In Praise of Mess

Richard Poirier

With the publication of Volumes VIII and IX, some ninety years after the appearance in 1906 of the first volume, all two and a half million words of Horace Traubel’s Walt Whitman in Camden are now in print. Altogether the volumes cover the last four years of Whitman’s life, from 1888 to 1892, and consist of nearly day by day renditions of Whitman’s conversations, correspondence, and such activities as he was still up to, along with reports of his last illnesses and lingering death. Traubel constructed this record from notes sometimes taken in the half-light of Whitman’s sickroom in the little house Whitman owned on Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey, or jotted down later from memory, when he returned home to his wife and family or to his desk at the bank that employed him.

Whitman very seldom acknowledges that his conversations are being recorded. But he makes it clear that as a form of biography he prefers this method to anything more studied, more given to summaries, interpretations and speculative conclusions. In an exchange with Traubel in August 1890, he remarks on the unique value ‘in the matter you are piling together … personal memorabilia, traits of character, incidents, habits – the pulse and throb of the critter himself. Oh, how I have looked for just that matter in connection with great men, some of whom I have met, some not, yet it is the thing we get least of – is really a desideratum.’ And he enthusiastically agrees when Traubel interjects: ‘The real life of a man can often be written in the scraps the formal biographer refuses.’

A sprawling accumulation of ‘scraps’, like Walt Whitman in Camden, is understandably congenial to the poet’s lifelong habits of evasion and concealment, punctuated with hints that at some point, somewhere along the line, a ‘secret’ is to be revealed, perhaps, as he teasingly remarks to Traubel, about ‘a period in my life of which my friends know nothing’. His way of soliciting interest, even as he refuses to take questions about his history, his habits, his variations of tone and mood, requires of him an unrelenting and stylised composure; and Whitman’s composure finds its equal among American writers only in Henry James. With majestic aloofness, he likes, as he says early in Song of Myself, to be ‘both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it’.

And like the games James plays in The Turn of the Screw, Whitman’s are intended to create mysteries, to hint at exposures, to turn mystification itself into a subject of inexhaustible interest. For Whitman as much as for James these are serious games indeed: the place where aesthetic and ethical practice come together, and where the hoped for consequence is that the reader will learn a reverence for the unknowable, along with a kind of amused wonder at the way human inquisitiveness persists in the face of its defeats. Such reverence and wonder are the antithesis of the ‘brilliancy, smartness’ for which Whitman expresses a repeated disdain. ‘The disease of our time,’ Traubel reports him as saying in June 1891, ‘is its smartness, cleverness – that hellish New England hunger to know something.’

Perhaps he is forgetting, for he surely knew, that the New Englander Emerson put the matter more powerfully in the essay ‘Experience’. In a paragraph in which he proclaims that ‘the value of life lay in its inscrutable possibilities,’ Emerson launches an attack on the ‘theoretic kidnappers’ of our minds: ‘The grossest ignorance does not disgust like this impudent knowingness.’ That last is a particularly resonant phrase in its association with Whitman. The word pudency derives from pudenda, the bodily site of human creation. Emerson points to the derivation later in the essay, where he writes: ‘The art of life has a pudency, and will not be exposed. Every man is an impossibility, until he is born.’ Emerson, like Whitman, is effectively saying that the source of creation is itself unknowable, thereby suggesting, as Whitman extravagantly likes to do, a mysterious link between poetic creativity and the most elementary forms of sexual production, including the production of sperm itself. Whitman intends that he and his ever emerging Leaves of Grass should, by his own obfuscations, be made immune to ‘impudent knowingness’.

In what is obviously a deeply pondered remark made to Traubel in September 1888, he maintains that ‘if there is anything whatever in Leaves of Grass – anything that sets it apart as a fact of any importance – that thing must be its totality – its massings,’ the accumulations, it could be said, of the marvellous mess that results from the poem’s nine editions between 1855 and 1892. The result is a textual maze of additions, deletions, revisions and rearrangements. It can, he insists, be ‘comprehended at no time by its parts, at all time by its unity’, even as it forestalls any imposition of unity. The assertions of identity, notorious in some parts of Leaves, are meant to exist in a taut relation to his questionings of identity in others. The most poignant expression of despair for himself and his work, his doubts about the authenticity of both, is to be found fairly early, in 1860, in one of his greatest poems, ‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’, notably its second section:

As I wend to the shores I know not,
As I list to the dirge, the voices of men and women wreck’d,
As I inhale the impalpable breezes that set in upon me,
As the ocean so mysterious rolls toward me closer and closer,
I too but signify at the utmost a little wash’d-up drift,
A few strands and dead leaves to gather,
Gather, and merge myself as part of the sands and drift.


