2 April 2016

Paul Salveson: With Walt Whitman in Bolton: Spirituality, Sex and Socialism in a Northern Mill Town (2008)

With Walt Whitman in Bolton? Yes, that's the Walt Whitman, and the Bolton is in Lancashire, UK. The title is an allusion to Horace Traubel's With Walt Whitman in Camden (New Jersey), and is a booklet that reveals a little-known (well, to me at least) aspect of the poet's life, and it also reveals the effect that Walt Whitman (1819–92) had on the United Kingdom, and English socialism in particular.

Paul Salveson has a PhD in Lancashire Dialect Literature, and this is clearly a summation of a great deal of study that the author has made into the relationship between the US poet and a group of people in Bolton (and indeed elsewhere in the country) who can collectively be called 'Bolton Whitmanites'.

'Eagle Street College' wasn't a college at all, although it was at number 14 Eagle Street in Bolton that J. W. Wallace lived for a time, and where a group of men met. There were a number of Bolton Whitmanites, although the core consisted of Wallace (the son of a millwright), cotton waste merchant Fred Wild, and Dr Jon Johnson, a Bolton G.P. The group began meeting in 1885, after the death of Wallace's mother. They began by reading several poets, although Whitman was soon singled out as the principal point of interest.

Wallace and Johnston first sent the ageing poet birthday greetings in 1887, and regular correspondence followed until very close to his death on 26 March. Both Wallace and Johnston visited Whitman, Johnston's first journey being in the summer of 1890. Salveson says that the Bolton Library archive (which  incidentally includes Whitman's stuffed canary) is one of the best outside the States.

'Whitman Day' – held on 31 May, the poet's birthday – continued to be celebrated in Bolton long after his death, and latterly it appears to have been run by the Bolton Socialist Club. However, I can't find any reference after 2014, and all links to the club seem broken: I hope it's not closed down.

A fascinating publication. Wisely, perhaps, Whitman denied his homosexuality, although there's a splendid undated photo that shows Edward Carpenter clasping Charles Sixsmith's thigh with an obvious mixture of pride and defiance!

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