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CHAPTER XX AT MICKLE STREET
The presidential election of the autumn of 1884 brought the long Republican régime to an end. During the twenty-four years of its continuance the old party cries had become almost meaningless, and the parties themselves ineffective, while political life had grown increasingly corrupt from top to bottom.[676] The only practical demand of the hour was for a good government, and this required a change of party. Whitman, with a number of independent Republicans known as “Mugwumps,” supported the Democrat, Mr. Grover Cleveland. With his return to the White House the South may be said to have returned to the union, after a generation of bitter estrangement.

In the following summer Whitman had a slight sun-stroke, which rendered walking much more difficult.[677] For several months he was a good deal confined to his little house, but his friends promptly came to the rescue with a horse and light American waggon.[678]

He was overcome with gratitude for the gift—driving, as we have seen, was one of his delights—and he promptly began to make full use of his new toy. He soon disposed of the quiet steed, thoughtfully provided, and substituted one of quicker paces, which he drove furiously along the country roads at any pace up to eighteen miles an hour.[679] Rapid movement brought him exhilaration, and he displayed admirable nerve upon emergency.

[Pg 315]
One page of a hand written letter from Whitman to Mr. R. Pearsall Smith, Mar. 4, 1884.

FAC-SIMILE OF PORTION OF LETTER FROM WHITMAN TO THE LATE MR. R. PEARSALL SMITH, MAR. 4, 1884

Though he was getting old, his capacity for enjoyment was as great as ever. He enjoyed everything, especially now that at sixty-five he was, for the first time in his life, a householder; he enjoyed his quarters, his friends, his food, and in a grim way his very suffering. “Astonishing what one can stand when put to one’s trumps,”[680] he wrote on a black day. While he could rattle along the roads in his waggon, he was naturally happy enough, and he encouraged all opportunities for pleasure. He enjoyed his food, and he now relaxed some of the stricter rules of temperance which hitherto he had followed.

During periods of his life, as a young man and through the years at Washington, he was practically a total abstainer, and till he was sixty he only drank an occasional toddy, punch, or glass of beer. After that he followed the doctor’s advice and his own taste, enjoying the native American wines, and at a later period, champagne.

Stories of heavy drinking were circulated by the gossips, and were tracked at last to the habits of a local artist, who imitated Whitman in his garb, and somewhat resembled him.[681] Walt’s head was remarkably steady, and it need hardly be said that he was always most jealous of anything which could dispute with him his self-control.

In 1885 and several subsequent years[682] a popular caterer on the river-side, a mile or two below Camden, opened the summer season, about the end of April, with a dinner to some of his patrons, and Whitman was one of those who did fullest justice to his planked shad and champagne. For the latter he would smilingly admit an “incidental weakness”.[683]

His temperance had given him a keen relish for fine flavours, and he enjoyed all the pleasures of the senses without disguise, and with a frank, childlike response to them. This responsiveness, more almost than any[Pg 316] other thing, kept his physical nature supple and young. His consciousness was never imprisoned in his brain, among stale memories and thoughts whose freshness had faded; it was still clean and sensitive to its surroundings, and found expression in the noticeably fresh, rich texture of his skin.

It was well that he should practise these simple pleasures, for apart from his own ailments, which increased with time, he was still troubled with financial difficulties. The purchase of the house had not been exactly prudent, as it added considerably to his expenses, and the success of the Philadelphia edition was not long continued. The royalty receipts soon dwindled to a very little stream, and his other earnings—though he was well paid for such contributions as the magazines accepted, and was retained on the regular staff of the New York Herald—were not large.[684]

Word went round among his friends, both in America and in England, that the old man was hard up again, and a second time there was a hearty response. A fund, promoted by the Pall Mall Gazette at the end of 1886, brought him a New Year’s present of £80,[685] and individual friends on both sides of the sea frequently sent thank-offerings to him.

Some Boston admirers attempted at this time to secure for him a Government pension of £60 a year,[686] in recognition of his hospital work. But Whitman disliked the plan, and though it was favourably reported upon by the Pensions Committee of the House of Representatives, he wrote gratefully but peremptorily refusing to become an applicant for such a reward, saying quite simply, “I do not deserve it”.[687] His services in the Attorney-General’s Department seem to have been adequately paid, and one is glad the matter was not pressed. The hospital ministry could not have been remunerated by an “invalid pension”; it was given as a free gift, and now it will always remain so.