O baffled, balk’d, bent to the very earth,
Oppress’d with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,
Aware now that amid all that blab whose
echoes recoil upon me I have not once
had the least idea who or what I am,
But that before all my arrogant poems the real
Me stands yet untouch’d, untold, altogether unreach’d,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I have written,
Pointing in silence to these songs, and then to the sand beneath.


I perceive I have not really understood any thing, not a single object, and that no
man ever can.
Nature here in sight of the sea taking
advantage of me to dart upon me and sting me,
Because I have dared to open my mouth to sing at all.

Nothing of this self-doubting despondency about his poetic creations is to be found in the millions of words Traubel credits to Whitman in his final years. Rather, he is intent by then only on monumentalising himself, as the conversations turn, time and again, to his efforts, with Traubel’s help, to prepare the final, so-called deathbed edition of 1892 of Leaves of Grass, and to the on-going construction of a massive and expensive tomb, intended to house himself, flanked by a parent on either side.

These volumes are meant by Whitman to be his last invocation, which is the title of one of his most exquisitely turned poems, first published in 1868, long before he was readying himself for death. It is in fact not a poem about death so much as a poem about the mystery of immortality, including literary immortality:

At the last, tenderly,
From the walls of the powerful fortress’d house,
From the clasp of the knitted locks, from the keep of the well-closed doors,
Let me be wafted.

Let me glide noiselessly forth;
With the key of softness unlock the locks – with a whisper,
Set ope the doors O soul.

Tenderly – be not impatient,
(Strong is your hold O mortal flesh,
Strong is your hold O love.)

The poem asks that this ‘me’ be released from the flesh, which it is somewhat sad about leaving, since flesh is the instrument of human, bodily love. But the nature and identity of this ‘me’ is puzzling: it cannot be defined as readily as the ‘body’ it is leaving or the ‘soul’ which is asked to make the act of separation as ‘tender’ as possible for this ‘me’. We are left to conjecture that this ‘me’, like ‘the real me’ that in ‘As I Ebb’d’ is said to ‘stand yet untouch’d, untold, altogether unreach’d’, exists not only prior to the body but also before – and independently of – the soul. In ‘As I Ebb’d’ it stands aloof also from his poetry, so that it cannot be identified, either, with any descending muse. It is some part of Whitman that always has been immortal and that always will be. Perhaps this ‘me’ is the ‘genius’ he exhibits in his poetry and which might ensure the immortality of that poetry. Whitman, the living man, aspires to be, like this immortal ‘me’, beyond and contemptuous of questions and explanations. So, by implication, is the immortal Leaves.

Repeatedly in his conversations with Traubel, Whitman asks that his great book be accorded the same reverence, the same deference that he wants shown to this immortal ‘me’. Discussing a study of 1883 entitled Walt Whitman and written by his friend Richard Bucke, he insists to Traubel that his endorsement of the book was never meant to extend to its interpretations:

as to his explication – no, no, no – that I do not accept – for Leaves of Grass baffles me, its author, at all points of its meaning – so that things perhaps plain to Doctor are not so plain to me … Leaves of Grass never started out to do anything – has no purpose – has no definite beginning, middle, end. It is reflection, it is statement, it is to see and tell, it is to keep clear of judgments, lessons, school ways – to be a world with all the mystery of that, all its movements, all its life. From this standpoint I, myself, often stand in astonishment before the book – am defeated by it – lost in its curious revolutions, its whimsies, its overpowering momentum – lost as if a stranger, even as I am a stranger on this earth – driving about with it, knowing nothing or why or result.

