More on poetry from The Atlantic Monthly.
More on books from The Atlantic Monthly.
From Atlantic Unbound:
Flashbacks: "America's Bard" (November 7, 2001)
A collection of writings by and about Walt Whitman, the free-spirited poet who championed democracy and America.
Soundings: "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life" (October 8, 1998)
Frank Bidart, Marie Howe, and Galway Kinnell read Whitman's stunning poem of self-doubt. With an introduction by Steven Cramer.
The Atlantic Monthly | June 1907
t was on Sunday the 28th day of December, 1862, that I first saw Walt Whitman in person. We were then living in Washington. As we sat at table, a knock at the door of our room—which served as dining and sitting room—was answered by my husband, William Douglas O'Connor, with a hearty "Come in," and there stood the man, whom Mr. O'Connor afterwards christened "The Good Gray Poet." He was immediately made known to me by name, but I could not have had a moment's doubt, for he looked as his pictures at that time represented him.
Personal Recollections of Walt Whitman
"Those of us who knew the Good Gray Poet in his best days of health, who saw him day and night, before and after his watches with his sick and maimed soldier boys, feel that a great privilege was ours."
by Ellen M. Calder
He had just returned from the "front," where he had gone to look up his brother George, who was wounded by a spent ball in the battle of Fredericksburg. He had remained some days in camp, and found some of his Brooklyn "boys," and brought with him the names of others whom he wished to see, some of them his friends of the omnibus, horse-car, ferry-boat, and so on, in Brooklyn and New York, soldier boys who were then in hospitals in and around Washington. He thought he might like to remain in Washington perhaps ten days, or two weeks, and had a memorandum of some possible boarding-places that he wanted to see. Mr. O'Connor offered to go out on the search with him; but before they started my husband asked me, aside, if I would not like to have Walt for our guest at table during his stay in Washington, as there was a vacant hall bedroom on the floor where we were keeping house—in two rooms of the upper story of a house on L Street. I was delighted at the proposal, and hailed the opportunity of becoming personally acquainted with the poet. Mr. O'Connor had already made his acquaintance in Boston in 1860, when Thayer and Eldridge were printing Whitman's third edition of Leaves of Grass, and O'Connor's Harrington at the same time. The landlord was consulted, the room could be rented, and on the return of Walt and William from the inspection of the places visited, they not having proved desirable, the room was engaged, our invitation accepted, and Walt became our most welcome guest for months.
Visiting one sick boy in hospital led to his finding another, there or elsewhere, and soon his occupation was the daily visiting of the soldier "boys," as they nearly all were to him,—not only the Brooklyn boys, but any and all who needed ministrations of any kind. These visits led him to Carver Hospital out on Seventh Street, to Columbia Hospital on Fourteenth Street, and to many others, as we had at that time and later twenty-one hospitals and convalescent camps in and around Washington, full of boys and men sick of fevers, and of all the diseases that are incurred by the hardships and exposures of war, aside from the wounded and those dying of disease and exhaustion caused by wounds. And this was the beginning of Whitman's service in behalf of the stricken, a service in which he found himself enlisted not for weeks, but for months and years. After making visits to many hospitals, and ministering to our soldiers in several of them, Walt largely confined his work to the Armory Square Hospital,—that being the nearest to the boat landing, and where many of the worst cases were necessarily detained, the soldiers being too badly wounded to be carried farther. Soon Dr. Bliss, the surgeon in charge, discovered that here was a man who could be trusted to go about the wards and give an apple, an orange, or tobacco, or whatever, to the patients, as his intuition might prompt him, and not give the wrong thing. Walt told me one day that he found soldiers from the West who had never seen an orange till he carried them to the hospital. And he said the aroma of a lemon held in the hand was often most grateful to a fever patient.
