Prologue to Walt Whitman's America:
A Cultural Biography Cont'd.

By David S. Reynolds

Still, the undeniable Whitman magnetism was there. He was wrapped in a blue overcoat, under which he wore a black dinner jacket, a natty departure from his usual plain gray one. His clean white shirt was open at the neck, and his round felt hat was pushed back on his head. His snowy hair and cascading beard gave him a jovian majesty. Tiny wrinkles seamed his face, but his pink complexion gave him a deceptive air of health. His gray-blue eyes, their large lids drooping, had a look of tired wisdom and stolid impassivity. The high-arched eyebrows made him seem slightly surprised.

He had reason to be surprised now. Although he had helped organize the event, he could not have anticipated the standing ovation that greeted him or the reverent silence that was maintained as he was wheeled to his head position at the axis of the tables. As his chair was pushed through the room by his nurse Ed Wilkins, an African American cook ran up to him and seized his hand, thanking him for nursing her husband in the Civil War hospitals.

He had meant to make only a token appearance but ended staying two to three hours. He picked flowers from a bouquet in front of him, and his weary expression disappeared as he sipped champagne. As was his custom on public occasions, he said little, preferring to take in the speeches and toasts in his honor. After the speeches, letters and telegrams from distant well wishers were read aloud. The list of those who had sent communications was impressive, including Alfred Lord Tennyson, Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, John Greenleaf Whittier, Robert Ingersoll, and William Michael Rossetti. One of the most perceptive messages was from his British friend, the ex-Philadelphian Mary Smith Whitall Costelloe, who wrote: "You cannot really understand America without Walt Whitman, without 'Leaves of Grass'....He has expressed that civilization, 'up to date,' as he would say, and no student of the philosophy of history can do without him."

But some of the day's tributes must have made him squirm with their conventionality. How could the literary innovator and erstwhile bohemian possibly stomach this saccharine tidbit, dished up by Henry L. Bonsall:

All hail to thee! Walt Whitman! Poet, Prophet, Priest!
Celebrant of Democracy! At more than regal feast
To thee we offer homage, and our greenest bay
We crown thee Poet Laureate on this thy natal day.

The fact was, Whitman only half enjoyed events like these, which filled his final years. True, he basked in the world-wide fame that had come to him in old age. The celebrities that trekked to Camden to see him; the heartfelt letters from strangers inspired by his poetry; the inner circle of friends who idolized him; the plaudits not only from literary people but from tycoons like Andrew Carnegie, who had contributed $400 to his support--all such encouragement was welcome, particularly in light of the ridicule and neglect he had endured earlier in his career. He even took amused pride that a tobacco company had brought out a cigar with his avuncular face as its logo. "Smoke Walt Whitman Cigars," the box read. "Gauranteed Cuban Hand Made."

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Introduction to Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography