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W. asked Corning [candidate for the pulpit of the Unitarian church on Benson street]: “And what may be the subject of your sermon tomorrow?”

“My subject? Why—the tragedy of the ages.”

“And what may be the tragedy of the ages?”

“The crucifixion.”

“What crucifixion?”

“The crucifixion of Jesus, of course.”

“You call that the tragedy of the ages?”

“Yes—what do you call it?”

Walt Whitman, Kuebler Photography, Camden
Walt Whitman, circa 1889, in his room at Camden. At his feet would be a sea of papers, which he awarded piece by piece along with anecdotes to his friend, archivist and disciple, Horace Traubel. Photo by William Kuebler, Jr., or Louis H. Kuebler of Kuebler Photography, via The Walt Whitman Archive

“It is a tragedy. But the tragedy? O no! I don’t think I would be willing to call it the tragedy.”

“Do you know any tragedy that meant so much to man?”

“Twenty thousand tragedies—all equally significant.”

“I’m no bigot—I don’t think I make any unreasonable fuss over Jesus—but I never looked at the thing the way you do.”

“Probably not. But do it now—just for once. Think of the other tragedies, just for once: the tragedies of the average man—the tragedies of every-day—the tragedies of war and peace—the obscured, the lost, tragedies: they are all cut out of the same goods. I think too much is made of the execution of Jesus Christ. I know Jesus Christ would not have approved of this himself: he knew that his life was only another life, any other life, told big; he never wished to shine, especially to shine at the general expense. Think of the other tragedies, the twenty thousand, just for once, Mr. Corning.”

C. said: “I have no doubt all you say is true. You would not find me ready to quarrel with your point of view.”

W. laughed quietly. “The masters in history have had lots of chance: they have been glorified beyond recognition: now give the other fellows a chance: glorify the average man a bit: put in a word for his sorrows, his tragedies, just for once, just for once.”

Corning said: “You ought to be in that pulpit instead of me, tomorrow, Mr. Whitman. You would tell the people something it would do them good to hear.”

“I am not necessary,” replied W. graciously: “You have the thing all in yourself if you will only let it out. We get into such grooves—that’s the trouble—passing traditions and exaggerations down from one generation to another unquestioned. After awhile we begin to think even the lies must be true.”

Source: Horace Traubel, ed., With Walt Whitman in Camden, vol. I, p.103 (May 5, 1888), via The Walt Whitman Archive


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Explore the fascinating roots of Whitman’s great work, Leaves of Grass: a family harrowed by alcoholism and mental illness; the bloody Civil War; burgeoning, brawling Manhattan and Brooklyn; literary allies and rivals; and his beloved America, racked by disunion even while racing westward. Over 300 color period images immerse the reader in the life and times of Walt Whitman.

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