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Richard Deming
Don Joint
Nancy Kuhl
Duncan Hannah




A yellowed note, folded in fourths, that accompanies a certain pair of well-worn glasses from the late nineteenth century reads simply and unsentimentally enough, “Dear Mr. Johnston, I herewith fulfill my promise and send the last pair of eyeglasses he ever used.” After the signature a postscript appears that establishes the significance of these particular glasses by clarifying to whom the pronoun “he” is referring: “I of course mean Walt Whitman.” Evidently one of America’s greatest visionaries had weak eyes that required correction if he were to read anything, even his own poems.
          These historic, curious glasses and the attendant note were sent from Camden, NJ, by Whitman’s longtime personal housekeeper Mrs. Mary O. Davis, the widow of a sailor, who lived with and cared for the poet during the last years of his life, until his death in 1892. Davis sent the glasses to J. H. Johnston on March 26th 1895, three years after the poet’s death.
          Coming upon Walt Whitman’s glasses is indeed a strange thing, not least because no photographs of him wearing his spectacles are known to exist. Thus, none of the major biographies include images of him wearing either regular glasses (a pair of which can be found in the Library of Congress’s Whitman collection) or the pince-nez style he seemed to favor in his final years. As the majority of images of Whitman are clearly posed and taken by professional studios, and because he is quite likely the most photographed American author of the nineteenth century, the absence of a bespectacled Whitmanian visage may have been a conscious choice. Perhaps Whitman wished to seem sagacious with his long, chaotic beard but worried that the glasses would make him seem more bookish and less like “one of the roughs.”
          The name of the makers of this particular pair of spectacles printed on the battered, leather carrying case is “Cooke and Brothers,” a company of opticians and jewelers once located at 35 S. 4th St. in Philadelphia, PA. Interestingly, the recipient of the glasses, Johnston, was himself a jeweler, if we take the addressee to be the J. H. Johnston who had been a friend of Whitman’s since the 1870s and with whom Whitman would often stay when he visited New York City. There is room for hesitation in being too certain about this provenance, however, in that there was another person in Whitman’s life with a similar name. Dr. J. Johnston, a general practioner from Manchester, England, had been an ardent admirer of the poet and was one of the circle of Whitman’s English disciples, a group that included no less a luminary than Bram Stoker, author of Dracula. In the late 1880s, Dr. Johnston began a correspondence with Whitman and in 1890 traveled from England to Camden for the sole purpose of meeting the poet in his home at 328 Mickle Street. One could imagine such a person requesting some souvenir of his hero in the wake of his death. It is more likely, however, that the glasses were sent to the first Johnston. Indeed, given their close friendship, it would make sense that Johnston would ask for something that personalized his memory of his friend with a kind of memento amici. Davis does specify that these were the poet’s last glasses and that she is honoring a promise, which is more likely something that honors the affection the two men shared. Additionally, in Horace Traubel’s famous multi-volume memoir of the time he spent with “the Good Gray Poet” in his last years, we see a note from Johnston reprinted in which he urges Whitman to find some home for his literary remains. Johnston insists that he himself does not have the capability or knowledge to serve as such a de facto executor, though he does negotiate purchasing from Whitman for the price of one hundred dollars the Charles Hine portrait that serves as the source for the Stephen A. Schoff engraving appearing at the beginning of the third edition (1860) of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Johnston periodically raised money for his friend and financially supported him in more direct ways, and so the purchase might be a way of justifying that support in various ways. Yet Johnston’s insistence on archiving indicates he also had a desire to preserve the material evidence of Whitman’s life. The lenses through which and by which the poet partook of texts and the worlds those texts—even his own poems—made possible would thus have an obvious auratic value Johnston would have wanted to see protected as part of Whitman’s legacy.
          There is at least one specific report of the poet wearing the glasses. On the outside of the envelope containing Davis’s letter to Johnston, someone has written the note “Brinns, 332,” which is a reference to Henry Bryan Brinns’s A Life of Walt Whitman, a biography published by Methuen and Company in London in 1905. On the page indicated, one reads about Whitman traveling to New York City (and at that point largely confined to a wheelchair) in the spring of 1889 to celebrate his annual reading of his lecture on Abraham Lincoln. Brinns describes Whitman, then in his ’70s, as “hoarse and half-blind” and yet after taking the stage and upon “put[ting] on his glasses,” the poet, that quintessential American bard, “got immediately to business, reading with a melodious voice and easy manner.” When one imagines the scene, one should have a specific element in mind—given the prescription of his lenses, Whitman most likely had to hold his reading material relatively close to his face. The question of what value such an item as this might have is another matter. One could say that the glasses have no intrinsic research value, nor do they shed any light on Whitman’s perceptions of the world in the way that, for instance, knowledge of the health of El Greco’s eyes might possibly tell us about the elongated figures dominating the painter’s canvases. Are Whitman’s glasses then just some collector’s fetish? The question comes, as these things do, to value. What do we value and why? What do Whitman’s glasses provide us? Do they help us understand his life better, or help us to read his poems better? In their connection to Whitman’s cultural, daily material, the glasses are not a means to an end, but constitute an end in and of themselves. One might see them as an instrument of divination, a tool (or locus) summoning neither a muse or a spirit but the material reality of the poet who, like anyone else, struggled against the infirmities of age and the limitations of the body. Yet, the glasses make his presence palpable in a way that we can recognize because they signify not simply that he lived but that he wrote poems in praise of the body despite and because of its limitations. It is the very ordinariness of his glasses that make them important.
          In the late photographs of Whitman, those in which he is ensconced in his living room at his Mickle Street home, he is surrounded by books and papers. The glasses are the things that signify their part, however humble, in Whitman’s struggle to bear down on the words that were his life, a life that ultimately must branch into ours for us to know it, to recognize it, to think again that its reality is also our reality. One could think of all of the extant images of Whitman as a body of materials signifying the poet’s marked investment in a crass (or savvy) self-promotion, but that would be less than generous. Whitman’s poems were always about the poet and his poetry going out into the world and the world coming back into him by means of his close attention to the things he saw. What more important sign of that than the glasses through which he looked out and by means of which we can look back into him?

– Richard Deming



When I first saw the Man Ray iron I was told that he made it
for his granddaughter, Naomi Savage.
I was mesmerized by it.
I still am.
My mind wandered to when I was a kid.
I had a green, orange and black checkered shirt.
It was my prized possession.
I wore it for class pictures in the third and fourth grades.
I wore it until it fell apart.
Looking at the iron, I thought, “What would I have done if Man Ray
were my grandfather?”
What if he gave me this iron when I was a kid?
Would I have been compelled to iron my prized shirt
with this magical iron?
What would have happened?
Would my shirt have survived?
It was that cheap-feeling kind of nylon
but it made me feel so special when I wore it.
My prized shirt would have probably ripped and melted.
But, you never know, you just never know…
– Don Joint

DENISE DUHAMEL’s most recent poetry titles are Two and Two (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), Mille et un Sentiments (Firewheel, 2005) and Queen for a Day: Selected and New Poems (Pittsburgh, 2001). A winner of a National Endowment Fellowship in Poetry, she teaches poetry at Florida International University in Miami.

DON JOINT is an artist who lives in New York City and Milton, PA. His work has been favorably reviewed in Art in America, The New York Times and the New York Observer, and is the collections of the Oklahoma Museum of Art, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Erie Museum of Art. He is represented by Francis M. Naumann Fine Art in NYC, Craig Flinner Contemporary in Baltimore, MD, and Galerie Marion Myer in Paris, France.

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