On his way to the front in that search for his brother, Walt had reached Washington almost penniless, having had his pocket picked of all the money which had been gathered together by the family. He was, however, soon able to find Mr. C. W. Eldridge, his former publisher, now clerk to Major L. S. Hapgood of Massachusetts, Paymaster United States Volunteers. When Whitman had made his situation known, Mr. Eldridge and Mr. O'Connor were glad to relieve it at once. I had not met him then, being on a visit in Massachusetts. Serious as the situation was, Mr. Eldridge could not repress the facetious comment that any pickpocket who failed to avail himself of such an opportunity as Walt offered, with loose baggy trousers, and no suspenders, would have been a disgrace to his profession. Through Major Hapgood Mr. Eldridge secured passes to the front for himself and Whitman. Walt had left his "carpet bag" with my husband, on his way down, wishing to be burdened with as little luggage as possible. Thus I was hoping and almost expecting to see him on his return from the seat of war. I was still, however, somewhat skeptical as to whether he would actually appear, as I had already learned of his elusive disposition, and of his dislike to be bound in any way. We had been promised by our friend Hector Tyndale of Philadelphia that we should meet him in that city, where he had often been looked for, on the strength of his vague assurances.
He was seldom betrayed into making appointments, as I had learned. When I expressed my doubts about his coming to us on his return from camp,—my husband's answer was, "Yes, he surely will, for there is his carpet bag," which was plainly in evidence.
It was soon after this that Whitman's old friend, William Swinton, who was war correspondent for one of the great New York papers, met him on Pennsylvania Avenue, and asked him where he was to be found in the evening. Being told that he was staying at our house, Swinton said he would come up. Great was his surprise to find Walt actually there. Swinton exclaimed, "Well, Walt, I have known you dozens of years, and made hundreds of appointments with you, but this is the first time that I ever knew you to keep one. I thought I saw signs of decay!"
At this time Whitman's fine physique was impressive; measuring, as he said, a half inch less than six feet in height, weighing about two hundred pounds, with no ailment but those occasional intense headaches caused by exposure to fierce midday sun upon one of the hottest of summer days, after having had his hair cut at the shortest, and strolling along Broadway with head uncovered. He barely escaped sunstroke at the time, and now had to use the protection of an umbrella, as did most persons in our fierce summer weather in Washington.
He told us that the physician also held that the unusual combination which existed in his case, of a rapidly moving brain in a slow-moving, rather lethargic body, was unfavorable. The discrepancy was unfortunate. Even the ability to stop thinking at will, and to make his brain "negative," as he described a gift of his at that time of almost perfect health, did not insure him against these attacks of headache.
Whitman's evenings were usually spent with us at home, and with such friends as came to see us. I wish I had some record of the talks, discussions, arguments, that were nightly indulged in. No notes were taken, for all were engaged more or less in the mêlée, and no one could dream how valuable such notes might have been as future reminders. Dr. Bucke, a later friend and biographer of Whitman, groaned in spirit when he learned that no record had been preserved of anything, for in those early days of intimate acquaintance no subject, whether under the heaven above or in the earth beneath, was ignored. Philosophy, history, religion, literature,—authors, ancient and modem,—language, music, and every possible question as to the conduct of the Civil War,—everything was discussed, and every side was heard.
Soon the friends living in Washington and those visiting the city knew where to find Whitman, and besides the regular, constant group, there were many others who were with us more or less.
The desk which Major Hapgood gave Walt for his daily use was in the Major's own room in the Corcoran Building, and there very often the soldiers who were able to climb up the four flights of stairs—for the office was on the fifth floor—used to call on him for such service as he was always glad to give,—writing letters for one, going to the train to see another properly started on his way home for his furlough, long or short as the case might be, and seeing to it that the funds for the trip were sufficient for all needs.
Soon after Whitman began his work in the hospitals, friends from Massachusetts and elsewhere, who learned of his good offices, sent him money to use according to his own discretion, and this was continued more or less to the end of the war. He earned a little money himself by corresponding for the New York papers.
In the matter of writing letters Walt found plenty of employment, for he soon discovered the fact that it is next to impossible for persons of limited education, unaccustomed to the use of the pen, to write readily, and many soldiers told him that they had not written home since leaving. He found boys, too,—and some of them literally boys, for they were under seventeen,—who had run away from home to enter the army, and whose parents had no knowledge of the whereabouts of their sons. Very often Walt used to remark that he thought "the institution of the father a failure." Mothers were loving, affectionate, indulgent, and sympathetic, but he did not find it so with fathers, and in many cases that came under his own observation undue severity at home had driven the boys to enlist in the army, when not of age.
