Horace Traubel and J. W. Wallace: Beyond Absence
Carolyn Masel,
Australian Catholic University in Melbourne

The role of J. W. Wallace and of the Bolton Whitman Fellowship in the early dissemination of Whitman’s poetry and ideas in England is gradually being acknowledged. This gentle, charismatic architect’s assistant with his pained-sounding, husky voice came across Whitman’s poetry during his mother’s protracted terminal illness, deriving comfort from that poetry as from no other, and he eagerly introduced Leaves of Grass to the reading group he had run from his Bolton home since about 1870. Whitman’s work and philosophy quickly became the main topic of discussion, and the group swelled from its original core of eight to about thirty people, who crowded into the front room of the Wallaces’ tiny house in Eagle Street on a Monday evening. When Wallace moved from Bolton to Adlington, near Chorley, in the early 1890s, the venue for discussion was shared out between two or three friends, but Wallace was the undisputed leader of the group known as “The Eagle Street College” until his death in 1926.

Wallace first came to Traubel’s attention when, in 1887, he and another passionate Whitmanite, the Bolton GP John Johnston, plucked up their courage and wrote to Walt Whitman on the occasion of his birthday and sent a gift of money. Whitman was delighted to receive such homage and corresponded with the group until his death. The Bolton Whitmanites were among the first English readers of the uncensored editions of Leaves of Grass, and thus amongst the first students of the “Calamus” poems, which seemed to them of more significance than the (then) controversial “Children of Adam” sequence. Traubel and Wallace finally met when Wallace and Johnston, at Traubel’s urging, visited the ailing Whitman in Camden—only six months, it transpired, before the poet’s death. [1]   During this visit, Dr. Johnston was the guest of Dr. Bucke, and Wallace fell to the Traubels. It was a signal moment for both parties, Wallace forming close ties not only to Horace but also to his wife Anne Montgomerie Traubel. In fact, she seems to have worshipped him. The correspondence between Wallace and Traubel arising from this visit ended only with Traubel’s death in 1919. After that, Anne Traubel continued to write to Wallace and to Minnie Whiteside, his adopted daughter, until his death, and then to Minnie until her own death in 1954. [2] The vast archive of the Bolton Whitman Fellowship which contains these letters (as well as photographs, journals, papers on various aspects of Whitman’s life and work, and Wallace’s correspondence with other members of the group) is held partly at the Bolton Central Library in Bolton, Lancs., and partly at the John Rylands University Library of  Manchester. [3] Traubel’s letters, all but a few of which are addressed to Wallace, are mostly held in Bolton. [4]

The persistence and range of their correspondence suggests that Wallace and Traubel had much to say to each other, their shared concerns explaining, in part, their gravitation to Whitman. Their political, sexual and religious views converged without ever quite meeting, so that they always felt the differences between them very keenly. Both, for example, were socialists. But for Traubel, socialism was essentially an individual moral issue, and it was wrong for the state to use coercive means even for a collectively beneficial end. In one illuminating letter of 1895, he talks about socialism in terms of an awakening and promises that “the time will come when the freer and profounder laws of the spirit will abolish all outward compulsions” (Traubel to Wallace, 24-25 Jul 1895). Wallace, by contrast, was part and parcel of the nineteenth-century socialist culture of northern England that found its expression in the International Labour Party (Salveson 1996/7, 58-9). He was unlikely to countenance the privileging of an individual’s interest over the collective good. In another letter to Wallace the same year, Traubel illuminates their fundamental difference of outlook: “Are men to be trusted? If there was no statutory axe over heads of evil-wishing people would the social structures go to pieces? I think the fall [?] air would prosper us” (Traubel to Wallace, 10, 11, and 12 Nov 1895). Phrased in this way, with all the rhetorical questions stacked in favor of freedom and the overwhelming benignity of human nature, it is difficult to see the two men’s differences as anything other than a question of temperament—but temperament is itself represented as a matter of moral choice, of one’s ethical stance in the world. According to the logic implicit in Traubel’s Progressive view, to believe in the need for legislation or any other political instrument is to adopt a position of despair that is predicated on a denial of the essential goodness of mankind and what it might accomplish if given the free rein that the soul craves. The logical outcome of this line of thinking is an impracticable idealism; hence, it comes as no surprise to find, in the same letter, Traubel pointing up the difficulty of translating any utopian ideal into practice: “In a socialist state (I do not criticise voluntary socialism), who is to prescribe the limits, for the general power to restrain and constrain?” Indeed, it is arguable that Traubel’s socialism, while evident elsewhere (see Garman 2000, 46), is not much in evidence in his correspondence with Wallace. What emerges is something more akin to libertarianism, or even, as Wallace thought, to anarchy (see also Krieg 1996/7, 99).

