As compelling and revelatory as Colm Toibin's The Master, Walt Whitman's Secret mines the life of the most influential poet in the American canon for insights about creativity, relations between the sexes and the dangers of excessive patriotism.
In this wonderfully imagined novel, Walt Whitman's secret isn't his homosexuality but another one entirely. It's a political secret, one that the greatest American poet of the nineteenth century has pledged himself to keep until he is on his deathbed.
Only in that way can Whitman protect the great love of his life - a Confederate deserter he met in Washington during the Civil War - from the calumnies and scandals that have muddied his own reputation ever since the first publication of Leaves of Grass. The person who finally hears his confession is Horace, his unpaid amanuensis and helper, a young man who will go on to fill nine fat volumes with a verbatim record of the great man's tabletalk and often deceptive reminiscences. Only after Whitman has gone does Horace realize that Whitman seems to be making him a bequest of not only the secret but of his own complex personality as well.
George Fetherling is a poet, fiction writer, and voyager. Among his many books are Travels by Night: A Memoir of the Sixties and Running Away to Sea: Round the World on a Tramp Freighter. He published under the name Douglas Fetherling until 1999, and thereafter under the name George in honour of his late father. He lives in Vancouver.
I never saw the man whose spirit-child I became when he didn’t actively appear to be dying. He was a person who, for all the emphasis he placed on vigor and robust manliness, started his decline early and continued on the downward path during all the time I sat with him and listened and asked him to teach me. His descent into death was especially rapid during his final three and a half years, when I was preserving a record of his conversation. What I am about to say might seem cold-hearted to anyone else who might read these lines, but I know that you, dear Flora, will comprehend my message with the perfect and honest clarity for which you are known. The simple fact is that W was growing thinner and more feeble at the same rate as my manuscript of his table-talk (bed-talk might be a better term) got thicker, meatier and stronger— as though all things in the Universe were suddenly in balance.
I was not yet fifteen years of age when my father, Maurice Traubel, a lithographer and engraver with his own little shop, told me that a famous poet, a great man, had come to live in Camden and that we should be proud to have him in our city. My mother, Katherine, a native of Philadelphia across the river, had renounced the Christianity in which she had been reared, then married a Jew who himself had repudiated Judaism some time earlier. For Father had no special affection for the ways of the Hebrews back in Frankfurt or here in America. “Why should I be permitted to do one day the same acts I am then forbidden on another?” he would say. “I see no rational sense in it, and I reject it.” He did not wish to be considered a German in the new land any more than he had wished to be thought of as a Jew in the old one. This attitude became part of my inheritance from him, though I was of course not considered a Jew because Mother wasn’t one. Unlike most people, I recognize the revision of one’s personal history as the necessary removal of an obstacle that cannot be overcome by other means. The longer I live, and as you know, I am approaching the end of the process, the more I discover how much I have resembled my father even while I was struggling to become like W instead.
The idea of a famous American poet, the most American one of all, as many said, right in our midst filled Father with admiration, for he never lost that love of art and learning that is supposed to be a traditional and some say almost mandatory part of Jewish life. In that spirit, he took me with him to pay our respects at the house at 322 Stevens Street. This was the home of George Whitman, W’s younger brother by ten years, the one who had fought in the war of secession and suffered a wound, and who now earned his living manufacturing pipe.
W, who was to become the other half of my life, was seated in the parlor, wearing a comfortable suit of clothes. His shirt was open at the throat. His vest had rolled lapels, and an inexpensive watch chain, with no fob, stretched across one side. He had a sensitive mouth and a generous portion of nose, and his hair had retreated most of the way back, giving him a forehead like a cupola on some large public building. His white beard, though wispy in spots, was also long and fully shaped, obscuring the exact outline of the face beneath. He had the habit of combing his whiskers with his fingers as he spoke. His complexion was slightly pink, like a certain type of sea-shell, suggesting a level of health that in fact he could no longer claim to possess. He seemed impossibly old to me then, an antediluvian figure, some ancient god speaking with the authority of long and everlasting experience. In truth, he was fifty-four. Now that I myself am not much older than that, I understand all too well how illness can cause one to fade so quickly and prematurely, though his ill-health differed from my own. My own disease is knowable; it can be circumscribed. His could not be understood or even defined, not until the post-mortem examination that I attended almost two decades later.
