Many of his visitors have complained that Whitman was unbearably selfish in his social intercourse. Of course they gave in, that they could walk straight into his parlor, shake hands with him, and sit down wherever they liked, but right there all privileges ceased, as it was simply impossible to make him speak, and after a few vain endeavors, shy at first and then more or less indignant, they had to give it up as a hopeless task. True enough, Whitman had a peculiar habit of being absent-minded in company, especially that of strangers—which Dr. Max Nordau considers one of the strongest proofs of Whitman’s moral insanity—and to the despair of uninitiated visitors he answered all their questions with his favorite ejaculation: oy! oy? or oy!? This peculiarity excited the ire of many visitors, and with right, as some had come all the way from England and were full of expectancy about the harvest they were to reap of wise oracular utterances—but why should a man always feel like talking, at any time of the day, with any person who might have taken it into his head to call, often out of sheer curiosity or egotistical purpose! I personally found him sociable enough. At times I also found it extremely difficult to induce him to take an actual active part in a conversation, and so something else but listen and ejaculate, but I generally found a successful remedy in simply talking on, jumping from one subject to the other, until finally he became interested in one thing or another, and when he had once begun, it was comparatively easy to proceed. On several exceptional occasions we talked for two or three hours without interruption, which clearly revealed to me, however, that he had no remarkable conversational power. He was no [Samuel] Johnson, no ready wit, or speculative monologist, had nothing whatever of the fluent delivery of learned men, or of the French causeur littéraire. He was always awkward in his utterances, often clipping verbs and conjunctions, making abrupt halts, leaving sentences unfinished—in short applying somewhat the style of his shorter poems—which really made it laborious to get anything of literary value from his conversation. 


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