If this insistence on untrammelled individualism constituted one sticking point in his friendship with Wallace, then a directly contradictory bent for articulating rules and regulations formed another. For this socialist, this close friend of Eugene Debs (Garman 2000, 56), whose belief in individualism ran so deep that it severely undermined any means to a collective end, was adamant that the so-called International Whitman Fellowship that he founded, while organised branch by branch, should have a universal constitution and fixed membership fees. Traubel was, of course, involved in the framing of the constitution and the fixing of the “dues.” Wallace was from the start absolutely opposed to this scheme, which he saw as exclusivist, and therefore anti-Whitmanian. His intransigence was worrisome to Traubel, who ultimately respected his friend’s capacity to interpret Whitman’s message as well as his power to assemble people sympathetic to that message around him. Central to the formation of a pointedly international fellowship had been Traubel’s desire to have the early transatlantic allegiance to Whitman publicly acknowledged. Eventually, in October, 1895, having endured Wallace’s unwavering disapproval on the matter of the dues for over a year, he broached the possibility of a compromise, whereby payments would be made voluntary or even abolished, with subscriptions for Whitman publications (chiefly papers) by members of the Fellowship taking care of all costs.

By this time, their friendship was quite strained, yet in the letter where Traubel floats this suggestion, he seems to affect an unawareness of anything being wrong between them. The note of disingenuousness is struck whenever money is mentioned, which it is repeatedly, in three different contexts that, together, amount to three contradictory meanings. To begin with, there is the invitation to Wallace to make a second visit to Camden: “If you come to America we will cure your ills. What is to keep you now? I would like to pool a little money to bring you over.” The sense here is that there is money for the asking. At first, this seems consistent with his next proposal: for a modified scheme of voluntary dues for the International Whitman League, or even their abolition altogether “in the faith that the publication fund would take care of all expenses.” The suggestion here is that the League does not need dedicated funds. But he then goes on to state that his journal The Conservator is in need of funds and inquires whether “Charley” (Charles Sixsmith, a younger member of the Bolton group) would canvas for funds. [6] (H. L. Traubel to J. W. Wallace, 12, 13, and 14 Oct 1895). Both the League and The Conservator are Traubel’s projects; he hardly needs to say that the body of sponsors for both would be largely the same. If they cannot currently raise sufficient cash for The Conservator, so that Traubel feels constrained to ask about Charley’s canvassing support, then how are they to raise enough money to maintain the Fellowship at the same time—let alone find the funds to bring Wallace over? It is clear that he expects Wallace to ask Charley to help, and that he thinks that each of them ought to support the work of the other. Furthermore, it also seems clear that Traubel thinks Wallace ought to acknowledge that the realization of any of these plans or gestures of good will requires money, and that Wallace ought to be prepared to play his part in raising it.

This aspect of Traubel is the one we most easily recognise: Traubel, the social animal, the beleaguered editor of The Conservator, the man who throve on public dinners and principled schisms, on readings, speeches and presentations, on meetings large and small, on visits and return visits. He loved to write it all down for Wallace, his brother in spirit, as he had loved to write down every thought of his spiritual father, Walt Whitman. This relish for detail, together with his closely focussed filial devotion to Whitman— the very qualities that have earned him the epithet of “Whitman’s Boswell”—have also earned him the reputation of a pedant. Indeed, while that epithet, spoken in a generous spirit, merely points the analogy with Dr. Johnson’s biographer, it can easily slip to signify a lesser figure than the actual Boswell (being only Whitman’s Boswell): one whose identity is even more contingent and derivative. Yet it is a central fact of Whitman scholarship that we are heavily reliant on Traubel’s reportage for Whitman’s views. Traubel claims always to be reporting Whitman verbatim, but there is often no way of verifying this, nor is there any way of knowing how much Traubel invents. While readers of Traubel’s prose will surely register that Whitman’s voice in reported conversation can sound very like Traubel’s, we are happy enough to quote Traubel’s massive With Walt Whitman in Camden, as though it were the truth, whenever it suits us. We seem content to trivialise Traubel at the same time as we take his honour for granted. 