Father asked W how he was faring.
“Middling, middling,” he said, without real conviction and certainly without the sincere optimism he was to project in later times, worse times. “The left leg’s gimpy.” He stretched it out straight, then bent over and patted it once, treating it like a faithful dog. “The arm, not so bad.” His speech was clear, unaffected by the episode that had taken place in his brain. It was one of those strong voices but was nonetheless soft and well modulated, rather than rough or raucous. He told Father that he was inclined to dizziness now whenever he rose, however slowly, though the problem was less acute when getting to his feet from a seated posture than from either a prone or a supine one. “The blood settles in pools,” he said, “like petroleum collecting in the Earth.” The words are exact, though of course they were uttered a number of years before I began to write down everything he said to me. Well, almost everything.
Looking back, I know he enjoyed our visit, the first of so many, because my family had come from Europe. W was infatuated with the idea of people forsaking the Old World with its timeless animosities and systems of tribute and packing up for America where they could fill their lungs with oxygen and make their own way without assistance or impediment. That Father respected the rôle of the writer was another attribute in the eyes of W, for he felt that he was an outcast among the literary personages of his own country, as on the evidence he often had been and to a certain extent continued to be. The fact that Father was a part of the printing trades also counted for a great deal. To W, writing and printing were two ends of the same stick, a connection not to be broken but rather to be celebrated. Most of all, he enjoyed having visitors. It seemed to me, in what is called the egoism of youth, that he was especially welcoming to me right from the beginning.
When I quit school, he said to me, “You have wisdom far beyond your few years to have done so,” adding: “I was a schoolmaster myself once upon a time, on Long Island, and I know the deleterious effects of school upon young noggins.” Soon afterward, when I told him that I was learning how to set type, he smiled warmly, knowing that I was aware how he himself had helped set up the first edition of Leaves after he had amputated his own formal education. Soon I was work ing in the job shop of the Camden Evening Visitor and indeed had become its foreman, promoted to the position when I was only sixteen (though I confess that the Visitor was hardly a big enterprise nor commercial printing its largest component by any means, to say nothing of the fact that the wages were not enough to have lured a married man).
W often remembered autobiographical details divorced from their place in the sequence of living. Perhaps he had been this way even before the stroke of Seventy-three, I don’t know. Only in later years did I feel that I had a full command of what he had done and where he had been at particular times and of just generally how everything fitted together. At first I was aided in this process by The Good Gray Poet, which his friend O’Connor wrote in 1866, the year after the war, to protest W’s dismissal from his clerkship at the Interior Department in Washington for having promoted immorality in the immortal Leaves. Ultimately, though, the knowledge, the understanding, the knowing, came to me slowly, grew inside me as I spent so many hours, days and weeks— years almost, if one were to string together all the time continuously— listening to him talk. W was by way of being a professional talker. I, by contrast, was his own professional listener.
When he was living on Stevens, I would make a point of stopping by after work, especially on warm sunny days that I knew might find him sitting on the front stoop. Then we would talk about books on and on. I was of the tender age at which we self-educators have a dire thirst for reading, one that cannot be entirely slaked except perhaps by decrepit maturity. I was happy to take in literary chat, which he could spool out hour upon hour, pleased to have his opinions regarded with such enthusiasm. For as I was not merely becoming self-educated but self-radicalized as well, my ears received with some satisfaction much of what he had to say. Unfortunately, I kept not even a simple diary in those early days, yet I recall a good many of his revelations and pronouncements, for they showed me that we were (or so I thought at the time) members of the same political congregation.
He said, for instance: “The persons who are interested in poetry alone, estranged from most other forms of useful expression, cannot explain why Homer and Virgil are as much different as they are alike. They can’t see how the one man was moved to song while the other set out, with utmost calculation, determined to sing, the feelings of the heart be damned.” Such utterances were part of W’s more general dislike of the literary professors and literary professionals, a subject that could, paradoxically, occasionally drive his pronouncements somewhat beyond the limits of what he actually knew to be true. I once heard him say that he hated polite literature the same way Generals Grant and Sherman had hated warfare: because it was Hell. But the metaphor he chose required some clarification. So he launched into a kind of oral post-scriptum. “Unlike Grant, I am not a West Pointer,” he explained. “That is, not the literary equivalent of a West Pointer. I have received no commission for I am not of the officer class, nor could I ever have become so. I have risen through the ranks to whatever small position I now possess (or possesses me).”
