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CHAPTER XIX HE BECOMES A HOUSEHOLDER

Emerson and Longfellow died within six months of Whitman’s Boston visit; the former being buried in that graveyard at Sleepy Hollow where Walt had so recently stood by the green mounds that mark the resting-places of Hawthorne and of Thoreau.[652] Carlyle had died a year earlier; Carlyle who so deeply impressed his impetuous pathetic personality upon all that he handled, and who was one of the principal literary influences upon Whitman during his later years, as Emerson had doubtless been an inspiration in the earlier. And while Walt had been working on the Osgood proof-sheets, James Garfield, the friend who used to hail him as he passed on Pennsylvania Avenue riding with Pete Doyle, shouting out some tag from the Leaves, and who had now become President of the United States, died amid the mourning of the nation.

Whitman’s daily life had been poorer these last two or three years, since Mrs. Gilchrist’s return to England, but new friends were continually added to his circle. Among these was Mr. W. S. Kennedy, who was working for awhile on one of the Philadelphia papers, and has since published a notable collection of reminiscences and memoranda of his relations with the Camden poet.

The Christmas of 1882[653] brought him a delightful gift in the friendship of a Quaker family. Mr. Pearsall Smith was a wealthy Philadelphia glass merchant, who with his wife had, till recently, been a member of the[Pg 302] Society of Friends. He had had a remarkable career as an evangelist, both in his own country and in Europe; his eloquence and magnetic personality having been instrumental in changing the course of many lives. His wife also was an active worker in the fields of religion and philanthropy; and their home in Germantown—one of the suburbs of Philadelphia most remote in every sense from plebeian Camden—became a meeting-place for men and women interested and engaged in the work of reform. By this time, however, Mr. Pearsall Smith himself, finding in human nature more forces than were accounted for in the evangelical philosophy, had withdrawn from active participation in its labours.

The elder of his daughters, Miss Mary Whitall Smith, a thoughtful and enthusiastic college girl, came back from New England, where she was studying, fired by a determination to meet Walt Whitman. Her parents discovered with dismay that she had read the Leaves, at first with the consternation proper to her Quaker training, but later with ardour. Respectable Philadelphians, and especially members of the Society of Friends, were disposed to regard the poet as an outrageous, dangerous person, who lived in a low place, among disreputable and vulgar associates. His works were classed by them with the wares of obscene book-vendors, as absolutely impossible.

The parents’ consternation at their daughter’s resolve may well be imagined. But being wise parents, they were prepared to learn; and Mr. Smith eventually drove her over in a stylish carriage behind a pair of excellent horses.
Picture of Mary Whitall Smith (Mrs. Berenson) in 1884.

MARY WHITALL SMITH (MRS. BERENSON) IN 1884

They found Whitman at home. He descended slowly, leaning on his stick, to the little stuffy parlour where they were waiting; and with a kindly, affectionate amusement received the girl’s homage. Her father immediately and impulsively asked the old man to drive back and spend the night with them. This was the spontaneous kind of hospitality which most delighted Walt, and after a moment’s hesitation, in which he weighed the matter, he decided in favour of his new friends and[Pg 303] their excellent equipage. His sister-in-law quickly produced the boots and other necessaries, and they set forth. Whitman loved to drive and to be driven, and as he sat on the back seat by his adoring young friend, he heartily enjoyed the whole situation. It was indeed enough to warm an old man’s heart.

After listening to her avowals, he recommended Miss Smith to study Emerson and Thoreau, but was evidently well pleased with her praise. Genuine devotion he always accepted.

He stayed a couple of days on this occasion; delighting in long drives along the Wissahickon Creek, and showing himself very much at home among the young people of the household.

From this time on, and until the family left for England in 1886, he was their frequent visitor; and in later years—while reverently remembering Mrs. Gilchrist, who died in 1885—he came to speak of Mary Whitall Smith as his “staunchest living woman friend”. His letters to her father also are evidences of a close intimacy between the two men. Thus it seems permissible to speak here at greater length than usual of their relations, which serve besides to illustrate others not less affectionate.

