The Friendly City: Boyhood and Youth

I

FROM the Quaker Penn Charter School in Philadelphia I went at the age of sixteen to the near-by Quaker college at Haverford, and began to undergo that vague, diffused kind of intellectual varnishing and plastering over which was then regarded in the United States, and is, I believe, still regarded, as an adequate collegiate education. The scheme of teaching in this small Quaker college, though rather sounder, I believe, than that in some of the larger universities, had but little influence on me: no stirring of the mind resulted from those instructions; I played games; I spent my summers in shooting and fishing expeditions; I and my companions were simply enjoying our brief, irresponsible hour in the sun, before we should all take up that business career to which we were destined. That every American should make money, that even those who already possessed it should devote their lives to making more, that all of them without exception should betake themselves every morning to their offices and spend all the hours of sunlight in these great business buildings — this was the universally accepted and unquestioned ideal of life in the world we lived in.

We were, it is true, for the most part Quakers, but the unworldliness of this unworldly sect had not long been able to curb the pecuniary ardor which had soon taken possession of its members, and although my mother’s father, the original founder of the family business, had put before himself a modest measure of permissible gain — limiting his ideal to the maintenance of a house in town and a house in the country, and a carriage and a pair of fat horses for his wife — and, when this had been attained, had religiously resigned all further profits to his partners, no such scruples troubled his successors in the business. As this business was now growing in importance and prosperity, — glass furnace being added to furnace, and the output of glass bottles greatly increasing year by year, — while my father drew an ever-increasing income from this source, it was taken for granted that I, his only surviving son, should, when the time came for him to retire, succeed him in this lucrative occupation. It was a golden chance and a dazzling prospect that quite obliterated all thought of the librarianship, with its meagre income, to which I had been originally destined.

In the meantime, raw college boy as I was, absorbed in outdoor sports, and glass manufacturer as I hoped to be in the future, I became nevertheless dimly conscious of certain vague stirrings in what, for want of a better term, I must call my mind. Haverford College had been built in a pleasant rural situation, with slopes and hills and a little lake, and many groves of trees. Amid one of these groves a little college library had been placed. I began to haunt this rustic and almost unfrequented little building; and the love of reading, early awakened in me by my visits to the old library in Philadelphia, began to take hold of me again.

And then, as I passed beyond the years of childhood, another impulse stirred within me, and contributed its energy to the dim awakening of my intellectual life. I became vaguely aware of Culture, not indeed as a thing of value in itself, but as bestowing a kind of distinction upon its possessors, a distinction superior in some mysterious way to that of a big-game killer which had hitherto been my ambition and my dream. The revelation to me of this ideal I owed to that elder sister who had converted me in my boyhood, and in whose footsteps, as she climbed one height after another, I followed with clumsy feet for many years.

II

Young American women, before they settle down to domestic fidelity, permit themselves, and by the custom of the country are permitted, an unreproved period of fascination: a prenuptial flight as it were, on which they are pursued by such swarms as they can provoke — and they are allowed almost every license in provoking them — of admirers, suitors, beaux, and would-be lovers. This subjugation, this victimization and leading captive of susceptible young males, is — or at least was — the privilege and indeed the glory of every attractive young American female; and is, as I have said, a kind of prenuptial flight which is less dangerous after all than that of bees, for the hearts of the rejected in that sphere, though easily broken, are not difficult to mend, and the chosen mate or husband is not deprived of life when he has performed his duty to the race.