Traubel’s correspondence with Wallace is full of professions of love like the following one—passionate, elevated, even rhapsodic:

I never look at the stars but my soul fixes in their midst your face – and out of the dim heavens your arms reach and [?] me. The river that bears me day and day again royally to my tasks and home carries by my will messages of love to and across the sea. (H. L. Traubel to J. W. Wallace, 19, 20, and 21 Oct 1895.)

There are traces here of Traubel’s rhythmical clumsiness, clear as a signature, and also, perhaps, traces of an awkwardness relating to grammar and idiom. Yet, for all its stylistic faults, there is no mistaking the Emersonian sensibility that unashamedly inscribes the face of a beloved companion as an aspect of the godhead. Both of these qualities are typical of Traubel’s letters. The barbed modernist aesthetic that thoroughly punctured Victorian afflatus looks, by postmodernisms’s uncertain light, to have permanently damaged Traubel’s rhapsodising, making it immensely difficult to take him in the spirit he would have wished; like a number of Whitman’s disciples, he seems all too easy to ridicule. At the same time, however, one is always aware of the breadth of his vision, a breadth that is impressive and sometimes moving, so that it seems carping to note the equally present infelicities of style. What I want to talk about here goes to the heart of what makes Traubel worth reading despite, or perhaps because of, the bathos. It is a matter of relinquishing oneself, as far as possible, to the flow of the prose, and allowing that very imperfectly controlled vehicle to take one where it seems Traubel wants us to go: to that transcendent world where he dwells, a finite voyager in the face of the infinite, always confident of the benignity of the eternal space-time around him, an Emersonian optimist, almost to the last. His correspondence with Wallace affords us an opportunity to investigate his beliefs about eternity and the afterlife. What we discover there is a consistent strength of spirit and a remarkable fortitude—and one or two significant failures of faith that seem to take Traubel himself by surprise.

Some of Traubel’s experiences of revelation are already documented, not least by Traubel himself. He was highly articulate about his spiritual development, evincing a certain knowingness in the matter of revelation, which is sometimes off-putting. Writing in 1901 for his friend Richard Bucke’s book Cosmic Consciousness, Traubel attests to three separate occasions of  “illumination” (Bucke 1901, 345-351). The first and, with hindsight, the most important occurred on a night in May, 1889, when, leaning over the railing of a ferryboat, Traubel “lost this world for another, and in the anguish and joy of a few minutes saw things heretofore withheld from me revealed” [7] (Bucke 1901, 346). Traubel’s description of this experience is almost orthodoxly Transcendental—that is, it conforms very closely indeed to Emerson’s description of the Transcendental moment when the categories of materiality dissolve, when the Laws that govern existence are seen for what they are and the unity of the whole becomes apparent (Baym 2003, 1109):

My physical body went through the experience of a disappearance in spiritual light. All severe lines in the front of phenomena relaxed. I was one with God, Love, the Universe, arrived at last face to face with myself.

There is also an obvious connection with Whitman’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” which Traubel of course knew well; in fact, since his father was apparently an admirer of Leaves of Grass, there was never a time that Traubel did not know the volume (Garman 2000, 44). Whitman’s poem contains the line, “Be firm, rail over the river, to support those who lean idly, yet haste with the hasting current” (section 9), and Traubel’s reference to coming “face to face” with himself at last recalls the very first line of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”: “Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face!” But the resemblance is more fundamental than that: it is the nature of the insight that is shared—the participation in, in Whitman’s words, ‘The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme, myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated yet part of the scheme’ (section 2).

Happily, Traubel’s rather conventional account is followed by a different kind of writing altogether: “I was no more boating it on a river than winging it in space or taking star leaps, a traveller from one to another on the peopled orbs” (Bucke 1901, 346). This is much more individualistic, much more engaging—possibly more authentically Whitmanian: “The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings, on the walk in the street and the passage over the river” (section 2). It is also characteristic of the kinds of switches that frequently occur in Traubel’s writing, frequently within the one letter, that make it worth pursuing.