Often during the college vacations, when the house was filled with merry young folk, Whitman would sit in the hall to catch the sounds of their laughter, enhanced by a little distance; or from his corner, leaning upon his stick, he would look on for hours together while they danced. Spirits ran high on these occasions, and all the higher for his smiling presence. He enjoyed everything, and not least the wholesome incipient love-making which he was quick to notice, and encourage.

Often he was full of fun; and still, as in the old days, he sang gaily as he splashed about in his bath, a delighted group of young people listening on the landing without to the strains of “Old Jim Crow,” some Methodist hymn, or negro melody. At night, before retiring, he would take a walk under the stars, sometimes alone,[Pg 304] sometimes with his girl friend, who could appreciate the companionableness of silence.

He was always perfectly frank, as well as perfectly courteous; if he preferred solitude he said so; and if, when at table, his hostess proposed to read aloud some long family letter, and asked him in an aside whether he would like to hear it, he would smile and answer, No.

He came to see them usually in his familiar grey suit; but in winter he wore one of heavier make, which was, however, provided with an overcoat only; indoors, he then put on the knitted cardigan jacket seen in some of his portraits. On one occasion, when some local literary people were invited to meet him, he appeared unaccustomedly conscious of his clothes. Uncomfortable at the absence of a coat, he tried the overcoat for awhile; but becoming very hot before the dinner was done, he beat a retreat into the hall; and there divesting himself of the burden, returned in his ordinary comfortable dress. Such incidents admirably illustrate his simple and homely ways.[654]

Henceforward, though records are multiplied, the movement of Whitman’s life is less and less affected by outer events, and becomes yearly more private and elusive.
Picture of Whitman at sixty-two.

WHITMAN AT SIXTY-TWO

There is little to record of 1883, save that shortly after his sixty-fourth birthday there appeared the biographical study of Whitman by his Canadian friend. Like the earlier and smaller sketch by John Burroughs, Dr. Bucke’s volume was revised and authenticated by the poet, and is an invaluable record. Though fragmentary and far from exhaustive, it is written by one of the very few who can be said to have caught the real significance of the life and personality of the author of Leaves of Grass. That he fully understood Whitman, neither he nor his poet friend ever suggested; but then one must add that Whitman always laughingly asserted he did not by any means understand himself.[655]

[Pg 305]

As a result of the sales of the Philadelphia edition and the royalties which they brought him, the old man was now enabled to carry a long-cherished plan into execution.

On March the 26th, 1884,[656] he left his brother’s house, and removed to a little two-story cottage on Mickle Street, near by. Here he installed himself, at first with an elderly workman and his wife, and afterwards under the more efficient régime of Mrs. Mary Davis, a buxom New Jersey widow of comfortable presence, who brought into the house that homely atmosphere which Whitman had so long been seeking.[657]

Downstairs, in the little front parlour, he carried on what remained to him of his own publishing—the old autograph editions which he had not entrusted to Mr. McKay; and over it, upstairs, was his bedroom, which he liked to compare with a big ship’s cabin. In the backyard were lilacs, which he loved; and a shady tree stood in the side-walk in front.

He found his little “shack,” as he called it, pleasant and restful, and his own. He was not much worried by the rasping church choir and the bells, which jangled cruelly loud for such sensitive hearing every Sunday; nor by the neighbourhood of a guano factory, which was noticeable enough to the most ordinary nose.[658] Here his friends from far and near were frequent visitors, Dr. Bucke, John Burroughs and Peter Doyle among them; and in June came Edward Carpenter from England on his second visit.[659]

Carpenter had now issued his slender green Towards Democracy, that strange, prophetic, intimate book, so unlike all others, even the Leaves which it most resembles. It was seven years since the two men had met, and the older had grown thinner and more weary-looking. He had not been worsted in the long struggle with time and illness, but they had left their mark upon his body.

