FALL 2009



Who Was Whitman's Friend, Horace Traubel?

Followers of the story of Walt Whitman will tangentially know the name Horace Traubel. The 19th century Camden native was a companion to the Good Gray Poet during his twilight years and one of his staunchest advocates after his death -- called an American Boswell by some.

Less well known is the complex professional and literary story of Traubel himself. It seems Traubel was something more than just a devotee and literary executor to The Good Gray Poet. The man who held Whitman's hand at his deathbed and helped introduce him to the world was also one of the most outspoken 19th century social radicals in America. According to the Library of Congress, Horace Traubel (1858-1919) was a prolific poet and essayist, a promoter of radical social causes, and a man whose influence was felt not only in Camden and Philadelphia, but across the US and Canada.

When it comes to telling Traubel's story, it is the Whitman connection that is most widely disseminated. Horace met Whitman as a teen by 1873, after health issues caused Whitman to move to Camden. There Maurice Traubel, Horace's father, befriended the old Long Island poet. For two decades, the younger Traubel visited Whitman at his Mickle Street home and, beginning in 1888, began recording his daily conversations with America's Good Gray Poet. This effort became the basis for Traubel's biography "With Whitman In Camden."

According to historical accounts, Traubel's relationship with Walt was intense and enduring -- in fact he was there, iconically, holding Whitman's hand at his death. Subsequently Traubel published the complete works of Whitman, and advocated for him the rest of his life.From organizing annual birthday celebrations at the Hotel Brevoort in Manhattan to lecture tours across the US and into Canada, he continued promoting the Whitman legacy all the way to his death in 1919. Traubel's death came in Canada, during a visit to an event honoring Whitman -- attended by no less a set of figures as Emma Goldman and Eugene Debs -- at which Helen Keller led a standing ovation to Traubel.

Importantly to a full view of Horace Traubel's story, Goldman, Debs and Keller were there not just because of their appreciation for Walt Whitman, but for Traubel's decades of social advocacy in America.

Because it seems Horace Traubel was more than a youthful pal and promoter of Whitman -- social progressivism was a lifelong commitment. Early on, he was moving among 'certain' circles of Philadelphia. He helped found the Ethical Society of Philadelphia. He started a magazine, The Conservator, in 1890, printing it himself, for several decades, in a small workshop at 1631 Chestnut Street.

Traubel, notes the Library of Congress, "made the 'Conservator' a champion of academic and artistic freedom and attacked those who sought to constrain liberties." Although the magazine had what is regarded as a limited circulation, its readers included key figures in American reformers -- including Debs, soap magnate and reformer Joseph Fels, lecturer Robert G. Ingersoll, and William E. Walling, a man who helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

How radical were Traubel's ideas?

The Library of Congress calls his notions 'idiosyncratic,' while acknowledging that the man 'crusaded persistently for libertarian principles.' On the other hand David Karsner, Traubel's biographer (Horace Traubel: His Life and Work. New York: Egmont Arens, 1919), called him ‘a poet and prophet of the new democracy.’ Traubel, suggests Karsner, is part Karl Marx and part Jesus of Nazareth, and in possession of a point of view which issues a labor-conscious ‘warning and challenge.’

A portrait of a compassionate progressive thinker with both feet planted firmly in the world of 19th century American Socialism emerges from biographical accounts of Traubel's life like Krasner's. Furthermore, that portrait is substantiated through readings from his book of poetry, 'Optimus' (1910), published six years before Carl Sandburg's 'Chicago Poems'; and his book of essays 'Chants Communal' (1914).

Traubel provides his own summation, in the epigrammatic line: 'I build no fires to burn anybody up. I only build fires to light the way.’

What is it, dear world, I bring with empty hands to your morning?
What is it, dear world, you bring with hands as empty at my bedside?
Do the things that were stolen remain stolen?
Do the stragglers who failed still fail?

Fr How Are You, Dear World, This Morning

Traubel is an unashamed and unselfconscious poet of witness, frequently channeling Whitman's poetic style closely :

I walk erect, I am the lawyer in the court,
I labor with the chain gang, I am sailor and soldier…
I am discoverer and skeptic, I wrangle and am at peace
I am the knowing dreamer and the unknowing mathematician
I set for the new social order….

But he claims something beyond Whitman's literary/spiritual endorsement, something akin to a commission: O dead comrade--o my great dead!…I sat by your bedside, I held your hand…From you to me then passed my commission to the future; (fr O My Dead Comrade).

Traubel is said to have sought both the approval of Whitman for his politics and some glimmer of endorsement. The effort was in vain. In his own book "With Walt Whitman in Camden" he relates attempts--usually unsuccessful ones -- to draw the cagey Whitman out on issues such as the incipient labor movement, socialism and other progressive subjects of the era.

Not that this stopped Horace Traubel in his own poetry. Putting aside any explicit endorsement from Whitman, he offers up his own views in poem after poem, with their consistent and unmistakable political edge.

Here he is in Let Me Be Self Approved: There is no gap between rich and poor -- there is only the blank space between the rich and the poor in the heart.

Or this memorable line, from In The Youth of my Turbulent Spirit: prosperity is surely dead ashes if it does not warm every heart.

