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Kansas Historical Quarterly - Walt Whitman in Kansas

by Robert R. Hubach

May 1941 (Vol. 10, No. 2), pages 150-154
Transcription by Harriette Jensen; HTML composition by Tod Roberts;
digitized with permission of the Kansas Historical Society.

WALT WHITMAN, like John Greenleaf Whittier, was deeply interested in the Antislavery cause; his unbounded faith in democracy and freedom is evident in many pages of Leaves of Grass. As early as 1872, Whitman had contributed two poems, "The Mystic Trumpeter" and "Virginia--the West," the latter of which dealt with the Secession, to the first issue of The Kansas Magazine. [1] In 1879, Whitman had accepted the invitation of Col. John W. Forney and the Old Settlers of Kansas committee to be present at the quarter-centennial celebration of the settlement of Kansas at Bismarck Grove, near Lawrence, on September 15 and 16 of that year. The gathering proved to be one of the largest political meetings in the history of the state up to that time; one newspaper correspondent estimated that between 25,000 and 30,000 people were in attendance. [2] Among the speakers were Edward Everett Hale, John Forney, S. N. Wood, George Julian, George A. Crawford, D. R. Anthony, ex-Gov. Charles Robinson, and Gov. John P. St. John of Kansas. One of the chief subjects of declamation, of course, was John Brown and the winning of Kansas for the forces of freedom after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill. [3]

Whitman minutely describes his long trip West in Specimen Days. [4] He left Philadelphia by train with Colonel Forney on September 10, 1879, [5] staying with his brother and family in St. Louis on the night of September 12. A St. Louis reporter, interviewing the poet at this time, asked his purpose in going West:

"On your way to the Kansas celebration, are you not?"
"Yes, Col. Forney asked me to accompany him, and I embraced the opportunity of briefly visiting my brother [Water Commissioner Thos. J. Whitman] and his family here. Go to Kansas on conditions, however," and Mr. Whitman smiled quaintly.
"And those conditions were?"
"I agreed to go, provided I was not asked to speak nor eat any public dinners. I am only to show myself. I call myself a half paralytic, and yet I am not so feeble after all, nor so old as I look, for that matter. I was born in 1819. After the Kansas celebration, if I feel as well as now, I shall go out to Denver before I return to pay my brother a more extended visit."
"What do you expect to do in Kansas?"
"As I told you, I shall not make speeches or eat public dinners, but the people will have an opportunity to see this big, saucy red rooster, whom they might otherwise think would speak." [6].

At Kansas City, which Whitman reached on the evening of September 13, a specially appointed committee of four men met him and Forney to accompany them by train to Lawrence. [7] Both Whitman and Forney resided in Lawrence at 1425 Tennessee street, the home of Judge John P. Usher, Secretary of the Interior under Lincoln and mayor of Lawrence at the time of their visit. The poet signed the Usher family autograph album on his first day at Lawrence:

Walt Whitman
visiting Kansas
Sept. 14, 1879

Whitman sat on the speaker's platform during the first session of the old settlers' meeting. Charles Gleed, editor of The Kansas Memorial, erroneously attributed H. C. Work's "The Song of a Thousand Years," sung by the Larned quartet for the occasion, to Whitman; [8] but the poet took no part in the program. Perhaps the best newspaper account of Whitman as he appeared at the time of the celebration was in the Topeka Daily Capital:

Walt Whitman is a man well advanced in years and his snow-white hair and the long white beard which grows upon a large portion of his face give him a decidedly venerable appearance. He wore a gray traveling suit and his shirt-bosom was left open at the neck, something after the fashion of the Goddess of Liberty as shown on a fifty-cent piece. He walks with a cane, using considerable care, as he has not fully recovered from a paralytic stroke. [9]