The consciousness that the Walt Whitman whom I knew so intimately in the sixties is not the man whom later comers are familiar with, has been a large factor in the reluctance which I have hitherto felt in giving these recollections to the world. The man who came to Washington in 1862 was in the vigor of health, and remained in that condition for years. He had a pleasant habit of singing in his room while making his morning toilet, and also of quoting his favorite authors, and bits of poems and verses, when with us in the evening. One verse that he liked to repeat I well remember. It was called "The Greatest Pain."
A mighty pain to love it is,
Unlike some of his later admirers, who thought his elocution admirable, we did not flatter him much on his recitations, as he had a somewhat theatrical, artificial manner, and a habit of using his voice as if his throat were stiffened, instead of the clear flexible voice that he used in conversation. Among the plays of Shakespeare, King Richard the Second was a great favorite of Whitman's, and he had a copy of it unbound, in pamphlet form, which was well worn from constant reading and use. Scott's Quentin Durward was a book that he especially liked, and he gave a copy of it to Mr. O'Connor and told our little Jeannie that she must read it when she was older.
And yet a pain that love to miss;
But of all pains, the greatest pain
It is to love, but love in vain!
In the innumerable talks and discussions about books, many times Walt said that he wished competent persons would give brief but careful and accurate digests of new books without interjecting any opinions, so that a busy man need not read all of the author, but could get the gist of the book, scientific, historical, philosophical, or whatever,—and that the reviewer in every case should be a man who was capable of doing the whole work well, some one who was "up" in that department.
In those early days before Whitman obtained a position in the Interior Department, he spent much time in wandering about Washington and its vicinity; visiting the public buildings and straying into all kinds of out-of-the-way places. The broad avenues and streets had a great charm for him; the Capitol, too, was a never-ending source of pleasure; and with him I explored the older part of Washington, the Navy Yard district, and over the Eastern Branch, into Anacostia. Sometimes we all went after dinner, when the days were longer, into the woods of Georgetown, and spent hours watching the rising moon, and the attractive landscape.
The splendid health and vigor of Walt at this time was refreshing to see. It impressed me in many little ways. As I have said, Mr. O'Connor and I were living in two rooms, and I was doing much of the housework, attending to the breakfast, and so forth. At that time Washington had no general system of water supply or drainage, and a pump at the corner of our street was reputed to be of very pure water and fed from a spring at Rock Creek. To this pump every morning Walt would go for a pitcher of fresh cold water for our table, and he was especially fond of taking a long draught of the same at the pump. I remember how his warm, strong hands impressed me then, as they grasped the pitcher and communicated their genial temperature to the handle of it.
It is a matter of constant and increasing regret that no record was made of the talks of those days when at breakfast we lingered long over Emerson, Wordsworth, Tennyson, or any poet or author who was suggested at the moment. The talk about Emerson's "Snow Storm" was a memorable one, both Walt and Mr. O'Connor regarding it as one of his most beautiful and finished poems, full of suggestions of home and seclusion. When Whitman first came to us on his return from the seat of war, he was, he said, continually thinking: How would all this have looked to Emerson,—how would he be affected by such scenes, how would he act, feel, seem, under these conditions? Would he keep that calm and sweet exterior?
e lingered long over those pleasant breakfast-table chats,—much past the allotted time, I suspect; for the office rules were not then as strict as they are now. As we saw day after day the punctual Mr. Evans, him of the "meteor beard," go past to his office, it was suggested that O'Connor write a story called, "The Faithful Clerk, A Tale of the Treasury,—Dedicated to the Nine O'Clockers, by a Half-past Tener." Our friend Mr. Evans was one of Walt's admirers, but not a constant visitor at our house. He was dubbed the "Meteor Beard," because of his very long and fiery red beard, which I think: had never been either "shaven or shorn." He was English by birth, and was somewhat attracted by Walt and his writings.
The stimulating mental society of a man like Mr. O'Connor was no doubt requisite to the full arousing of Whitman's nature. Here was a man who loved and understood Walt so well that he dared to disagree with him on any and all questions, and whose opposition was couched in no uncertain words. Many a time the mild and pleasant morning breakfast chats were continued as heated discussions in the evening, after Walt's return from the hospitals.
