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To the reader, and especially to the critical reader, it would seem but courteous to give at the beginning of my book some indication of its purpose. It makes no attempt to fill the place either of a critical study or a definitive biography. Though Whitman died thirteen years ago, the time has not yet come for a final and complete life to be written; and when the hour shall arrive we must, I think, look to some American interpreter for the volume. For Whitman’s life is of a strongly American flavour. Instead of such a book I offer a biographical study from the point of view of an Englishman, yet of an Englishman who loves the Republic. I have not attempted, except parenthetically here and there, to make literary decisions on the value of Whitman’s work, partly because he still remains an innovator upon whose case the jury of the years must decide—a jury which is not yet complete; and partly because I am not myself a literary critic. It is as a man that I see and have sought to describe Whitman. But as a man of special and exceptional character, a new type of mystic or seer. And[Pg viii] the conviction that he belongs to the order of initiates has dragged me on to confessedly difficult ground.

Again, while seeking to avoid excursions into literary criticism, it has seemed to me to be impossible to draw a real portrait of the man without attempting some interpretation of his books and the quotation from them of characteristic passages, for they are the record of his personal attitude towards the problems most intimately affecting his life. I trust that this part of my work may at any rate offer some suggestions to the serious student of Whitman. Since he touched life at many points, it has been full of pitfalls; and if among them I should prove but a blind leader, I can only hope that those who follow will keep open eyes.

Whitman has made his biography the more difficult to write by demanding that he should be studied in relation to his time; to fulfil this requirement was beyond my scope, but I have here and there suggested the more notable outlines, within which the reader will supply details from his own memory. As I have written especially for my own countrymen, I have ventured to remind the reader of some of those elementary facts of American history of which we English are too easily forgetful.

The most important chapters of Whitman’s life have been written by himself, and will be found scattered over his complete works. To these the following pages are intended as a modest supplement and commentary. Already[Pg ix] the Whitman literature has become extensive, but, save in brief sketches, no picture of his whole life in which one may trace with any detail the process of its development seems as yet to exist. In this country the only competent studies which have appeared are that of the late Mr. Symonds, which devotes some twenty pages to biographical matters, and the admirable and suggestive little manual of the late Mr. William Clarke. Both books are some twelve years old, and in those years not a little new material has become available, notably that which is collected in the ten-volume edition of Whitman’s works, and in the book known as In re Walt Whitman. On these and on essays printed in the Conservator and in the Whitman Fellowship Papers I have freely drawn for the following pages.

Of American studies the late Dr. Bucke’s still, after twenty years, easily holds the first place. Beside it stand those of Mr. John Burroughs, and Mr. W. S. Kennedy. To these, and to the kind offices of the authors of the two last named, my book owes much of any value it may possess. I have also been assisted by the published reminiscences of Mr. J. T. Trowbridge, Mr. Moncure Conway, and Mr. Thomas Donaldson, and by the recently published Diary in Canada (edited by Mr. Kennedy), and Dr. I. H. Platt’s Beacon Biography of the poet.

Since I never met Walt Whitman I am especially indebted to his friends for the personal details with which they have so generously[Pg x] furnished me: beside those already named, to Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Johnston, Mr. J. Hubley Ashton, Mrs. W. S. Kennedy, Mrs. E. M. Calder, Mr. and Mrs. (Stafford) Browning of Haddonfield (Glendale), Mr. John Fleet of Huntington, Captain Lindell of the Camden Ferry, and to Mr. Peter G. Doyle; but especially to Whitman’s surviving executors and my kind friends, Mr. T. B. Harned and Mr. Horace Traubel. To these last, and to Mr. Laurens Maynard, of the firm of Messrs. Small, Maynard & Co., the publishers of the final edition of Whitman’s works, I am indebted for generous permission to use and reproduce photographs in their possession. I also beg to make my acknowledgments to Mr. David McKay and Mr. Gutekunst, both of Philadelphia.

Helpful suggestions and information have been most kindly given by my American friends, Mr. Edwin Markham, Professor E. H. Griggs, Mr. Ernest Crosby, Dr. George Herron, Professor Rufus M. Jones of Haverford, Mr. C. F. Jenkins of Germantown, and Mr. and Mrs. David Thompson of Washington. Mr. Benjamin D. Hicks of Long Island has repeatedly replied to my various and troublesome inquiries as to the Quaker ancestry of Walt Whitman, and Dr. E. Pardee Bucke has furnished me with an admirable sketch of his father Dr. R. M. Bucke’s life and the photograph which I have reproduced. In England also there are many to whom I would here offer my most grateful thanks. And first, to Mr. Edward Carpenter, whose own work has always been my best of[Pg xi] guides in the study of Whitman’s, and whose records of his interviews with the old poet in Camden have given me more insight into his character than any other words but Whitman’s own. He has also read the MS., and aided me by numberless suggestions. Mrs. Bernard Berenson, who for some years enjoyed the old man’s friendship, has supplied me with an invaluable picture of his relations with her father, the late Mr. Pearsall Smith, and his family, and has generously lent me various letters in her possession, and permitted me to make reproductions from them. Mr. J. W. Wallace, of the “Bolton group,” has allowed me to read and use his manuscript description of a visit to Camden in 1891; and another of the same brotherhood, Dr. J. Johnston, whose admirable account of a similar series of interviews in the preceding year is well known by Whitman students, has supplied me with a photograph of the little Mickle Street house as it then was.

To Mr. William M. Rossetti and to Mr. Ernest Rhys I am indebted for valuable suggestions; and for similar help to my friends, Professor W. H. Hudson and Messrs. Arthur Sherwell, B. Kirkman Gray and C. F. Mott. Finally, the book owes much more than I can say to my wife.

While gratefully acknowledging the assistance of all these and others unnamed, I confess that I am alone responsible for the general accuracy of my statements, and the book’s point of view, and I wish especially to relieve the personal friends of Whitman from any responsibility for[Pg xii] the hypothesis relating to his sojourn in the South, beyond what is stated in the Appendix. To all actual sins of commission and omission I plead guilty, trusting that for the sympathetic reader they may eventually be blotted out in the light which, obscured though it be, still shines upon my pages from the personality of Walt Whitman.
H. B. B.

London, January, 1905.


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