Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass

Whitman's Caretakers

The disabled Whitman had a series of caretakers and companions in Camden, New Jersey. He credited the Stafford family with saving his life after his stroke. He visited them at their New Jersey home at Timber Creek, where he found the natural beauty healing. He and the Stafford's son Harry had an intense relationship. Housekeeper Mary Davis (1837-1908) became indispensable to Whitman when he bought his own home on Mickle Street in 1884, as was Warren “Warry” Fritzinger, who nursed him in his final illness. When Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) and others pitched in to buy Whitman a horse and buggy in the 1880s, another long-time assistant, Bill Duckett served as driver.

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Last Works

“A Thought of Columbus” was Whitman's last poem. He gave his friend and executor Horace Traubel the draft ten days before he died, and it was published posthumously in July 1892. The “Deathbed edition” of 1891-1892 was the final version of Leaves of Grass produced with Whitman's oversight. It used the arrangement of poems from the 1881 Osgood edition, with corrections, plus annexes of works written between 1882 and 1891 (“Sands at Seventy,” “Good-Bye My Fancy”), and concluded with the farewell essay, “A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads.”

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Writing in Camden

Even confined to his bedroom, Whitman continued to write and revise in his final years. This image, created using a primitive method of flash photography, shows the poet surrounded by piles of manuscripts, many of which are now in the Library of Congress. Whitman refused offers to “clean up,” and claimed he could locate any page in the chaos. His last new title was a selection of poems and prose reflecting on old poets, old age, death and faith. The complete manuscript of his “Good-bye” to literature and life is 112 pages of many sizes. Thirty-one of the poems were added as a Second Annex to the “deathbed” edition.

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Last Breaths of Life

One of the poet's three literary heirs, Horace Traubel, like Samuel Johnson's Boswell, faithfully recorded the author's every conversation during his last four years. Traubel's diary includes many entries for the final day, as it records each gasp after the doctor said death would come “very soon.” Another heir, lawyer Thomas Harned (1851-1921), also was at the bedside along with Whitman's physician and caretakers. Whitman died exactly as the sun set. He designed his own tomb to resemble poet-artist William Blake's etching “Death's Door.”

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