As the circle of friends enlarged, and gatherings were constant, we fell into the habit of immediately taking up certain pet subjects. The discussion upon topics was always open and ready, and the fun and good-natured banter always free. No subject under the sun was neglected. As new conditions arose there was no lack of material, and the debates were often fierce and furious. Then, too, certain stock subjects were always at hand. We were somewhat divided in our pet beliefs. Free Trade, I recall, was at one time a favorite, and one ingenious guest proposed balooning as a method of evading the customs. Sometimes the talks and arguments were upon matters of deepest moment,—the war, the freedom of the slave, the Mormon question, the so-called "Free Love" doctrine. The Mormon question was treated with tolerance by one or more of the group, impressed by the great material benefit which had been accomplished, more than by the moral degradation consequent upon the practice of polygamy. The fiercest denunciations that were ever heard from Whitman were against that which was called "Free Love." He gave it no quarter, said that its chief exponent and disciple—Stephen Pearl Andrews—was of the type Mephistopheles, a man of intellect without heart, and there were no terms too strong in which to express his opinion its "damnable " teachings and practices.
o the later comers and newer friends of Whitman, who aver that he never raised his voice, and that argument was distasteful to him, I commend the following account given by Laurence Franklin, of the meetings of the famous "Four" Frenchmen, as a not much over-colored picture of some of our gatherings and discussions, which frequently lasted into the small hours of the morning, and during which Walt, with his strong lungs and loud voice, did his full share of the roaring, and by no means as gently, as the sucking dove. "The four friends, Flaubert and Edmond de Goncourt as the older members, and Zola and Daudet as the younger ones, remained inseparable from 1872 to 1880 the date of Flaubert's death. Three times a week they dined together at some tavern or restaurant; and with the first mouthful began the discussion of literature. By midnight the debate had grown so hot that the other habitués of the inn often rushed upstairs in the belief that a murder was being committed."
Not fear of murder, perhaps, but intense curiosity as to what on earth was going on, led a policeman to stop and investigate the cause of the clamor one hot Sunday afternoon when we were gathered in the back dooryard, after we had moved into more ample quarters and were near the street. He went on his way smiling when he learned that the exciting topic was the currency question, which was then being discussed in Congress and before the country. Our landlady said that the neighbors were convinced that a furious quarrel was going on.
Notwithstanding Whitman's fondness for coining words, and using many in uncommon fashions, he was, in a way, a great stickler for the correct use of certain words,—one of which was "paraphernalia," which he insisted could be correctly used only in reference to a bride's belongings or trousseau. We had many amusing discussions about words, and the best dictionary for final settlement of any vexed question, whether it should be Webster or Worcester. He used generally to say, "We will see what Booby says,"—his pet name for either dictionary; but he did not readily allow either one to settle any point.
Many times in the course of our numerous talks the marriage question was discussed. And invariably Whitman upheld the modem theory of marriage as being the true and ideal relation between the sexes. He stanchly and strongly adhered to that. In speaking of marriage the idea which he conveyed was that he did not think it would have been well for him to have formed that closest of ties. He was so fond of his freedom, he so reacted from any restraint, that it seemed that it would have been a mistake if he had ever married. He added, however, "True if I had been caught young, I might have done certain things, or formed certain habits." He often said he "did not envy men their wives, but he did envy them their children." As we were passing along the street one day a little girl said in her smiling way, "I know you." He answered, "I wish I knew you."
The game of "Twenty Questions," as a relaxation after hospital work, was one that sometimes entertained Walt and the rest of us, and the wit and quickness that it brought out were very amusing. A half-dozen of us, playing the game frequently together, became able easily to discover the thing thought of, in much less than the twenty questions. Even so remote and unheard-of a subject as the white beard of Secretary Welles—then Secretary of the Navy—was once the subject of thought.
On one occasion the object was done up in a neat package, and deposited by Walt, as he came into the supper-room, upon the mantel, hinting that it was to be won by the twenty-question method. It took no more than half that number of questions and answers to guess the contents of the package, which proved to be a good-sized, large-type Bible, one member of the family having expressed a desire for such a copy, for frequent use, and having none at hand that answered the want. It was inscribed inside with the names of the giver and the friends to whom given, with the request that it pass on to "Little Jeannie," who, alas! passed out of this life before any one of the company then present.