My sister had now begun to soar upward on shining pinions, followed by the usual train of male admirers, and it was into high realms of poetry and culture that she winged her flight. Thus to me, seated on the dull earth, there began to echo downward, as from a heaven of larks above me, the most fascinating talk of literature and poetry. Oh, I thought, to be initiated into those refinements, to have read the right books, to be able to quote the fashionable poet, to shine, like my sister’s admirers, in literary conversation! Was it possible that I, too, might one day learn to take my part in the discourse of these exalted regions? I shyly began to ask my sister about books, and she recommended me to read the fashionable prophets of the day, Carlyle and Emerson and Ruskin. These I found in the little college library among the trees, and I turned over their pages as if they were books of magic, from which some intimations of their real meaning began slowly to dawn upon me. The rhetoric of Sartor Resartus awoke in me a dim sense that my soul was somehow in a prison, and in Emerson’s pages I caught faint glimpses of the free and starry life which might be possible to the emancipated spirit.

Most potent of all was the influence of Ruskin upon me, and I remember in especial one vivid moment, when, lying out of doors in the grass one late summer afternoon, reading in Modern Painters about the clouds, I happened to look up from my book and saw above me the blue sky and the golden architecture of the unmoving summer clouds. I had seen many beautiful landscapes on my shooting and fishing expeditions; but this moment, when I gazed up at the sky and drank in its beauty, I had been wont to regard as my first experience of conscious æsthetic enjoyment. But the dispositions of which we become more aware as we grow older are deeply implanted in us, and are, indeed, part of our native endowment; and the other day, in reading a letter written by my mother before I was three years old, I found that she had noted at that early age how no object that pleased my eyes, no flower or autumn leaf or gay bit of rag, escaped my attention, and how ‘the perverse little mortal,’ as she described me, loved to sit and gaze up at bright-colored clouds. ‘I wish they would come down here, she once heard me exclaim, ‘ and let me see how pink they are. I want,’ the pious infant added, ‘to show them to Jesus.’

Soon after my reading of Ruskin I began to ask my sister about poetry and the poets. Poetry, I had always maintained, was all rot and nonsense, but I had become dimly aware of the part it played in that exchange of sentiments and gallantries which was the main interest and the great romantic preoccupation of the youth of our community. This part was indeed important; the flights of the young females and their adorers were musical with song; it was with the strains of the fashionable poets Tennyson and Longfellow and Swinburne and the Brownings on their lips that the pursued and the pursuers soared upward into the blue; and my sister, who was foremost in these things among her aspiring companions, was accustomed to make the most effective use of this method of fascination. She knew the whole of In Memoriam by heart; she could chant pages of Swinburne and Mrs. Browning by the hour, which still she says she cannot forget; but there were certain poems of Poe which were perhaps her favorites, and her singing of ‘Annabel Lee’ in the twilight to soft piano accompaniment was well known to be extraordinarily effective.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we —
Of many far wiser than we —
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.

The sound of these strains faintly reaching our ears long ago was a warning to us all of the presence in the drawing-room of some youth to whom ‘Annabel Lee’ thus sung in the twilight was almost invariably fatal. We took it as a warning that we must certainly not intrude. How far away and innocent seems to me now that way of life in our Philadelphia suburb — the thoughts we thought, the songs we sang, the things we talked about in our ugly house, with its imitation stained-glass windows and Landseer engravings!

III

However, to resume my tale. I had by this time become dimly aware of the prestige to be acquired by some knowledge of the poets, the ability to pronounce their names in a knowing way and to murmur their musical lines in the moonlight, and I began, in my conversations with my sister, to introduce shyly, as I have said, the subject of poetry. Yes, there was poetry, my sister answered, musing, and smiling to herself as she mused; and then with a pitying consciousness of my rudimentary culture, and a feeling, no doubt, that I was unworthy as yet of the higher initiations, — that Tennyson and Swinburne and Browning were still far beyond my scope, — she recommended me to read Macaulay’s Lays, which I did read in the little library among the trees on my return to college — read with real excitement, although I hardly found in these heroic lays many tender lines suitable for quotation in the moonlight. More to my purpose was another book of poems which I found for myself upon those shelves, — Owen Meredith’s, — which shoddy stuff I read with passion, finding in it the delineation of all that I thought most elegant and distinguished, all that in my moods of most romantic aspiration I most aspired to be.

