[pg. 15] WALT WHITMAN AND GENERAL GRANT *** Running in a clear stream through Walt Whitman’s letter, conversations, essays and poetry is an admiration for General Grant. The apparently paradoxical admiration of the wound-dresser for the warrior was based upon what Whitman believed to be similarities in their characters and a common approach to life.
“I do not value literature as a profession,” said Whitman. “I feel about literature what Grant did about war. He hated war. I hate literature.”1 Whitman was speaking as much of himself as of Grant when he said that Grant “went about his work, defied the rules, played the game his own way–did all the things the best generals told him he should not do–and won out!2
Often Whitman would speak with approval of the simplicity of Grant’s dress and manner. “Grant was the typical Western man: the plainest, the most efficient: was the least imposed upon by appearances, was most impressive in the severe simplicity of his flannel shirt and his utter disregard for formal military etiquette.”3 Whitman concluded that Grant’s “homely manners, dislike for military frippery–for every form of ostentation, in war and peace–amounted to genius.”4
Above all, what appealed to Whitman was Grant’s strength and determination. “Grant was one of the inevitables: he always arrived: he was as invincible as a law …”5 This had impressed Whitman as early as April, 1864, when, writing to his mother, he said: “I believe in Grant and in [pg. 16] Lincoln too. I think Grant deserves to be trusted. He is working continually. No one knows his plans; we will only know them when he puts them in operation.”6
Although Whitman’s only contact with Grant came in an unsuccessful attempt to arrange the release of his brother from Confederate captivity, Whitman saw Grant many times.7 During the Grant presidency, Whitman wrote: “I saw Grant to-day on the avenue walking by himself–(I always salute him, & he does the same to me.)”8 “I was still in Washington when Grant was President,” Whitman recalled:
He went quite freely everywhere alone. I remember one spot in particular where I often crossed him–a little cottage on the outskirts of Washington: he was frequently there–going there often. I learned that an old couple of whom he was very fond lived there. He had met them in Virginia–they received him in a plain democratic way: I would see him leaning on their window sills outside: all would be talking together: they seeming to treat him without deference for place–with dignity, courtesy, appreciation.9
After Grant as ex-President completed his trip around the world, Whitman wrote formally about him for the first time. “The Silent General” was later included in Specimen Days.10
Sept. 28, ’79.–So General Grant, after circumambiating the world, has arrived home again–landed in San Francisco yesterday, from the ship City of Tokio from Japan. What a man he is! what a history! what an illustration–his life–of the capacities of that American individuality common to us all. Cynical critics are wondering “what the people can see in Grant” to make such a hubbub about. They aver (and it is no doubt true) that he has hardly the average of our day’s literary and scholastic culture, and absolutely no pronounc’d genius or conventional eminence of any sort. Correct: but he proves how an average western farmer, mechanic, boatman, carried by tides of circumstances, perhaps caprices, into a position of incredible military or civic responsibilities, (history has presented none more trying, no born monarch’s, no mark more shining for attack or envy,) may steer his way fitly and steadily through them all, carrying the country and himself with credit year after year–command over a million armed men–fight more than fifty pitch’d battles–rule for eight years a land larger than all the kingdoms of Europe combined–and then, retiring, quietly (with a cigar in his mouth) make the [pg. 17] promenade of the whole world, through its courts and coteries, and kings and czars and mikados, and splendidest glitters and etiquettes, as phlegmatically as he ever walk’d the portico of a Missouri hotel after dinner. I say all this is what people like–and I am sure I like it. Seems to me it transcends Plutarch. How those old Greeks, indeed, would have seized on him! A mere plain man–no art, no poetry–only practical sense, ability to do, or try his best to do, what devolv’d upon him. A common trader, money-maker, tanner, farmer of Illinois–general for the republic, in its terrific struggle with itself, in the war of attempted secession–President following, (a task of peace, more difficult than the war itself)–nothing heroic, as the authorities put it–and yet the greatest hero. The gods, the destinies, seem to have concentrated upon him.
Not content with prose for expressing himself on Grant’s tour, Whitman turned to poetry.
To U. S. G. return’d from his World’s Tour
What best I see in thee,
is not that where thou mov’st down history’s great highways,
Ever undimm’d by time shoots warlike victory’s dazzle,
Or that thou sat’st where Washington say, ruling the land in peace,
Or thou the man whom feudal Europe feted, venerable Asia swarm’d upon,
Who walk’d with kings with even pace the round world’s promenade;
But that in foreign lands, in all thy walks with kings
Those prairie sovereigns of the West, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois,
Ohio’s, Indiana’s millions, comrades, farmers, soldiers, all to the front,
Invisibly with thee walking with kings with even pace the round world’s promenade,
Were all so justified.
