Visits To Walt Whitman. By J. Johnston, M. D. and J. W. Wallace. Published by Messrs. Allen and Unwin.
It is probable that many who see this book may think that an inopportune moment has been chosen for its publication, for they will believe that there can be little hope of turning men’s thoughts from the vivid interest of these tragic and epoch making days of war, towards the quiet sick room of an aged poet and the gentle hero worship of his devoted friends. But if we should pause to look & little deeper, I think we may find reasons for deciding that the moment for its appearance has not been unwisely chosen—but rather as I would prefer to believe—the moment has been decided, not so much by the choice of its authors, as by the guidance of those "invisible agencies of amazing beneficence, animating all phenomena and operating alike in Whitman, his friends and all persons, events and circumstances, yet of whom Whitman seemed the focal centre of expression " of which J. W. Wallace writes, as guiding his pilgrimage to the home of the poet. Its message—though it must seem amid "The mad-Babel din, the deafening orgies" through which it comes "The strain heard—just heard from some far shore, the final chorus sounding." Is still the faint strain of a chorus and a message, that is of definite hope and promise and assurance, prepared to minister to the deepest need of this time. For the clearest words of the message of this book are of the triumphant justification of faith in that Democracy which was the theme of all Walt Whitman’s songs, and that ideal of loving and equal comradeship with all men, of which his old age still bore witness, to these his friends, the authors, who here in simple, unaffected fashion, permit us to share with them the precious experience of their association with him.
Though it is not probable that this book will be read by many except those who are already readers and lovers of Whitman’s work, yet is its appearance happily timed for amongst them must be many who have caught some glimpse of the ideal of Democracy, which was the very life of his life, and never more than now was it necessary that those who have caught such glimpse should band themselves together in effort for the attainment of that ideal. And never more than now was the encouragement of such an example of a realization like Whitman’s of the ideal of Democracy, as it was exhibited in his own person and witnessed to here by his friends, needed for the strengthening of faith, in this that we trust may be the beginning of the final stage of transition to a new era, a stage in which the world is suffering, no less the death pangs of a narrowing, crippling materialistic despotism, than the birth throes of a true democratic freedom.
As one reads these pages, one is aware of an appeal far stronger than could have been made by any merely literary excellence—though that is not absent; it is the very spirit of Democracy and of frank and gracious camaraderie that animates them. We are aware of this spirit from the beginning, in the opening chapter which describes the little circle of friends at Bolton and the weekly informal gatherings of the young men who were members of the circle. At first, they were merely friendly social gatherings,
"But developed gradually as time went on an almost religious character. Though religious in the ordinary sense of the word they certainly were not—"
"But because we were old friends who talk together on any subject frankly and fear of being misinterpreted, whenever the subject of conversation or discussion upon questions of religion or philosophy, we could each speak with an abandon and straint impossible to us elsewhere. Each of us felt that this friendly and perfectly free interchange of ideas on such subjects did us all an invaluable service, and there were times when it led us, by imperceptible stages, to a deeper intimacy, in which the inmost quest experiences of the soul were freely expressed, and each grew conscious of our essential unity as of a larger self which included us all."
The italics are mine, and I have emphasized that last sentence, because it does indeed seem to show, that I do note; exaggerate in saying that the true spirits of Democracy, which can alone be expressed in the communion and underlying sense of essential unity, of free and equal comradeship, was with this circle of friends, whose association is so simply and unpretentiously described.
"Three or four of the group" we are told, "had been for some time ardent admirers and students of Whitman, whom we regarded as the greatest epochal figure in all literature?"
lt was as emissaries from this group of friends that after much interchange of letters and gifts through several years between its members and the poet, that first Dr. Johnson and later J. W. Wallace made the pilgrimages to his home in Camden, New York, and to the places and persons associated with him, the story of which pilgrimages is told in this volume. These visits were made in 1890 and 1891. In the early Spring the following year Walt Whitman died. So that it will be seen that it was of the poet in his old age and infirmity, that these descriptions give us these intimate glimpses.