As Whitman’s poem all but states, the ultimate extension of this kind of imaginative exercise or (in Traubel’s case) visionary experience is the breaking down of the barrier between life and death to reveal the immortality that Christianity has long promised. “[F]rom that day to this,” Traubel proclaims,

I have never known one moment of despair concerning my spiritual relations to man and the universe. I have my earth troubles and my earth foibles. But the essential faith is adamantine. I have never had any suspicion of immortality. [8] (Bucke 1901, 356)

Hence, the deaths of loved ones, and one’s own dying, offer, among other things, a series of opportunities for garnering evidence of, and confirming one’s sense of, immortality. Traubel’s accounts of Whitman’s death, the death of his mother, the death of his four-year-old son, and his own impending death all bear marks of that search.

In Bucke’s book, Traubel speaks of his discussions with Whitman about his moment of illumination and his conviction of immortality, a conviction Whitman had long held. When that beloved spiritual father came, at last, to die, Traubel experienced not only exhaustion and sadness after his long vigil, but also a kind of exhilaration. That strange sense of happiness lasted a long time. It bore him up through the early weeks while he assembled the material for his “official” account of the poet’s death; it accompanied him through his first survey of the massive task of editorial work ahead.             In the first days of the year following Whitman’s death – for that is how he measured time – Traubel wondered whether Wallace did not also, at times,

see through & beyond phenomena to the seat of things, as if instantly with a prepared moment revelation was offered & taken? ― It is a sweet leave-taking, out of the world’s burly strenuousness ― the world’s tremendous urge & play. (H. L. Traubel to J. W. Wallace, 4 Jan 1893)

And in the month before the first anniversary of Whitman’s death, he wrote to Wallace:

I have spent the whole day working among Walt’s papers. Much needs yet to be examined—two or three barrels of mingled manuscripts letters & scraps of a varied order. Sometimes the sense of my loss overcomes me, and again I seem to expand—to feel myself in a greater presence—one, even, that dwarfs the actual physical man once mine to have known & met & laughed with & kissed. (H. L. Traubel to J. W. Wallace, 22 Feb 1893)

The pattern of feelings and perceptions suggests a particular order of experience. There is an intensification of emotion, to the point of being “overcome,” but instead of being diminished by overwhelming feelings, Traubel “seem[s] to expand,” and it is in expanded form, in some spirit realm, that he and Whitman encounter each other again. Whitman’s cosmic self is “a greater presence,” Traubel intimates, because he has become part of the Godhead, but also because, in some literal way, he has had a longer time to expand since his release from constraining materiality. It is as if Traubel were expanding toward him. (Being still mortal and younger, would he ever catch up?) Whitman’s greater presence seems also somehow to preserve his status as a father-figure; he is larger, sheltering, tutelary. For Traubel, this encounter is more sacred even than his memories of Walt.

Traubel’s mother’s physical frailty and her eventual death in February, 1895, provided Traubel with further occasions to muse on the immortality of the soul. In one letter, he compares her slow slipping away to “a sun receding.” At the same time, he says, “the life-lines are out. The immortal years are hers” (H. L. Traubel to J. W. Wallace, 1 Feb 1895). “Life-lines” in this context seem rather like a graphic representation of the setting sun’s rays. Literally life-saving lines, they bind her less to this world than to the next: the image is of her having already embarked on her final ocean journey

            A week later, the meaning of her death is expressed in the conventional high rhetoric of the period, brimming with self-consciousness and melodrama:

I have no despair. The curtain has been pushed aside. The vista beyond is one which the spirit knows for its own. It is hard to understand the concrete of this situation. Once I had a mother on the earth: now is that rare spirit flown!—But we have seen god and we mourn not. Dear mother—O my dear mother. Your eyes are still upon me and your hand responds to the pressure of mine! (H. L. Traubel to J. W. Wallace 9 Feb 1895) [9]

It is difficult to get beyond a kind of theological carelessness here that may well have been deliberate. It certainly would have been apparent to the knowledgeable Presbyterian to whom he was writing that it is most unusual to see god—even with a small “g”—and live. And there is perhaps something wilfully anti-Shelleyan (“Lift not the painted veil that those who live / Call Life. . .” [“Sonnet,” l.1, Shelley 1970, 569]) in that energetically “pushed aside” curtain. The sense of presence of the absent beloved is striking in its physicality; as in the case of the encounter with the greater-than-life Whitman, Traubel insists upon an almost tangible presence. Yet, in doing so, he touches upon a paradox: in the case of the written word, address is always predicated upon absence.