In the meantime, however, almost unknown to me, or vaguely apprehended, something had happened in another branch of my maternal family which, though I had at the time no notion of it, was destined to have a decisive effect upon my fate and fortunes. My mother’s youngest sister had married a Baltimore physician; they were the parents of nine children, and in the eldest of these peculiar symptoms were beginning to alarm her family. This daughter had made friends with another Baltimore young girl, in whose house they had discovered and read with rapture the writings of a poet called by the name, hitherto unknown to them, of Shelley; Shelley had led them on to Godwin, whose writings they had also unearthed. They had adopted with enthusiasm all the doctrines of these two writers, their atheism, their belief in Free Love (exactly what Free Love was these maidens hardly knew, but they believed in it with passion), and my cousin, thus aware of larger horizons, had made up her mind to further explorations of this intellectual world.

She had determined, in fact, to achieve a college education, which was then for women most unusual in America, and quite unheard of in our Quaker world. After a terrific struggle she made her way to Cornell College, one of the few colleges then open to women students, and, graduating there, she and her friend had determined to go abroad to complete their education in Germany — the country then the ideal and goal of all studious Americans. The struggle to obtain this freedom for herself and for her friend had shaken Baltimore like an earthquake — a determination to devote themselves to lives of ill-repute could hardly have created a greater scandal; but at last, after threats of suicide, hunger strikes, and other forms of awful defiance, they had achieved their purpose: they had gone, they were actually students at a German university. This was a turning toward Europe of a more serious kind than that of my grandfather’s, or than my father’s brief participations in the worldly and religious circles abroad. The world of European learning, European scholarship, and German universities was what my intrepid cousin aimed at, and into this, to the unspeakable horror of Baltimore, she and her friend disappeared. In the great family conflict which had preceded this departure, my mother, who had always bitterly regretted that no opportunity for real education had been available for women in her youth, took passionately the side of her ambitious niece. Indeed, to the astonishment of everyone, her strict and disapproving mother, Friend Mary Whitall, the devotee of the correct Friend Gurney, expressed her approval of this wild project of her grandchild, and, when other supplies were all stopped, gave her the money for her voyage, calmly remarking, ‘I should have liked myself to go abroad to study.’

Thus was diffused among us a dim apprehension of a world of study and scholarly ambitions centred in Germany, but with offshoots in England, and even possibly in America at Harvard, but remote, incredibly far away from our dull provincial Quaker community — indeed almost unheard of until this window in Baltimore had been so dramatically, so tempestuously opened. I was destined later on to be decisively involved in the aftereffects of this upheaval, but during my first two years at Haverford of this I had no notion, set apart as I was to be a willing victim to the great Moloch and fiery furnace of our family business.

IV

This was the point at which I had arrived when, in 1882, returning home again for the Easter holidays, I was told important news by my sister, when she too arrived for her holidays from Smith College, for the ban on college education for girls was now removed. There was a poet, she informed me and the rest of our family, a great American poet and prophet, — though most Americans were not at all aware of his greatness,— now living in poverty and neglect among us in America, living actually not far from our neighborhood, and it was her purpose, she informed us, to go without delay and offer him a due tribute of praise and admiration. How had she heard of this poet, her anxious and perturbed relatives inquired. A lady lecturer, she replied, had come from Boston to Smith College, and had praised his works, which she herself had immediately ordered from Boston, and which had revealed to her a message of tremendous import, and the purpose of her intended visit was to discuss this message. Consternation fell upon us all, and my father at once forbade it. He vaguely knew the name of the poet, which was by no means a name of good repute in Philadelphia; the district in which he lived was a district not visited by people who respected their own position. No daughter of his, my father declared, should, while she lived under his roof, be allowed to take so unseemly a step.

