Judith Grace. Good-bye My Fancy: With Walt Whitman in His Last Days. Oregon House, CA: Ulysses Books, 2003. 119 pp. With an introduction by Robert MacIsaac and an afterword by Thomas Fenn. $12.90 (paper), ISBN 0-9645782-6-3.


Reviewed by Ed Folsom, University of Iowa

Playwright and poet Judith Grace offers an engaging new dramatic recreation of three evenings late in Whitman’s life, the final one the evening of his death. In Good-bye My Fancy, she takes an inherently undramatic situation—Horace Traubel stopping by to chat with Whitman as he did virtually every night for the final four years of the poet’s life—and stages it as drama. One is tempted to say that this is what the term “closet drama” was invented for: a play that is all talk and no action, more profitably read than performed, more satisfying to absorb in the mind’s eye than with the physical eye. Whether this is true or not, only multiple performances will tell, but staging this play will certainly require two actors who can mesmerize the audience with their voices and stage presence, since there is little else to hold the audience. It’s a play, after all, about physical stasis, about the body unable to move even while the mind can’t sit still: Whitman’s open road is at a dead end now, and all he can do is take backward glances, be grateful for his industrious friend Horace, and accept his quickly approaching death.

          I’d like to consider the play for a moment as a closet drama in a wider sense than the term usually implies. A closet is by definition a closed space, a place for storing things. The setting for this play, Whitman’s cluttered closet-like bedroom in his Mickle Street house in Camden, is an externalization of his mind, every bit as cluttered as his room with the memories of a very full life. The play thus becomes a closet drama in a literal way. In the first act Horace Traubel reprimands Walt for trying to go downstairs by himself that day, making him promise not to try it again. The audience is made part of the narrowing claustrophobia of Whitman’s last years, jammed as observers into the already cramped and closeted existence that Whitman experienced as his life drew to a close. Good-bye My Fancy is also a drama about Walt “in the closet,” coyly hiding secrets from Traubel about his affectional life: “Some time when you are ready and I am ready I will tell you the real story of my life. Then you will open your eyes.” That time, of course, never comes, and so much about Whitman remains forever closeted. Grace captures the tantalizing nature of many of Whitman’s comments to Traubel, on the edge of revelation but always gently closing the closet door tight just when we expect the light to come on: “I can’t commence now—someday I will explain. . . . But not tonight, Horace, dear boy. Not tonight.” The quiet drama here so often is precisely in the closeting.

          The stage directions emphasize the clutter of the scene: “The room is in great disorder.” Whitman’s bedroom was, in fact, filled with the scatter of his life. But there’s something beyond the material chaos: what strikes the reader about Traubel’s nine-volume With Walt Whitman in Camden, on which this play is based, is the incredible clutter of those nightly conversations. They cover everything from local gossip to national politics, from baseball to road improvements, from old friends to recent visitors, from stories of the earliest publication of Leaves of Grass to plans for yet another new publication (Good-Bye My Fancy in 1891 was one of the last, and it furnishes the title for Grace’s play). The talks each night veer from one topic to another in an often dizzying fashion, and Grace captures this casually random quality of the conversations—moving from Whitman’s health to memories of the Civil War hospitals to thoughts about death to the fate of Leaves to the secret that cannot be spoken—even if these dramatic versions are stripped of most of the day-to-day detritus that stamps Traubel’s records as authentic.

          Grace’s version of Traubel has a more calculated trajectory than Traubel’s original transcriptions, which sought simply to record Whitman’s thoughts and opinions on anything and everything however and whenever they emerged. Just as in the second act of the play the stage directions tell us that Whitman’s room is now “tidier,” so the conversation between the poet and his young friend at that point also becomes more ordered. There’s more about Traubel in these distilled evenings than we usually get in any of the actual conversations: Whitman keeps asking about Annie Montgomerie (Traubel’s wife), discusses Traubel’s writing, and fondly recalls his first meeting with Traubel (these comments are all based on material in Traubel’s volumes, but such references are very widely scattered in the original books).

