Camden Courier-Post – June 1, 1939
Wescott Recalls Friendship with Poet at Ceremonies Here Marking 120th Anniversary of his birth; Donaldson Tells of Buggy Gift
Acknowledged by the world as the poet of democracy, Camden’s own Walt Whitman was acclaimed here yesterday on the 120th anniversary of his birth as the “prophet of a new internationalism.”
This interpretation of Whitman and his famous “Leaves of Grass,” which introduced free verse to the world and the rugged liberty loving character of America so lustily praised in his songs, was offered by Ralph W. Wescott, of Haddonfield.
Wescott was one of three speakers for the Walt Whitman Foundation which is charged with maintenance of the Whitman home at 330 Mickle Street as a literary shrine. Also speaking on Whitman were Thomas B. Donaldson, Philadelphia insurance man, who as a boy knew Whitman, and Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Conover, also of Philadelphia.
The meeting was held at the headquarters of the Camden County Historical Society, Euclid Avenue and Park Boulevard. Wescott, former comptroller of customs of the Port of Philadelphia and son of the late Judge John W. Wescott, who was an intimate friend of Whitman in Camden and who twice nominated Woodrow Wilson for the presidency, based his lauding of Whitman as an “international prophet” upon excerpts from Whitman’s books.
Urged Universal Freedom
“It is the very catholicity of the man which causes us to celebrate his birthday anniversary,” said Wescott. “He has been seen as the precursor of socialism and the completely going anti-socialist.”
“We almost shrink from news abroad, and we are bound to consider what Whitman’s response would have been. In his poem ‘Salutation,’ I think we find in Whitman the prophecy of a new internationalism, a poem in which he asked for universal freedom against slavery, and called for an international brotherhood.”
“It is unique and significant that on this 120th anniversary of Whitman the New York World’s Fair acclaims him by statue and adulation, and in 1876 during the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia Whitman indited a poem addressed to foreign readers in which he directed their attention to ‘the peculiar glory of the United States’ as something ‘vaster, saner, more splendid in comradeship, knitting closer all nations and humanity.’”
“Whitman himself wrote poets were necessary to fulfillment of a world brotherhood because their work was needed to vitalize the message of statesmen.
Preached Good Will
“In the British-written preface to Whitman’s ‘Specimen Days in America,’ which he wrote in Camden and Laurel Springs, there occurred the sentence ‘Whitman preached goodwill between common people of all nations. In all the things written of him, Whitman said he liked that description best. “
“So, in Whitman’s own words we find the real message, and as expressed in one of his poems, and so which was an obsession with him in his declining days ‘we instinctively seek a ‘universal, comprehensive solidarity of man.’ There was no braver or more humanistic American writer than Whitman, nor more humanistic statement for the world than his ‘Leaves of Grass.’
“Boyhood Recollections of Whitman,” by Donaldson, whose father Blaine Donaldson, of Philadelphia, was a benefactor and fast friend of Whitman, regaled the little literary group of 40 which appeared to honor the birthday of the “Good Gray Poet.”
It was Donaldson’s father who, anxious to aid the paralytic poet in reaching the outdoors, wrote to all of America’s most famous writers and asked they subscribe to a fund to purchase a pony and buggy for Whitman.
Great Writers Gave
The contributors to the fund, Donaldson said, included Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier, John Burroughs, Robert W. Ingersoll, Rutherford B. Hayes, General Phil Sheridan and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
“Hayes and Sheridan were frequent visitors to our home,” said Donaldson, “as was Henry Irving, the actor. Sheridan came often to sniff brandy and Whitman met these men there, but Walt came chiefly for mental regalement and food, because my mother was a good cook.”
“I was a lad of eight to eleven years when Whitman made his visits, and no matter who was there Whitman always dominated the room. In fact, he loved my father so much that he requested that my father be a pallbearer for him.”
“My sister and I sat in his lap often, and we liked that because he looked like Santa Claus, and most children were drawn naturally toward him. He was different and comradely. I can pay tribute to Walt’s whiskers because he didn’t chew tobacco, not then anyway, if later.
“Walt had the eyes of a stage manager and nothing escaped and no matter how distinguished the audience, Whitman was the boss. His favorite pastime at our home was dipping bananas into sherry wine and eating them as though they were lollypops.
It was in 1885 that my father decided to get Walt a pony and buggy, and when the outfit was purchased as a gift from America’s greatest writers to Walt. I was commissioned with a guardian to drive it to Camden.
Pony Was Groggy
When I got the pony there in the afternoon Whitman came out and said: ‘Bless me,’ and got in right away. Walt then took to the open in later days, but he soon began to complain the pony was ‘groggy and too slow’. A few days later Walt turned up at home with a three-gaited horse.
“The horse obviously was too spirited for Whitman’s crippled condition, and when this was drawn to his attention he said, ‘There is no sense in giving me a crippled horse. What does a helpless hulk like me want with another cripple? This horse is lithesome.”
“I have some mementos from Whitman which I cherish, but most interesting of all was his personality. To know him was better than any souvenir of him, and in the language of today he had ‘umph!’
“Mrs. Davis, whotook him and who loved him as a mother would, caring for his every wish, was a kind, genial soul, and she in fact, supported Whitman while he saved his money for a monument to himself.
Full of People
“I recall Whitman’s last, days, when my father visited him. Father came home and said the house in Camden was full of people hovering over him with pencil and paper to catch his last words, and that few of them had gone down into their jeans to give him a cent.”
“But over all, I think our attitude toward Whitman must be an offering of our mentality, and our tribute is one of admiration and affection.”
Mrs. Conover paid memorial tribute to Dr. Alexander Macalister, former physician to Whitman, who died last November, and who was president of the Walt Whitman Foundation; Mrs. Sarah D. Wolverton, also a member of the foundation, who died last year; Mrs. Alice Walker Griffiths who lived in Camden at the George Whitman home while Walt lived there, and Mrs. Ruth Stafford Goldy, both of whom died last year. It was at the Stafford home in Laurel Springs that Whitman recuperated from his paralytic stroke.
Mrs. Conover said she was not “impressed by recent documents on Whitman” which she generally described as “insolent,” and said “nearness of approach and intimacy are necessary to get to a cosmic soul.”
“The most direct way to Whitman is through ‘Leaves of Grass’,” she said.
She then told of a recent incident on the finding of a first edition of ‘Leaves of Grass,’ owned by “an unappreciative New York bootlegger”, and in which was found a manuscript of one of Whitman’s poems, ‘A Backward Glane O’re Traveled Road,’ and the title of which had been written and changed three times by the poet on the manuscript.
Cites Honors to Poet
Mrs. Conover also called attention to the Sprague collection of Whitmania on exhibit this year in the Library of Congress, dedication of the Whitman statute at the World’s Fair yesterday, and issuance of a postage stamp in his honor.
“Whitman sailed his ship in deep waters,” she said, “and paid no attention to the shallows. He was the world’s greatest optimist, and under these tremulous, troubled and fear-filled times we should follow as Americans his words, “My foothold is tenoned and mortised in granite”.
Mrs. Conover lauded Mrs. Martha Davis, curator of the Whitman house, as “a stout-hearted disciple of Walt Whitman.”
Wescott, in behalf of the Whitman foundation, presented to the Camden County Historical Society a picture of the Walt Whitman home for its archives. The picture was received for the society by Mrs. A. Haines Lippincott.