It was not unusual for the group to watch the old year out and the new year in. On one occasion, when the snow was falling in large flakes, Walt appeared at the door, a veritable Santa Claus, with his thin, shaggy white beard and straggling hair falling below his coat collar; the coat and hat all covered with snow,—for he never used an umbrella,—his cheeks ruddy, and his whole appearance one that any child would have gazed at with wondering eyes. After entering, and shaking and stamping off the soft snow from his garments, he began to unload his pockets,—those ample pockets on the outside of his coat, where he was so often in the habit of burying his hands as he sauntered down the streets. Out of those capacious receptacles he brought forth a small bottle of Scotch whiskey, a lemon, and some lump sugar, and he said we would welcome in the New Year. Some fresh cold water must be brought in, in a little kettle,—for a very important part of the proceeding, was proper attention to the boiling, which must, be à la Delmonico,—to be removed from the fire at the exact moment of boiling. Into each tumbler was poured the quantity of the liquid that would be required, a careful paring of the rind of the lemon, not too much, but just enough,—a sufficient quantity of sugar, and last the hot water; and then came the gay and merry discussion of any and every thing under the sun and stars, while the punch so carefully concocted was slowly sipped till the midnight bells pealed out the hour of twelve, and the guests departed, wishing each other all sorts of piquant and jolly good-wishes.
It was about this time that, one evening, as Walt was slowly sauntering down Seventh Street, from a visit to Carver Hospital, he was accosted by a policeman and ordered to remove that "false face," his name for a mask. Walt quietly assured him that the only face he wore was his very own, but added, "Do we not all wear 'false faces'?" The incident amused him, but we thought it a very happy Christmas compliment, his being mistaken for Old Santa Claus.
One chilly, cold, disagreeable morning, Walt was sauntering along to his breakfast, to a restaurant kept by a man named Evans, on F Street. Snow had fallen, and the rain followed, and then snow again, which was still falling , till the walks were covered with the mixture of soft snow and rain that makes a combination perfectly described by Whitman's word "posh." Slowly sauntering, with his hands in his ample coat pockets, the wrists bent down, which gave his arms the suggestion of the fins of a fish, he was overtaken by his friend Mr. Eldridge, who took his meals at the same place. After walking a short distance Eldridge said, "Come Walt, let's hurry along to breakfast." "You can hurry along if you want to, but I want to enjoy the morning," was Walt's reply. I think no condition of weather but dust ever disturbed him. That he thoroughly disliked, and he laughingly said that he believed that, after he had taken his bath, and gone out for a stroll, with a fresh, clean shirt, the dust hunted him out, and pursued him. At that time Washington was not paved with asphalt, as it is today, and the heavy army wagons ploughed deeply into the mud, which soon became dust; and in those days it was literally true that the streets of Washington were always either mud or dust.
In some of the various experiments of getting his own breakfast, after we had moved, and Walt was no longer with us, he spoke of cooking beefsteak and chops. When asked who washed the dishes, he said he had none to wash. "How then did you manage?" was asked. He ate his steak or chop, he replied, from a "clean chip." Wooden plates had not then been invented. He had no cups. and saucers to wash, as his tea was made in a "tin cup," and he put the tea in the tin cup, with cold water, over the gas, and went out for a short stroll while the tea was steeping! This delicious beverage, with "white sugar" and plenty of milk, was taken directly from the vessel in which it was steeped. And this from the same person who gave most minute directions in regard to boiling water for the punch! No fear of tannin disturbed his enjoyment of the decoction.
A friend and near neighbor, who had conceived a great disgust for Walt Whitman because of his writings, who thought him coarse, vulgar, and obscene, was nevertheless much impressed by his daily work among the soldiers. Seeing him pass her door with his haversack slung across his shoulder,—with oranges, or perhaps apples, tobacco, paper, or whatever he happened to be carrying to his hospital boys,—she said to me one day, "Why did he write those dreadful, shocking things, which so offend the sense of decency which we are all supposed to have?"
To which I replied, "I don't know, but I will ask him." His answer was, "It always pains me to be misunderstood by good women, mothers especially,"—whom he regarded as the best of earth;—"but," he added, "I had to do it." Then, enlarging a little, he said that, when a boy, he was struck with the pretense of respect which he observed in a class of men such as he used to see congregated at the country grocery store, entertaining themselves with vile, obscene stories and jokes. Upon the approach of a woman, he noticed that there was a sudden change, and that a show of respect was assumed. This made so deep an impression that he felt it was for him, as he expressed it, "to tear off the mask, to lay bare the truth,—to Proclaim that all in nature is good and pure." And I have sometimes questioned if he did not use the very coarseness which shocks, to confront the vile in their hypocrisy. But again and again the old question has come up, why did he do it?
