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CHAPTER IX “YEAR OF METEORS”
Abraham Lincoln, the man for whom the hour cried out, was not quite unknown to fame.[239] Ten years older than Whitman, and like Whitman owning to a strain of Quaker blood in his veins, he belonged by origin to the South and by adoption to the West. After six years’ service in the Illinois Legislature, and a term in the Lower House at Washington, he settled down at the age of forty to his profession as a country lawyer.

In 1854 the repeal of the Missouri compromise in favour of “squatter sovereignty” recalled him to political life, and he became the champion of Free-soil principles in his State, against the chief sponsor of the opposing doctrine, the “little giant of Illinois,” Judge Stephen Douglas. His reply to Douglas in October of that year was read and applauded by his party throughout America.

Hitherto he had been a Whig, and during Clay’s lifetime, his devoted follower, but the repeal of the compromise was followed in 1856 by the formation of a new party, and Lincoln and Whitman both became “black republicans”. “Barnburners,” Abolitionists and “Anti-Nebraska” men—those that is to say who opposed the application of the doctrine of “squatter sovereignty” to Nebraska and Kansas—had united to form a new Free-soil party. They nominated J. C. Frémont, the gallant Californian “Path-finder” for the Presidency; but, owing to the presence of a third candidate put forward[Pg 135] by the Know-nothing Whigs—whose only policy seems to have been a “patriotic” hatred of all Catholics and foreigners—the Democratic nominee was elected for the last time in a generation. After his four years were out, a succession of Republican Presidents occupied the White House for twenty-four years.

James Buchanan, who defeated Frémont—becoming like Lincoln, his successor, a minority President—seems to have been an honourable and well-intentioned Pennsylvanian, but he was a man whose character was quite insufficient for his new office. As an injudicious, short-sighted diplomatist, he had already, when minister at St. James’s in the days of President Pierce, commended his intrigues for the annexation of Cuba.

Earlier in 1856 Chief Justice Taney, of the Supreme Court, had delivered his notorious decision in the Dred Scott case; laying it down that Congress could not forbid a citizen to carry his property into the public domain—that is to say, it could not prohibit slavery in the territories—and that, in the political sense of the word, a negro was not a “man,” but only property. This decision and the bloody scenes enacted in Kansas, where settlers from the North and South were met to struggle for the constitution which should make the new State either slave or free, greatly exasperated public opinion, and called forth, among others, the protests of Abraham Lincoln.

In 1858, while Whitman was studying oratory, Lincoln was stumping Illinois, in those ever-memorable debates which laid bare all the plots and purposes of the Southern politicians. When the votes in that contest were counted, Lincoln held an actual majority; but Douglas was returned as Senator by a majority of the electoral votes. Though thus defeated, Lincoln was no longer hidden in a Western obscurity. He was a man with a future; and America had half-unconsciously recognised him.

Towards the close of 1859, the fire which had been kindled in Kansas flashed out suddenly in Virginia.[Pg 136] America was startled by the news of John Brown’s raid, and the capture of the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry.

Brown was among the most remarkable personalities of the time; and while some saw in him a religious fanatic of the Roundhead type, who compelled his enemies to pray at the muzzle of his musket, and who for the Abolition cause would shatter the union; others counted him a martyr for the cause of freedom. Emerson had been one of his most earnest backers when first he went to Kansas; and now his deed fired the enthusiasm of New England. Thoreau wrote: “No man in America has ever stood up so persistently and effectively for the dignity of human nature, knowing himself for a man, and the equal of any Government”; and when he was hung, it was Thoreau who vehemently declared that John Brown seemed to him to be the only man in America who had not died.[240] His high spirit quickened the conscience of the North, and two years later its sons marched into Virginia singing the song of his apotheosis.

Whitman was present at the trial of certain of Brown’s abettors in the State House at Boston;[241] one of a group prepared to effect their rescue in the event of a miscarriage of justice. Lincoln, on the other hand, was of those who, in spite of their intense hatred of slavery, wholly disapproved the Raid. For him, John Brown was a maddened enthusiast, a mere assassin like Orsini.[242] His attempt to raise the slaves of Virginia in revolt against the whites was abhorrent to the Republican statesman whose knowledge of the South showed him the horrors of a negro rising. Regarding slavery as the irreconcilable and only dangerous foe of the Republic, Lincoln held that the Federal Government must restrain it within its actual bounds; and that the sentiment in favour of gradual emancipation advocated by Jefferson, the father of the Democratic party, should be encouraged in the States of the South. But it was the States themselves that held and must hold the fatal[Pg 137] right of choice; it was for them, not for America, to liberate their slaves.