This, in other words, is a man who is content to leave what he has done in life in some natural state of ‘mess’, as represented by the random assortment of papers on the floor of his sickroom. The mess is a visible rejection of any proprietary claims that may be made on his life or his work by housekeepers or critics – versions, he would suppose, of the same thing. ‘There is all sorts of debris scattered about – bits of manuscript, letters, newspapers, books,’ Traubel writes of Whitman’s room early on in the first volume. ‘Near by his elbow towards the window a washbasket full of such stuff.’ For Whitman it isn’t a mess at all, but a way of assembling things so that he can exert maximum control over them, much as he asserts his authority over Leaves, by claiming he is mystified, while explicators, who order it and sort it out, are not.

In defence of the explicators, it’s obvious that Whitman’s poetry and prose do at times yield quite readily to flat translation and to parti pris interpretations. Traubel, an ardent democratic socialist, to whose writings Izvestia would one day devote an entire issue, was persuaded that he had discovered an ally in Whitman, just as Whitman’s many early admirers in England had done, like Edward Carpenter and John Addington Symonds, who seemed primarily taken with his poetry because it spoke for and to gay men like themselves.

He is at his frequent best, however, when his poetry is least negotiable in the hands of people who read it on the look-out for what they hope to find there. He knew himself to be a great poet, a man privileged to receive the awesome and often close to terrifying visitations of genius. It is about the gestations of that poetry that he most often writes, as if in wonderment at his own figurations, especially when, in relation to poetic making, they evoke certain sexual acts and positionings the exact nature of which is puzzling enough. A most interesting example occurs some lines later on in Song of Myself:

… myself waiting my
time to be one of the supremes,
The day getting ready for me when I shall do
as much good as the best and be as prodigious
Guessing when I am that it will not tickle me
much to receive
puffs out of pulpit or print;
By my life-lumps! becoming already a creator!
Putting myself here and now to the ambushed womb of the shadows

Poets who have achieved immortality take the same risk as poets who haven’t: which is that some of the words they once confidently used will be so overtaken by time as to become comical – his ambition to ‘be one of the supremes’, for instance, with its inevitable ring of Tamla Motown. But the passage gives plenty of evidence that he’d be more tickled than distressed by so unintended a suggestion. Because, while the grand ambitions expressed in the passage are very seriously meant, so are the associated sounds of high-spirited irreverence, as in the blustering ‘By my life-lumps!’ What can be meant by this exclamation?I take ‘my life-lumps’ to be a reference to his own just emergent sperm. The passage joins many others in the early editions of Leaves where masturbation is described far more frequently and graphically than any other inferrable sexual act. Not, as some have alleged, because masturbation is necessarily Whitman’s favourite sexual activity, but because it figures as an analogy for equally solitary acts of poetic creation, of works destined to create future generations of readers. ‘This day,’ he announces at one point, ‘I am jetting the stuff of far more arrogant republics.’ His ‘seed’, as he sometimes refers to his poems, will one day produce those comrades and lovers addressed in ‘Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand’. They will be holding him by holding his book and ‘thrusting me beneath your clothing/Where I may feel the throbs of your heart and rest upon your hip’. ‘By my life-lumps’ is an oath taken on his own ‘jettings’ and begettings, making him ‘already a creator’. The intentional obscenity of the trope is calculated to offend the polite literati, an announcement that his entrance into the line of great poets will be an intrusion of unprecedented rudeness. More than that, he wants it understood that his semen is not destined for any conventional use. It does not jet forth into an engendering womb, or even into someone else’s hand. It is far more mysteriously destined: for the dark, for an eventual and threatened entrance into the womb of the future. And that womb is already ‘ambushed’ by his perennial enemies – critics, other poets, academics, even friendly ones – who threaten to extinguish his chances for a future life among the ‘supreme’ poets.

Such witty intricacies are a match for anything in Emily Dickinson, who knew all about what might happen to a great and as yet unrecognised poet as he or she approached ‘the ambushed womb of the shadows’. But when they occur in Whitman, intricacies of this sort are apt to be missed, for the obvious reason that they call forth a kind of compacted language not normally expected from a voice as fast-paced, declarative and democratically intended as his so frequently is. Nor are the sexual figurations here, or in other sexual depictions in his poem, meant to represent Whitman’s own habits, however often they are taken to do so. This is not a call for all masturbators of the world to throw off their chains and join him. With extraordinary precision, the sexual images are designed to serve only the highly particular things he wants to communicate about his conceptions of poetry and of his poetic career.