J. W. Wallace in his last chapter which contains a kind of summing-up his general impressions, writes:
"In every man one becomes quickly aware of a total expression of personality, which is vastly more self revealing than his immediate words and actions, but which is very difficult to describe. The difficulty is especially great in the case of those in whom the inner life is of exceptional depth and range."
It is not easy to say just how such sense or knowledge of this total expression of Whitman’s personality is conveyed through the detailed reports of conversations, which it must be admitted seldom seem of great intrinsic importance. Certainly there is no evidence that there was ever in any of those who took part in them, any intention to talk for effect or, so to speak, improve an occasion; least of all in Whitman himself. And never, as J. W. Wallace tells us, was any attempt made" to question him or draw him out on any subject of philosophy or literature." "I was quite content," says Mr. Wallace, as indeed Dr. Johnston seems to have been also," to deal with him on the ordinary surface level of everyday affairs."
Yet none the less is the impression conveyed to the reader of such a "total expression of personality" as in no way fails to harmonize with that grand and joyous personality which seems to pervade and reveal itself through the Leaves of Grass. And having received it, we are prepared to accept J. W. Wallace's statement of his own general impressions, as in no way exaggerated or too richly colored by personal prejudice and affection.
"The very great superiority of Whitman's personality to any other that I have known—in its amplitude and grandeur, its rich and warm humanity and in delicacy of perception and feeling—while it seemed to set him apart in spiritual isolation and to give him at times an air of wistful sadness, emphasized and drove home the lesson of the perfect equality and simplicity of his bearing towards all with whom I saw him or of whom I heard him speak. It was as spontaneous and unaffected as the naive and innocent acceptance of a child, and one could not doubt that it expressed his real and constant feeling. In him the two complimentary sides of the religion outlined in "Leaves of Grass—the divine pride of man in himself and an outgoing sympathy which amounted to self-identification with all others were extraordinarily developed and in perfect balance.
This twofold character was to be seen in all his intercourse with others. He had the refinement and delicate courtesy of speech and manner as well as the lofty part of a very great noble—of one who (to use the proud words of Robert Bums) "derived his patent of nobility direct from Almighty God."
"He represented a new type, as yet rare, but which his example and influence will help to make common in the future; that of one of the average workers and mass-people of the world, who, remaining where he is, exemplifies in himself all that is of value in the proudest aristocracy or the noblest culture when set free from all taint of superciliousness or exclusiveness. And he exhibited a corresponding type of manners, which included all that is excellent in preceding or existing types, and added new ones—of an indescribable freshness and charm which are to be found only in Democracy, and which are indispensable henceforward in any complete ideal of humane culture and behavior."
As we press forward to meet the new era which is opening even now before us, wherein—in the words of our editor in the Jan. Epoch:
"Out of the wars of creed and dogma, out of the confusion of sects and tongues there shall arise at last a new Religion—the religion of the human heart in its relation to God and the universe—. The Church of the future will be the Church of Christ within and will be found in the heart of man."
While in such a Church there shall be no narrowing creed or dogma, no feeble reliance on the broken reed of vicarious sacrifice, or any doctrine of atonement with an angry God, but only that which seems the whole meaning of life in its evolution, the atonement of man’s self with the divine self of the spirit within him. It is not, I think, too much to say that we cannot afford to lose sight of such an example as this that we find in the life of Walt Whitman, nor fail to accept, as articles of faith fit for such a Church, these I have quoted above, as J. W. Wallace’s description of the "two complementary sides of the religion of Leaves of Grass." The divine pride of man in himself—and an outgoing sympathy amounting to self-identification with all others.
There is much in this book that should prove of very special interest to the readers of the Epoch. Not only does it include the story of visits to the poet, with minutely detailed accounts of many conversations with him; but it also describes visits to John Burroughs, the American naturalist and poet, to Dr. Bucke, the author of that wonderful book Cosmic Consciousness (wherein by the way, is recorded an experience of one of the authors of Visits to Walt Whitman J. W. Wallace), and to other persons and places of moving interest because of their association with Whitman. It contains also copies of a number of letters and postcards written by the poet to his friends in Lancashire, some of them in fac simile, and it is illustrated by many reproductions of portraits and photographs.