IN HIS MARCH 26, 1892, ENTRY in this final volume of With Walt Whitman in Camden, Horace Traubel wrote that at the moment of Walt Whitman's death "something in my heart seemed to snap and that moment commenced my new life--a luminous conviction lifting me with him into the eternal." His words were prophetic: a new life did start for him, and his name would forever be bound to that of his departed master. Traubel described himself as Whitman's "spirit child" and for the next twenty-seven years he served the poet faithfully. He was the most active of Whitman's three literary executors (the others were Traubel's brother-in-law Thomas Harned and the Canadian psychiatrist Richard Maurice Bucke); he founded, edited, and published The Conservator, a journal dedicated to keeping Whitman's works alive; he issued his own Whitman-inspired poetry and prose in three large volumes; and he carried on a tireless correspondence with Whitman enthusiasts around the world, weaving together an international fellowship of disciples who worked to ensure Whitman's immortality.
He also began transcribing his notes of daily conversations with Whitman compiled during the final four years of the poet's life, publishing three large volumes of them (in 1906, 1908 and 1914, respectively) before his own death and leaving behind manuscript for six more. His dream of having all of his notes in print--a dream deferred for eighty years--is finally realized with the publication of Volumes 8 and 9, appearing more than a century after they were written.
Only thirty-three years old at the time of Whitman's death, Traubel had already known the poet for nearly twenty years. "Walt Whitman came to Camden in 1873," Traubel recalled, "and I have known him ever since." Born and raised in Camden, New Jersey, Traubel first met Whitman soon after the poet--recovering from a severe stroke and depression over the death of his mother--came to live in his brother George's home. The Traubel family had known George Whitman for some time before Walt arrived, so it is not surprising that neither Traubel nor Whitman could recall their actual first meeting, which remained for Horace "one of the pleasant mysteries." Traubel was then only fourteen years old, but he quickly became a comfort to the half-paralyzed writer. Whitman once reminded Traubel:Horace, you were a mere boy then: we met--don't you remember? Not so often as now--not so intimately: but I remember you so well: you were so slim, so upright, so sort of electrically buoyant. You were like medicine to me--better than medicine: don't you recall those days? down on Steven's Street, out front there, under the trees? You would come along, you were reading like a fiend: you were always telling me about your endless books, books: I would have warned you, look out for books! had I not seen that you were going straight not crooked--that you were safe among books.
Traubel's own recollections of those early meetings were similar: "My earliest memory of Whitman leads me back to boyhood, when, sitting together on his doorstep, we spent many a late afternoon or evening in review of books we had read." In those first talks, Whitman rarely spoke of his own work; he and young Horace discussed instead Byron and Emerson and what Traubel would later call "the details of the lore of the streets." Like the poet, Traubel had stopped going to school by the age of twelve, and thus received much of his advanced education at Whitman's hands. He began to work as a newsboy and errand boy, and on his travels around town he would often meet the poet "strolling along the street, or on the boat," or, frequently, under the shade of the trees in front of George Whitman's house, where the poet occupied a room on the third <thorn>oor. At first, the boy's relationship with Whitman caused something of a scandal; Traubel recalled that neighbors went to his mother and "protested against my association with the 'lecherous old man' " and "wondered if it was safe to invite him into their houses." Such sentiments simply drew the young boy even more strongly to the old poet: "I got accustomed to thinking of him as an outlaw." Whitman, in return, admired what he called Horace's "rebel independence."
Following in the footsteps of Whitman, Horace spent his teenage years learning the printing trade and newspaper business. He became a typesetter, and employed his compositor's skills throughout his life, often setting the type himself for his various publications. By the time he was sixteen, he had become foreman of the Camden Evening Visitor printing office. After that, he worked in his father's Philadelphia lithographic shop, was a paymaster in a factory, and became the Philadelphia correspondent for the Boston Commonwealth. None of these jobs brought him much money, but they gave him a wealth of experience, confidence in his writing skills, and an intimate understanding of how words could be made public and effective through the labor of printing.
Whitman's "outlaw" character--his ability to think outside the boundaries of law, convention, and habit--continued to attract the intense young Traubel, who became increasingly involved with radical reformist thought and who persistently urged a reluctant Whitman to admit that Leaves of Grass endorsed a socialist agenda. Traubel was aware that many literary people thought of him as little more than "Walt Whitman's errand boy" and dismissed his writing as simply warmed-over Whitman, but he was no epigone. It is largely because of Traubel's insistence on interpreting Leaves of Grass as politically revolutionary literature that we have inherited Whitman as a radical democratic poet; Traubel was indefatigable in his support of Whitman's work, and he made sure that all the radical leaders of his day read and discussed it. But he also knew that politically he was to the left of Whitman, and by the 1890s he had begun to carve out a distinctive identity as a writer and thinker. "I would rather be a first Traubel than a second Whitman," he said, as he began straddling the difficult line between reverence for his master and literary independence. "Emerson and Whitman made one big mistake," Traubel once said. "They seemed to think that a man could not be at the same time an optimist and a propagandist, a passive philosopher and an active revolutionary. I believe it is possible for a man to be both."