A poet capable of such multiplicity, of such compromising suggestiveness, all of it then put at the service of another purpose altogether, cannot be expected to like or even tolerate direct, simplistic questions about his life. On one occasion, Traubel mentions an inquiry from a mutual friend, which Whitman agrees should be answered: ‘“but answer for yourself, don’t answer for me. Do I ever answer questions?” He laughed quietly. “Horace I made a puzzle; it’s not my business to solve it.”’

The production of mess, of puzzle, might be called his method if not his métier. Mess, like America itself, is infinitely expansive, and, because of that, it can endlessly postpone the finality of any answer as to what and where it is or will be. The mess on the floor at Mickle Street is not the result of his feeling too ill to straighten it out: it represents the consciously exercised preference of a lifetime. One of his young favourites, Harry Stafford, who was 18 when he and Whitman began to share a close attachment and, whenever opportunity offered, the same bed, reported to Traubel years later that when Whitman stayed at the Stafford home, ‘he would make a great mess of his papers and mother would fix them up after her own notions, and he would say when he got back and saw it – “Susan you have set things right – that is, have mixed them all up for me.”’

According to Traubel, Whitman had much the same reaction to any efforts intended to bring order to his accumulations in the Mickle Street quarters: ‘People often criticise Mrs Davis because of the confusion in the parlour and W.’s bedroom. The fact is W. does not encourage any interference even by her with his papers. She has been cleaning some this week, W. being rather disposed to joke about it. “I hate to see things after they are ‘fixed’. You get everything out of place and call it order.”’ Whitman was greatly amused by the effectiveness with which the mere sight of the mess in his room frustrated an inquiring preacher who visited him one evening. ‘I believe,’ he laughingly tells Traubel, that

the old man came to me with a set purpose to deliver a speech – to question me about the ‘Leaves’, about my philosophy, politics, what I thought of Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Burns. But when he got into the room, the debricity … of things – the confusion, the air of don’t care, the unusual look and atmosphere – must have struck him, abashed him, staggered him. For he hardly said a word beyond greetings!

The mess over which he rules disarms questioners; it thwarts efforts at classification meant to reduce the mystery that invests his poetry and his life; it becomes a device whereby he hopes to nullify, by the confusions of intermixture, the alleged importance of others, especially of Emerson, in the shaping of his career. More instrumentally, it allows him to manipulate, in this case with Traubel’s help, the disposition, recovery and subsequent reading of important documents, a process that creates some measure of suspense and unpredictability in an account of the final years that might, over so long a work, degenerate into a record merely of illness and decline.

The mess functions as an archive for the both of them. In an entry for 17 October 1891, Traubel reports that

kicking about the floor as often, I turned over a couple of yellowed letters fastened by a gum band and, picking them up, found my heart stand still at the inscription that met my eye. The Emerson 1855 letter at last! And by the strangest accident, which no one could have foreseen. Often he had promised me this letter … Now to have its thousand eyes look at me from this heap of debris! … ‘I have made a great find Walt.’

‘What is that Horace?’

If Horace has a right to be thrilled, Whitman has a long-held motive for staying cool: ‘I will keep it for a day or so – look it over. Don’t forget to remind me of it when you come tomorrow!’

The 1855 letter represents an extraordinary act of generosity and prescience from the greatest man of letters America had yet produced to a man who, unbidden, had sent him a copy of his first book, a man of whom Emerson had never heard and whose previous work was mostly hack journalism. With exalting magnanimity, the letter begins: ‘I am not blind to the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has contributed. It makes me very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy … I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start.’

From conversations scattered throughout each of the preceding volumes, it has already become evident that Whitman is bent on establishing his independence from Emerson. This final ‘discovery’ of the original letter, which Traubel disingenuously (or superciliously) says ‘no one could have foreseen’, has all the trappings of a staged event. With ever increasing anxiety Whitman has for some years been trying to squelch any suggestion that he was, much less is, Emerson’s ephebe. A year before Traubel began recording their conversations, for example, Whitman wrote to an admirer named William Sloan Kennedy, who once worked on the editorial board of the Saturday Evening Post, that ‘it is of no importance whether I read Emerson before starting L of G. It just happens to be that I had not. If I were to unbosom to you in the matter, I should say that I never cared so very much for E’s writing.’ He is quite shamelessly lying. In 1847, writing in the Aurora, he praised a lecture he had heard Emerson deliver on poetry, and the next year, in another newspaper, he praised Emerson’s ‘Spiritual Laws’. Reminiscing to Townsend Trowbridge in 1860, he admitted that it was Emerson who had ‘brought him to a boil’.

