The Walt Whitman Controversy

Article excerpt

A Lost Document

The publication of significant previously unpublished work by one of America's best-known authors is always a major literary event, but when it is an unpublished piece by Mark Twain about another of America's legendary writers, Walt Whitman, it is cause for a double celebration. This is especially the case with these two writers whose lives overlapped (Samuel Clemens was born in 1835, nineteen years after Whitman's birth, and he died in 1910, eighteen years after Whitman), but had so little to say about each other. This seems odd to us since we now think of Whitman's Leaves of Grass and Mark Twain's many novels as sharing in the very creation of an idiomatic, realistic, gritty new national literature, and so we imagine them as literary compatriots. But it was only during his last years that Whitman even occasionally referred to the novelist, after Samuel Clemens donated money to several fund-raising projects to help out the aged and infirm poet.

Asked in 1889 about Mark Twain as a writer, Whitman said, "I think he mainly misses fire: I think his life misses fire: he might have been something: he comes near to being something: but he never arrives." While he said that he admired certain aspects of Twain's work, Whitman probably discounted him as a mere humorist, one of those "writers of the left hand," who hid not only behind their pseudonyms but also the literary frame that separated them from their vernacular storytellers. And no doubt because Twain hobnobbed with presidents and the trinomials of the literary establishment, Whitman may well have sensed in Clemens a kind of superior distance from the rough democrats his work seemed to celebrate, finding his "weakness" that, while he could capture "the rude Western life," he always did so "as though with the insinuation, 'see how far we are removed from all that-we good gentlemen with our dress suits and parlor accompaniments.'"

As for his personal relationship with Clemens, Whitman once said, "I have always regarded him as friendly, but not warm: not exactly against me: not for me either." Whitman claimed to have known Clemens in 1853 when both writers lived in New York. Clemens, then only seventeen, had journeyed from St. Louis to New York mainly to visit the city's first World's Fair, which was held at the Crystal Palace; he ended up working at Gray's printing house on Cliff Street. Whitman, a former newspaper editor, was then either a house builder or bookseller during those sparsely documented years immediately preceding the publication of the first Leaves of Grass. "I have met Clemens, met him many years ago, before he was rich and famous," Whitman told Horace Traubel; "like all humorists he was very sober: inclined to talk of the latest things in politics, men, books, a man after old-fashioned models, slow to move, liking to stop and chat-the sort of fellow one is quietly drawn to." As Clemens kept making donations in the 1880s to the aged poet, Whitman's attitude toward him warmed; Whitman wrote to Clemens in 1887, expressing "my special deep-felt personal thanks for your kindness & generosity to me." After receiving word in 1889 that Clemens had sent more money, Whitman exclaimed, "The good Clemens! And that reminds me-I must send him the big book-I have long intended it: now I must make it a particular point." Whitman and Clemens apparently exchanged books at this point, Clemens sending Whitman A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and Whitman sending Clemens the "big book" of his Complete Poems and Prose. At the end of Whitman's life, as he was working with Arthur Stedman on a small selection of his poems (a volume that the poet wanted to call "Leaves of Grass, Jr.") to be published by Charles L. Webster & Company, which Clemens then owned, Whitman sensed that Clemens was behind the arrangements: "I almost think I see the friendly hand of Mark Twain in it all: perhaps that is a mistake, but it is my feeling."

As for Clemens's attitude toward Whitman, he most likely attended Whitman's New York Lincoln lecture in April of 1887, and he contributed to the fund set up to purchase a horse and buggy for the poet, and, later, to Whitman's Cottage Fund (which the poet raided to pay for his mausoleum). …