[Pg 317]
Picture of Mickle Street, Camden in 1890.

MICKLE STREET, CAMDEN IN 1890: THE LITTLE HOUSE ON THE RIGHT IS WHITMAN’S

From time to time special efforts were made by his friends to remove any immediate pressure of financial anxiety. Whitman, who was on the one hand generous to a fault, and on the other not without a pride which consented with humiliation to receive some of the gifts bestowed, manifested a boyish delight in money of his own earning, and it did his friends good to see his merriment over the dollars taken—six hundred of them[688]—at his Lincoln lecture of 1886 in the Chestnut Street Opera House. By way of profit-sharing he insisted on presenting each of the theatre attendants with two dollars.

The repetition of the lecture in New York the following spring, at the Madison Square Theatre, before a brilliant company of distinguished people, including Mr. James Russell Lowell, “Mark Twain,” Mr. Stedman, and Whitman’s staunch admirer, Mr. Andrew Carnegie, brought him a similar sum;[689] while Colonel Ingersoll’s lecture for his benefit in 1890 was yet more productive, and the birthday dinners also contributed something to his funds. But the mention of these financial matters must not be construed into a pre-occupation with the subject in the old man’s later years; it troubled his friends far more than it troubled him.

After the gift of the horse and waggon, Mr. W. S. Kennedy and others planned to provide Whitman with a cottage at Timber Creek.[690] The idea delighted him; he craved for the pure air and the living solitude of the woods. But his health became too uncertain for the realisation of the scheme, and the remainder of his days was spent in Camden.

The little house in quiet, grassy Mickle Street,[691] standing modestly between its taller neighbours, with the brass plate, “W. Whitman,” on the door, and the mounting-stone opposite, was becoming a place of frequent pilgrimage, and it has often been lovingly described.

[Pg 318]

During the earlier years, Walt’s favourite seat was at the left-hand lower window, and there the children would call out to him, and he would answer brightly as they went by to school. The walls and mantel-shelf were covered with portraits, and as to the books and papers, so long as he used the room, it was beyond the wit of any woman to keep them within bounds. But it was afterwards, when he was more confined to his bedroom, that they fairly broke loose.

He seems to have enjoyed this native disorder, for in the big, square, three-windowed upper room they occupied not only the shelves and chairs and table but the floor itself. “His boots,” says a friend—who, when Mrs. Davis was out, used to effect an entrance at the window to save her host descending the stairs—“his boots would be standing on piles of manuscript on a chair, a half-empty glass of lemonade or whiskey toddy on another, his ink-bottle on still another, his hat on the floor, and the whole room filled with an indescribable confusion of scraps of paper scrawled over with his big writing, with newspapers, letters and books. He was not at all eager to have order restored, and used to grumble in a good-natured way when I insisted upon clearing things up a bit for him.”[692]

He liked to think and speak of the room as his den or cabin; it was his own place, and bustling with his own affairs.[693] Here were his old-time companionable books: the complete Scott of his youth, and a volume of poets which he used in the hospitals; his friend Mr. E. C. Stedman’s Library of American Literature; studies of Spanish and German poets, and Felton’s Greece; translations of Homer, Dante, Omar Khayyam, Hafiz, Saadi; Mr. Rolleston’s Epictetus—a constant friend—Marcus Aurelius and Virgil; with Ossian, Emerson, Tennyson and Carlyle, and some novels, especially a translation of George Sand’s Consuelo; and last, and best read of all, Shakespeare and the Bible. The book of Job was one of his prime favourites in the beloved volume which was always by him in later years.

[Pg 319]

Perilously mingled with the papers was wood for his stove, over whose crackling warmth he would sit in the cold weather, ensconced in his great rattan-seated, broad-armed rocker, with the wolf-skin over it; his keen scent relishing the odour of oak-wood and of the printer’s ink on the wet proofs which surrounded him.

