March 25, 2015KR BlogBlogReadingRemembrances

Walt Whitman, Run Down by a Train!

A few days ago, bouncing around in the Walt Whitman Archive, I happened upon a gem of an essay: “Walt Whitman’s ‘Lively Corpse’ in 1871: The American Press on the Rumor of Whitman’s Death.” The essay, written by Todd Richardson and published in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review (Summer 1997), tracks an episode in Whitman’s life I had never before heard reported. On today’s date in 1871, the New York Evening Post sent out the following telegraphic dispatch:

Killed by a Railroad Train

Croton, March 25. Walter Whitman was killed on the railroad this morning by the New York Express train, bound north.

The dispatch was soon reprinted in dozens of newspapers, including the New York Times and New York Tribune. The New York World ran a full obituary; papers in Philadelphia and Louisville reprinted all or parts of the obituary. On March 28, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle—the paper where Whitman had served as editor in the late 1840s—ran the following notice:

WHITMAN.—If the Whitman killed on the railroad at Croton, on Saturday, was Walt Whitman, thousands will regretfully miss an eccentric citizen whose sympathetic nature and practical charity went as far as anything could go toward atoning for the crimes against rhyme and reason committed by him in the name of poetry.

Crimes! The Troy Press, on the same day, weighed in even more disparagingly. A few excerpts follow:

Walt Whitman the demoralized Ossian of America is dead. Mr. Emerson’s “new sunbeam” glimmers no longer. He was run over by a railroad train at Croton in this State, on Sunday morning [telegraphs reported Saturday morning]. He was fifty-two years old,—old enough to know better than to write the beastly stuff which some of his so-called poems contain. He was crazy to an eminent degree and nasty beyond compare. Nevertheless there is much rude poetry in his verses, which is almost spoiled by a disgusting affectation of loaferism. [ . . . ]

His poems will never do good to anybody and are better left unread. Like Swinburne he was erratic and erotic, only more so. He wallowed in filth and splashed it over everybody that came near him. He could hardly find a publisher for his first volume, “Leaves of Grass,” and it would have been better if he had never found one. He became celebrated, or rather, notorious, just as a three-legged calf might, or as the Siamese twins did. [ . . . ]

Peace to his ashes, and speedy forgetfulness for his filthy lines!

—A dispatch received here this morning contradicts the statement of Mr. Whitman’s death. We are not sorry to learn that he still lives, if he will write no more or write more decently. He has not only enjoyed that rare boon of reading his own obituary, but the numerous protests against his filth, which he will also read, may possibly reform him. We hope so.

More corrections, some of them wry, began to appear. From the New York Herald:

Walt Whitman, the poet, now in Washington, expresses his surprise that he was lately crushed to death, according to newspaper accounts, by a railroad train at Croton.

And from the Cincinnati Daily Gazette:

Walt Whitman, the poet, is among those who are fortunate enough to live to read their own obituary notices. While the press of the country has been informed of his death through railroad accident, and is teeming with sketches of himself and books, he is to be seen walking the streets of this city in as good health as ever, and with a fair prospect of a long life yet before him.

Having survived his appointment with the phantom train, he would live twenty-one more years. Twenty-one more years, plus a day.

train 1870