On the second day of the reunion, Whitman had been erroneously billed to read a poem. Linton Usher, whom Whitman affectionately mentioned along with a brother, John Usher, Jr., in Specimen Days, [10] and who is now living near Pomona, Kan., has told me that Whitman suffered from the heat and was in poor health while in Lawrence. [11] The poet did not attend the celebration on September 16, but rested at the Usher home, where he enjoyed hearing the mayor's sons tell of their experiences in the West. Mr. Linton Usher, who was only a boy in his teens when Whitman visited his father, says that Whitman was fascinated by his descriptions of ranch life in Texas, from which state the youth had just returned. He recalls that Whitman sat talking with friends in the west parlor and on the front porch of his father's house. The poet and Judge Usher doubtless reminisced about Lincoln, during whose administration they were together in the Interior Department. Hon. T. Dwight Thacher, Lawrence publisher, who was to have introduced Whitman at Bismarck Grove, was surprised to find him not present to read his poem; he excused Whitman's absence, however, on the grounds of the poet's poor health and his fatigues of travel. [12] In Specimen Days, Whitman wrote that he visited the University of Kansas on Oread Hill and took pleasant drives around the city. He found Lawrence and Topeka, "large, bustling, half-rural handsome cities." [13] Before he left for Topeka, Whitman again signed the Usher autograph book:

Walt Whitman
accompanying Col. Forney as above
Sept. 16, '79

Whitman spent September 17 in Topeka. He and Colonel Forney and party resided at the Tefft House, where, according to the Topeka Commonwealth, the poet passed most of his time conversing with men in the lobby. [14] The same paper reported that he also visited the state house. [15] Since he at one time was employed by the Interior Department and was interested in Indian affairs, Whitman accompanied a group of officials to see some Indian prisoners at Topeka, who refused to recognize any of the government men, but who extended their hands to the poet and greeted him with "How." [16] That evening Whitman was expected to be present at a lecture given by Colonel Forney on "Some of the Men of America I Have Known," but newspapers the next day did not report that he attended.

On September 18, Whitman and Colonel Forney were honor guests at a dinner at the Palace Hotel. [17] Following the meal, the poet's party left for Denver. [18]

Before leaving Kansas, Whitman visited Atchison and Wallace. Linton Usher believes that poor health forced the poet to stop at the latter town. It was here at Wallace, an army post near the Colorado border, on September 19, that Whitman, inspired by the Kansas celebration and yet probably not physically able to write anything new, recollected and sent back to Lawrence a few appropriate lines from his early poem "Resurgemus," first printed in the New York Daily Tribune of June 21, 1850. [19] Whitman later recast this youthful piece of work, lengthening the lines and calling it "Europe -- the 72d and 73d Years of These States." [20] It is curious that the poet should have quoted the earlier, shortline version of the poem:

Not a grave of the murdered for Freedom
But grows seeds of a wider Freedom,
Which the winds carry afar and sow,
And the snows and the rains nourish. [21]

Whitman arrived in Denver by the Kansas Pacific railroad on September 20 and stayed in Colorado for four days. On his return east he visited his old friend, "E. L.," at Sterling, for the day and night of September 24, where, he said in a letter to Peter Doyle, "I had hard work to get away from him -- he wanted me to stay all winter." [22] The Rice County Gazette, of Sterling, and the Sterling Weekly Bulletin both published short notices of his presence in the town. The former paper's article is the more adequate:

Walt Whitman, the poet, of Philadelphia, ... visited Sterling on yesterday.... The old poet says that much as the grandeur of the mountains impressed him, the impression of the plains will remain longest with him. We hope Mr. Whitman will embody these impressions in some of his elegant poetry. [23]

Whitman returned by way of the Santa Fe railroad to Kansas City, and from there went back to St. Louis, where he spent almost three months with his brother.