In early 1885 it became generally known that Grant was dying of cancer. As Grant’s health declined, newspapers and magazines began to gather material [pg. 18] for use when the general finally succumbed. Harper’s Weekly, preparing a lavish series of memorials, dispatched an emissary to Whitman to ask for a poem.11 Charting the course of Grant’s health, the editors were certain that Grant would die in April. Week after week, pictures of Grant graced the cover and laudatory articles filled the pages. But Grant clung tenaciously to life, determined to complete his “Memoirs” to provide some inheritance for his wife and children. Somewhat desperately, Harper’s printed their Grant material, using even Whitman’s premature poem on Grant’s death with a grotesque final quatrain explaining that Grant still lived.12
After Grant died in July, Whitman gave the interview printed below, concluding by reciting his Grant poem.13 The poem has been corrected to accord with the version in Harper’s Weekly. Whitman himself mercifully dropped the final quatrain both in the interview and in editing his last volume of poetry.
When a visitor spoke the name of Grant, Walt Whitman bowed his head as the whole nation has bowed beneath a common grief. When at last the poet spoke it was in the tone of one who has lost a dear friend, yet he pondered his words and weighed each sentence carefully.”Yes,” said he, “I, too, am willing and anxious to bear testimony to the departed general. Now that Grant is dead it seems to me I may consider him as one of those examples or models for the people and character-formation of the future, age after age–always to me the most potent influence of a really distinguished character–greater than any personal deeds or life, however important they may have been. I think General Grant will stand the test perfectly through coming generations. True, he had no artistic or poetical element; but he furnished the concrete of those elements for imaginative use, perhaps beyond any man of the age. He was not the finely painted portrait itself, but the original of the portrait. What we most need in America are grand individual types, consistent with our own genius. The west has supplied two superb native illustrations in Lincoln and Grant. Incalculable as their deed were for the practical good of the nation for all time, I think their absorption into the future as elements and standards will be the best part of them.
[pg. 19]”Washington and all those noble early Virginians were, strictly speaking English gentlemen of the royal era of Hampden, Pym and Milton, and such it was best that they were for their day and purposes. No breath of mine shall ever tarnish the bright, eternal gold of their fame. But Grant and Lincoln are entirely native on our own model, current and western. The best of both is their practical, irrefragable proof of radical democratic institutions–that it is possible for any good average American farmer or mechanic to be taken out of the ranks of the common millions and put in the position of severest military or civic responsibility and fully justify it all for years, through thick and thin. I think this the greatest lesson of our national existence so far.
“Then,” added the poet, “the incredible romance of Grant’s actual career and life! in all Homer and Shakespeare there is no fortune or personality really more picturesque or rapidly changing, more full of heroism, pathos, contrast.”
Warming to his subject, the poet had voiced his estimate of Grant with a spontaneous fervor none the less eloquent because it was thoughtfully and critically spoken. Then, with one of his benign smiles, he said: “Let me give you, in this connection, the little sonnet I wrote originally for Harpers:”
As one by one withdraw the lofty actors
From that great play on history’s stage eterne,
That lurid, partial act of war and peace–of old and new contending,
Fought out through wrath, fears, dark dismays, and many a long suspense,
All past–and since, in countless graves receding, mellowing,
Victor’s and vanquish’d–Lincoln’s and Lee’s–now thou with them,
Man of the mighty days–and equal to the days!
Thou from the prairies!–tangled and many-vein’d and hard has been thy part,
To admiration has it been enacted!
[pg. 20] 1. Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden (N.Y., 1914-1915), I, 58.
2. Ibid., I, 446.
3. Ibid., II, 139.
4. Ibid., I, 257. See ibid., II, 467-468.
5. Ibid., III, 341.
6. Whitman to his mother, April 26, 1864, Edwin Haviland Miller, ed., Walt Whitman: The Correspondence (N.Y., 1961- ), I, 213.
7. Whitman to John Swinton, Feb. 3, 1865, ibid., I, 252-253. Traubel, Whitman in Camden, II, 425-427.
8. Whitman to his mother, [December, 1871], Whitman, Correspondence, II, 147. See also Whitman to Grant, [February, 1874], June 22, 1874, ibid., II, 280-281, 306.
9. Traubel, Whitman in Camden, I, 257-258.
10. (Philadelphia, 1882-1883), 153-154.
11. Traubel, Whitman in Camden, II, 269-270.
12. XXIX, 1482 (May 16, 1885), 310.
13. Herman Dieck, The most Complete and Authentic History of the Life and Public Services of General U. S. Grant…. (Philadelphia, 1885), 743-744.
NEWS NOTES *** The Grant Association recently signed a contract with the Ohio State University Press for the publication of “The Collected Writings of Ulysses S. Grant.” The Grant Association plans to have its first volume ready within a year. *** Fred J. Milligan, Columbus attorney and President of the Ohio Historical Society, has replaced Everett Walters on the board of the Grant Association. Walters, formerly Dean of the Graduate School at Ohio State Unversity, is now at Boston University. *** Colonel Red Reeder’s Ulysses S. Grant: Horseman and Fighter, recently published by Garrard, is admirably designed to give the 7-10 set an introduction to Grant.