No man ever lived who loathed coarseness and vulgarity in speech more than he, and I am witness that on two occasions he reproved men, supposed to be gentlemen, for their license in that respect.
So deep and instinctive was Walt's veneration for the mother that he did not relish any fun at her expense. We had an illustration of this one evening when O'Connor was reading aloud the "Students' Song" in Longfellow's Hyperion, and came to the stanza where the "Frau Mamma" is celebrated, as the "leathery Frau Mamma." Walt objected to that, and said, "No, no,—that will not do; the mamma is not to be lightly treated, even in the way of a joke." All through the song, the refrain is "the leathery," and even the Herr Rector is so sung; but it was only at the "mamma" that Walt winced in the least.
In answer to the question so often asked me, "Do you like Mr. Whitman as much as Mr. O'Connor does?" I could always say, "yes, personally I am as fond of him, but I do not consider that I am a judge of his literary work, and am not competent to say what rank he will take as a writer. I cannot compare him with all the great, not having read all myself. My own first impression after reading the quarto edition of Leaves of Grass, recommended by Emerson to the friend who gave it to me, was that the writer must be a pure man, or he would never have dared to speak so plainly of forbidden subjects." In discussing the manner in which this book was written, Whitman said that very much of it was written under great pressure,—pressure from within. He felt that he must do it.
When asked, as he sometimes was, why he did that hospital work, which brought him into contact with such painful and horrible revelations, he said again and again, that he loved it, that he should not do it if he did not like it. Humanity in all conditions and exhibitions was profoundly dear to him. A human being was an object of love, and it gratified him that these men and boys loved him and depended on him, and the consciousness
that his sympathy and affection saved a life sometimes, made him deeply happy.
Regarding his own personality Walt said that some persons were as strongly repelled by him as others were attracted to him. Once when I was walking him down Fifteenth Street, as we turned into Pennsylvania Avenue, a woman passing drew herself far away, as if afraid of the contamination by even a touch of his garment No doubt I looked the astonishment which I felt; and seeing my look, Walt said, "Oh yes, some persons feel that way towards me, and do not hide it."
In those days of wandering and of taking in all sights and sounds, of which I have spoken, he once went over to Georgetown, where coal barges were being unloaded at the Canal, and he told us that he watched for hours a negro at work, who was naked to the waist, and the play of his muscles, as he loaded and unloaded the buckets of coal, was most fascinating; "No Greek statue could have been more superb," he said.
I have been asked how Walt felt about the war, and if he was affected by it. On one occasion he was persuaded by us to go to see two elderly ladies at whose home Rev. William Henry Channing was living. They had often asked us to bring Whitman, and he and Mr. Channing had a long and warm talk. Mr. Channing's church—Unitarian—was the first one in Washington to be used as a hospital. The burden of Walt's remarks was,—"I say stop this war, this horrible massacre of men." He became excited and walked the floor, as he talked. To all of this Mr. Channing's reply was, "You are sick; the daily contact with these poor maimed and suffering men has made you sick; don't you see that the war cannot be stopped now? Some issue must be made and met." But Walt could only reiterate that thought. This was in the early part of the conflict, as early perhaps as the spring of 1863.
I never again saw Walt in that mood of mind,—however horrible the condition of our men. He saw that the struggle had to go on till some conclusion was reached; and when the end came he felt that the thing was justified, if war ever can be justified.
Once when speaking of the pain of longing for loved ones absent, and perhaps forever separated, he said, "Yes, I have felt and suffered that too, but have outgrown it."
He spoke often of his life in New Orleans. I think that our old market sheds—this was before we had the brick market—and the appearance of things there reminded him of certain conditions in New Orleans. Often we went to market before breakfast to get fruit for our own breakfast, and for him to take to the hospital. On one or two occasions we met Count Gurowski, the Russian refugee, who greatly approved, in his original way, of our errand, and magnified it much, I learned.