While his own books can be read as socialist refigurings of Whitman's work, Traubel never became an "active revolutionary"; his socialism tended more toward the religious and philosophical than the political. But his journal, The Conservator, which he began two years before Whitman's death and continued until his own death in 1919, was nevertheless an inşuential organ of radical ideas about everything from women's rights to animal rights. Traubel saw The Conservator as a place where the various liberal societies and clubs could be brought together in active dialogue, and he requested support from everyone "to whom Liberal thought and life are sacred, and sympathy and comradeship supreme factors in religion." Eugene V. Debs, the socialist labor leader and presidential candidate whose supportive statements often appeared in The Conservator, was one of the strongest endorsers of Traubel's work:Horace Traubel is one of the supreme liberators and humanitarians of this age. . . . Traubel is not only the pupil of old Walt Whitman but the master democrat of his time and the genius incarnate of human love and world-wide brotherhood.
Every issue of The Conservator began with one of Traubel's idiosyncratic "Collect" essays. The journal frequently contained one of his Optimos poems, and in virtually every issue there would be essays on Whitman, reviews of books about Whitman, digests of comments relating to Whitman, advertisements for books by and about Whitman. Often, Whitman would be presented as a kind of proto-Ethical Culture thinker, an exponent of vegetarianism or a prophet of modern science. The space devoted to Whitman increased over the years, and by 1902 Isaac Hull Platt, in a blurb printed on the back cover of the June issue, professed to admire The Conservator "because it is the continual exponent of the latest, greatest, most beautiful and sanest gospel and philosophy that the world has known--that of Walt Whitman." The Whitman who appears in The Conservator, however, had been led posthumously by his disciple down a far more radical political road than any he had traveled when he was alive.
Traubel traced his tough-minded liberalism and egalitarian beliefs not only to Whitman but to his hybrid heritage, especially to his Jewish background:I am myself racially the result of fusion. My father came of Jewish and my mother came of Christian stock. When I have been about where Jews were outlawed I have been sorry I was not all Jew. . . . Where persecution is, there you should be, there I should be. I love being a Jew in the face of your prejudices and your insults.
But what he most liked about what he called his "half-breed" status was that it allowed him easily to transcend narrow systems of belief and affirm an expansive democracy: "I guess I'm neither all Christian nor all Jew. I guess I'm simply all human." He always retained his democratic identification with the persecuted and remained a dedicated political and intellectual radical. He kept up correspondence with countless leftist and reformist political and artistic figures, including Felix Adler, Debs, Ella Bloor, Hamlin Garland, Emma Goldman, Jack London, and Upton Sinclair. He was involved with the Arts and Craft movement and helped publish The Artsman from 1903 to 1907, espousing the belief that radical reform in art, design, and production was essential to social reform. His Chants Communal were originally printed in the Socialist newspaper The Worker, and in 1913, the Soviet newspaper Pravda devoted an entire issue to him. Three books about Traubel appeared between 1913 and 1919, all emphasizing his socialist beliefs, and all written by fellow radicals: Mildred Bain's Horace Traubel (1913), William E. Walling's Whitman and Traubel (1916), and David Karsner's Horace Traubel (1919). All three predicted lasting fame for Traubel, but no books about him have appeared since, with one significant exception: Alla M. Liubarskaia's Horace Traubel, written in Russian and published in Moscow in 1980. This book examines Traubel from a Marxist perspective, demonstrates that Lenin read and admired him, and celebrates him as a writer whose views are in accord with those of Lenin and Maxim Gorky.
Traubel's radicalism did not come without cost. His one stable, salaried position was as a clerk in the Philadelphia Farmers' and Mechanics' Bank, a job he began during the last years of Whitman's life and held until 1902. In that year he published an attack on George Frederick Baer, J. P. Morgan's agent and the president of Philadelphia-area railroad and coal companies, who had become a symbol of business arrogance because of his refusal to negotiate with labor unions. Traubel's employers, embarrassed by their employee's attack on the powerful Baer, threatened to dismiss him unless he gave up his writing and editing of The Conservator. Horace resigned and began a life of self-imposed poverty. He had learned from Whitman that the freedom to express unconventional and revolutionary views entailed material sacrifice; as Horace put it, "I have no right to do unpopular things and expect the popular returns." So, like Whitman during the years Traubel knew him, Horace began living on the meager proceeds from his writings and gifts from his supporters.
