Sadakichi:Sidney Lanier, weak as he is, seems to me after all our most modern poet.”

Whitman: “Oy! oy?”

Sadakichi: “At any ray [sic], though only a flute player, he is more powerful than [Frank] Dempster Sherman, Bliss Carman, or Paul Hayne.”

Whitman: “Who! Paul Hayne? I don’t know much about him; quite a poet, I presume, genteel, etc., nothing dazzling.”

Sadakichi: “Strange how America could ever produce such a genius like [Edgar Allan] Poe.”

Whitman (indifferently): “Poe had a tendency for the gloomy side of life.”

Sadakichi: “I presume, you also have no special liking for [Nathaniel] Hawthorne?”

Whitman: “About Hawthorne I have nothing particular to say. The multitude likes him. I have read his novels. In my opinion, they do not amount to much. His works are languid, melancholy, morbid. He likes to dwell on crimes, on the sufferings of the human heart, which he analyzes by far too much. Our literature will come! The newspapers indicate it, miserable as they are, miserable and grand too as they are.”

Sadakichi: “Do you not think that the present literary shortcomings are due to the spirit of our time?”

Whitman: “Our time? We must settle a little more, but there seems to be a demand for this hurly-burly time.”

Mrs. Davis (at the door): “The luncheon is ready.”

Whitman: “Come, Mr. Sadakichi have a bite.”

Once more we sat down at the kitchen table and displayed our strong, healthy appetites. I, at last, had found my peer in eating.

Whitman (eating): “Just as we always prefer a dish that our mother cooked—it tastes better than anything else we get in after life—I like those books best, I read when I was young. Everybody who reads novels not for mere pleasure will admire Walter Scott. He had a Shakespearean variety of subject. He did not analyze and anatomize his subjects.”

Sadakichi: “Which of his novels do you like best?”

Whitman: “The Heart of Midlothian. I read it over and over again.”

I wanted to know his opinion of Victor Hugo, and spoke of the marvelous description of the battle of Waterloo, but Whitman had no word of admiration. “I do not like him much.”

Sadakichi: “What do you think about [George Gordon] Byron?”

Whitman: “Byron became bitter through the ups and downs of his career, his life—specially the downs. A desperate fierceness is predominant in his works. But I like something more free—Homer, Shakespeare, Walter Scott, [Ralph Waldo] Emerson.”

In the parlor we resumed our review of literati. A few of his remarks were:

“[Hippolyte] Taine’s Literature* is one of the productions of our age.”

“[Jean Jacques] Rousseau I have never read, of Voltaire now and then a quotation.”

“Chinese literature, I think, is empirical.”

Probably, to protect himself against draughts, he had wrapped a shawl of an oriental pattern around his shoulders, and with his white beard streaming over this reddish orange cloth, he looked very much like one of those biblical characters, [Peter Paul] Rubens and his pupils have painted. 

Sadakichi (rising to leave): “May I kiss you?’

Whitman: “Oh, you are very kind.”

I touched his forehead with my lips. “Thanks, thanks!” ejaculated Whitman. With a blush of false shame I offered him this tender tribute of youthful ardor, ambition, and enthusiasm with which my soul was overflowing; I felt that I had to show to this man some emotional signs of the love, I bore his works or those of any remarkable individuality. 


*Whitman refers to French critic Hippolyte Taine’s History of English Literature (published in French, 1863–69), which has been criticized for his application of scientific determinism to the reading of literature. 



From Conversations with Walt Whitman (E. P. Coby & Co., Publishers, 1895) by Sadakichi Hartmann.
This book is in the public domain.