Walt Whitman’s Poem About Duluth?

The Duluth Daily News of March 30, 1892, printed a letter offering an unpublished poem by Walt Whitman. The letter writer claims that Whitman had visited Duluth for his health the previous summer and had been so impressed with the Zenith City that he wrote a poem in praise of Duluth and had sent it to a friend in town. The poem, simply titled “Duluth,” follows:
Whitman

The nations hear thy message
A fateful word; oh momentous
Audition! The murmur of waves
Bearing heavy-freighted argosies; the sigh
Of gently stirring life in the birth-beds
Of not oer-distant grain field; the
Solemn plaint of pines whose limbs
Quite feel the bite of men’s
Omnivorous axe; the roar, like
Old Enceladus’s, of furnaces volcanic
And Hell-like; the thunderous and
Reverberant iteration
Of hammers striking the uncomplaining
Anvil;
These are all in thy voice,
To what end? Because thou sing’s
Of empire and the great To-Come,
General good, Democracy, the
Return at length to things primeval
And, therefore, real and true
And worth returning unto.
Then sing, Duluth, thy
Song; and listen,
Nations!
Or it will repent ye
When the bridegroom cometh.

The letter was signed, “Respectfully yours, MENDAX.”

Whitman had just passed away in New Jersey on March 26, three days before the date on the letter. The story of the unpublished Whitman poem was picked up by a few newspapers around the country. The Philadelphia Inquirer, on April 8, 1892, printed the poem under the headline, “An Unpublished Poem by Whitman: What Walt Sang About Duluth, the City of the Lakes.” The New Orleans Item printed the poem on page one of its April 4, 1892, issue, and offered the following comment:

The good gray poet was quite impressed with Duluth, whose interests were shown him by a friend, and after leaving he sent his friend the following, which has remained unprinted until now.

The poem was apparently forgotten for a few years, but it was noticed by Dr. Emory Holloway, an English professor and Whitman scholar who would later win a Pulitzer Prize for his 1927 biography, Whitman, an Interpretation in Narrative. Holloway found the poem in the New Orleans Item and included it in his 1921 work, Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, under the title “On Duluth, Minnesota.” In his note, Holloway expresses a strong reservation about the poem’s authenticity, both because of the unlikelihood of Whitman visiting Duluth in 1891 and because of the writing style:

It is possible that the outrageous division of the lines is due to a careless reading of the manuscript. It is more likely that the whole is a puerile attempt at burlesque. It is given here only because, since it is ascribed to Whitman on its first publication, the reader should judge for himself how authentic the authorship is likely to be.

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Edna G. Moore, ca. 1930 (Duluth Public Library scrapbooks)

Instead of relying on the New Orleans Item article in researching the poem, Dr. Holloway should have gone to the original source, the Duluth Daily News. In 1931, Dr. Thomas Ollive Mabbott, a Poe scholar and English professor from Hunter College in New York City, published a short article in the journal American Literature that finally determined the poem was a fake. Mabbott had contacted Edna G. Moore, the head librarian at the Duluth Public Library, to ask if she could locate the original letter from a Duluth newspaper during April 1892. According to a May 15, 1931, Duluth Herald article, Moore first searched through the Herald, probably in bound volumes, and when she failed to find it there she searched the Duluth Da­ily News and located the letter on page two of the March 30, 1892, issue.

When Mabbott saw the original letter, he knew immediately that the poem “Duluth” was a fake. The signature, MENDAX, is Latin for “liar.” The signature had been omitted from both the Philadelphia Inquirer and New Orleans Item reprints of the poem. As Mabbott says in his article:

The correspondent of the Item failed to note the significance of the signature, “fallacious”—but it definitely shows the whole thing a mere joke, not even meant to deceive any save the careless reader.

The actual author of the poem has not been found, but the 1931 Duluth Herald article suggests it was a Duluthian who perpetrated it as a joke.

 

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