            About a month later, he writes to acknowledge letters of condolence from Wallace, Sixsmith, and Johnston:

I am grateful—grateful—grateful. Her death affected me profoundly and yet I have had no doubts. My vision came to me, as I knew it would, and what I saw I may not utter but I may well feel and cherish. I am still with her, face to face (H. L. Traubel to J. W. Wallace, 6 Mar 1895 with 7 Mar on verso).

The appearance of the phrase ‘face to face’ marks this as a visionary experience. To anticipate a vision and to have it arrive on schedule may seem rather too matter-of-fact to a skeptical reader, but there is no reason why an experienced Transcendentalist visionary should not be prepared to harvest the fruits of his discipline at such a time. And Traubel was writing to Wallace, whose attaining of blessedness arose out of his painful witnessing of his mother’s slow demise, as Traubel knew. It is little wonder, then, that Traubel should have expected a comparable revelation.

            Given the somewhat subdued, even mundane, tone of this letter, it is difficult to account for the rhapsodic tone of the letter written the very next day. It stands out in the collection in its compelling mixture of breathless revelation and restraint, and for the way in which it goes to the heart of the matter. Traubel feels, he says, ‘overwhelmed by tasks undone’, yet is sustained in them

by powers of which I dare not speak. Only a few men and women here and there would believe more if I undertook to picture the Experiences which have crowded upon me these past three years—and so my part as to that is silence. Its profound joy is very sufficient sustentation [sic]. . . . I know whereof I speak yet can scarcely be and not speak of that whereof I know. . . The powers that brace me are gods, universes, laws of stars, breaths of the Over-soul. God! would that a word—or may hap a thousand words—would speak for me! It would be medicine for sick souls. It would light touches for those in darkness. It would hasten the day to those who are on their knees. (H. L. Traubel to J. W. Wallace, 8 Mar 1895

            The “Experiences” of the “past three years” refers, of course, to the time since Whitman’s death, and it is very strongly intimated that they involve the breaching of the conventionally understood barrier between life and death. Here is an intimation, if not of immortality, then at least of continuity beyond the grave. The Over-Soul is mentioned as something understood between the correspondents, for Wallace has assimilated Emerson quite as thoroughly as Traubel. There is one telling distinction between Emerson’s and Traubel’s thinking about eternity, however: where Emerson achieves his notion of eternity spatially, or quasi-spatially, by forever attenuating a moment in time (“Self-Reliance,” Baym 2003, 1168), Traubel speaks of the eternal as essentially a part of what is. [10] It is where he already dwells—possibly where we all dwell, if only we knew it. He exercises a rare restraint in not speaking of that which he knows, which at first he says is a matter of credibility, but which, by the end of the passage, is clearly a wish to respect a sacred silence.

            This note is sounded again in another unusually straightforward letter of November of the same year, in which Traubel attests to having wonderful mental experiences that a few years ago would have alarmed him. Once again, he speaks to Wallace as a fellow initiate:

Do you not win of your new life anterior supernal powers which entirely emancipate the spirit for any day. People ask: What is the secret of your joy? It is no secret. Yet I cannot impart it until the fount is Life. (H. L. Traubel to J. W. Wallace, 7 and 8 Nov 1895 with 9 on verso)

Here, too, is the remarkable phenomenon of Traubel’s claiming to be lost for words in the face of the ineffable—a claim, however, which he immediately modifies, suggesting propriety rather than a failure of language as the reason for his silence. While he is outwardly silent, he is, he says, eloquent in his interior life.

            I have suggested already that Traubel, in his address to his departed mother, points up both her actual absence and her continued presence as an addressee, a spiritual presence in his world. His relationship to Wallace—who, as the years passed, became more of an absent presence  (a presence perhaps never to be physically encountered again)—gradually came to resemble his relationships with the dear departed. If this sounds maudlin, it is only the reverse of his understanding that a spiritual alliance could bridge a merely physical absence.

