Sadakichi Hartmann’s Conversations with Walt Whitman (1895)

In 1873, when he was fifty-three years old, Walt Whitman suffered a stroke that left him partly paralyzed. Within months, he moved from Washington, DC, where he’d been living since the Civil War, to his brother’s house in Camden, New Jersey. This was the house where Whitman would receive Oscar Wilde, during Wilde’s tour of America, and where he would first get to know the American painter Thomas Eakins, who both painted and photographed the poet in his final years.

In 1884, Whitman moved less than a mile away to his own home on Mickle Street in Camden, where he would live until his death eight years later. Although bedridden for most of his time on Mickle Street, he continued to revise Leaves of Grass until the end (publishing the last edition of his lifetime in 1889 and working on another even on his deathbed) and to receive visitors, including Eakins; Horace Traubel, author of the nine-volume Boswellian biography Walt Whitman in Camden); and Sadakichi Hartmann, author of the lesser-known, much shorter biographical recollection Conversations with Whitman, which are touchingly dedicated to “Artist Thomas Eakins, of Philadelphia, as an Admirer of Walt Whitman, in his own Native Independence, Simplicity and Force, without Crankiness and Subserviency.”

Hartmann led a truly extraordinary life. He was born in 1867 to a Japanese mother and a German father on the artificial island of Dejima (originally built in 1634 to house Portuguese traders who were legally barred from setting foot in Japan). After a childhood spent mostly in Germany, he moved with his family to Philadelphia in 1882, at age fourteen, and paid his first visit to Whitman only two years later, crossing the bridge over the Delaware River from Philadelphia to Camden on “a disagreeable day” with “snow lying on the ground, and though it was thawing, the wind felt cold as it sped through the streets and rattled at the shutters”. Hartmann continues:

An old man with a long grey beard, flowing over his open shirt front — the first thing I actually saw of Whitman was his naked breast — half opened the door and looked out.

    SADAKICHI: “I would like to see Walt Whitman.”

    WHITMAN: “That’s my name. And you are a Japanese boy, are you not?” (Except very small boys the only person I met in those years who recognized my nationality at the first glance.)

    SADAKICHI: “My father is a German, but my mother was a Japanese and I was born in Japan.”

    WHITMAN: “H’m — Come in.”

And so Hartmann does, all the while taking in the details the “small and humbled two windowed little parlor” which was “a varitable [sic] sea of newspapers, books, magazines, circulars, rejected manuscripts, etc.” and noting the “healthy manliness” of Whitman’s face. Conversations with Whitman is full of such striking details — and full, of course, of Whitman’s memorable way of talking. The earnestness of the young Hartmann brings out Whitman’s boldest optimism. He says such things as: “Americans are allowed to be different. The theory of our government is to give to every man the freedom of his activity — to work, study, electrify” and (this while “frying several eggs” on the stovetop in preparation for a meal that also involves California claret and lobster):

“The American nation is not much at present, but will be some day the most glorious one on earth. At first the cooking must be done, the table set, before one can sit down to a square meal. We are now tuning the instruments, afterwards comes the music.”

In the touching final encounter between the dying Whitman and Hartmann, who has brought his wife to meet him, they talk about more ordinary things. When Whitman’s midday meal is carried in, Hartmann says they had better go. “I hope you will soon feel better”. To which Whitman replies, optimistically as ever: “It is clouded now, possibly, it’ll pass by”.

Whitman was among the first, but far from the last, famous men with whom Hartmann came into contact. He would later befriend Stéphane Mallarmé, Maurice Maeterlinck, and Ezra Pound. He would write for Alfred Stieglitz’s Camera Work, compose a two-volume History of American Art, and be crowned King of the Bohemians of Greenwich Village by the eccentric impresario Guido Bruno. He also penned some of the earliest English-language haiku, put on the first “symphony of smells” (a performance consisting entirely of perfumes) in San Francisco in 1919, and had a minor role as a magician in the swashbuckler film The Thief of Bagdad (1925).

Narrowly avoiding being incarcerated during the mass internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, Hartmann lived the last years of his life in southern California and died while visiting one of his daughters in St. Petersburg, Florida. His legacy may have faded, but he remains a fascinating figure, best remembered for his avant-garde attitudes and, as Luc Sante puts it in Low Life, his “prescient theoretical writings on photography”.

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