September 26, 2011

Whitman and Garland: only two minutes

Walt Whitman was in ill health when the Wisconsin-born novelist Hamlin Garland visited him on September 26, 1888. As such, Whitman's doctor warned the visitor to stay only two minutes. Instead, he stayed for a half an hour. Whitman laughed while telling the story: "He came in — the doctor said for two minutes (only two minutes) but he stayed half an hour at least — seemed to be so interested he would have stayed longer."

Garland, who had just turned 28 and hadn't published his first book yet, traveled to Whitman's home in Camden, New Jersey, from his own home outside of Boston, where he had moved about five years earlier. Hearing of Whitman's poor health, Garland hoped the reports made it sound worse than he actually was and took the opportunity to introduce himself as "an enthusiastic reader of your books." What Garland most appreciated, he wrote, was how Whitman had "no veil, no impediment, between your mind and your audience, when your writings are voiced." Whitman apparently liked the line enough he asked his friend, "Read it again: I want to get it clear in my noddle for keeps!" Further, Garland wrote, "your poems thrilled me, reversed many of my ideas, confirmed me in others, helped to make me what I am."

Garland was working on a book The Evolution of American Thought, which included a chapter titled "Walt Whitman: The Prophet of the New Age" (it was never completed). About a year later, Garland wrote an account of the aging poet, "Whitman at Seventy," later published in the New York Herald and even offered a series of courses on Whitman in Waltham, Massachusetts. Perhaps his more touching tribute to the Good Gray Poet was his own poem, "A Tribute of Grasses," dedicated "To W.W.":

Serene, vast head, with silver cloud of hair
Lined on the purple dusk of death,
A stern medallion, velvet set—
Old Norseman, throned, not chained upon thy chair,
Thy grasp of hand, thy hearty breath
     Of welcome thrills me yet
     As when I faced thee there!

Loving my plain as thou thy sea,
Facing the East as thou the West,
I bring a handful of grass to thee,—
The prairie grasses I know the best;
Type of the wealth and width of the plain,
Strong of the strength of the wind and sleet,
Fragrant with sunlight and cool with rain,
     I bring it and lay it low at thy feet,
     Here by the eastern sea.

*Some of the information in this post comes from Selected Letters of Hamlin Garland (1998), edited by Keith Newlin and Joseph B. McCullough. I am also indebted to Keith Newlin's Hamlin Garland: A Life (2008).

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