While the figure of Lincoln was thus becoming more and more visible to the nation, Whitman was fulfilling his own destiny in New York. He was born to be a leader of men; but a poet, a path-finder, a pioneer, not a politician or president. Whatever his noble ambition might urge, or his quick imagination prompt, he kept his feet to the path of his proper destiny.

He had a prodigiously wide circle of friends, gathered from every walk of life: journalists and literary men of all kinds; actors and actresses; doctors and an occasional minister of religion; political and public characters; the stage-drivers and the hands on the river-boats; farmers from the country; pilots and captains of the port; labourers, mechanics and artisans of every trade; loungers too, and many a member of that class which society has failed to assimilate and which it hunts from prison to asylum and poor-house; and he had acquaintances among another class of outcasts whose numbers were already an open menace to the life of the Western metropolis, the girls who sell themselves upon the streets.[243]

Many anecdotes are told of him during these years: how for instance he would steer the ferry-boats, till once he brought his vessel into imminent peril, and never thereafter would consent to handle the wheel; or how, during the illness of a comrade, he held his post, driving his stage in the winter weather while he lay in the wards of the hospital; or again, how he took Emerson to a favourite rendezvous of firemen and teamsters, his good friends, and to the astonishment of the kindly sage, proved himself manifestly one of them.

A doctor at the old New York Hospital,[244] a dark stone building surmounted by a cupola, and looking out over a grassy square through iron gates upon Pearl Street,[Pg 138] often met him in the wards, where he came to visit one or other of his driver friends, and enjoyed the restful influence of his presence there or in the little house-doctor’s room. In those days, when Broadway was crammed with vehicles and with stages of all colours, much as is the Strand to-day, the proverbial American daring and recklessness gave ample opportunity for accidents. As to the drivers, they were generally country-bred farmers’ sons, fine fellows, wide-awake and thoroughly conversant with all that passed in the city from the earliest grey of dawn till midnight: and Whitman found some of his closest comrades in their ranks.

Sometimes a member of the hospital staff would go over with him to Pfaff’s German restaurant or Rathskeller on Broadway; a large dingy basement to which one descended from the street. Here, half under the pavement, were the tables, bar and oyster stall, whereat the Bohemians of New York were wont to gather, and in a yellow fog of tobacco-smoke denounce all things Bostonian. John Swinton, a friend of Alcott and of Whitman, belonged to the group,[245] and among those who drank Herr Pfaff’s lager-beer, and demolished his schwartz brod, Swiss cheese, and Frankfurter wurst, were many of the brilliant little band which at this time was making the New York Saturday Press a challenge to everything academic and respectable.

It was here that a young Bostonian, paying his first visit to the city in 1860,[246] found Whitman installed at the head of a long table, already a hero in that revolutionary young world. The Press was his champion, and his voice was not to be silenced. Mr. Howells, for it was he, had been amused and amazed at the ferociously profane Bohemianism of the worthy editor, who had lived in Paris, and now worshipped it in the person of Victor Hugo as much as he detested Longfellow and Boston.

Mr. Howells was astonished and deeply impressed by[Pg 139] the extraordinary charm, gentleness and benignity of the man whom the Press was extolling as arch-anarch and rebel. Whitman’s eyes and voice made a frank and irresistible proffer of friendship, and he gave you his hand as though it were yours to keep. An atmosphere of unmistakable purity emanated from him in the midst of that thickness of smoke, that reek of beer and oysters and German cooking. He was clean as the sea is clean. He passed along the ordinary levels of life as one who lives among the mountains, and finds his home on Helicon or Olympus.

Ada Clare[247] (Mrs. Julia Macelhinney), by all accounts a charming and brilliant woman, was queen of this rebel circle, and especially a friend of Whitman’s. News of her tragic death from hydrophobia, caused by the bite of her pet dog, came as a terrible shock to all who had known her. He had other women friends, notably Mrs. “Abby” Price, of Brooklyn, and her two daughters.[248] The mother was an incurable lover of her kind, whose hospitality to the outcast survived all the frauds practised upon it.