He said more than once that he favored books that were small enough for workingmen to tuck into their pockets (though this was not a principle of book manufacture he adhered to with respect to the immortal Leaves). Lately I have been remembering one of his bookthoughts in particular. It is his observation that as people get older, they can no longer stomach Shelley’s romantic idealism, but nod in agreement with that poet’s dislike of biography and history, knowing now that he was correct in thinking such books a bunch of bunkum.
He always said that I brightened his day. I see now, as I did not at the time, the extent to which the first crippling event in his brain, back in Washington, had harrowed his spirits. His mother was ill as well, and was living with his brother George and his wife in Camden. Her death, only four or five months after W’s medical misadventure, might easily have propelled another such sensitive person into a deep crater of gloom. He was sorely tested all right, but he did not stumble into the darkness. It was at this time, finding himself first lame and then motherless, that he gave up Washington and moved in with George and his family, occupying his mother’s former room. He was careful to leave everything just as she had last seen it. He slept in the bed in which she had died, under the same bed linens. These events were playing themselves out around the time of our first meeting. But other than noting his halting step, I knew little about his physical state, and not one whit about his emotional one.
Strange to say, it was as a result of another death in the always troubled and tragic Whitman family that our friendship achieved its next plateau. One of his nephews had died, Walter by name, called so not after his uncle but rather his grandfather. He was under one year in age. Such a tiny coffin to be sealed up in the ground that way, a thought that came back to me, twenty years ago now, when Anne’s and my second child, born the year after our Gertrude whom you know, succumbed to the scarlet fever, months shy of his fifth birthday.
W didn’t look especially frail at Walter’s graveside service, though he walked with difficulty, like a ship listing slightly to port. I stood behind him in the small knot of mourners. He removed his old sloucher and held it in front of him with both hands as they also gripped the handle of his cane. He was in the same clothes he always seemed to be wearing. His bald head, which I had not seen from that perspective before, was like an old globe from which the continents had been erased. The service over, I expressed my condolences. Despite the melancholic nature of the event, he seemed, as usual, gladdened to see me.
“Horace, my boy, you must tell me how you’ve been keeping.” His shoulders were stooped and his gait hindered, awkward and a bit unsteady, but his eyes were full of vitality. “I am having a rough passage these past few months, these past few years in fact. News of your doings would well right the balance.”
I had no news to convey other than that I was leaving the Visitor to go to work with Father. He understood what I would gain by such a move as well as what I would be losing.
“I never regretted the time I spent on the papers,” he said. “The best training there can be for a writer, in my view. Teaches you concision and sharpness. I had an excellent sit on the Eagle.” He was referring to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle,which he conducted in the late forties. “You learn not to waste words, or ideas either. Everything gets used up properly, like the wood in a stove that’s drawing well. It produces heat and leaves pure ash, no cinders, no clinkers, but only stuff that can have other uses later.”
In time, I would come to understand that he parted company with the proprietors of the Eagle in an editorial difference of opinion, having turned the paper into a Free-Soil organ, fighting against the spread of slavery in the West as the territories acquired statehood. Yet later still I learned that during these early years of my acquaintance with him, he was at hazard with his former friend O’Connor over the matter of rights for the freed male Negroes. W did not feel they were yet ready to enjoy the electoral franchise. The issue was complicated to an extent young people to-day, and especially perhaps all you Canadians and those in the other places where slavery had a far shorter history, cannot warrant. Even I, simply by reason of being his junior by four decades, could not always locate the cognitive bridgework I needed to understand how the nation’s heart had been turned topsy-turvy. W was known to have once supported the theory that the black race would disappear eventually as a result of Evolution. As difficult as it may be for us to grasp, this view was regarded in its day as progressive by certain of the white intelligentsia. Nonetheless, I came to the view that W was more of a champion of the Negroes in theory than in actual practice.