[Pg 306]

The visitor renewed his first impressions of that complex personality; felt again the wistful affection mingled with the contradictiousobstinacy; recognised the same watchful caution and keen perception, “a certain artfulness,” and the old “wild hawk look” of his untameable spirit; but, beneath all, the wonderful unfathomed tenderness.

Whitman manifestly had his moods, “lumpishly immovable” at times, at times deliberately inaccessible. He took a certain wilful pleasure in denial, for the quality of “cussedness” was strong in him. And his friends admired his magnificent “No,” issuing from him naked and unashamed, just as mere acquaintances dreaded it.

But in other moods he was all generosity, and you knew in him a man who had given himself body, mind and spirit to Love, never contented to give less than all.

Among the topics of their conversations was the Labour Movement, in which Carpenter was actively interested. Whitman professed his belief in co-operation, at the same time reiterating his deeply-rooted distrust of elected persons, of officials and committees. He had lived in Washington; and besides, his feeling for personal initiative, his wholesome and passionate love of individuality, and its expression in every field, set him always and everywhere against mere delegates and agents. Above all things, he abhorred regimentation, officialism and interference. “I believe, like Carlyle, in men,” he said with emphasis. He hoped for more generous, and, as he would say, more prudent, captains of industry; but he looked for America’s realisation to an ever-increasing class of independent yeomanry, who should constitute the solid and permanent bulk of the Republic.

Regarding America from the universal point of view, as the standard-bearer of Liberty among the nations, he thought of Free-trade as a moral rather than a merely economic question. Free-trade and a welcome to all foreigners were for Whitman integral parts of the American ideal. “The future of the world,” he would[Pg 307] say, “is one of open communication and solidarity of all races”; and he added, with a dogmatism characteristic of his people, “if that problem [of free interchange] cannot be solved in America, it cannot be solved anywhere”.

In considering Whitman’s attitude towards the Social Problem, and especially the Labour Problem, whose development in America he had been watching since the close of the war, one must consider the conditions of his time and country.[660] The Industrial Revolution, which is still in progress—and which in its progress is changing the face of the globe, disintegrating the old society down to its very basis in family life—has revealed itself to us in the last generation, much more clearly than to Whitman, who grew up seventy years ago in a new land.

We can see now that, though it may prelude a reconstruction of human society and relations in all their different phases, it is itself destructive rather than constructive. We recognise that it does not bring equality of opportunity to all, as its earlier observers had predicted;[661] but that, on the contrary, it destroys much of the meaning of opportunity; the control of capital which is the motive power of modern industrial life, falling more and more into the hands of a small group of legatees, on whose pleasure the rest of the community tends to become dependent for its livelihood.

And we see the results of this new economic condition in the character of the populations of those vast cities into which the Industrial Revolution is still gathering the peoples of Europe and America. Among these, the spirit of individual enterprise and initiative is continually choked by the narrow range of their opportunity. Their lives become the melancholy exponents of that theory of the specialisation of industry against which the humanitarians of the age have all inveighed.

[Pg 308]

Serious as it was becoming in the New World, the Labour Question had not yet, in Whitman’s time, assumed an aspect so menacing as in the Old. Even to-day the proportion of Americans engaged in agriculture is four times as large as that which rules in Great Britain; and except in the North Atlantic States, the rural population does not seem to be actually losing ground;[662] though its increase is much less rapid than that of the urban districts, into which more than a third of the population is now gathered, as against a fifth at the close of the war, or an eighth in the middle of the century. At the time of Whitman’s death nearly three-quarters of the total number of American farmers were the owners of their farms; and it was in these working proprietors, with the similar body of half-independent artisans who were owners of their houses, that he placed his social faith. These were, as we have seen, the men whom he regarded as citizens in the fullest sense.[663]