Since he had his own family to sustain, his reduced means affected them as well. His small family was a contrast to the large one he grew up in (he was the fifth of seven children). Traubel had married Anne Montgomerie in Whitman's home on May 28, 1891, and their daughter Gertrude was born the following year; her birth in the same year as Whitman's death signalled the remarkable co-joining of commencement and conclusion, birth and death, that Whitman had taught Traubel to expect throughout life. The next year brought the birth of a son, named Wallace in honor of J. W. Wallace, a Whitmanite from Bolton, England, who had visited Camden in 1891 and stayed with the Traubels. Anne was so taken with their English visitor that she insisted on naming the baby after him, and Horace concurred. The Bolton group that Wallace represented became the first link in the international organization of Whitman followers that Traubel was forming.
But the next decade brought harsh trials. In January of 1894 a fire severely damaged the Traubel's house, and Horace was momentarily seized by the fear that all of his Whitman materials, including his notes of his conversations with the poet, had been lost. On February 27, 1898, young Wallace Traubel died of scarlet fever soon after Gertrude had recovered from it; on the front page of that month's Conservator appeared a quotation from Whitman's "Song of Myself": "The little child that peep'd in at the door, and then drew back and was never seen again." Horace's and Anne's heart-rending letters to J. W. Wallace about their son's illness and death (now housed at the Bolton Metropolitan Library) reveal that, even when facing the horror of their child's death, they sought to learn and to grow from the experience. "Is it only through such agony that consciousness is perfected?" wrote Anne to her English friend, trying to harvest hope from her grief even while admitting, "I am a mother, dear Wallace, and no stoic." The pain continued to mount: three months after Wallace's death, Horace's beloved father Maurice committed suicide. Then, in 1902, just before relinquishing his job at the bank, Traubel received word that his friend and co-executor Dr. Bucke, with whom he had just completed editing the ten-volume Complete Writings of Walt Whitman, had died after suffering a fall on the icy veranda of his home in London, Ontario.
Horace refused, however, to allow personal tragedy to drain his optimism and energy. He enlisted his wife and remaining child in his causes. If they were going to be poor, they would at least be poor together. Anne recalled that when she had first read Whitman's works in 1889, they "meant nothing" to her, but at Horace's urging she tried again and in 1896 she became enraptured by the "pulsating, illumined life" she found there; she was converted. Anne became associate editor of The Conservator in 1899, and Gertrude, whom Horace and Anne educated at home, joined the staff of the journal as an "Associate Worker" in 1906, when she was fourteen. A remarkably talented young woman who became an active suffragist, accomplished vocalist, and respected voice teacher at the prestigious Germantown Academy in Philadelphia, Gertrude eventually joined with her mother in preparing Volume 4 of With Walt Whitman in Camden (edited by Sculley Bradley) for publication. After Anne's death in 1954, Gertrude transcribed and edited Volume 5 on her own and worked on Volume 6 until she was too ill to continue. She died in 1983 at the age of 91.
Traubel founded the Walt Whitman Fellowship International and served as its secretary/treasurer from 1894 until a year before his death. He was instrumental in founding Whitman Fellowships in other cities, and the chapter in Boston became particularly important to him, for there he met Gustave Percival Wiksell, a dentist who was president of the Boston Fellowship.
Traubel's life was filled with intense friendships, but his relationship with Wiksell, five years his junior, was the most passionate of them all. In a heated correspondence spanning five years (1899-1905), Traubel and Wiksell poured out their love for each other, often expressing themselves in Whitman's "Calamus" terminology: "Percival, darling, my sweet camerado," wrote Traubel in 1902, recalling a recent meeting with his friend:We walked together as in a dream--a dream. God in hell! The dream is the real & the real is the dream. Definitely sweet was one hour & the next while we remained there in love's carouse--That day will go with me into all eternities. Send me your words, dear love--your words live. They go into my veins. I do not put you away with a kiss. I hold you close, close, close!
Wiksell and Traubel often met Peter Doyle in Boston and Philadelphia, reconnecting the poet's closest comrade to the Whitman circle, and, upon learning of Doyle's death in 1907, they wrote consoling letters to each other. Horace posed with Wiksell for photographs that imitated the photos of Doyle and Whitman. The final article in the final issue of The Conservator (June 1919) was written by Wiksell, and Wiksell presided at Traubel's funeral.