When he quit the Eagle, W put out a little paper of his own in Brooklyn, then at the theater one evening, for W was an avid admirer of plays and especially of the opera, he met the proprietor of a New Orleans sheet, the Daily Crescent, and went down there to work along with his younger brother Jeff, though he did not remain too long there either. He was too sympathetic to abolitionism for Southern tastes, as in the North he was often too compliant with the slavery scourge to suit any but those who were ultraists on the subject. “Be radical,” I used to hear him say, “but not too radical.”
We differed as much as I dared. Often in the years ahead, I would attempt to nudge him toward Socialist Revolution, but he would have none of it. He used to say that he loved agitation but not agitators. He refused to hear strong unvarnished opinions that were at hazard with his own. He ever denied that the love of the People in his poems was connected to the political side of life. “But how can you have the one without the other?” I would ask. He would not answer directly. When confronted with a difficult rhetorical challenge, he would retreat into poetry, or the poetry of his conversation at least.
In any case, he had seen slavery with his own eyes along the Mississippi, he said, and I had not. When Socialism triumphs, I would remind him, whites and Negroes shall be as one, without distinction between the one and the other. I could convince him of nothing. He would alter the course of the conversation in a most easy natural way. “The Creole women of New Orleans!” he said to me on one occasion. “How they can make a young man’s mercury rise in the tube!” He sometimes told inquisitive literary admirers, especially those from outside the United States, that he had fathered six children out of wedlock in his time. I was correct in scarcely being able to believe this true.
Leaving the funeral service for little Walter, we talked as we walked, with me keeping my stride deliberately short so that our steps would be in harmony. I left him at the spot where Fifth and Stevens intersect, where he said he would get the horse-car. Riding the cars always had been a favorite diversion of his, but now it was a sad necessity as well.
Later that day, I had to cross over to Philadelphia. Coming back, I saw W on one of the hard benches of the ferry, resting his clasped hands on the handle of his cane, enjoying the river air and the other passengers’ evident health and abundant liveliness. W was even fonder of ferries than he was of the horse-cars, and could rhapsodize about locomotives as well. He said that each ferry had its own distinct personality and that his favorites were the Wenonah and the Beverly, though as a lifelong Camdenite I could see no difference between them at all and now cannot remember which one we were aboard. What I recall, rather, is an elderly Negro flower-seller who had evidently been unsuccessful in the city and was returning with visible dejection to the Jersey side with her stock of unsold blooms. I bought them all, for they were offered at distressed prices, and presented the entire bouquet to W. As I did so, I thought that I was probably being forward, and would be seen by him and anyone who was watching as a silly young man; but W pronounced himself delighted, and the worry fell from my countenance. He bade me sit with him as we chugged across the Delaware. We talked until interrupted by the sudden cessation of forward momentum and the reassuring clicks of the ratchet wheel as it swung the landing stage up flush with the deck and the passengers began to form a line, eager to return to their homes.
As we hobbled through Camden with our backs to the river, W suddenly said, “Spring emancipates me.” He certainly always seemed or acted much younger in Spring than he had in the Autumn and Winter months preceding, as though the clock were running backward temporarily; but this may be true for all of us, especially those who are not entirely well. At such times W enjoyed watching games of baseball. He and I would sit on the unforgiving seats and become part of the crowd. “It is fitting and inevitable that our national game should have taken root during the war,” he said. “It was played by the boys of both armies, you know. Another of those little proofs that the fight was not between two different peoples, as some charged in the excesses and weariness of the moment, but between siblings who had loved one another once and would do so again.” He saw the essential democracy of the game of course, and watched attentively as the players bantered among themselves and every so often emitted little bursts of motion, and emotion. “To be out in the open air, in the free open air with the breeze on your skin, watching young comrades enjoying manly pursuits, is second only to being such a young comradely fellow yourself once more.” He said this with enthusiasm and without remorse at the passing of time, though everything in its way reminded him of the past. At one ball game he returned to the connection, one that existed in his own mind at least, between the game and the war. “When I look out upon such vigor and virtue,” he said, “I’m reminded of all the boys in Washington back then.” During the war, he meant. Uniquely so for a poet of his day, he made the war and its immediate aftermath the central experience of his life and his later writings.
Of course, Flora, you, like all good members of the Whitman Fellowship, both on this continent and abroad, know the outlines of how the war years came to define him, internally and publicly. But as legend tends to abrade the subtleties, permit me to recapitulate what took place.