My father’s refusal to permit this indecorum, though impressive as the poor man could make it, had no effect whatsoever upon my sister. She thought of going, she said, on the following Thursday; and my father, being in his heart well aware of the powerlessness of American parents in their dealings with their daughters, and convinced, as he was, that if my sister meant to go on Thursday, on Thursday she would go, wisely, if unheroically, decided that the best thing under the circumstances was for him to accompany her and thus lend an air of propriety to this visit. I was invited to join the party, and so off on Thursday afternoon we started from our home in Germantown, behind the pair of my father’s fine horses. We flashed along through Fairmount Park, we drove across Philadelphia, we embarked in the ferry and crossed the Delaware, and dashed up before the little two-story wooden house in Camden to which we had been directed. The poet’s elderly sister, who answered the doorbell, ushered us into a little parlor, and shouted upstairs, ‘Walt, here’s some carriage folk come to see you.’ We heard a stirring above us as of a slow and unwieldy person, and soon through the open door we saw two large feet in carpet slippers slowly descending the stairs, and then the bulky form of the old man appeared before us. Walt Whitman greeted us with friendly simplicity; he had no notion who we were, and we had no introduction to him, but the unannounced appearance of these ‘carriage folk’ from across the river — this portly and opulent-looking gentleman with his tall son and beautiful tall daughter — did not seem to surprise him in the least. My sister informed him that our name was Smith, that she had read his Leaves of Grass, and had come to express her immense admiration for that volume, and this explanation was received with great complacency; we were all invited to follow him upstairs to his den, where we sat down on what chairs could be hastily provided, and were soon engaged in lively talk.

My father, who at first held himself aloof in the most disapproving manner, soon, to the surprise of my sister and myself, began to join in this friendly conversation, and we were still more surprised, when we got up to take our departure, to hear our impulsive parent invite the object of his grave disapprobation to drive back with us to Germantown and spend the night. The afternoon was, he urged, a fine one, the drive across the Park would be pleasant, and it would be a pity to bring to a premature end so agreeable a confabulation. ‘No, Mr. Smith, I think I won’t come,’ the poet answered; but when he had hobbled to the window and seen, waiting in the street outside, my father’s equipage, he said that he thought he might as well come after all, and, hastily putting a nightshirt and a few other objects in a little bag, he hobbled downstairs and we all drove off together. It was, as my father had said, a pleasant afternoon; we crossed again the ferry, we drove through Philadelphia and through the Park to our home in Germantown, where Walt Whitman remained with us for a month, and whither he would often afterward return. He became indeed a familiar and friendly inmate of the house, whose genial presence, even when we did not see him, could hardly pass unnoticed, for he had the habit of singing ‘Old Jim Crow’ when not occupied in conversation, and his loud and cheerful voice could be heard echoing every morning from the bathroom. His arrivals were always unannounced; he would appear when he liked, stay as long as he liked; and then one morning we would find at breakfast a penciled note to say that he had departed early, having had for the present enough of our society.

V

The reputation which the author of the Leaves of Grass had acquired by that daring and not decent publication was but a dubious one in America at that time; this reputation had reached our Quaker suburb, and our neighbors and relations would avoid our house and forbid their children to visit it when it was known that Walt Whitman was staying with us. Our friendship with him shocked them gravely; but no one who met him could retain this prejudice for long. His manners were grand and primeval, like those of old patriarchs or bards; he treated all human beings with the same politeness, and only on one occasion did we notice in him any sense of times and occasions and the demands of social etiquette. He had arrived on a visit in a knitted jacket, and, when told that a number of people were coming that evening to dinner, the thought occurred to him that probably he ought to put on a coat for the occasion, and after some meditation he appeared at dinnertime a consummate man of the world in his overcoat, thus sacrificing his comfort, for the night was hot, to the demands of the occasion.