The haunted faces of the needy were becoming only too familiar both in New York and Brooklyn. The winter of 1857-58 had been a black one:[249] banks had broken, and work had come to a standstill; and there had been in consequence the direst need among the ever-increasing class of men who were wholly dependent upon their weekly earnings. The rise of this class in a new country marks the advent of the social problem in its more acute form: and from this date on there was a rapid development of the usual palliative agencies, missions, rescue-homes and what-not. The permanent problem of poverty had made its appearance in America.

It need hardly be added that at the same time there were many evidences of the growing wealth of another class of the citizens, those whose profits were derived from land-values and the employment of wage-labour. The brown-stone characteristic of the modern city was now[Pg 140] replacing the wood and brick which had hitherto lined Broadway,[250] as private houses gave way to shops and offices, hotels and theatres. Residences were built farther and farther up-town; and the Quarantine Station on Staten Island, which stood in the way of a similar expansion in that desirable quarter, was burnt out by aspiring citizens. And meanwhile the pressure of life in the East-side rookeries was growing more and more tyrannous.

The foundering of a slave-ship off Montauk Point was one of the more striking reminders of the menace of vested interests to all that the fathers of the Republic had held dear.[251] For even the slave trade was now being revived, and the hands of Northern merchants were anything but clean from the gold of conspiracy. Sympathy for the “institution” and its corollaries was strong in New York, and was not unrepresented at Pfaff’s. It must have been about the close of 1861,[252] or a little later, that one of the Bohemians proposed a toast to the success of the Southern arms. Whitman retorted with indignant and passionate words: an altercation ensued across the table, with some show of ill-mannered violence by the Southern enthusiast; and Whitman left his old haunt, never to return till the great storm of the war had become a far-away echo.
Picture of Walt at forty.

WHITMAN AT FORTY

There are two portraits which belong to the Pfaffian days. In either he might be the stage-driver of Broadway, and his dress presents a striking contrast with the stiff gentility of the orthodox costume, the silk hat and broadcloth, of the correct citizen. He is a great nonchalant fellow, with rough clothes fit for manual toil; a coat whose collar, by the way, has a rebellious upward turn; a waistcoat, all unbuttoned save at a point about half-way down, exposing the loose-collared shirt surrounded by a big knotted tie. The trousers are of the same striped stuff as the vest; one hand is thrust into a pocket, the other holds his broad brim.

In the photograph, which alone is of full length, the[Pg 141] face is strong and kindly, as Mr. Howells saw it; but in the painting, which dates from 1859,[253] and is valuable as showing the florid colouring of the man at this time—the growth of hair and beard, though touched with grey, very vigorous and still dark, the eyebrows almost black, the face handsome, red and full as of an old-time sea-captain—the aspect is heavy and even a little sinister. Probably this is a clumsy rendering of that lethargic and brooding condition which the occupation of sitting for a portrait would be likely to induce; and in this it is curiously unlike that of the photograph.

The pose in the latter is unstudied and a little awkward; one cannot help feeling that the man ought to loaf a little less. The head is magnificent, but the knees are loose. There was something in Whitman’s character which this full-length portrait indicates better than any other; something indefinite and complacent, which matched with his deliberate and swaggery gait. It is a quality which exasperates the formalists, and all the people who feel positively indecent in anything but a starched shirt.

Whitman wore the garb and fell naturally into the attitudes of the manual worker. When he was not at work he was relaxed, and stood at ease in a way that no one could mistake. And when he went out to enjoy himself he never donned a tail-coat and patent shoes. Something in this very capacity for relaxation and looseness at the knees made him more companionable to the average man, as it made him more exasperating to the superior person. The gentility of the clerical mannikin of the office was utterly abominable to him; so much one can read in the portrait, and in the fact that he persisted in calling himself Walt, the name which was familiar to the men on the ferry and the road.[254]

Early in 1860 Whitman made arrangements with a firm of young and enterprising Boston publishers for[Pg 142] the issue of a third edition of his book. It had now been out of print for nearly three years, and new material had all that time been accumulating, amounting to about two-thirds of what had already been published.