George Whitman, a stolid and conventional fellow, devoid of politics and parsimonious with words, had joined a Brooklyn regiment in the first flush of wartime zeal, and after the slaughter at Fredericksburg was listed in the papers as among the wounded. W gave up his life in New York to go to Washington in search of him, know ing that the wounded were sent to the capital for treatment whenever possible. As it happened, George had only a slight wound to one ear. W remained in the city, however, eking out a spare living as a government clerk and copyist while volunteering in the hospitals—visiting “my boys” as he called them, bringing them sweets and small necessities, writ ing letters for the illiterate ones and those who had lost their hands, reading letters to those who did not know how to read to begin with or had been blinded in battle— cheering them, listening to them, giving them his affection, trying to make their young lives a bit less miserable, taking only their regard in return. Apart from the immortal Leaves, this was the most meaningful work of his life: such is what I sensed he believed. Who are we to contradict him?
To someone such as myself, born just as the pot of politics was about to boil over as war, such stories were remote yet compelling. It was hard to credit that such things actually took place when I was conscious on Earth, that such momentous events and such tumult were coming to pass as I pursued my childish games, oblivious to them (though I do remember the blue stream of soldiers flowing down the streets of Camden).
As you might suppose was almost inevitable given the attacks on Leaves and its author by moralizers and other censorious public men, W was as notorious in Camden as he was in the wider universe, and for all the same reasons. Had he not written, and then kept expanding, what so many considered an immoral book? The stories of his dismissal from small positions in government offices had brought his name before those who otherwise would never have opened Leaves and would not have comprehended a word of it had they done so. For every person who boasted of making his acquaintance, there appeared to be thousands who spoke of him in dire Christian whispers. My parents’ neighbors, including some who were no doubt well-meaning, though most were malicious gossips, insisted on calling Mother’s attention to my friendship with such a “lecherous old man.” To her credit, Mother was alarmed only to the extent she thought was expected of her. Father, predictably, reacted in a similar fashion, and I, thus reassured on this point, privately enjoyed my association with W in a new and additional way.
When I reported some of these conversations to W, couching them in the least accusatory language of course, he replied with what I thought was practiced and perhaps not totally sincere sadness. “I am a prophet without honor in my own land, or indeed in any other.” In truth, this was hardly the case. Later, as we began to spend ever more time together once he moved into his own place at last and I came by almost every evening to check on him, I got to know about the large following of admirers he had on the European continent and in England— and of course in Canada, England’s loyal puppet. They appeared, many of them, to find in Leaves the qualities admired by readers here in America but also those that enraged petty officials and set the tongues of women to wagging over board fences in the back lanes of such places as Camden, New Jersey. Certain English adherents, brothers in the literary arts, were especially persistent in quizzing W about what they perceived as the real meaning of the many references, particularly of course in the “Calamus” section of Leaves, to adhesiveness between men. W always ignored or denied their suggestions.
In a way, I understand the frustrations they must have felt, because for my part, remember, I was never able to get him to own up to being the Socialist he obviously was in Leaves and other works and indeed in some of his actions as well. As he did not read German, W might be forgiven his unfamiliarity with certain texts, though translations of the major ones were available freely. Nor could I get him to discuss the English Socialist writers. He and I talked about books constantly, but the two subjects, politics and writing, never inclined toward becoming one, as I wished. He would tell me of his abiding affection for Emerson, who had done so much to ensure his early success. He talked of Tennyson and of his American opposite numbers whose faces are on the wall of every American schoolroom. But I could never get him to entertain the merits of the great William Morris or Edward Bellamy. Ruskin, being a strict moralist as well as a Socialist and, I admit, a stupefying writer of prose, was out of the question. So too was our own Socialist press here in America. It was as though the fiery abolitionist of the exciting antebellum days had lost his appetite for political theories after the exhaustion of the war itself, which had broken his health as surely as it had done that of soldiers invalided out with some camp fever of whose effects they would never be fully shed.
In short, whenever I would read the immortal Leaves, I saw the soul of a Socialist. W, however, would not admit the truth of my perception but only would gainsay it, almost vehemently at times, just as he did the inferences of those literary dandies in England and other places who, in reading the magnificent poems, perceived a philosophical connection to the ancient Hellenic civilization. In time, I came to believe that he was keeping a crucial secret from the world. My theory was correct, but I long misunderstood just what the secret was.