Almost every afternoon my father would take Walt Whitman driving in the Park; it was an unfailing interest to them to drive as close as they could behind buggies in which pairs of lovers were seated, and observe the degree of slope towards each other, or ‘buggyangle,’ as they called it, of these couples; and if ever they saw this angle of approximation narrowed to an embrace, my father and Walt Whitman, who had ever honored that joy-giving power of nature which the pagans symbolized under the name of Venus, would return home with happy hearts.

My acquaintanceship with this great and famous poet, — for Walt Whitman had already become famous in England, and his glory had flashed back across the Atlantic to Boston, and thence, as I have described, to where we sat in Germantown in darkness, — the familiar presence of this poet in our house, must have had an influence upon me which was much greater than anything that I was aware of at the time. He was, as John Burroughs has well described him,

‘ large and picturesque of figure, slow of movement, tolerant, receptive, democratic and full of charity and good will towards all. His life was a poet’s life from first to last — free, unworldly, unhurried, unconventional, unselfish, and was contentedly and joyously lived.’ He was already old and half-paralyzed when we made his acquaintance, but of the disabilities of age he never spoke, although their shadows are not absent from his poems of this period. In one of these, for instance, ‘Queries to My Seventieth Year,’ which was written just when we came to know him, he thus addresses the oncoming year: —

Approaching, nearing curious,
Thou dim, uncertain spectre — bring’st thou life or death?
Strength, weakness, blindness, more paralysis and heavier?
Or placid skies and sun? Wilt stir the waters yet?
Or haply cut me short for good? Or leave me here as now,
Dull, parrot-like and old, with crack’d voice harping, screeching?

It was, however, the calm serenity of age, its placid skies and sun, which diffused about him that atmosphere of peace and leisure which made his companionship so genial, and our endless conversations with him so great a pleasure. He was fond of talking with young people, and would listen with the utmost good nature to our crude notions; and when he was not with us, my sisters and I would often visit him in Camden, where on summer days we would find him seated at his window, fanning himself with a large palm-leaf fan, and gazing out on the lazy sunshine that filled his little street. Not infrequently during our visits he would recognize some workingman of his acquaintance as he passed, and call out, ‘Come in, Bill, and meet some friends of mine,’ and the workingman would come in, or the passing postman, or the driver of an express wagon, and we would all share an improvised meal together.

The floor of the room upstairs in which he lived was covered to the depth of a foot or so with a sea of papers, and now and then he would stir this pool with his stick and fish up a letter from an English admirer — Tennyson perhaps, or Symonds, or Edward Dowden, or some newspaper article about ‘the Good Grey Poet.’ Walt Whitman, who had been himself so long a newspaper writer, was curiously fond of newspaper publicity; his floor was strewn with press cuttings in which his name was mentioned, and he would even, I believe, now and then, write anonymous articles about himself for insertion in the local papers. Otherwise he was quite free from literary vanity, and never spoke of his writings unless we questioned him. Then, however, he would answer with great simplicity and frankness.

My sister, Mrs. Berenson, recalls how once, when she was on the Camden ferry, she saw an Englishman also on the boat. He must, she rightly concluded, be on a pilgrimage like herself to visit Walt Whitman, for how otherwise account for the presence of that Englishman? She, therefore, accosted the correct and dapper figure, who confessed, with some surprise, that this was in fact his purpose. My sister offered to show him the way to Walt Whitman’s house, and they proceeded thither, to find, however, that the door was locked and they could get no answer to their knockings. ‘I’m sure he’s upstairs,’ my sister said; ‘he always is, so the best thing is for me to boost you up to the window, which you can open, and then come down and let me in.’ Edmund Gosse (for the Englishman was Edmund Gosse) seemed considerably surprised, my sister says, by the unconventionality of this proposal, but as he had come a long way to visit Walt Whitman, and did not wish to be baffled in his object, he finally allowed my sister to boost him up; and then he descended to open the front door to her, and they found Walt Whitman as usual in his study, and their visit was a satisfactory one in every way.

