distinct; on the contrary, they are most intimately
related; and the acts of the one have always an endurance
on the other. Sometimes one may be in ascendant; sometimes
the other; sometimes they may be almost at a dead point
of balance; or again, one may be almost wholly crowded
out by the other. But there they are, neither one ever
wholly absent. No; I am wrong. The character of the
man in never wholly absent from his doings; the character
of his genius very often is. But certainly the character
of the genius is most wayward and indiscriminate in
its choice of a companion, and takes up its habitation
with the most unlikely mates. There was the genius of
David, which mated with an immoral king; the genius
of Omar, which mated with an astronomer; the genius
of Marcus Aurelius, which mated with a Roman emperor;
the genius of Herrick, which mated with a parson; the
genius of Burns, which mated with a roisterer; the genius
which was mated to an Oxford man; the genius of Browning,
which was mated to a philosopher and a man about town.
Now the genius of Whitman was mated to an honest, sober,
hale, illiterate working man, who in his letters to
his most intimate friend talks chiefly of what he has
had for breakfast, and finds his amusement in riding
up and down Broadway on a street car.
Friday noon, Feb. 23, 1872.
Son-Your letter received this morning speaks of the
mild weather there-but it has been and remains very
cold here-so much so that I don't go around half as
much as I would like. My cold hangs on, though not so
bad as at first. The state of the weather, and my cold,
etc., have rather blocked me from having my usual enjoyment
here so far-but I expect to make up for it by-and-by.
Dear son, I see you are off-I take it by your letter
that you are feeling well in health, and having as good
a time as the law allows-I wish we could be together
there, some of these moonlight nights-but here it is
too cold for comfort-(the water pipes here froze again
last night, causing trouble). I go out a couple of hours
middle of the day, but keep in nights. I have got the
new edition of my book under way, and it will be satisfactory
I think. It will be in one volume, and will make a better
appearance than any of the former ones. Do you go up
to the debates in the Senate? I see by the papers they
are having high times; Senator Schurz appears to come
out ahead of them all; he is a real good speaker. I
enjoy the way he skakes them up (very much like a first-class
terrier in a pit, with a lot of rats). Pete, I send
you $10 enclosed, as you may need it. Should you want
more, you write, as I have plenty. I am writing this
up in my back-room, home; have had a nice breakfast
of hot potatoes and first-rate Oregon salmon with the
best coffee that's made-home-made bread and sweet butter-everything
tip-top; get along well enough, you must try to do the
same; so good-by for this time, my own loving boy.
not a ray of genius anywhere; only the simple guileless
babble of one car driver to another. If the ordinary
character of Whitman was obtrusively in evidence in
his poems, to the detriment and exclusion of his fine
genius, certainly in these homely letters the genius
has been driven out altogether, to give place to the
everyday man. But there is in them, nevertheless, one
laudable trait; they are full of contentment. There
is not a peevish word in them from cover to cover, not
a complaint. The wonder is that he could have had the
lyric impulse and high enterprise of his poetry, and
yet maintain himself in serenity among surroundings
the least ęsthetic in the world. The beauties of nature
did not seem needful to him; of the beauties of art
he was as ignorant as a child. His was a human nature
unsophisticated and unspoiled. He had all the brawny
simple directness of the uneducated classes. He cared
nothing for art or culture in our smaller critical sense;
he knew nothing of the delicacy and amenity and finesse
of the intricate human relation; he sought only the
simplest facts of life; and while he professed to stand
for broad Democracy in this country, there was a whole
class of his fellow citizens to whose interests he was
a stranger; he had no eye for the dramatic phases of
life in its more attenuated, but no less real necessary
I wander from Whitman's letters into the endless jungle
of Whitmanology. I see myself, in a few paragraphs more,
hopelessly mired in the bog of personal preference with
the Whitman fellowship in full cry at my heels. And
before that unfortunate day arrives, let me say that
Dr. Buche and Mr. Maynard have done a service to criticism
in putting this little book together. The interview
with Peter Doyle is of particular value. Though, it
is true, Mr. Doyle has said one or two things that are
not altogether fortunate.
instance, he is reported as saying, "I never knew
a case of Walt's being bothered up by a woman. In fact,
he had nothing special to do with any woman except Mrs.
O'Connor and Mrs. Burroughs. His disposition was different.
Woman in that sense never came into his head. Walt was
too clean, he hated anything which was not clean. No
trace of any kind of dissipation in him."
is pleasing to know that Walt was never "bothered
up by a woman"; but to say that, "Walt was
too clean,"-that is an unhappy sentence for his
devoted followers. I should think it would make the
Whitman Fellowship writhe in their chairs.
"The Modern Athenium" column, Boston Evening
Transcript, June 5, 1897 [back]