You know the rest of the story as well. How, after he had gone through periods of rising sap and ones of falling leaves, he settled into Mickle Street early in Eighty-four, preparing for his long slow descent. He bought the place for $1,750, the amount of his royalties from recent years plus a five-hundred-dollar loan from his publisher friend George Childs, one of the people who always seemed to turn up at crucial moments to help him through crises (as when he came to the rescue W’s first day in Washington when someone picked the newcomer’s pocket). And of course you know how, two years later, I determined to preserve W’s conversation for posterity— and his papers as well. You see the results in the first three fat volumes of With Walt Whitman in Camden, the only ones for which I have thus far managed, with difficulty, to find publishers. I began accumulating an enormous mass of material: scraps of manuscript and copy, discarded proof sheets, letters and postals he had received, and drafts and sometimes even duplicate fair copies of some that he sent. In the years when he was bedfast and I served as his legs as well as his eyes and ears, I added greatly to the purely literary part of this devoir as I dashed about on our printing and publishing errands, preparing his works in prose as well as verse and overseeing manufacture of the books themselves.
Along with money gifts from admirers and friends, W lived, modestly but never in want, by the sales of his books and his contributions to the newspapers and magazines. He took delight in filling orders for single copies that arrived in the morning mail, wrapping and addressing them for me to take to the post office. “I am like the smith at his forge,” he said. At other times he used the metaphor of the mechanic, the house builder (which he once had been, briefly and long ago) or the small freeholder.
When I went on with my own life’s work, I fancied that I knew more about W than anyone else living except the man himself, but some of the most important pieces of understanding came to me only when he was on the very verge of death. If I could, I would make adjustments to the first three published volumes, but of course I do not have the privilege that W enjoyed of tinkering with and refining books once they had appeared, so great was the difficulty of getting them published in the first place. Even if I could do so, I no longer have the life-energy for such a task. It is all I can do to set down these reminiscences for you to read once I am gone.
Some of the notes and documents I collected and recollections I pried out of others increased my understanding only after I had reflected upon them more deeply. I had sorted through them to make the works you have there on your bookshelf. For example, when I saw W at his little nephew’s funeral, I failed to comprehend that this was only the latest blow of many, what the French call a coup. It was as though it epitomized his relations with his family, which were all about love and loss. To be sure, it helped to show me, as I cogitated on the subject over time, how he must have felt to be living in Camden. To me, it is home and always has been. I have traveled the world in Camden, and have been happy to do so. W was of Mannahatta, as he called it, believing this to have been the usage favored by the original Red Indians there. From the farmland of Long Island as a youth and from the unceasing commerce of Brooklyn when he was a young man, he looked westward to Mannahatta, finally sojourning there with the unspoken intention to remain forever, until the war took him to Washington, with its government offices full of stifled air and its improvised hospitals reeking of horror and the aftermath of horror. He suggested to me many times that the lights of the capital were extinguished forever when President Lincoln was killed. His own began to dim thereafter. And when, later, the man who tended to the needs of the sick became one of the sick himself, he was initially drawn to Philadelphia, a stuffy place as he first believed and later knew it to be, and then just across the river to the family he was reluctant to let know him thoroughly but perhaps felt that he should do so now, given the circumstances— yet could not, not quite.
So the shrinking of his world is what brought him to Camden, a trick of fate for which I am so grateful, as I do not know what purpose I would have discovered in life unassisted by his ready example—that is, other than the cause of Socialist Revolution. Just as once, back in Brooklyn, his great heart had ached for Mannahatta to the west, visible on even the wettest, foulest day and attainable by the simplest ride on the ferry, so it was once more, down here. Philadelphia, on the western bank, is in similar relation to Camden on the eastern, two hemispheres, you might say, linked by ferries waddling back and forth like ducks both day and night. The difference was that Philadelphia was no Mannahatta. The view did not inspire his imagination; it merely reminded him of youth and health, both gone. Sometimes he spoke of the period immediately before Mickle Street as his Indian Summer, and I am glad he had one last warm spell before the Winter of his life began to blow. But we know that Indian Summer is an aberration. There is something artificial about it. It teases us with its tragic impermanence.
