American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

For a Commonplace Book 2

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Walt Whitman, 1989+

Walt Whitman, 1989

Tuesday, December  25, 1888.

8 P.M. … As we sat there talking Ed [1] brought in a card — a reporter’s card — a fellow I knew well and whom W. knew when I explained who he was: connected with The Record. W. put on his glasses: read the name off deliberately —  “Charles [something] Bacon” — repeating it several times as if to job up his memory…. Bacon shortly came in — shook hands: W. saying some few welcoming words and inviting B. to take the chair. B. explained that he had been sent by The Record to find out how W. had spent his Christmas. W. thenceforward affable — full, free, communicative…. Spoke of his confinement — of his “half paralyzed” condition. “It is now almost twenty years. Do you know what hemiplegia is? In my case it started here” — pressing his finger to the back of his neck — “then came down the whole side — arm, leg, face: the leg never recovered: the arm recovered quickly. Luckily the stroke did not affect, such as it is, my power of speech, or my brain: up to the time of the present attack I was able to work — to write, read — as any time before: only my power to locomote, to get about, was gone — or partly gone.” “My bete noir,” he said, “is indigestion.” But “the last two or three days” he had “in all respects” felt “wonderfully” bettered — “better, clearer of active trouble, than for five months past.” Spoke of himself as “leaning towards gain”…. He assured B. he “always” had “warning” of the attacks. “Thanks to my dear father and mother, I have been wonderfully fortunate in my constitution — my body.” He was “gifted with cheer” and that was “certainly worth more than five or ten thousand dollars a year.” “”By nature, by observation, by the doctors, I have learned that the thing to do when I am down is to rely upon the vis,  as it is called — the inherited forces: to lay low — attempt nothing — rest — recuperate: if the vis comes to the rescue — meets the peril — well and good: then for another lease! But if it does not, then all may as well be given up at once.”  He did not know — “it is not at all certain” — but “I may go from this out upon my ordinary condition of the past seventeen years.” B. asked W.’s age. “I am in my seventieth year — celebrated the end of the sixty-ninth the last of May, this year.”… B. asked about W.’s “outings.” But W. shook his head: “I have none — I have not been out for seven months: I can scarcely get from this chair to the door there unassisted — must help myself with a chair, the table, anything — sometimes calling the nurse.”

— Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, volume 3

The photograph is one of four taken on the same day and comes (like the text above) from the wonderful Walt Whitman Archive. Click on the image for a link to the gallery  (and a larger view). The caption reads: “My 71st year arrives: the fifteen past months nearly all illness or half illness — until a tolerable day (Aug: 6 1889) & convoy’d by Mr. B and Ed: W I have been carriaged across to Philadelphia (how sunny & fresh & good look’d the river, the people, the vehicles, & Market & Arch streets!) & have sat for this photo: wh- satisfies me. Walt Whitman.” A note at the Whitman Archive identifies “Mr. B” as “Geoffrey Buckwalter, Camden teacher and Whitman’s friend, who insisted on the photos.”

1 [Back to text] Ed Wilkins, Whitman’s nurse.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

May 6, 2009 at 10:13 am

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