It is only fair, however, to add that when, thirty or forty years after, I arranged for Mrs. Berenson and Gosse to meet at luncheon, the latter, though admitting that he had met my sister at Walt Whitman’s, strenuously denied the boosting and his informal entrance. Knowing both Gosse and my sister to be endowed with more picturesque than accurate memories, I have never been able to decide which was telling the truth.

I remember once speaking to Walt Whitman about his poem, ‘With husky haughty Lips O Sea,’ which had just been published, and he told me, sitting one summer evening on our porch in Germantown, of the way he had come to write it; how always, from the days of his boyhood on the Long Island coasts, he had tried and tried again to seize the meaning which the voice of the ocean was always whispering in his ears; how often by day, and more often by night, he had sat or lain amid the sandhills on its margin, listening in a kind of torment of attention to that great voice — some voice — in what words could he best describe it?

Some voice, in huge monotonous rage, of freedom-lover pent,
Some vast heart, like a planet’s, chain’d and chafing in those breakers.

This notion of receptivity to experience, and of a complete surrender to it, combined with a patient effort to grasp its deepest meaning and to embody that meaning in significant and reverberating words — this account of the old man’s poetic method, as he told it one summer evening, was deeply impressive to his boyish listener, although that listener had then no thought of attempting to coin his own experience into enduring metal. To melt material sand into salable glass bottles — this, he believed, was to be his destiny; and the idea that all such massy unmetaphorical gold might be gladly bartered, as Walt Whitman would gladly have bartered it, for the ability to embody in words some one of Nature’s aspects, — the sea’s voice, for instance, or the breath of its salt fragrance, or even, as he himself had said, ‘the undulation of one wave,’ — the idea of so mad a preference would have seemed to his youthful listener at that date fantastic indeed.

VI

Thus I listened to the impressive talk of the old poet, and though I had no notion of following his example, the effect upon me of his poems, as I read and reread that strange volume, the Leaves of Grass — how can I adequately describe it? There are books which come to us as revelations, which, as Emerson says, ‘take rank in our lives with parents, lovers and passionate experiences,’ and to come on such a book to which one can yield oneself in absolute surrender — there is no intellectual enjoyment, I believe, no joy of the mind greater in youth than this. Books of this kind, for their most passionate acceptance, should be contemporary books, written by the living for the living; and should present us with a picture of life as we ourselves know it and feel it. And they should above all reveal us to ourselves, should hold up a looking glass before our eyes in which we see our own faces. Much that was suppressed in the young people of my generation found a frank avowal in the Leaves of Grass; feelings and affection for each other, which we had been ashamed of, thoughts which we had hidden as unutterable, we found printed in its pages, discovering that they were not, as we had believed, the thoughts and feelings of young, guilty, half-crazy goblins, but portions of the Kingdom of Truth and the sane experience of mankind.

It was above all Walt Whitman’s rejoicing in his flesh and blood, — ‘ there is so much of me,’ ho sang, ‘and all so luscious,’ — his delight in his own body and the bodies of his friends, which seemed a revelation and gave the Leaves of Grass so strong a hold upon a generation born of puritans who had ignored, or treated as shameful, those habitations of the spirit. Then, too, Walt Whitman’s affection for his fellow human beings, — for he was one of those rare spirits who really love the human race, — his feeling that all men and women, of whatever race or class and in whatever state of degradation, were all of them not worthless and of no account, but lovable and mysterious and divine — this seemed to fill for us the many-peopled world with innumerable creatures all dear and infinitely precious to us. These were the streams of life which flowed from that fountain; and catching also from its pages the fervor of his exultant pride in Democracy, in America and the age we lived in, and moved also by the splendid passages here and there of great poetry, we came to regard as a sacred book the vast printed chaos of the Leaves of Grass. It gave us ears, it gave us eyes, it revealed to us the miracle of our own existence, and for me, at least, with my meagre ideals of borrowed culture, it seemed to open a great shining window in my narrow house of life.

(To be continued)