Monday, November 06, 2006

Walt Whitman and the wacky widow

Authors frequently receive friendly letters that say, "I feel like I know you." Those can be very flattering, but occasionally a fan will go all creepy and say something like, "We must meet. We are twin souls, you and I, separated for a time but destined to be together for all eternity."

While it's true that a writer can't help but reveal certain aspects of her personality through her work, a reader can't know for certain whether she's properly interpreting the "clues" she's picking up. In fact, she can't even know whether those tidbits have been dropped inadvertently or on purpose. Reasonable people understand that, so when an author gets one of those "twin souls" letters, he or she will sometimes experience a twinge of alarm.

Consider the ardent Walt Whitman fan who offered--quite seriously--to have the poet's babies. The story was recounted a few days ago at Today in Literature:

On this day [November 3] in 1871 Walt Whitman wrote to the British essayist, Mrs. Anne Gilchrist to delicately decline her offer of marriage. Gilchrist was a forty-three-year-old widow, one who knew Tennyson and Carlyle, and knew enough about literature to have completed her husband's biography of William Blake....

When Whitman received notice of this literary support for his controversial verse he responded thankfully, through an intermediary. When he received Mrs. Gilchrist's first personal letter, expressing her discovery in his poetry of his "passionate love" for her soul, he did not answer. When he received a second and third letter, containing Mrs. Gilchrist's belief that in Leaves of Grass she had heard at last "the voice of my mate," that she awaited the "day I shall hear that voice say to me, 'My Mate. The one I so much want. Bride, Wife, indissoluble eternal!'," and that "I am young enough to bear thee children, my darling," Whitman thought he'd better say something.

Sounds like this lady wasn't merely reading "Leaves of Grass," but smoking the stuff. There's an amusing desperation in Whitman's very polite denials to this nut case. When she insists she's coming to America, he begs her not to. She comes anyway.

Click over and read the whole story.

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