            This bridging works in two ways. One is a kind of memorial impulse, a remembering closely linked to a particularly significant time, such as the months before Walt’s death when, Wallace was physically present, or the months just after Walt’s death, with their strange mixture of sadness and relief. This memorializing inscribes the past in the present. It can, at times, seem oppressively literal:

Dear Wallace—do not doubt but that in all these days no sign of criticism is in my heart. I know you are too busy to write and I can only submit to the inevitable. We are all well and your place is always set at the table. The heart never grows cold. On the wall is your picture and the children frequently point it out, especially to strangers. (H .L. Traubel to J. W. Wallace, 27 Sep with 28 Sep 1895 on verso)

The contemporary reader registers a little shock upon discovering that the place set for Wallace at the table is not metaphoric. Moreover, in teaching the children about Wallace, Traubel has made his absence real for them. And the reciprocal case is true: his daughter Gertrude, for example, calls Wallace “our dear Uncle Wallace over the Water,” which has, to Traubel’s ear, an Indian sound. In this brief anecdote of Gertrude, whom Wallace would never meet, Traubel strives to make her presence—and, indeed, her absence—real for Wallace (H. L. Traubel to J. W. Wallace, 1 and 2 Oct 1895 with 3 Oct on verso).

            Curiously, this rather literal memorialising seems of a piece with Traubel’s capacity to bridge the realms between the living and the dead. In the excerpt that follows, for example, Traubel’s strongly physical sense of Wallace closely resembles his sense of his departed mother:

All the little family are well—Believe me, you are my daily helper. I feel your hand and it is warm. We make and keep the peace over the separating miles. (H. L. Traubel to J. W. Wallace, 11 Mar 1895)

            The other kind of bridge between absent friends is more metaphorical. In one letter from 1896, Traubel begins with the very real financial problems experienced by The Conservator, then segues through a short exposition of his philosophy that a peaceful heart is more important than financial solvency, to arrive at an assertion of connectedness with Wallace that very rapidly moves from the literal to the metaphorical. In other words, Traubel begins by acknowledging Wallace’s otherness, but ends up speaking on his behalf, gliding over possible areas of disagreement (such as socialism or the International Whitman League) to insist on an essential unity:

The days bring always to me a joy which you can understand but which would seem problematical to the uninitiated. I can even look on sorrow, on what is counted wrong, on suffering, and be happy. Nor less can you. For we see the issue. . .
I like to think I miss no day’s salute to you and miss no days [sic] return. You say I am faithful to you. I am simply faithful to myself. We could not discover any line of separation this side of which I stood definitely and conclusively as an individual and that side of which you stood proudly separated and content in your autonomy. I find that when any one individual sees and truly meets any other that their natures melt together and strike a simple note in rarefied air. I always rejoice that the sea beats between us. We prove to the sea that no tempest it may provoke can delay our communication. We use but do not consent to be abased by planetary phenomena. (H. L. Traubel to J. W. Wallace, 12 Feb 1896 with 13 and 14 on verso)

            The severest test of Traubel’s faith—the cruellest twist of fate—was very probably the death of his son Wallace, aged four, of scarlet fever, in February 1898. Traubel’s letters about Wallace’s dying and about his grief are a good deal more constrained and more conventional, than Anne Traubel’s, but they are also strange in their way. In one letter, he prefaces his confession of “insistent grief which has laid heavy hand upon [him],” with a report of his “interesting talk with [Richard] Le Gallienne” who is visiting America, and even gives a thumbnail sketch: “He is fastidiously dressed & combed & he has a weak lip & mouth which throw some shadow upon features really some ways strong.” This sorts oddly with his remark, “Wherever I go there is little Wallace with me”; the reader cannot ignore the clash of registers (H. L. Traubel to J. W. Wallace, 13 Mar 1898). However, his philosophy in the midst of grief is remarkably consistent with what we have seen of it thus far: the more final the absence and the greater the physical longing, the greater the faith in the spiritual presence and the stronger the physical representation of that spiritual presence. Here is his reply to letters from Wallace that were written before he had learned of his namesake’s death. It may be long and rhapsodic, yet its complex chain of relations, of unities and separations, presences and absences is utterly consistent with the pattern we have described. Wallace’s letters