Efforts later on to affirm a lonely independence became part of his efforts to depict himself as having always been insufficiently appreciated by his own countrymen. There was some justification for the complaint. When is there not? He might have mentioned, for instance, that along with the first edition of Leaves there also appeared in 1855 Longfellow’s Hiawatha, Longfellow being, he tells Traubel, ‘essentially a borrower – adapter and adopter’. Hiawatha began at once to sell as many as ten thousand copies a month, while Leaves, despite some good reviews (including three unsigned ones written by Whitman himself), sold so few that in his 1883 biography of Whitman, Bucke reports that the first edition had ‘no sales’ and the second edition, a year later, ‘little or no sales’. But that doesn’t alter the fact that Emerson did his very best to call attention to the book, not only in America but in England.

Traubel knows all this, and on several occasions tries to remind Whitman of earlier testimonies to Emerson’s help and past references to Emerson as ‘Master’. ‘Now you repudiate the word,’ Traubel complains at one point. ‘What did you mean by it then?’ Whitman responds with defensive irritability, ending with the advice that since he has made it abundantly clear that ‘questions are my bête noire,’ and that ‘even you at times, damn you, try me,’ Traubel had better look for an answer elsewhere. In the ‘mess’ perhaps? ‘Maybe if you look long enough you’ll find what you’re looking for.’

Traubel’s interventions on behalf of Emerson’s, along with repeated reminders that he’d been promised the original of the 1855 letter, culminate in a surprising and most revealing episode in which Whitman tries to put the matter to rest. In January 1891, he actually gathers together some documents, rolls them up, and with Traubel’s name written on the outside, presents them to him:

‘This may have an especial value – on several accounts. That slip in there of the Emerson letter is an original, printed at the time, when it was first used; it has an interest, even to me. And the list of English names – that I have never written before that I remember.’ Afterwards, reflectively: ‘I meant to make plain there, as never before, the sense of the debt I feel for my English rescuers in the dark years of my Camden sojourn. No one can know as I know the depth of the need, the nobility of the response. It was veritably a plucking from the fire as I describe it. No one, not my best friends – know what it means to me. It was life or ruin – to this side continuance, to that wreck – and these men saved me – and with true sacrificing zeal, espousal. I know that London is full of cads, flunkeys, fools, evil-doers – all that – but here, too, were several hundred as generous, devoted souls as men could know. I have no mind to forget them – even though Gilder and some of the fellows here declare there’s nothing to it.’ I referred to the Emerson letter. ‘The original is here still,’ he said. ‘I think I can lay my hand on it. Why do you want it? You shall have it without a question from me: if you want it, it is yours.’ But when I touched upon its spiritual value in connection with what must be the future of ‘Leaves of Grass’, W. replied: ‘It is well not to be quick on that point: who can know the certainty among all these uncertainties? It is a hard word to say – the sure word. Who can say it?’

By the ‘dark years of my Camden sojourn’ he is referring to a period beginning in 1873 when, after suffering the first of two paralytic strokes, he had moved from Washington to live with and be cared for in the Camden home of his brother George and his wife Louisa. These years also marked the death of his favourite sister-in-law, Jeffe’s wife Mattie, and the devastating blow of his mother’s death. ‘The only staggering, staying blow & trouble I have had – but unspeakable – my physical sickness, bad as it is, is nothing to it,’ he wrote to one of her friends. He was at the same time separated from the young men he liked to hang out with, particularly Peter Doyle, to whom he wrote in 1875: ‘I get desperate at staying in – not a human soul for cheer, or sociability or fun, and this continues week after week and month after month.’ Emerson, alas, further increased his feelings of neglect and isolation by inexplicably failing to print so much as one of his poems in Parnassus, Emerson’s 1872 anthology of American poets. It took an English journalist, Robert Buchanan in the London Daily News, to publicise the complaints already made by William Rossetti and other English literati: that America was barbarously disdaining its greatest poet. But this rescue operation only made matters worse at home, when the consequent backlash predictably included attacks on Whitman in the American press.

