It was in November, 1884, that I paid my first visit to Walt Whitman. 

After crossing the Delaware—in my excitement to get there I took the wrong ferry, which lands the passengers a few blocks higher up the river than the other—I asked a policeman if he knew where Whitman resided. “Of course, I know—” he directed me: “—and then you see a little two story frame house, grey, that’s the place.”

Arrived in Mickle Street, one of the most private and humble in provincial Camden, I easily found number 328 and rang the bell. 

It was a disagreeable day, snow was lying on the ground, and though it was thawing, the wind felt cold as it sped through the streets and rattled at the shutters. 

An old man with a long grey beard, flowing over his open shirt front—the first thing I actually saw of Whitman was his naked breast—half opened the door and looked out. 

Sadakichi: “I would like to see Walt Whitman.”

Whitman: “That’s my name. And you are a Japanese boy, are you not?” (Except very small boys the only person I met in those years who recognized my nationality at the first glance.)

Sadakichi: “My father is a German, but my mother was a Japanese and I was born in Japan.”

Whitman: “H’m—Come in.”

And he led me into the small and humble two windowed little parlor, with its chilly atmosphere, as no fire was lit, and everything was in great disorder. The first color impression of the interior, was a frugal grey. He sat down at the right window, where he was generally to be seen, with his face turned towards the street. Visitors seated themselves at the opposite side. Between the host and guest stood a table, actually covered with books, magazines, newspaper clippings, letters, manuscripts. A demijohn, which looked very suspicious to me until I was better informed, occupied a conspicuous place on the table, and during the summer a glass with flowers, brought by some lady friend, was always within his reach. The rest of the room looked very much like the table; a varitable [sic] sea of newspapers, books, magazines, circulars, rejected manuscripts, etc., covered the floor in a topsy-turvy fashion, and only here and there odd pieces of furniture, a trunk, a large heap of his own publications loomed up like rocks. On the mantelpiece stood an old clock, surrounded by photographs of celebrities and friends, on my first visit also a few apples and onions were lying there. On one side of the mantelpiece hung the portrait of his father, on the other side that of his mother: two strong, highly interesting physiognomies. As I studied them one day, he remarked: “I never forget that my ancestors were Dutch.” 

There was nothing overwhelming to me in Whitman’s face, but I liked it at once for its healthy manliness. It seemed to me a spiritually deepened image of contemporary Americans: an ideal laborer, as the Americans are really a nation of laborers. Above all else I was attracted by the free flow of his grey hair and beard, and his rosy complexion, Boucher like, only healthier and firmer in tone. Of his features the large distance between his heavy eyebrows and his bluish grey eyes, (calm and cold in their expression) denoting frankness, boldness, haughtiness, according to my physiognomical observations, particularly interested me. His forehead was broad and massive, not furrowed by Kantean [sic] meditation, but rather vaulted by spontaneous prophecies (in the sense in which Whitman applies this word to Carlyle, viz: II 169). His broad nose with dilated nostrils showed with what joy of living he had inhaled life. 

He was dressed as usual in a grey suit, and negligé shirt with a broad turnover collar. I was too much impressed by the passive power of his personality, and occupied in studying his appearance and the milieu in which he lived to be able to remember much of this first conversation.

At that time I was stage-struck, and of course mentioned my intention to devote myself to the histrionic art; I contemplated a special study of Shakespeare’s fools (though I was rather too tall for them, they should be played by Marshall Wilders.) 

Whitman: (shaking his head): “I fear that won’t go. There are so many traits, characteristics, Americanisms, inborn with us, which you would never get at. One can do a great deal of propping. After all one can’t grow roses on a peach tree.”

I spoke of Japan, of the beautiful bay of Nagasaki though I did not know much about it from personal recollection.

Whitman: “Yes, it must be beautiful.”

On leaving he gave me a proof sheet copy of “After all Not to Create Only,” saying paternally: “Read it over six or eight times and you may understand it.”

“Come again, come again!” he shouted after me.


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