In this view he was doubtless influenced by Mill, whose Principles of Political Economy he seems to have studied soon after its appearance in 1848. Roughly speaking, Mill had supplemented the teaching of Adam Smith, that individual liberty is the one sure foundation for the wealth of nations, by describing the proper sphere of social intervention in industrial matters. His picture of the future industry—the association of the labourers themselves on terms of equality, collectively owning the capital with which they carry on their operations, and working under managers selected and removable by themselves—has been quoted as the socialist ideal.[664]

And Mill was deeply influenced by the early Socialists.[665] Their activity in Europe during the first half of the nineteenth century was so remarkable that it must have come under the notice of Whitman. Robert Owen, intoxicated with what was perhaps a rather shallow conception of the great truth of human perfectibility, had spent[Pg 309] his life and wealth in unsuccessful but most suggestive social experiments. No less optimistic were his French contemporaries, St. Simon and Fourier.

In striking contrast with them and their doctrinaire systems, Proudhon, the peasant, who presents not a few points of agreement with Whitman, looked forward to voluntarism as the final form of society, and detested alike the theoretic elaboration and the sexual lubricity of his amiable but, on the whole, unpractical compatriots.

The failure of the risings of 1848, and the succeeding period of reaction, checked the socialist movement,[666] and social reform was left for awhile to middle-class Liberalism, with its philanthropic ignorance of the real needs of the workers; until, in the last generation, the demands of labour, the pressure of poverty and the aspirations of social enthusiasts, have together furnished the motive power for a further struggle for the collectivist ideal of “intelligent happiness and pleasurable energy” for all.[667]

This recent movement was at first most unequally yoked with an unbeliever in the brilliant, fatalistic theory of Karl Marx. Marx was a year older than Whitman; his acute Hebrew intellect was trained under the Hegelian system of thought, but he was apparently destitute of the finer historic sense, as well as of Hegel’s idealism.[668] The humanitarian character of the social movement is now once more sweeping it far beyond his formulas; but in Whitman’s time the Marxian theory dominated Socialism.

In Long Island and New York, during the period of Whitman’s youth, the social condition was, on the whole, free from serious disorders, save those incident upon growth and rapid development. The spirit of Elizabethan enterprise, the practical achievement of brave and ardently conceived ideas, ruled in that democratic society wherein his habit of mind was shaped, and of which it was in large degree a natural product.[Pg 310] Whitman’s youth and early manhood were little touched by evidences of any social disease so deep-seated as to encourage ideas of revolution. It is true that the vested interests of the slave party made themselves felt in New York; but neither to him nor to the “Free-soil” party did the anti-slavery movement suggest that other change which the political title they adopted brings so vividly before the mind to-day. “Free-soil” had for him no definitely Socialistic significance.

And it was only, as we have seen, after the war that the accentuation of the labour problem brought it into prominence in the American cities. Whenever, thereafter, Whitman, leaving the comparative quiet of his own surroundings, revisited the metropolis, or wandered to some great western centre of industry, he realised dimly the progressive approach of the crisis.

The increase in the accumulation of wealth was far outrunning even the rapid increase in population; but a large proportion of this wealth was being concentrated in a few hands which threatened to control the national policy. Manufacture was facilitated by the immense influx of immigrants who swelled the dependent city populations, and these immigrants coming more and more from the south-east of Europe, that is to say, from the most backward, ignorant and turbulent nations, promised by their presence to create a social problem in the North and Middle West not less acute if less extensive than that of the negro in the South.

Democracy looks with suspicion on the very poor,[669] quoth Whitman, meaning that the poverty of the poor incapacitates them for citizenship. That, I think, is one of the great and final arguments against the policy of laissez faire under existing circumstances.

Things would go very well if left to themselves, says the philosophic theorist, and so even Whitman is often inclined to declare.[670] But just as the organised party of slavery, in the fifty years before the war, refused to[Pg 311] leave things to right themselves, so the party of property to-day interferes, more or less unconsciously, with the principle which it so loudly proclaims. It is because of the existence of innumerable sacrosanct parchments, customs and traditions, and all the subtly clinging fingers of mortmain, that laissez faire remains an empty phrase. If we could burn the parchments and loose the fingers, men might go free. But still for the sake of the nation’s health the poor would need to be assisted to rise out of the helpless condition into which society has allowed them to be thrust and held.