It was during this same period, starting in the late Sixties, that he found comfort in the effusive expressions of regard that he began to hear from a growing number of English admirers, many of them distinguished men of letters or on their way to becoming so. In cultivating this audience as compensation for the lack of any assured one at home, Whitman was not the first and would scarcely be the last of the great American writers. There are the obvious instances of Henry James, Eliot and Frost, all of whom effectively launched their careers while living in England. It was perceived as the most effective way both to impress and outflank the timid, genteel Anglophilia of the American literary establishment.

In his effort to establish an English clientele he was ready to take risks which, as he confesses in the Traubel volumes, he later wished he hadn’t taken. Most conspicuously, there was his agreement to William Michael Rossetti’s proposed publication in England of what he himself considered an expurgated edition of Leaves of Grass. Much earlier he had flatly rejected Emerson’s suggestion that by making some changes of wording here and there he could more readily appeal to a considerably wider audience in America. In fact what Rossetti proposed, and then published in 1868, did not, properly speaking, involve expurgation. Rossetti did not change or omit any words in the poems he printed. Instead, he simply left out altogether any poems whose sexual vividness might offend squeamish readers. He omitted ‘Song of Myself’, and most of the poems that had appeared under the headings ‘Children of Adam’ and ‘Calamus’.

Nevertheless, it was easy enough to infer from the poems he did print that Whitman’s calls for a democratic camaraderie are at least inferentially an encouragement of the expression of sexual love between men. Already admired by Swinburne and Tennyson, Whitman’s poetry was given a substantial lift in England by Rossetti’s edition, which was reviewed quite favourably. But perhaps the most rewarding consequence was that it excited interest among young university men who were thrilled to find the poet celebrating the kind of love that dared not speak its name. In their enthusiasm, they sought out the poems Rossetti had omitted, especially the ‘Calamus’ poems, and then expressed their gratitude to Whitman in letters that are close in some cases to love letters. They didn’t know what to call themselves; neither did Whitman. But his poems were taken as evidence that whatever they were to be called they existed in great numbers and might one day expect to be united as comrades. A letter sent in 1874 to Whitman by Edward Carpenter, then an unknown young poet, is a representative example; Whitman brought it up in a conversation with Traubel 14 years later, in 1888. ‘I seem to be very close to his heart and he to mine in that letter,’ Whitman remarks. ‘It has a place in our personal history – an important place’:

Because you have, as it were, given me ground for the love of men, I thank you continually in my heart. (And others thank you though they do not say so.) For you have made men to be not ashamed of the noblest instinct of their nature. Women are beautiful; but to some, there is something that passes the love of women. It is enough to live wherever the divine beauty of love may flash on men; but indeed its real and enduring light seems infinitely far from us in this our day. Between the splendid dawn of Greek civilisation and the high universal noon of Democracy there is a strange horror of darkness upon us.

Quite a few of the ‘others’ did in fact come forward, including J.A. Symonds, author of History of the Renaissance in Italy, married and the father of three; Edmund Gosse; Charles Warren Stoddard, a literary scholar who wrote ecstatically to Whitman describing his love-making with boys in the South Pacific; Bram Stoker, who visited Whitman in Camden; and, later on, Oscar Wilde who visited twice in 1882. Wilde remarked: ‘there is no one in this wide great world of America whom I love and honour so much.’

Whitman, if one may judge by his scattered discussions of these figures with Traubel, is not in the least bothered by the evidence that they have read Leaves of Grass quite narrowly for its favourable view of the physical love between men. In his reply to Stoddard, for example, he approves of ‘his emotional, adhesive nature’, suggesting only that he could better put it to the test in America, where the ‘hard gritty … qualities in American practical life also serve’, while preventing the ‘extravagant sentimentalism’ of Stoddard’s experiences in the South Seas. The only time he took offence was with Symonds, though he everywhere speaks of him with fulsome admiration and fellow-feeling. In a letter of 1872, which Whitman didn’t answer for over twenty years, and in subsequent letters, Symonds pleaded for just the sort of response to inquiries that Whitman most resisted. Addressing Whitman as ‘My Master’, he wrote: ‘I desire to learn from your own lips – or from your pen some story of athletic friendship from which to learn the truth.’ When Whitman enters this letter into the record with an unusual degree of exasperation, Traubel openly wonders what in the letter makes him so agitated, and advises him simply to answer it. In doing so, however, he exaggerates a claim made before, though no one had believed it, which is that in his travels across America he has fathered and left behind a child or two, which in the letter to Symonds becomes six, four of whom, he carefully stipulates, survive. Compassionately, Symonds simply dropped the matter.