He went over to Boston and installed himself in a little room at the printing office, where he spent his days carefully correcting and revising the proofs. A friend who found him there speaks of his very quiet manners.[255] He rarely laughed, and never loudly. He seemed to be provokingly indifferent to the impression he was creating, and made no effort to talk brilliantly. He was indeed quite bare of the small change of conversation, and gave no impression of self-consciousness. At the time of this interview he was accompanied by a sickly listless lad whom he had found at the boarding-house where he stayed. Whitman had compassion on him and carried him along, in order that he might communicate something of his own superabundant vitality to him.

During his stay in Boston, Walt frequently attended the services then conducted at the Seamen’s Bethel by Father Taylor.[256] As a rule, he avoided churches of every sort, feeling acutely the ineffectiveness of what is grimly called “Divine Service,” feeling also that worship was for the soul in its solitude.[257] Not that he was ignorant of that social passion which finds its altar in communion of spirit, or was blind to the deepest mysteries of fellowship. To these, as we shall see, he was particularly sensitive. But the formalities of a church must have seemed foolish and irksome to one for whom all fellowship was a kind of worship, and all desire was a prayer. In the preaching of Father Taylor there was nothing formal or ineffective. In it Walt felt anew the passionate sense of reality which had thrilled him as a child in the preaching of old Elias Hicks.

Father Taylor was now nearly seventy;[258] a southerner by birth, he had been a sailor, and became upon conver[Pg 143]sion a “shouting Methodist”. The earnestness of his first devotion remained with him to the last; and his prayers were especially marked by the power which flowed from him continually. Behind the high pulpit in the quaint heavily-timbered, wood-scented chapel was painted a ship in distress, in vivid illustration of his words which were ever returning to the sea. All his ways were eloquent, unconventional, picturesque and homely like his face, so that he won the hearts of all conditions of men, and became one of the idols of Boston.

The old man’s power of fascination seemed almost terrible to his hearers; one young sailor opined that he must be the actual Holy Ghost. Walt himself was always moved to tears by the marvellous intimacy of his passionate pleading in prayer.[259] He spoke straight to the Soul, and not at all, as do common preachers, to the intelligence or the superficial emotions; and the Soul of his hearers answered, with the awful promptitude of an unknown living presence within. His passion of love was at once tender and remorseless; Whitman compares him with a surgeon operating upon a beloved patient.

In this man, before whom all the elocution of the platform was mere trickery, Walt recognised the one “essentially perfect orator” whom he had ever heard, the only one who fulfilled the demands of his own ideal. And be it remembered, Theodore Parker was in his power in those days, while Father Taylor was an evangelical of the old school. It is, after all, not mysticism but orthodoxy which is exclusive; and though he was wholly a heretic, Whitman was able fully to love and appreciate those who were farthest removed from his own point of view.

Upon this visit Emerson and Whitman saw much of one another. They were both men in middle life—Emerson had passed his fiftieth year—and each entertained for the other a feeling of warm and affectionate[Pg 144] regard. Whitman felt toward the older man almost as to an elder brother,[260] and the sweet and wise and kindly spirit of Emerson frequently sought out the younger in brotherly solicitude for his welfare.

Their intimacy had sprung from Emerson’s letter, and it was always Emerson who pressed it. Something in the mental atmosphere in which the Concord philosopher moved was very repellant to Whitman: he positively disliked “a literary circle,” and blamed it for all the real or imagined shortcomings of his friend. He himself would not go to Concord from his horror of any sort of lionizing.

So when Emerson wanted to talk, they would walk together on the Common;[261] as on one memorable, bright, keen February day, when under the bare branches of the American elms, they paced to and fro discoursing earnestly.

Emerson’s name had been somewhat too conspicuously displayed on the back of the second edition, of which he had been caused to appear almost as a sponsor; and some of the lines thus introduced had put his Puritan friends completely out of countenance, while giving his many enemies an admirable opportunity to blaspheme. The frank celebration of acts to which modern society only alludes by indirection, revealed to the observant eye of orthodoxy that cloven hoof of immorality which it always suspects concealed about the person of the philosophic heretic. And we can well imagine the consternation of the blameless householder of Boston as, in the bosom of his astonished family, he read aloud the pages commended to him by the words of the master.