          In the publicity materials that accompanied the review copy of Good-bye My Fancy, Grace is quoted as saying that her dialogue style “is not like being there with Whitman in his room. It is being there. It is not invented. It has his heartbeat.” It’s true that many of Whitman’s speeches in this play are taken nearly verbatim from Traubel’s volumes, and so there is a sense of directness here: Whitman’s words usually sound exactly like Traubel’s transcriptions (we won’t rekindle here the old debate over how close those transcriptions were or were not to Whitman’s actual words). And while Whitman’s comments in the play are drawn from all over the nine volumes, Grace does manage to capture in the first act, which takes place on no particular evening in November 1890, something approaching a “typical” Traubel visit.

          But that doesn’t mean, of course, that Grace has not invented a great deal in this dramatic representation. Sometimes the changes she makes are small but telling, as when she formalizes Whitman’s familiar “Pete” to “Peter” whenever she has Walt talking about his old friend/lover Doyle. That odd formalization lifts the relationship a notch above the easy and casual tone that Whitman so carefully employs when talking about Pete. At one point Grace erases one of Whitman’s unsettling racist comments by changing his original “old nigger mammy” to “old negro mammy.” Other small changes are more disruptive, as when Traubel recalls one of his earliest meetings with Walt. Traubel originally wrote, “Walt, do you remember the day you buried little Walter?” Grace alters Traubel’s question to: “Walt, do you remember the day you buried your brother, little Walter?” The “Walter” referred to here, of course, is Whitman’s nephew, Walter Orr Whitman, the baby son of Whitman’s brother George: little Walter died in 1876. What Grace intends as a clarifying insertion ends up reducing the scene to utter confusion (one can imagine the audience wondering how Walt could possibly have had a brother named Walter!).

          It’s the larger inventions, however, that bothered me the most about this play. It may work to use the words from With Walt Whitman in Camden as if they floated timelessly and could be broken apart and recombined into conversations that never actually took place, as long as what is being portrayed is a “typical” evening in Whitman’s last years. In such a case, as in the first act, it does not seem so important that the words we are hearing may, moment to moment, have been spoken months or years apart from each other. But the problems proliferate when Grace chooses to portray a specific day, because those days are historical events, and—thanks in large part to Traubel—we know what happened on those occasions. It suddenly becomes important that the words being spoken in the representation of that day were not in fact spoken on that day and that the actions portrayed on that day bear no relation to what really happened on that day. At this point we begin to ask to what purpose is the historical record being tampered with; what do we gain by the fictionalized scenes?

          Grace, for example, sets the second act on Whitman’s final birthday, May 31, 1891. There’s good dramatic reason for this, of course, but the scene, where Horace visits Whitman in the evening and finds him alone, is so far removed from what actually happened on Whitman’s final birthday that it undermines the historical accuracy that the play elsewhere seems so determined to maintain. The scene is entirely invented, with Horace and Walt sitting alone, sipping champagne and eating doughnuts in a muted celebration. What actually happened that evening was that over thirty guests—including Thomas Eakins, Richard M. Bucke, and David McKay—came to Whitman’s house for dinner, and Whitman chatted and joked with them for four hours! It was the largest group he ever entertained in his Mickle Street home, and it ended with the poet being helped back upstairs at 10:00 p.m. as he proudly confided to his physician Daniel Longaker, “I had a partial—very slight—bowel reprisement today.” Longaker tells him he’ll give him further medical orders the next day. It seems very odd, then, to have a dramatic presentation of this birthday that emphasizes Whitman’s loneliness and isolation, that ignores the important event that actually did happen, and that even has the poet ordering Horace not to bother getting a doctor (“if the doctors come, I shall not only have to fight the disease but fight them”) on the very day that he was actually consulting one. It’s as if Grace is dedicated to the idea that the lines spoken by Whitman and Traubel must actually have been said but is unconcerned that the days she represents didn’t happen that way at all. Thus Robert MacIsaac’s opening words in the introduction to the play simply do not ring true to me: “The dialogue in these pages is a dialogue of truth. The conversations were real conversations, the situations and emotions real situations and emotions, even much of the physical actions described actually took place. The poetic license is minimal. . . .” Rather, the conversations are pieces of real conversations rearranged for dramatic effect; the situations are often invented; and the poetic license seems quite permissive.