moved & at the same time comforted us. They were written in a high strain of spiritual affirmation & I could easily translate their faith into identity with my own. We are drawn more closely near than ever, if that can be possible. And we know that in death nothing is dead. There seems a spectral note given our fate by our physical separation at this moment. We wish you were here. Or we wish we could be in England with you. Tenderly have we cherished the incessant memories & longings which have flooded us every day now for a fortnight. We are possessed. The dull dead pain will come and will stay. But the light also flashed between the clouds and we see that while we must weep we may also be glad. We all seem summoned to give a new account of ourselves. No relations anywhere are sundered. But new relations have been entered into. Dear comrade, dear lover, you give to us precious [lodgement?] & we receive from your good right hand your unspoken message of faith. We are no [way?] far from you and separated. The same skies [cover?] us and even the sea abets our affections. O the agony of the departure of that beautiful apparition! O the rapt gladness of instant reunion! The spring has planted us an immortal flower and no after season can impair the glory of production. Dear brother, the day has been fair. My steps have been heavy. And yet there has burned in my heart such flame of love invisioning [sic] the life beyond that the dragged [?] and dismayed body has stept free of self[-]encumbrance. What can I do for you? What can you do for me? What can you give to Anne? We will love. You will see your own mother again. Out of cloud thickets suns will burst. Even now I see the dawn of England making no mask of its glory. It pours your heart full of potent life. I can be satisfied. And though I weak I shall not know despair. Come to us. Give us your soul through your blood—your body—remain over sea. O love! love! love!

                                                                        (H. L. Traubel to J. W. Wallace, 15 Mar 1898)

There is a note appended to this set piece that deals with William Kennedy’s proposed trip abroad, Platt’s homesickness and Grace Frend’s improbable account of Whitman’s words—all of which possibly goes to show that bathos can, in certain circumstances, be a sign of emotional health.

            Notwithstanding, one difficulty with a young child’s death—as distinct from, say, an elderly poet’s—is possibly that a child is not so susceptible to being cosmologised: the mourner desires the particular and the anecdotal, memory rather than a greater presence. As the diminished Traubel family undergoes its first Christmas since little Wallace’s death, Traubel confesses that he misses him “more, not less as the months pass.” It is at this point that we hear Traubel grappling with the anguish and the faith that he has so inextricably paired:

The Eastern seaboard is now undergoing an epidemic of grip. Anne and Gertrude are both in bed, Gertrude with a light attack, Anne with a severe one. I seem immune. The Carpenter volume reached me. You are good, too generous, dear Wallace. You never forget. Do you not know how empty these days seem, these holidays, with little Wallace absented? [sic] Last year he was ebullient with life. This was his season of supreme exhilaration. That boy contained world [s?]. I miss him more, not less, as the months pass. Yet in other sense, in senses not of the earth simply, he was never present as he is today. But in the streets, in my everyday experience, his absence and his presence are obvious. (H. L. Traubel to J. W. Wallace, 23 Dec 1898)

            Traubel would suffer other bereavements, the most difficult of which was the accidental death of Richard Maurice Bucke, a man with whom Traubel had disputed and whom he had resented but whom he had come increasingly to love over the years, a man whom he felt “belonged particularly to [him]” (H. L. Traubel to J. W. Wallace, 28 Feb 1902). His death left Traubel “without words” and even “without resource.” It is in relation to this death that Traubel’s greatest moment of doubt is expressed:

Now the curtain goes down and we weep. We know that the story goes on. And still we weep. After all there is something in the touch of the flesh for which nothing this side can be substituted.

             It hardly needs saying that Traubel’s difficult bereavements were part and parcel of his capacity to love. He was a loyal companion who enjoyed long friendships, a man who never valued the end over the means and whose life therefore required all the discipline of which he was capable. There is a sense in which his struggle to accept the losses he suffered only serves to point up his bravery in the matter of his own circumstances—by which I do not mean his precarious financial situation so much as his failing health and his approaching end. Writing in 1904, he seems to acknowledge the approach of old age for the first time; yet his recognition of the diminishing possibilities for directly witnessing each other’s lives is all the more moving for being couched as a denial:

Wallace, we get older but we do not get old. The fire still burns [that] was not kindled for a few years but for immortal eons. You are a face, yes a life, in our household. The little house is just as you knew it. There are hearts there pledged to you. There is the youngster you have never seen with the eye of your flesh. Everyday sometime—or some days often—she speaks of you: speaks of you with radiant wondering love. (H. L. Traubel, from Philadelphia, to J. W. Wallace, 18 Feb 1904)

            In July of the same year, he writes that he is being worked longer than he thought possible. It is a letter that is at once full of resignation and nostalgia, a depiction of a fulfilled present and a grief-laden acceptance of a slowing of change:

Every day that comes is your day. The chairs are all your chairs. You sit everywhere—we hear your voice. Anne says she sometimes feels your dear [breath?]. You kiss her. Sometimes she cries about things. There are two Wallaces and they fill her heart. (H. L. Traubel, from Camden, to J. W. Wallace, 24 Jul 1904)

That double sense of time is expressed again in a letter of 8 January, 1905. Working on the first volume of what will become With Walt Whitman in Camden means going back into the eighties and living the old life, a time that Wallace, too, so prominently shared that now he “haunts the little dining room”: “I cry to think of that old time. I laugh, too, It was and is so wonderful. So sad. So exciting.”

            It is, in the end, impossible to give an adequate sense of the last thirty or so letters Traubel wrote to Wallace. Taken together, they are profoundly moving, yet there is nothing particularly distinctive about them. Traubel’s propensities for sentiment and bathos are as visible as ever—as when he informs Minnie Whiteside, with almost his last gasp, that she is “an indispensable factor in [his] life” (H. L. Traubel to J. W. Wallace, 26 August 1919). The capacity of these final letters to move does not result only from the encroachment of disability and death, but also from Traubel’s reiterated assurances to Wallace of his continued significance right up to the end. The letter which ends so awkwardly with his telling Minnie of her value to him should possibly have ended with its beginning, as we can allow it to do here:

Dear Wallace 

            Had a heart attack last night. Today I am rather weak in consequence but still wholly hopeful.

             I wish I was there with you, or you here with me, my heart cries out for you in all the languages on earth and more besides.

             I feel we should be together for mutual fortification [for your?] plan would impart to me the strength of the Eternal.

[1] See H. L. Traubel, from Philadelphia, to J. Johnston, 7 Aug 1891. Copy of letter made by J. W. Wallace urging Johnston to persuade Wallace to visit while Walt is still alive.

[2] For a fuller description of Wallace and his associates, see WWQR, XIV, 2-3, or my essay “Poet of Comrades: Walt Whitman and the Bolton Whitman Fellowship” (Beer and Bennett, 2002, 110-138).

[3] For a description of the archive and complete listing of material in the John Rylands Library, see my Introduction to the Microfilm Collection, which incorporates the catalogue. At the time of writing, the catalogue of the Bolton Central Library collection has not yet been published.

[4] Seventy-seven letters by Traubel to Wallace are held in the John Rylands University Library of Manchester (EN1172/1), whereas there are close to a thousand letters to Wallace held in the Bolton Central Library archive (ZWN/5).

[5] Published as “Last Days of Walt Whitman.”

[6] Charles Sixsmith, who was a younger member of the Bolton group when it began, did manage to maintain a correspondence with Traubel. His collection of Traubel’s letters comprises all of Traubel’s letters held in the John Rylands Library (Eng MS 1172/1).

[7] Traubel pays much less attention to the second experience, which occurred in April 1891, and the third, which occurred on the “historic night” in “1893 or 4” in which he gave a speech breaking with the Ethical Society he had helped to found (Bucke 1901, 346).

[8] As often occurs, the expression here is ambiguous, but in context, unmistakable.

[9] This letter also mentions Traubel’s father, who is represented as coping with his loss, but also as having grown thin due to the stress of caring for his sick wife over a protracted period of time. This seems to be the only mention of Maurice Henry Traubel in his correspondence with Wallace, so that it comes as quite a shock to the student of these letters to realise that Horace’s father is still alive. There is no mention of Maurice’s suicide in 1898 in Traubel’s letters to Wallace either. See “Walt Whitman—Horace Traubel Biography’ by Ed Folsom, in  J. R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), at  www.iath.virginia.edu/whitman/disciples/traubel/biography.html 

[10] See the passage that begins ‘These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones. . .”