It was thus upon Emerson, who did not quite approve the offending poems, that much of the storm of indignation wreaked itself; and whatever Emerson himself might think of the situation, his family was indignant. One can almost hear them arguing that a man has heresies enough of his own to close the ears of men to[Pg 145] his message, without gratuitous implication in heresies which are not his; if he value his charge, let him keep clear of other men’s eccentricities; he really has no right to allow himself to be represented as the sponsor for such sentiments as Whitman printed in the Body Electric.[262]

But whatever his friends might counsel, Emerson spoke from his own heart and wisdom that February day. He was pleading not for himself, but for the truth as he saw it, and for his offending friend. It was not because the book was being published as it were in his own diocese, his own beloved Boston; but because the new edition would be the first to be issued by a responsible house, and destined, probably, to enjoy a wide and permanent circulation, remaining for years the final utterance of Whitman upon these matters, that Emerson was so urgent and so eloquent.

His position was a strong one; his arguments, and the spirit which prompted them, were, as Whitman admitted, overwhelming, and his companion was in a sense convinced. It is much to be regretted that neither of the friends kept any detailed record of this discussion, but I think we can guess what the older man’s position would be.

Your message of the soul, we can imagine Emerson saying, is of the utmost importance to America: it is what America needs, and it is what you, and you alone, can make her hear. But you can only make her hear it, if you state it in the most convincing and simple way.

Now these poems of yours upon sex complicate and confuse the real message, not because they are necessarily wrong in themselves—I do not say they are—but because they do and must give rise to misunderstanding, and in consequence, obscure or even cancel the rest. They give the book an evil notoriety, and will create for it a succès de scandale. It will be bought and read by the prurient, to whom its worth will be wholly sealed.

And not only do you destroy the value of the book[Pg 146] by printing such poems as these, you render it actually dangerous. Personally you and I are agreed—he would say—with Boehme where he writes that “the new spirit cometh to Divine vision in himself, and heareth God’s word, and hath Divine understanding and inclination ... and ... the earthly flesh ... hurteth him not at all”.[263] We know the flesh to be beautiful and sacred; we turn with loathing from the blasphemies of Saint Bernard and of Luther, who saw in it nothing but a maggot-sack, a sack of dung. On these things we are at one; but how are we most wisely and surely to direct others on the road to self-realisation?

To feed the monster of a crude passion is surely not the way to bring the individual toward the Divine vision. To be frank about these matters is necessary; but in order to be honest is it necessary to fling abroad this wildfire, against which we are all contending, lest it destroy the labours of ages? Must we nourish this giant, whose unruly strength is for ever threatening to tear in pieces the unity of the self?

By these poems you are deliberately consigning your book to the class which every wise parent must label “dangerous to young people,” and which the very spirits you most desire to kindle for America will be compelled, by the law of their being, to handle at their peril, and to turn from with distress.

Arguments not unlike these were doubtless used by Emerson, for we know that he discussed this problem; and Whitman listened attentively to them, explaining himself at times, but generally weighing them in silence. Perhaps they were not new to him, but they were rendered the more powerful and well-nigh irresistible by the persuasive and beautiful spirit, the whole magnetic personality of his friend.

Walt was deeply moved, and when, after a couple of hours, Emerson concluded the statement of his case with the challenge, “What have you to say to such[Pg 147] things?” could but reply, “Only that while I can’t answer them at all, I feel more settled than ever to adhere to my own theory and exemplify it”. “Very well,” responded Emerson cheerfully, “then let us go to dinner.”[264]

They had been pacing up and down the Long Walk by Beacon Street, from which one looks across the broad, park-like stretch of the Common—that Common whose grey, bright-eyed squirrels are so confiding, and whose air is so good from the sea. To-day the oldest of the elms, that kept record of the past as wisely as any archives, have yielded to the winds and to the tooth of time. The growth of these trees is very different from that of our English species, and their long, curving branches rib the vault of sky overhead. The two men went over the historic hill—where now the gilded dome of the State House glows richly against the sky—descending through picturesquely narrow streets, full of memories and echoes of old days, to their destination at the American House.


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