Passage after passage addresses social injustice head-on:

The people are gathered together: I hear their quarreling voices: they are asking questions of each other
The profaned maltreated people, the robbed subjugated people, thronging you, defying you
With guns in their hands, with daybreak in their brains, with hating loving faith in their hearts…
All of them -- the few half overfed, the many half starving -- pushing pressing to your door demanding an audience;
Unwilling longer to be sent away ungratified, resolving now to get in if they have to break in…

Fr I’ll Not Say Hard Things About You, Dear World

I see children grow pale working in mills and mothers there with them working with thin fingers and dull eyes,
I see fathers drive like cattle to their trades with little pay to balance the wear and tear of hope
I see nations conquer nations and cruel shame put on peoples innocent of crime or aggression
I see the farms and stores and factories ravaged by rents and interests and profits
I see those who loaf rewarded with exhaustless treasure and those who labor outraged, reduced to the last cent

Fr When I Cross The River In The Morning

There is an admirable self reflection, modest submission, spiritual purity -- and unremitting resolve -- to the body of writing Traubel offers back to the world.

My plain song is not heard:
It lifts its simple cadence in love and benediction
It travels the usual way in the usual dress of men --
Like the river it keeps to its natural course and is not remarked;
And like the clouds it is driven here and there obediently to its law
But the masters pass it by hearing nothing or resenting what they hear…

…The president sits high in the state and does not hear me
The general tearing about on horseback issuing noisy orders to his troops doesn't hear me
The professor teaching dead arts to his live classes does not hear me
The editor taking the lead in following public opinion does not hear me
The merchant and the lawyer who mix best with worst in barter and logic do not hear me
And so for all the great and all the prosperous I would go unheard
But the tramp dusty and tired in the road -- he hears me
But the workman wronged and browbeaten for his toil -- he hears me
But the poorly clothed people and people underfed -- they hear me…
…And all that seems to be quite enough
No matter for the applause of office and grandeur seems to me to be quite enough
And I hearing myself quite enough
Though as I match my fate with the fate of the chosen
My plain song is not heard.

Fr My Plain Song Is Not Heard

As direct as his politics are expressed in poetic form, Traubel's politics come out even more insistently and directly in his prose. It is with his 1914 book Chants Communal, pure social essay and oratorical flourish, that Traubel achieves a terse eloquence that is no longer Whitmanian at all, but purely his own. The volume is a form of extended prose poetry that is well worth reading nearly a century after its issuance:

‘We have left the humbug theatricals behind us. We have stopped sky-rocketing. The enormous mills. The vast railroads. The immense department stores. They
are our seats of learning and the arena of our tragedy and comedy. You may go to sleep over a play or a novel, but you’ll wake up over a strike. You’ll be unmoved when Romeo makes love to Juliet, but you’ll warm into a flame listening to some firebrand soap boxer on the street circle. The new unionism is the new world. The
new unionism is the new poetry…the new unionism is the new way of life. It can’t be named. IWW don’t name it. Syndicalism don’t name it. The Socialist party
don’t name it. Socialism alone names it. Anti-profit. Pro-man. Big enough to mother father all its warring children. That’s the new unionism. That’s the new earth. Yes, the new heaven, too.’

The book is replete with memorable political one-liners.

...Pay, says civilization; pay is my master. Women sell their bodies for money, says civilization. Women, says civilization, are my collateral. Men buy souls for money,
says civilization. Men, says civilization, are my collateral. Children go from their cradles to the factory, says civilization. Children, says civilization, are my collateral...

... Why do I hate wages? Because wages are in my way. Why do I inveigh against private property? Because it too is in my way. All things must clear all ways for me.
What would anybody do for the sake of wages? Love? Worship? Play? Labor? Not one thing would be done for the sake of wages. There is not one thing but would be done for the sake of life...

... Life is what I want. What I must have. As I cannot see life in the round with wages I must clean wages out of life. Not for appetite’s sake. Not for passion’s sake. Not
for social prestige. Not for any extrinsic values. But for intrinsic life. For the perfect organization of experience. For the last prizes of progress...

...Is life to be forever yours and not mine? Am I to serve life forever for wages and never to serve it for love? Is it for life’s sake that I am a slave...

... I have tried all the old methods. They have all failed. I declare now for life. I put everything aside for life. Property. Honor. Wages… For the sake of that life of the
spirit which is my life as well as yours or is nobody’s life at all...

In the end, Horace Traubel is neither Whitman nor Sandburg.

However at its best, his writing possesses a fresh, Whitmanesque directness both in his prose and poetry -- although, unlike his mentor, he fused literature with a politics unremittingly in support of personal liberation and collective political action.

And in its attention to the plight of the working underclass, it sets the stage for the author of the Chicago Poems .

Ultimately it is for his daring political frankness, and his adherence to Whitman's exuberant positiveness and lofty vocalization, that Traubel's writing deserves wider attention -- as an example of a strategically placed American literary figure who attempted, early on, to meld the language of Walt Whitman with that of the political firebrand.

To the extent he succeeds, Horace Traubel deserves to be considered alongside such key figures in American radical literature as John Reed, Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, Carl Sandburg and Joe Kalar.





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