The impression which the prairies made upon Whitman is remarkable. The Illinois, Missouri, and Kansas country were to Whitman, "America's Characteristic Landscape." He saw that in the Mississippi valley region, more than even in the majestic Rocky Mountains, lay the future of American culture. [24] In a short speech which he had planned to deliver at the Bismarck Grove meeting, he exhorted the people of Kansas to pattern their creative efforts after "that vast Something" peculiar to the "interminable and stately prairies." [25] Whitman repeated time and again in Leaves of Grass the fact that he saw in the West the coming fruition of what would someday be a truly American contribution to the arts -- something uninfluenced by foreign conventions or models and as boundless and free as the plains themselves. [26] Particularly in his poem "The Prairie States," written in 1880 after his trip to the West, did he look with prophetic vision to the Great Plains as they are today, and saw that to them the entire past had been working:

A newer garden of creation, no primal solitude,
Dense, joyous, modern, populous millions, cities and farms,
With iron interlaced, composite, tied, many in one,
By all the world contributed freedom's and law's and thrift's society,
The crown and teeming paradise, so far, of time's accumulations,
To justify the past. [27]

Notes

ROBERT R. HUBACH is an assistant instructor in the Department of English at Indiana University, Bloomington, Ind.

1. The Kansas Magazine (The Kansas Magazine Publishing Co., Topeka, 1872), pp. 113, 114 and 219 (January-June, 1872).
2. Kansas City (Mo.) Mail, September 16, 1879.
3. For a full account of the old settlers' reunion, see Chas. S. Gleed (ed.), The Kansas Memorial, A Report of the Old Settlers' Meeting...: Bismarck Grove, Kansas, September 15th and 16th, 1879) (Ramsey, Millett & Hudson, Kansas City, Mo., 1880). The Kansas and Missouri newspapers also contain many informative notices.
4. Richard M. Bucke, Thomas B. Harned, and Horace L. Traubel (eds.), Complete Writings of Walt Whitman (G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York and London, 1902). "Prose," v. I, pp. 252-264.
6. Rollo G. Silver, "Walt Whitman Interviews Himself," American Literature, v. X, p. 87 (March, 1938). This article contains 'Whitman's own account of his experiences in the West and his impressions of Denver.
7. St. Louis (Mo.) Globe-Democrat, September 13, 1879. 7. Lawrence Daily Journal, September 14, 1879.
8. See p. 15.
9. Topeka Daily Capital, September 16, 1879.
10. Bucke, et at (eds.), op.cit., p. 254.
11. Colin O. Alexander has printed a post card which Whitman sent to John Usher, Jr., on January 14, 1880. See "A Note on Walt Whitman," American Literature, v. IX, pp. 242, 243 (May, 1937).
12. Gleed (ed.), op.cit., p. 153. See, also, Lawrence Tribune, September 17. 1879.
13; Bucke, et al. (eds.), op.cit., pp. 255, 256.
14. The Commonwealth, Topeka, September 18, 1879.
15. Ibid.
16. Emory Honoway, Whitman, An Interpretation in Narrative (Alfred A. Knopf, New York and London, 1926), p. 223.
17. Topeka Daily Blade, September 18, 1879.
18. The Commonwealth, Topeka, September 19, 1879.
19. Emory Holloway (ed.), The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman (Doubleday, Page, New York, 1921), v. I, p. 29.
20. Bucke, et al. (eds.), "Poetry," op.cit., v. II, p. 29.
21. Gleed (ed.), op.cit., p. 4.
22. Bucke, et al. (eds.), "Prose," op.cit., p. 270. For the letter to Peter Doyle, see Bucke, op.cit., v. V, pp. 163-166.
23. Rice County Gazette, Sterling, September 25, 1879.
24. Bucke, et al. (eds.), op.cit., v. I, pp. 275-277. 25. Ibid., pp. 255, 256.
26. Newton Arvin, Whitman (Macmillan, New York, 1988), pp. 99-101, feels, however, that Whitman's joy in the apparent prosperity of the West and his immense optimism indicated a lack of consciousness on the poet's part of the American farmer's poverty-stricken condition at the time.
27. Bucke, et al. (eds.), "Poetry," op.cit., v. II, p. 177.