In his Hospital Notes Whitman has given an interesting account of the paying of the first regiment of colored troops on Mason's Island, near Washington, by Major Hapgood, assisted by his clerk, Mr. Eldridge. Major Hagood kindly invited Whitman, O'Connor, and me, with our little Jeannie, to witness the historic event. The colored troops had always done themselves credit, and we were often amused by one of the cries of the newspaper boys, who used to shout, after any battle in which the colored men were engaged, "the colored troops fought nobly."
A thousand touching and almost heart-breaking incidents have never been, nor ever can be repeated, but one I well recall that came home very close to us. General Casey's Division had long been stationed out on Fourteenth Street, but the day came when they marched down that street to join the military forces in the field. As the men passed the house where we were then living, on the corner of Fourteenth and L streets, little Jeannie and a friend of hers, of about her age, both stood on chairs waving to the men their little flags. Instantly, on seeing them, the officers half halted and saluted the tiny flags, which spoke of intense loyalty to those men who were, many of them, on the way to their death.
Loyalty to our government was not the invariable rule in Washington at that time. I heard one woman say that she had both a "Secesh" flag and a Union flag in her house, and was ready to wave to whichever army was successful, her argument being that all of her property and that of her family was in Washington, and she "should go with the winning side."
The rush of persons to Washington from North and South was much greater than the accommodations of the city could house comfortably,—for until there was some hope of the North winning in the end, capitalists were very cautious as to expending any money there. This being the case, the clan O'Connor made several moves; not indeed for pleasure, as at least one member of the family had the inborn New England deep-rooted love of a stationary abiding-place; but at the time of which this is written one was fortunate to be able to find any sort of a decent refuge. At last, however, a kind friend in one of his early morning walks stumbled on a small house in process of building, and immediately made report of it. At once the builder was seen; the little house was engaged, and occupied when finished; and there the family remained until Mr. O'Connor's death, something over twenty years.
t was June 30, 1865, that James Harlan, Secretary of the Interior, dismissed Whitman for the offense of having written Leaves of Grass, an obscene book, as he styled it. At once Walt came to us to make known the fact. At first O'Connor could not realize the enormity of the proceeding, and Walt said he was surprised at the almost speechless manner in which the news was received; but the longer it was dwelt upon, the more Mr. O'Connor realized the full extent and meaning of it, and nine weeks from that time his vindication of the Good Gray Poet was ready for the printer.
In the mean time, Mr. O'Connor had interested many persons in the transaction. J. Hubley Ashton, whose death has occurred while these pages were being written, was then Assistant Attorney-General. He was an old and warm friend of both Whitman and O'Connor, and now came to Whitman's relief by offering him a position in the Attorney-General's office, which Whitman retained until his failing health obliged him to resign. For some time before the final resignation, he had employed a young man to do his work, and they shared the pay.
Some of the many subjects of debate among us have been mentioned, but when the Fifteenth Amendment came before the Senate, and was up for discussion in 1871, it proved a topic that provoked the most vehement battle, and at that point we separated,—Walt taking the ground that the negroes were wholly unfit for the ballot, and Mr. O'Connor and others believing that the measure was the only one to adopt.
As soon however as the Osgood edition of Leaves of Grass was challenged by the Attorney-General of Massachusetts, as being unfit for household reading unless expurgated, all past differences of opinion were forgotten, and Mr. O'Connor, though no longer a well man, came to the rescue with the same energy and devotion that he had given to the cause of his Good Gray Poet in 1865, and the old-time love, now chastened by years and sorrow, and deepened and strengthened too, was reestablished and continued unabated to the end,—in the death of O'Connor in 1889.
Those of us who knew the Good Gray Poet in his best days of health, who saw him day and night, before and after his watches with his sick and maimed soldier boys, feel that a great privilege was ours. To live with one who was, and could be, as has been said of another, an "incorrigible optimist" in the midst of slaughter and all the horrors of war, a man who felt that after all, the world was pretty good, and men and women not so bad as they were pictured, was uplifting and helpful in those awful days, and all other days, and the last word that must be said of Walt Whitman, was that he was first and last and forever an Optimist. His was an intense and abiding faith in the triumph of right and justice; he felt no doubt as to results, he had absolute confidence that the men and women of "these States," and of all the world, would finally solve the problem of the unification of all races and peoples.
Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June 1907; Personal Recollections of Walt Whitman; Volume 99, No. 6; page 825-834.