Whitman in St. Louis
A newspaper clipping Whitman himself pasted to a leaf of brown wrapping paper, adding numerous holograph additions and corrections. The note affixed to the top of the paper is in Whitman’s hand; the bottom note was writte and signed by Robert Underwood Johnson.
On 10 September 1879 Whitman boarded a train for St. Louis, where his brother Jeff worked as water inspector. The occasion of the visit was an invitation extended to the journalist John Forney to participate in celebrations for the silver anniversary of the Kansas territory. After spending the night in the house of his brother, Whitman’s party moved on to Kansas City and Denver. By 27 September, Whitman was back in St. Louis, where, since he did not feel well, he remained with his brother till January 4, when he boarded the train for Philadelphia. During his stay in St. Louis, he gave several interviews to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He did not care much for the version of the interview published in the Post-Dispatch on 17 October 1879. When editor Robert Underwood Johnson (1853-1937), who was on the staff of Josiah Holland’s magazine Scribner’s at the time, wrote to Whitman inquiring about a negative remark in the interview pertaining to editors—“fossils” who prevent young authors from being published—Whitman clipped the article, glued it on paper and added his own revisions. The whole document was then sent to Johnson, in the hope he would publish it somewhere. Johnson never did, although he kept Whitman’s palimpsest, had it framed, and even mentioned it in his autobiography.
A closer look at revisions and additions reveals Whitman’s desire to aggrandize his own accomplishments alongside the accomplishment—not all of them recognized by the citizens—of the great nation he represents. The document begins with an entirely new introduction in Whitman’s hand:
Walt Whitman in St. Louis. talk.
Literature, Politics, and the Prairie states.
After a journ travel of some weeks, amid the canons and parks of the Rocky Mountains and over the Great Plains of Kansas in eastern Colorado, the poet Walt Whitman has returned to St. Louis, where he is now temporarily [residing] resides. He likes is much impressed with the whole state of Missouri, and says the time will come when its natural wealth, situation, and advantages will make it a foremost State in member of the Union. ¶A reporter for one of the St. Louis dailies, the Post-Dispatch, called on Mr. Whitman [there], one fine forenoon lately.
Whitman radicalizes his claims in the original article, inserting the adjective “constipated” when he attacks the “sweetness and refinement” of the literature written by the likes of Bryant, Whittier, and Longfellow. And he condenses the passage Underwood had mentioned but did not take out the attack on Underwood’s boss: “the magazines and publishing houses are in the hands of the fossils. There is a great underlying strata of young men and women who cannot speak because the magazines are in the hands of old fogies like Holland or fops like Howells.” In a paragraph denigrating Bret Harte for having replaced true Western heroes (“something more heroic than ever the old poets wrote about”) with “ruffians and delirium tremens specimens,” he deletes “heroic personalities” in his description of what a true writer would have chosen to represent. This change in turn helped him establish himself, Walt Whitman, as the true western poet, one who needs neither loftiness nor social satire. “I have come travelled now a couple of thousand miles , and the greatest thing to me in this Western country is the realization of my ‘Leaves of Grass.’ It tickles me hugely how thoroughly it and I have been in rapport.“ Walt Whitman was a Westerner before he had ever been west. It seems only fitting when, at the end of the interview, Whitman extends his hyperbole to America itself, substituting “domination” for “greatness” in a passage that sees the world under the rule of American democracy and culture: Interestingly, he removes the sentence characterizing Lincoln as “our greatest specimen personality,” apparently because it contradicts the article’s final claim (“We will not have great individuals or great leaders, but a great bulk, unprecedentedly great”). Or does it detract from his, Walt’s, role as a “specimen personality”?