For the decade after Traubel quit his bank job, he lived an energetic life. He would read most nights until 4 or 5 a.m., then sleep for four or five hours. Each morning he would take the ferry to Philadelphia and work in his garret office on Chestnut Street, where he would write letters, edit The Conservator, and set type. He met regularly with a group of fellow radicals at a Market Street restaurant, his own version of Pfaff's, Whitman's bohemian beer hall. Like Whitman, he loved crowds, and could often be found at baseball games or concerts or on the ferry, absorbing the energy of the masses. It was while riding the Camden ferry in 1909 that Horace faced his first major physical trauma: he was trampled by a horse and suffered severe rib injuries. By 1914 his health had become a major concern, as rheumatic fever had left him with a weakened heart. The outbreak of the Great War was particularly wrenching for this pacifist and believer in universal brotherhood, and over the next few years he declined steadily, suffering his first heart attack in June of 1917, the night before Gertrude's wedding in New York. He suffered additional heart attacks during the next year, and in the summer of 1918, he had a cerebral hemorrhage and was confined to his home. At this point few of his friends expected him to live more than a few weeks.
But with the centenary celebration of Whitman's birth on the horizon, Traubel's notorious stubbornness came into play: he refused to die on any but his own terms. He and Anne moved to New York in the spring of 1919 to be close to Gertrude and their new grandson. They stayed in the home of their good friends David and Rose Karsner, whose five-year-old daughter, Walta Whitman Karsner, brightened Traubel's last months. Horace sat at a window looking out on the East River and over to Whitman's Brooklyn. He ate at the very table that his old friend Eugene Debs had used while in prison--Karsner, who wrote Deb's biography, had procured it and made it available to Traubel. On Whitman's birthday he attended the celebration at the Hotel Brevoort on Fifth Avenue and was given a standing ovation by the two hundred Whitmanites in attendance, after which Helen Keller, meeting Traubel for the first time and touching his lips to understand his words, spoke movingly of this "great Optimist" and "his scheme of a better world." He was pleased to hear speeches that night celebrating Debs and Emma Goldman; his many efforts to bring Whitman and the radicals together seemed at this moment to have succeeded.
There was yet one more centenary event that Traubel was determined to attend--the August dedication of a mighty three-hundred-foot granite cliff at the Bon Echo estate in Canada, to be named "Old Walt" and inscribed with Whitman's words in giant letters. The dedication had been arranged by the Canadian branch of the Walt Whitman Fellowship, and Traubel saw it as a sign of the growing international reverence for Whitman. The frail Horace sat in a specially constructed chair on a rowboat that took him across a lake to the base of the giant rock, where he and Flora MacDonald Denison, the owner of Bon Echo, placed their hands on the spot where the inscription was to be and intoned the words "Old Walt."
For the next few days Traubel struggled through dinners, receptions, speeches, and meetings at Bon Echo. He wrote David Karsner in New York: "Here safe. Tired. Hopeful. . . . Tired still. Damned tired. God damned tired." Flora MacDonald Denison wrote that on August 28th Horace, while sitting in a tower room where he could look out on Old Walt, rapped his cane and shouted that Whitman had just appeared above the granite cliff "head and shoulders and hat on, in a golden glory--brilliant and splendid. He reassured me, beckoned to me, and spoke to me. I heard his voice but did not understand all he said, only 'Come on.' " Following this Traubel began to fail quickly, suffering yet another cerebral hemorrhage, and took to his deathbed, nursed continually by Anne. On September 3rd Flora was sitting next to his bed when Traubel claimed he heard Walt's voice again: "Walt says come on, come on." Anne stayed by his bedside, held his hand, smiled, and repeated, "No regrets, Horace." In her account of her husband's death, written to J. W. Wallace, she does not mention visitations from Walt. She recalls only that, on September 8th, "he didn't drift, he went":Afterwards, he had a very tender and beautiful expression, not as if he had less spirit but as if he had more. There was in fact very little <thorn>esh left--but he did not look shrunken, or wasted. He looked exceedingly young. Even then as he laid on the bed unmoving he drew love from my heart. Even then he made the great affirmation. He devoted himself to the art that is life--and to the life that is love--and he has made love as common as bread.
Once again, beginnings and endings fused: Traubel's death one hundred years after Whitman's birth emphatically closed the first Whitman century. But before he departed, Horace left behind a final poem, written for the dedication of Old Walt. In this poem he did what he had done so well for so long, what he had recorded in nine large volumes. He sat down and talked, one last time, with Walt Whitman:Well, Walt, here I am again, wanting to say something to you:
In a strange place, at the considerable north, talking again:
. . .
I just feel like as if I was having another chat with you as you sit in the big chair and with me in the bed opposite:
Oh! those blessed times, Walt! they're sacreder to me than the scriptures of races:
They're the scriptures of our two personal souls made one in a single supreme vision:
That's all for this moment, Walt: but it's the whole world of appearance and illumination, for all that.
The University of Iowa