To return now to the problem Whitman creates for himself when, having literally wrapped together a copy of the Emerson letter of 1855 (which Whitman himself had used in the launching of his career) and a list of English admirers (whose letters, he says, rescued him from depression some fifteen years later), he then presents the package to his Boswell. The unintended and unfortunate effect is that Whitman’s laudable expression of gratitude for support from some English readers looks like an effort to relegate the Emerson letter to a subordinate position. As a result, both Traubel and the reader are forced to object that, compared to Emerson’s response to Leaves, this particular English response is quite narrowly based on a few parts, mostly the Calamus pieces, of the huge and still expanding poem. Theirs is a reading altogether inadequate to what Whitman likes to call the ‘totality’ of Leaves of Grass, a totality, he continually insists, his readers attend to.

From the time of the first edition, and with the sole exception of Rossetti’s volume, he has adamantly rejected any rearrangement of parts of the poem by editorial hands or by interpretative selectivity. If Lowell is ‘a palace’, he says at one point, then Leaves of Grass is ‘a seashore, a mountain, floating cloud, sweeping river, storm, lightning, passion, freedom – and all the tremendous, vital, throbbing, resistless, overwhelming, stupendous forces … included in, implied by these’. Isn’t it exactly this ‘initial force’ that Emerson singles out for praise in his letter when he refers to Whitman’s ‘free and brave thought’, to his ‘courage of treatment which large perception only can inspire’. ‘I am happy in reading it,’ he says, ‘as great power makes us happy.’

‘No man has the right to possess me,’ Whitman remarks at one point, and Traubel never tries. There is no evidence, it seems to me, that he was possessive of Whitman or of his poetry in a lifetime of tireless devotion up to his own death, aged 61, in 1919. After Whitman’s death he oversaw the publication of three volumes of Walt Whitman in Camden and left the finished manuscript of the six additional volumes that have been published since. In 1894 he founded the nationwide Whitman Fellowship and guided it for the next 25 years. And this was scarcely all he did. As we learn from the concise account of Traubel’s life by Ed Folsom, which serves as the Foreword to Volume IX, by the time Traubel began his daily visits to the sickroom in 1888, he had already held a number of jobs, as a typesetter, paymaster in a factory, employee in his father’s lithography shop, and as a correspondent for the Boston Commonwealth. During the years of his vigil, and for many years thereafter, he worked as a bank clerk, supporting a wife, whom he married in Whitman’s house in 1891, and two children.

He chose to believe that Whitman’s work was sympathetic to his own radical socialism, though politically the poet was far more conservative than he was. By the late 1880s he had already acquired a reputation for his radical writings. These were frequently published in the journal he founded in 1890 called the Conservator, which of course almost always included in its pages reviews of Whitman and of books about him. Over time he corresponded in a mutually admiring fashion with Emma Goldman, Jack London, Upton Sinclair and Hamlin Garland, and he was read and admired, so it is said in the three books written about him between 1913 and 1919, by Lenin. From what Folsom reports, it seems likely that in his middle years, from about 1899 to 1905, he had a passionate love affair with the leader of the Boston chapter of the Whitman Fellowship, a dentist named Gustav Percival Wiksell.

Traubel’s relationship with Whitman began when he was 14, and in the course of these conversations there are some recollections of their early walks together, their discussions of Byron and Emerson, their excursions on a ferry boat. During one such conversation, Traubel asks Whitman to recall a day when a well-dressed man, leaning against the rail of the ferry and ‘watching us intently … called me by crooking his forefinger. I got up and went over to where he stood. “Say,” he said – “say, bubby, is that Walt Whitman the man who writes the dirty novels?”’ To which the boy replied ‘yes,’ and was then, as he told the more quietly amused Whitman about it, convulsed with laughter. One of their happy days together.