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
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
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
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
What is it, dear world, you bring with hands as empty at my
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
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
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
…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
But the tramp dusty and tired in the road -- he hears me
But the workman wronged and browbeaten for his toil -- he
But the poorly clothed people and people underfed -- they
…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
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
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.