The Tale Of Walt Whitman’s Stuffed Canary
A few weeks before the great Blizzard of 1888, Walt Whitman published a little poem in the New York Herald celebrating a “Canary Bird.”
“Did we count great, O soul, to penetrate the themes of mighty books?” Whitman, founder of Huntington’s The Long-Islander newspaper, wrote, “from thee to me, caged bird, to feel thy joyous warble,/Filling the air, the lonesome room, the long forenoon,/Is it not just as great, O soul?”
In typical transcendental fashion, Whitman in his old age continued to celebrate the unifying wisdom to be attained not just through the deep pursuit of human intellectual culture, but through the beauty which is to be found in the most commonplace world of workers, machinery and singing birds.
It’s going on 130 years that a small group of Whitman devotees have been gathering in the northern English city of Bolton to hear the voice of Whitman’s “canary bird” as America’s good gray poet did.
And hear it, they do.
At this 30th year “re-anniversary” of this contemporary cadre of Whitman devotees (the group reconstituted itself in 1983 after a several decade hiatus), the Bolton Whitmanites are back in action, with a website of their own, regular meetings and heirs to an archive of materials that includes correspondence, photographs and even a stuffed canary presented to them in 1891 which is reputedly Whitman’s own bird.
The story goes back to a transplanted Scottish doctor by the name of John Johnston, and J.W. Wallace – a 31-year-old, unmarried assistant architect living with his dad – who began corresponding with Whitman.
Wallace is considered the leader of Bolton’s Whitman Fellowship, and the group had Monday night meetings in his father’s little house on Eagle Street beginning in 1885.
“Three or four of us had been long term admirers and students of Whitman,” wrote Wallace, “whom we regarded as the greatest epochal figure in all literature.”
But it was Johnston who visited Whitman first, in 1890.
The diary of their experiences, “Visits To Walt Whitman” (first published 1917), can be found online at openlibrary.org and details visits to a Canadian devotee named Dr. Bucke, to Long Island, and to the good gray poet in Timber Creek, N.J., where he was recuperating from his latest problems with prostration.
“The first thing about him that struck me was the physical immensity and magnificent proportions of the man, and next, the picturesque majesty and presence as a whole,” wrote Dr. Johnston, without any apparent sense of hyperbole, upon his arrival at Whitman‘s Mickle Street home.
A few weeks later, he was in West Hills, having stopped by family in Wheatley. He found Henry Jarvis living in Whitman’s old birthplace on July 21, and insinuated himself into a night’s lodging.
“After supper with the family, I spent three delightful hours strolling quietly about the neighborhood,” wrote the Scotsman. He described the area as rural, deeply wooded, with winding roads that “seemed to cut their way through the dense undergrowth.”
“The peaceful beauty of the scene was most impressive, with the all-pervading music of crickets filling the air, until the young katydids began their evensong, and the fireflies flashed their phosphorescent lights across the grass the roadways, the trees and the fences,” he continued.
On to Centerport, where he met an old student of Whitman named Sandford Brown, who proclaimed Whitman as someone he thought a “powerful deal” of, though as a teacher he opined that Walt wasn’t exactly a failure as a teacher, “but he was certainly not a success. He wasn’t in his element… He was always musing and writing, instead of tending to his proper duties…”
Johnston had another visit to a local Whitman devotee named Herbert Gilchrist, and moved on.
Johnston and Wallace’s visits to America formed an important foundation for the rapt affection the Boltonites had for Walt Whitman for over a century. Over the years they corresponded with Whitman friends like John Burroughs and Horace Traubel. For many years they held a birthday celebration for Walt, including an open air tea party, toasts from a “Loving Cup,” and the wearing of a sprig of lilac on the lapel.
The group met continuously until the 1950s. It was revived in the 1980s and is about to celebrate its 30th anniversary since reconstituting itself.
Today the Bolton Archive History Centre continues to hold significant materials concerning Walt Whitman. That includes letters, journals, photographs, memorabilia and critical commentary.
And one small item under glass, a reminder of nature’s music as old Walt alluded to it, as did Dr. Johnston, walking through old West Hills: Whitman’s stuffed canary.