Old Philadelphia, believing itself to be the world’s example of dignified commerce and exemplary probity in all matters, has twice held the world’s complete attention: in 1776 of course, and again in 1876, the year of the Centennial Exposition, a period when W and I saw a good bit of each other. I guess that you would have been a young schoolgirl then and might not recall that Seventy-six was a presidential election year as well, the time of the great Tilden and Blaine controversy. I responded acutely to such matters, because I was now the Philadelphia correspondent of one of the Boston papers, earning a bit from my strings even at space rates. W, of course, was losing interest in elections as proofs of the democratic spectacle. I could not convince him to participate actively, much less take a glance at the writ ings of such people as Charles Bradlaugh, the Socialist parliamentarian over in England. He did read the papers, all of them in fact, and would sometimes respond to faraway events in poetry, as with his poem about the death of Custer (who did not seem much of a hero to me, but I demurred). I suppose he sometimes must have felt himself to be a bit like Custer, for only a short time had elapsed since he had once again been surrounded by hostile critics and publicists intent on massacring his poems. So in Seventy-six he whooped right back at them and rushed out a new edition (the sixth) of the immortal Leaves. He also published a combined work of poetry together with prose pieces, most of which had been in type before but were reappearing in different clothing. The new stock of Leaves was printed for him at the job office of the Camden New Republic. He attended at its birth there, careful to engage and reward the midwifery of the pressman, the binder and even the printer’s devil. These were courtesies I later had to observe on his behalf.
The controversy about the supposed indecency of Leaves seems only to have flared up again with the so-called Centennial Edition but did much to enlarge interest in his work, especially in England, where many literary fellows defended him with public praise or wrote to him privately in support as they subscribed to the books. I say “fellows,” but there was at least one formidable woman amongst them: Missus Gilchrist. She was determined to immigrate to our shores so she could become W’s friend in person rather than by post. I think W was as much alarmed as flattered at the prospect of a woman crossing the ocean for his favor. She took passage anyway, bringing along her husband and two children and staying for about three years, setting up a sequence of households that W would visit, sometimes for months. In the fullness of time, the son became an artist and returned to America on his own, once painting a picture of W and his mother having tea together. The daughter, however, disliked W from the outset, believing he was a publicity-seeker, deluded by vanity. The aversion was mutual.
When I say that I eventually came to understand a part of W not visible to the generality of acquaintances, either on the page or in the flesh, I take into account the complex nature of some of his friendships, for W was an enthusiastic and considerate friend to those whose lives he took it upon himself to share and help protect. For example, Mister and Missus Stafford tenanted a farm south of the city. W enjoyed their company and especially that of their young son Harry, whom he took under his wing and sometimes called his honorary nephew. W believed the country air at the Staffords’ beneficial to his health, as was evidently the case, though when his real-life nieces (the daughters of his brother Jeff ) visited and he took them to the Exposition, he had to borrow a new device: a wheelingchair, as people called it then. Later we needed to acquire one of his own. It had a wicker seat. At first he could propel himself by slowly spinning its two big wheels in such a manner as to strengthen his by then sunken chest. Later he required the assistance of pushers, including former patients in the soldiers’ hospitals, the Stafford boy (who always wore a gold ring W had given him), a sequence of paid nurses and of course yours truly. The various parts I played in his life made me realize eventually that I must leave off lithographic work and find some sensible and unfulfilling position that would be regular as to wages and hours and thus, by its very rigidity, allow me the freedom to carry out my real job in life, one that carried no lofty title, or any title at all, and was made up of assisting the great man in any way that might arise.
Walt Whitman’s Secret is George Fetherling’s third novel and fourth book-length fiction. He has also published many works of poetry, travel narrative and memoir. He lives in Vancouver and Toronto.
"Walt Whitman's Secret is an extraordinary achievement, a novel cannily constructed, with judicious amounts of suspense, stripped to the bone, a dark, brooding but not depressing meditation on, among other things, art and artistic discipleship."
"Fetherling has done an astonishing job."
--The Vancouver Sun
"A stunning success . . . utterly convincing, it is a resonant, shimmering work that stakes a claim on posterity."
--The Globe and Mail