          So Grace has a third scene take place on the evening of Whitman’s death (March 26, 1982), and, except for capturing Walt’s final word (“Shift!”), the scene is again entirely invented, since Whitman is portrayed on this day as typically garrulous, talking away with Traubel, when in fact the poet could barely utter a word, and Horace never talked with him that day, since by the time he arrived at the Mickle Street house in the evening, all that was left to experience was Whitman’s struggle for his last breath (Walt had already cried “Shift!” to Warry Fritzinger before Traubel arrived). No one expects a drama to be accurate to the last detail, but this drama seems at once to want to be authentic and yet offers us historical scenes that are, well, dramatically different from what we know to be true. Some readers and viewers will no doubt be charmed by the inventions, since they do allow for Grace to seamlessly portray the Whitman/Traubel friendship down to Whitman’s last moment, but this reader was distracted by the dissonance between what Traubel so carefully recorded and what the playwright so casually offers as a kind of substitute representation of what happened on two particularly meaningful evenings. Traubel worked hard to be truthful and accurate, and the power—the drama, if you will—of the day that Whitman died is wrapped up in the fact that Traubel did not get to talk with Walt one last time: Traubel’s account is painful and moving because it is stripped of sentimentality, raw, and gnawingly unsatisfying. Grace mythologizes this last day and casts a kind of sentimental glow over it by moving bits of the Whitman/Traubel dialogue to a day on which that dialogue did not take place—a day on which, crucially, no dialogue took place. Traubel’s record of awful silence is replaced by Grace’s scene of typical talk. One of the blurbs on the back cover praises the “faithful and fascinating view of Walt Whitman in his last days,” but for this reader the fascination far outweighs the fidelity.

          In an essay for Mickle Street Review in 2002, Kenn Pierson offered an overview of ninety years of Whitman dramas—over 120 of them—and divided these works into three groups: biographical Whitman dramas that dramatize “Whitman, the man, in historical context”; thematic Whitman dramas that “dramatize Whitman’s themes, with minimal regard for the historical Whitman or the dramatic application of his poetry”; and poetic Whitman dramas that “dramatize Whitman’s poetry, with open acknowledgment of Whitman as its poetic persona but with minimal regard for the poet’s historical context.” Good-bye My Fancy certainly most easily falls into the biographical group, though it has elements of the thematic group, in that the theme of Whitman’s death seems to trump the historical context, as I’ve already noted. Since Grace also portrays Whitman reciting long passages of his own poetry from memory, something he rarely if ever actually did, the play has a touch of the poetic group. (Traubel recalls Whitman saying, “as to remembering his own poems, ‘I don’t suppose I can repeat one of them.’”) This is clearly Grace’s attempt to dramatize the poetry—and I’m sure it works on stage—but again it comes at the expense of accurate historical and biographical contexts.

          But in another sense, this play eludes Pierson’s categories and creates its own genre—the Whitman and Traubel talk show. Those nine huge Traubel volumes, some six thousand pages of conversations, contain within them countless potential dramas—or at least two-man talk shows— about an endless array of topics. We could imagine, for example, a play that tracked the publication of Whitman’s last books, or traced Whitman’s politics, or focused on his ideas about sexuality. Gary Schmidgall’s selection of passages from Traubel’s nine volumes in Intimate with Walt (2001) offers over forty subject categories. The possibilities for sequels are limitless, and Good-bye My Fancy opens the door to this closet full of Whitman/Traubel mini-dramas. It’s a play that at once fascinates and frustrates, one that will at any rate get the audience talking, carrying on the conversation that Good-bye My Fancy initiates by staging those still-vital conversations Horace Traubel had with Walt Whitman well over a century ago.