Visitors usually waited in the room below for his slow and heavy step upon the stairs. There the canary sang its best, as though to be caged in Whitman’s house was not confinement after all; and a bunch of fragrant flowers stood on the window-sill. A kitten romped about the premises, which were inhabited besides by a parrot, a robin, and a spotted “plum-pudding” dog; not to mention Mrs. Davis, and eventually her two stepsons. One of these, Warren Fritzinger, who had been a sailor and three times round the world, afterwards became Walt’s nurse, while his brother Harry called his first child Walt Whitman, to the old man’s delight.

Among the visitors was a young Japanese journalist, who afterwards published an amusing but ill-advised record of their conversations,[694] a document which seems to the English mind somewhat more injudicious than other Whitmanite publications, which certainly do not err on the side of reticence. After his first visit, Mr. Hartmann maintains that Walt shouted after him, “come again,” and this injunction from time to time he fulfilled, na?vely recording his own desperate attempts to cope with the long silences which threatened to overwhelm his forlorn sallies into all conceivable regions of conversation.

The older man would sit absent-mindedly, replying with an ejaculation or abruptly clipped phrase, or impossible sentence; but chiefly with his monosyllabic “Oy! oy?” which served, with a slight inflection, for almost any purpose of response. They say that Whitman grew garrulous, or at least less laconic, in his old age;[695] but Mr. Hartmann hardly found him so.

[Pg 320]

One day, when Mrs. Davis was absent, they lunched together on “canned lobster” and Californian claret in the kitchen. The sun shone on the grass in the little back garden, on the pear-tree half-smothered in its creeper, and the high boarded fence; and on the hens, poking in and out through the open door, and recalling the old farm life at West Hills. Whitman talked of the West, and of Denver, his queen-city of the West.

Over another similar meal, he declared his love for the Heart of Midlothian, and his distaste for the gloomy poets from Byron to Poe. They discussed music among their many topics. Mr. Hartmann declared himself a Wagnerian, but Whitman confessed his ignorance of the “music of the future”; Mendelssohn, of course, he knew; and in later life he had discovered Beethoven as a new meaning in music, and had been carried out of himself, as he says, seeing, absorbing many wonders.[696] But he was brought up on the Italians; it was from Verdi and his predecessors, interpreted by Alboni, Bettini and others, that he had learnt the primal meanings of music, and they always retained his affection.

About the middle of May,[697] 1887, a sculptor, who had already studied Whitman in the Centennial year, came on from Washington to Mickle Street. Mrs. Davis sided some of the litter in the parlour; and the old man sat for him there as amiably as ten years before in the improvised studio on Chestnut Street.

They talked much of the President, on a portrait of whom Mr. Morse had been working. Whitman had a high opinion of Mr. Cleveland, and displayed a lively interest in all the personal details his friend could supply.

During the sittings Herbert Gilchrist arrived from England, where his mother had died of a painful disease some eighteen months earlier; and he set up his easel also. Callers came from far and near; while dozens[Pg 321] of children entered with a word or message from the street, and older folk looked in at the window.

Whitman was not very well even for him, and he missed his solitude. But he was a delightful and courteous host. The three men often lunched together, while several English visitors—taking Whitman on their tour even though they missed Niagara[698]—sat down to a bite of beef, a piece of apple-pie, and a cup of tea poured out by the reverend host in the hot little kitchen.

Good Mrs. Davis watched her old charge and friend with some anxiety, as this constant stream of visitors flowed in and out; but she herself rose more than equal to every emergency. She had for lieutenant a coloured char-woman, born the same day as Whitman, who felt herself for that reason responsible in no ordinary degree for the general appearance of the premises. The sculptor and she often found themselves in conflict. As for his clay, she disdained it along with the whole genus of “dirt”. She succeeded in white-washing the delightful moss-covered fence, and would, he felt sure, have liked to treat both him and his work in the same summary fashion. They debated theological problems together, to Whitman’s amusement, and he would have it that Aunt Mary came out of these encounters better than the artist.

“How does your Satan get work to do,” the latter would ask, “if God doeth all?”

