On the morning of April 15, 1887, George Cox took several photographs of poet Walt Whitman, in commemoration of the success of his New York lecture on Abraham Lincoln, delivered the day before. Jeannette Gilder, editor of The Critic and a friend to both Cox and Whitman, delivered the frail poet to the photographer’s studio. “He must have had twenty pictures taken,” she remembered later, “yet he never posed for a moment. He simply sat in the big revolving chair and swung himself to the right or to the left, as Mr. Cox directed, or took his hat off or put it on again, his expression and attitude remaining so natural that no one would have supposed he was sitting for a photograph.” Of twelve extant photographs taken during the Cox sitting, Whitman’s favorite was the large portrait reproduced at left. He began referring to as “The Laughing Philosopher.” He later wrote to a friend: “Do you think the name I have given it justified? do you see the laugh in it? I’m not wholly sure: yet I call it that.” Toward the end of the session, Whitman posed for several shots with Gilder’s nephew and niece, Nigel and Catherine Cholmeley-Jones.
In a newly discovered letter—found pasted into a privately held copy of the Author’s Autograph Edition of The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman (number eight of ten limited edition numbered sets, published after Whitman’s death)—Whitman wrote to Gilder, immediately after receiving photo-proofs from Cox. It reads:
328 Mickle Street
Camden New Jersey Sept. 13 Evn’g
Cox’s photos: came today & I have written my name on them & sent them back (addressing the package to William Carey, Century office)—All are good, but the one I like best is a head with hat on, the photo marked No 3—the pictures with the children come out first-rate—Give my love to the dear girl & boy & tell them I remember them well—I am here like an old hulk driven up on the sand or floating with spars & rigging all gone, & no more voyaging—Love to Watson and Joe
The photograph, and now this letter, are all the more poignant, because Gilder had recently taken over raising the children after the death of their mother. The loss they had suffered apparently affected Whitman visibly, as Cox remembered the Cholmeley-Jones children as “soul extensions” of the old poet. And the feeling seems to have lingered with Whitman. Several months later, he published a brief poem “The Dismantled Ship” in the New York Herald:
In some unused lagoon, some nameless bay,
On sluggish, lonesome, muddy waters, anchor’d near the shore,
An old, dismasted, gray and batter’d ship, disabled, done and broken,
After free voyages to all the seas of earth, haul’d up at last and hawser’d tight, Lies rusting, mouldering.
When a friend asked about the poem, shortly after its publication, Whitman admitted: “That’s me—that’s my old hulk—laid up at last: no good any more—no good.”