With Walt Whitman in Camden, by Horace Traubel
Copyright 1996 by Fellowship of Friends. All Rights Reserved.

On "Leaves of Grass"

Monday, November 23, 1891

Then he went on earnestly, "As to 'Leaves of Grass' I can say--with all its spirit and naturalness, and as the thing blows--the wind blows--that is not the whole story. Spontaneity--spontaneity: that's the word, yet even that word needing to be used after a new sense. I am quite clear that I have broken a way--that I have indicated a path--a new, superiorally new, travel-road heretofore not trod by man. Some one of the German philosophers had said, life is not an achieved fact, but a becoming. And 'Leaves of Grass' is much like life in that respect. And indeed, old earth herself is still becoming and always will be the same. The old poets had spontaneity, too, but it was a spontaneity not of the sort we are after. 'Leaves of Grass' attempts the unattempted. Other poets have written and written with unmistakable power, grandeur, but my mark has been a distinct one--must be so recognized. I have no doubt but I have done what I say I have done, whatever else is uncertain and insecure...."

Sunday, December 13, 1891

"There are two things in 'Leaves of Grass' which dominate everything else--which give it meaning and coherency--two things, found, I hope, in every page--I was going to say, every word. The first is atmosphere: that what we call phenomena, facts, reason, intellect, are not the explications of life--that that lies deeper, is a more penetrating factor--is deep, deep, deep below all casual eyesight or insight either.... The other principle, to call it that, is that man is in process of being--that his justification is not in himself, today, but in something yet to come--something ahead." And so proceeded for some length, at one point saying, "Under what we see is something else, and under that something again, and under that something, and something, something!" And again spoke of "the Almighty, if there be such a being."

Tuesday, January 26, 1892

"As I have said to you before, the point is, to substitute this for all other editions--to make of it my final, conclusive utterance and message--a declaration of my realized intentions--and all you can do to have this understood belongs as a duty to us all. Don't you have that same feeling? It is our cause--our standard--something to hold to and affirm. Not 'Leaves of Grass' simply, or even principally, but the things in nature, life, which it stands for or hints of."

. . . . . .

"Nature only gives us a little of her territory, her domain--and retains the rest: retains it for her own modesties, for reasons of her own. These other fellows--the orthodox--call that waste--but no, it is something else--something far else. And out of this principle--these recognitions--came 'Leaves of Grass.' And it, I, must be, are, more indebted to nature than we know. All writings heretofore have been done on other suppositions--even Shakespeare's, Virgil's--yes, after a big, big drop, Lowell's. But my own departure has been quite definite and conclusive: and here, today, at the end, with the book closed or closing, I glory in the surrender--have no regrets, have nothing to recall. It is by such unhesitating lines I have aimed to draw, or remain, near the mysteries of nature: near them, to feel their breath, even when I knew nothing of what they meant, and could but wonder and listen, as if to vague music. I had all this clear from the start--I had all these determinations--I never erred--never strayed. And now, whether to be charged as a fool, or as reckoned victor, I am sure my choice, at least for me, was well-taken--was, finally, the only path possible for me to foot."

This was all uttered as readily as his physical condition would allow, with tones almost of vigor, and with eyes wide open, and several times even the lifting of his hands. I could have wept and laughed, with the conflict of my feelings. I exclaimed, "Yes, yes, Walt--I hear it all--I love it all." And he, "Love it? Yes! And I loved it--oh! so much!--and now an end! But the book, Horace: there are things resting on you, too, to fulfill--many things--many--many. Keep a firm hand--stand on your own feet. Long have I kept my road--made my road: long, long! Now I am at bay--the last mile is driven: but the book--the book is safe!"

Monday, March 21, 1892

"Horace," he said--and his voice stirred me by a something mandatory in his tone, "Horace, if I wrote anything more, I would compare Tennyson, Whittier and me, dwelling quite a bit on the three ways we each have treated the death subject: Tennyson in 'Crossing the Bar,' Whittier in 'Driftwood'--both ecclesiastical, theoretical--and my 'Good-Bye, My Fancy'--based, absorbed in, the natural. That that I've just said is quite a significant"--here he broke off from vain effort to say more. I had whipped a pencil out of my pocket and written as he spoke, he seeing me and nodding assent. I commented, "That is perfect in itself: one needs hardly to say more: people may find the rest for themselves." He first responded, "True, true--perhaps," and then, "But it will bear saying in full: it tells the whole story of 'Leaves of Grass.'"