“All Goes Onward and Outward.” Those words of Walt Whitman hold a special meaning for this exhibition marking his 200th birthday, which was celebrated on May 31, 2019. This is the third exhibition of selected Whitman related items here at the DeGolyer library. The first was 1987, and the second was 2004. This exhibition has its own unique personality. I have always said that I am quite frankly fascinated by the boldness, candor, and vigorous sense of individual freedom and democracy that Whitman so passionately embraced. And so, we embrace this birthday year and present this exhibition to bring all of us a little closer to this great American poet. Special thanks go to Dr. Russell Martin and his staff here at the DeGolyer for their dedication to bring this exhibition to life and say, “Happy Birthday Walt.”
I am frequently asked why I collect books. As Walt Whitman might have answered, “That cat has a long tail.” I never referred to myself as a collector until Dr. David Farmer, then head of the DeGolyer Library, called me and asked if SMU could exhibit selected items from my Whitman collection. Over time, when asked about collecting books, I have often related the following story which was first published by the DeGolyer library in 2004 [Charles and Robert: A Literary Friendship. The Story of Charles E. Feinberg and Robert O. Harris, Jr.]. The story is about friendship, teaching, collecting, and mentoring. It is a story of happiness and hope. It is a story about a literary friendship that has enriched my life; and now, it is a story that I hope will enrich yours.
At Walt Whitman’s funeral, noted orator of the day Robert Ingersoll said, “And so I lay this little wreath upon this great man’s tomb. I loved him living, and I love him still.”
I loved Charles Feinberg. He was the best friend and the best teacher I ever had. I only knew Charlie for the last few years of his life, but those years were a joy to me, and I will never forget them.
After all these years, I am awed by our meeting even as I rejoice in how that encounter has enriched my life. In 1981 I was in Washington D.C. on business. I have always loved poetry, especially the works of Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Theodore Roethke, A.E. Housman, and James Dickey. I even had a few “old books.” I took great pride in showing my Eakins Press Leaves of Grassfacsimile and my 1860 Leaves of Grass (3rd edition) to my friends.
But—I wanted to see a real first edition Leaves, and here I was in Washington. Naturally, I gravitated to the Library of Congress. One of the librarians, a very nice young man, listened to my plea. When he showed me the Leaves, it was a cosmic consciousness moment. The librarian went on to explain to me that this treasured book was part of the Feinberg collection. As he spoke, I was stunned and awed at the enormity of “The Charles E. Feinberg Collection.”
Who was this Feinberg fellow? Was he still alive? How did he put this collection together? How could I find out more about him? Yes—I needed to know if he was still alive so I could thank him.
Mr. Feinberg was very much alive, I was told—but “…please don’t ask me any questions about him. He is old and dying of cancer—and we have strict rules not to divulge any more information. He is entitled to his privacy.”
Reluctantly, I accepted that.
Then, with a few days ahead of me with no business commitments, I decided to visit the Whitman birthplace at Huntington, West Hills, Long Island in New York. I was, as they say, on a roll; and so, light hearted, I took to Whitman’s “open road.”
Arriving at the birthplace the next day, I felt a sense of peace and happiness. The photographs in books could not compare to actually being in Whitman’s childhood home. The curator was pleasant and informative; and I when I heard the name Charles Feinberg three times, I had to know more. It was now an obligation to send him a thank you note.
When I asked for more information, the friendly curator suddenly turned cautious – why did I want to know? I was assured Mr. Feinberg was a very nice man, but his family had requested “total silence on anything about him. After all, he had cancer and he was dying.”
I accepted that.
But I had another idea which would complete a trilogy of travel. Whitman spent the last years of his life in Camden, New Jersey, at 328 Mickel Street, and Harleigh Cemetery in Camden is where he is entombed. New Jersey was not that far; and besides, I could visit the house and then leave a few flowers on Whitman’s grave.
On the way, I stopped in Philadelphia for a cup of coffee. The server asked me how I was and seemed to be the chatty type which gave me the opportunity to see what he knew about our great American poet who lived the last years of his life just across the Delaware River. “Do you know anything about Walt Whitman?” I asked. “Oh yeah” he said, “the bridge…two miles straight ahead...”
Ah, the culture of it all; so, I accepted that.
328 Mickel Street—what a thrill for me to actually be in Whitman’s home. I thought of his literary executors and disciples: Richard Maurice Bucke, Thomas B. Harned, and Horace Traubel. I thought of visitors like Oscar Wilde; and as I walked from room to room, I saw the small signs that read, “this item a gift from Charles E. Feinberg.”
Of course, my questions were the same and the answers were the same—almost: “Poor Mr. Feinberg. He is old, sick, dying, and all alone with his wife in that big mansion in Detroit.”
I really accepted that.
Now I knew the city, Detroit. As soon as I returned to Dallas, I called information in Detroit and asked if there was a number for Charles E. Feinberg. Given that number, I called it, and Charlie answered the phone. After my own stunned silence, I explained—to his great glee—my reasons for calling and the obstacles I had faced. He knew too well why they were “protecting him;” and he yelled to his wife off the phone, “Hey, Lee – I’ve got a fan club.”
That was the beginning. Charlie invited me to his home in Detroit, and I stayed in the room where Robert Frost stayed in November, 1962, when he spoke to 9,000 people. I visited the Feinbergs in their homes in Detroit and Biscayne Bay. Memories of those visits between teacher and pupil, friend and friend, father and son are always with me.
Charlie shared with me the facts, the stories, and the legends of many of our great writers. He never discussed the rumors because he said people cared only about the rumors because the writer was great.
Charlie introduced me to James Dickey, William White, and the wonderful Stanley Burnshaw. He encouraged me in my “book collecting” and told me I would probably not realize I “was one” until someone told me. He was so right about that. He was so right about so much.
Charlie once told me his life would have been a desert without books. Looking back—my life would have been a desert without Charlie. Today, my library contains over 7,000 items—and yes, some people call me a collector.
The night before he died, Charlie rallied from a coma to tell me the story about Walt Whitman’s horse and buggy. He took my hand and told me he had tried to teach me as much as he could, and now I must share with others our love of literature. I made a promise to him that night, and I have tried to keep it.
And so every time someone gives me the chance to speak about our American literary heritage, I place a flower on this great man’s grave. I loved Charlie living—and I love him still.
Robert O. Harris, Jr