“Never you fear for him,” she retorted. “He’s allers a-prowlin’ around lookin’ fer a chance when God’s back is turned. There ain’t a lazy hair on his head. I wish,” she added significantly, “I could say as much for some others.”[699]

Beside Aunt Mary other characters appear upon the pages of his friends’ journals; notably a garrulous, broad-brimmed Georgian farmer, who had served in the Confederate army. He was the father of a large family, which he had brought up on the Leaves. As for himself, he had the book by heart, and was never so happy as[Pg 322] when reciting his favourite passages at Sunday School treat or Church meeting. He knew Emerson’s writings with almost equal intimacy, but complained that these set his soul nagging after him, while Whitman’s were soothing to it. With Walt he declared that he loafed and invited his soul; with Waldo, his soul became importunate and invited him.[700]

Meanwhile, he admitted, his farm ran more to weeds than it should. Doubtless, during his pilgrimage the weeds prospered exceedingly; for he stayed long, and sad to say, in the end he went away a “leetle disappointed”. “I have to sit and admire him at a distance,” he complained, “about as I did at home before I came.” Walt liked him, and was amused by his talk, but his advice, his criticism and his interpretations to boot, were overmuch for a weary man.

There came one day a “labour agitator,” who required an introduction or testimonial of some sort from Whitman; and he also went away disappointed. In answer to all his loud-flowing, self-satisfied declarations, Whitman merely ejaculated his occasional colourless monosyllable; and when at last the discomfited man took his leave, the poet’s absent-minded “Thanks!” was more ludicrously and baldly opportune than intentional.[701]

Humorous as they appeared at the time, there was another side to interviews of this character; for it began to be noised about that Whitman was quite spoilt by his rich friends, and had lost his interest in and sympathy with the American working-man. This was due, of course, to a complete misunderstanding. The old fellow who lived in his “little shack” on Mickle Street, and dined in Germantown in his cardigan jacket, might have a world-reputation, but he was not forgetful of the people from among whom he sprang and to whom he always belonged.

At the same time it is true, as we saw, that he did not himself profess to understand or to approve the party organisation of labour. He was rather inclined[Pg 323] to sit in his corner and have faith, and to listen to what the younger men had to say. In any case, he saw no remedy for present troubles in the exploitation of class feeling; he could see no help in urging the battle between two forms of selfishness.

Generosity and manhood were his constant watchwords, whether for labour or for the nation. No circumstances, he would say, sitting in his room broken by the suffering of years, can deprive a hero of his manhood. But he would add his conviction that the Republic must be in peril as long as any of her sons were being forced to the wall, and his wish that each “should have all that is just and best for him”.

The sculptor and his sitter had many a long evening chat together, the shadows of the passers-by cast by the street light and moving across the blind. The old man’s mellow and musical, but somewhat uncertain, voice filled at these times with a confidential charm.

One night he wrote out a tentative statement of his general views, declaring for Free-trade, and for the acknowledgment of the full human and political equality of women with men. He regarded the world as being too much governed, but he was not against institutions in the present stage of evolution, for he said that he looked on the family and upon marriage as the basis of all permanent social order. He seems to have disliked and even condemned the practices of the American Fourierist “Free-lovers,”[702] though Love’s real freedom is always cardinal in his teachings. Anything like a laxity in fulfilling obligations, but especially the ultimate obligations of the soul, was abhorrent to him.

He was not a critic of institutions; and he accepted the work of the churches and of rationalism as alike valuable to humanity. He added to his statement various personal details; saying, half-interrogatively, that he thought if he was to be reported at all, it was right that he should be reported truthfully. This feeling[Pg 324] was undoubtedly very strong with him from the day when he wrote anonymous appreciations of the Leaves in the New York press.[703]

Talk turned sometimes to the Washington days, to Lincoln’s yearning passion for the South, to the affectionate admiration felt by the union veterans for the men and boys who fought under Lee, and to the terrible rigidity of the Southern pride. Such talk would often end in reminiscences of the hospitals; and Whitman told his friend that he would like him to cut a bas-relief showing Walt seated by a soldier’s cot in the wards. It had been his most characteristic pose, if one may use the word; and such a study would have shown him at his own work, the work in which he was most at home, surrounded by the boys who were his flesh and blood.


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