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

On Truth and Nature vs. Aestheticism

Wednesday, February 25, 1891

Referred again to [Robert Ingersoll's] lecture. "These Eakins critics ought to go to the lecture. I think that one of the strong points of the Colonel--truth--he sees clearly the dividing line, which is 'Leaves of Grass': the old school stood for what it called beauty--aesthetics, elegance--we stand for truth: the schools stood for it--not men necessarily--not the big fellows, anyhow. Truth, truth, truth--as the basis of the poetic--oh yes! the Colonel has it--it is all there!"

Tuesday, June 1, 1891

"You remember what I told you the other night--remember it quite clearly? The purpose of 'Leaves of Grass'?" And to my assent he added, "It was this: nature, nature, again nature. Not art, erudition, decoration, elegance, but simple, elemental first-causeism--to get at things direct--accept the final truths. Without this a reader can never grasp 'Leaves of Grass.' I was going to say, damn art, but again I say, I must not do that. For no one knows more than I do the place it has occupied, the good it has done--no one. But accepting all that, I pass beyond."

Saturday, July 4, 1891

Speaking of portraits in general, "They must be natural, of course, but then the question will come--what is the natural? It may be as with the girl who went to Paris to learn to sing--who said, oh! my voice is all nature, pure, true--and whose teacher told her at the very start--do you know, my girl, that not one of your tones is natural, equal to the measure I will set for it? Often our nature may be as far below nature as that--and yet we will continue to demand it--demand, demand! Here is 'Leaves of Grass': its purpose--whatever it has done--falls nothing short of that."

Saturday, August 8, 1891

Would practical things make poems? "They are poems--that is one of my purposes: to show the universal beat of the poetic. There was the locomotive: how often I heard of its artificiality--that nothing but dust and iron could be made of it. I accepted the sneers as a challenge--then the 'Locomotive in Winter.' How clearly I remember my anxiety--to get terms straight, to express the technicality of the trade, then to infuse all with life. It was a challenge--yes, a challenge--perhaps I was reckless to take it up. But something came of it--whether the thing I was after or something less I do not know." I had been speaking of the beauty of the bed of a railroad to Reeder days before, he protesting its artificiality, therefore not beauty--I contrary. W. now: "You were clearly right, at least"--with a smile--"right as our gospel puts it--as 'Leaves of Grass,' science, evolution, holds it."