We have noted Whitman’s hearty approval of Canada’s benevolent institutions for the incapable; he fully recognised the duty of society toward such as these.[671] And however hesitating his declarations on a subject which he was willing to leave to younger men, the main principle of his social economy, the right of each individual to be well born, carries us far from the policy of any party dominant to-day in our political life.

He recognised this right as far more fundamental than any secondary privilege which has been accorded to property for social convenience. And it is because this right continues to be denied to millions of future citizens, to the most serious peril of the whole Republic, and apparently for no better reason than that its recognition must impede the present rate of increase in material development, that the Socialist party has arisen in America. It is safe to say that it is the only party which deliberately aims at social amelioration and the equal opportunity of all citizens; and in this respect it seeks to realise Whitman’s ideal. In so far, however, as it clings to European theories, and identifies itself solely with a section of the nation, proclaiming a class-war in the interests, not of America or of Humanity, but of Labour—large, and inclusive as the term may be—it seems directly to antagonise that ideal.

Whitman would certainly be belied by the label of “Socialist”; but “Individualist” would as little de[Pg 312]scribe him. He was, and must always remain, outside of parties, and to some extent in actual antagonism to them; for while recognising its purpose and necessity, he was essentially jealous of government and control. He wanted to see the Americans managing their own affairs as little as possible by deputy, and, as far as possible, in their own persons. That, I take it, is the only form of collectivism or social life which is ultimately desirable; and all political reform will aim at its practical realisation. It depends most of all upon the simultaneous deepening of social consciousness and sympathy and increase of the means and spirit of individual independence. Only by these simultaneous developments can we hope to see established that Society of Comrades which was the America of Whitman’s vision.

On the practical side of the Labour Question the old man occasionally expressed his emphatic dislike of certain sides of Trade unionism, and probably misunderstood, as he clearly mistrusted the movement. “When the Labour agitation,” he would say, “is other than a kicking of somebody else out to let myself in, I shall warm up to it, maybe.”[672] And of the workman he added: “He should make his cause the cause of the manliness of all men; that assured, every effort he may make is all right”.

But he was a poor man himself, judged by modern standards, and he had a profoundly human and practical sympathy with the lives of the poor. He knew exactly where their shoe pinched. And thus, whatever his dislike of unionism, he was an admirable administrator of charity. His delight in giving made him the willing almoner of at least one wealthy Philadelphia magnate,[673] and during severe winters he was enabled to supply his friends, the drivers of the street cars, with warm overcoats. In his diary, alongside of the addresses of those who purchased his books, are long lists of these driver friends, dimly reminiscent of the hospital lists which he used to keep in Washington.

[Pg 313]

Walt was always an incurable giver of gifts, and these, one may be sure, never weakened the manly independence of their recipients. His admiration for generous men of wealth, like George Peabody, has found a place in Leaves of Grass.[674] For he saw that to love is both to give and to receive, and in that holy commerce both actions alike are blessed.

His interest in social work is shown in a hitherto unpublished letter written about this time to Mary Whitall Smith, who had married and gone to England, and who sent him accounts of the work being done among the poor of the East End through the agency of Toynbee Hall. Of this he writes at noon on the 20th of July, 1885: “The account of the Toynbee Hall doings and chat [is] deeply interesting to me. I think much of all genuine efforts of the human emotions, the soul and bodily and intellectual powers, to exploit themselves for humanity’s good: the efforts in themselves I mean (sometimes I am not sure but they are the main matter)—without stopping to calculate whether the investment is tip-top in a business or statistical point of view.

“These libations, ecstatic life-pourings as it were of precious wine or rose-water on vast desert-sands or great polluted river—taking chances for returns or no returns—what were they (or are they) but the theory and practice of the beautiful God Christ? or of all Divine personality?”


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