The History Thread, or Bram Stoker’s American Friends

Welcome to another literary-themed History Thread! This week we’ll look at Bram Stoker, author of Dracula and his relationships with prominent Americans of his time. (I dug a little into Stoker’s politics and found that he was an Irish Protestant and  conventional British Liberal, who supported Irish Home Rule without pushing for independence. Some writers have detected an anti-Catholic tinge to his work; this applies most clearly to The Mystery of the Sea, a supernatural-historical novel connecting modern England and Spain with the Spanish Armada, but generally feels like a stretch.)

Stoker, as assistant to actor Henry Irving, made a series of tours of the United States in the 1880s and 1890s, while he was still a relatively unknown theater manager, journalist and writer of romance novels and nonfiction books. During this time he brushed shoulders with a number of prominent American writers, business leaders and politicians, from Mark Twain and Buffalo Bill Cody to presidents, present and future. According to his biographer Jim Steinmeyer, Stoker met at least four presidents in his lifetime: Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.

Theodore Roosevelt

Of this group, only Roosevelt need detain us. Roosevelt first met Stoker in 1896, while serving as New York City Police Commissioner, as part of a tour with Irving. Stoker engaged Roosevelt at a literary dinner and was impressed with his verbosity and, more surprisingly, his familiarity with Stoker’s work. (As much a notorious polymath as TR was, it’s amusing to imagine him reading The Primrose Path in his downtime.) Roosevelt invited his Irish guest to watch him at the Police Department, where Roosevelt was unpopular due to his strictness in enforcing anti-corruption measures. Stoker came away impressed, recording a prescient assessment much savored by TR’s admirers: “Must be President some day. A man you can’t cajole, can’t frighten, can’t buy.”

I had encountered this anecdote in Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, assuming it was merely one of those odd chance encounters that happens a lot in history. In fact, Stoker and Roosevelt remained friends for the rest of Stoker’s life, though they only met on one other occasion, when President Roosevelt invited Stoker to the White House. Stoker corresponded with both Roosevelt and his Secretary of War, Elihu Root, the latter of whom Stoker sent an inscribed first edition of his Mystery of the Sea (1902). Sadly the specifics of their relationship are hard to determine, though he and Roosevelt exchanged letters until Stoker’s death in 1912.

Robert Roosevelt
Robert Roosevelt

Stoker had another connection to Roosevelt: even before meeting Teddy, he was friends with his uncle Robert Roosevelt, the author, politician and fishing enthusiast who spent several years as America’s Ambassador to the Netherlands. Robert moved in European literary circles and was close with Oscar Wilde (who was not only Stoker’s friend but also the ex-lover of Stoker’s wife), through whom he met Stoker. The influence of their relationship is more tangible: Stoker based Dracula‘s Abraham Van Helsing, at least in part, on Robert Roosevelt.

But Stoker’s most lasting, intense American relationship was with Walt Whitman. From his earliest days as a writer, Stoker admired the poet with an intensity that surpassed mere inspiration. He argued with classmates and fellow writers about Whitman’s literary merits (in an age where Europeans still viewed Americans, and American writers in particular, as uncouth commoners) while reading and re-reading Whitman’s work, no doubt absorbing his unapologetic homosexuality. To gauge the nature of Stoker’s passion for Whitman, I will reproduce in full Stoker’s 1872 letter:


If you are the man I take you to be you will like to get this letter. If you are not I don’t care whether you like it or not and only ask that you put it into the fire without reading any farther. But I believe you will like it. I don’t think there is a man living, even you who are above the prejudices of the class of small-minded men, who wouldn’t like to get a letter from a younger man, a stranger, across the world—a man living in an atmosphere prejudiced to the truths you sing and your manner of singing them. The idea that arises in my mind is whether there is a man living who would have the pluck to burn a letter in which he felt the smallest atom of interest without reading it. I believe you would and that you believe you would yourself. You can burn this now and test yourself, and all I will ask for my trouble of writing this letter, which for all I can tell you may light your pipe with or apply to some more ignoble purpose—is that you will in some manner let me know that my words have tested your impatience. Put it in the fire if you like—but if you do you will miss the pleasure of the next sentence which ought to be that you have conquered an unworthy impulse. A man who is certain of his own strength might try to encourage himself a piece of bravo, but a man who can write, as you have written, the most candid words that ever fell from the lips of a mortal man—a man to whose candor Rousseau’s Confessions is reticence—can have no fear for his own strength. If you have gone this far you may read the letter and I feel in writing now that I am talking to you. If I were before your face I would like to shake hands with you, for I feel that I would like you. I would like to call YOU Comrade and to talk to you as men who are not poets do not often talk. I think that at first a man would be ashamed, for a man cannot in a moment break the habit of comparative reticence that has become second nature to him; but I know I would not long be ashamed to be natural before you. You are a true man, and I would like to be one myself, and so I would be towards you as a brother and as a pupil to his master. In this age no man becomes worthy of the name without an effort. You have shaken off the shackles and your wings are free. I have the shackles on my shoulders still—but I have no wings. If you are going to read this letter any further I should tell you that I am not prepared to “give up all else” so far as words go. The only thing I am prepared to give up is prejudice, and before I knew you I had begun to throw overboard my cargo, but it is not all gone yet. I do not know how you will take this letter. I have not addressed you in any form as I hear that you dislike to a certain degree the conventional forms in letters. I am writing to you because you are different from other men. If you were the same as the mass I would not write at all. As it is I must either call you Walt Whitman or not call you at all—and I have chosen the latter course. I do not know whether it is unusual for you to get letters from utter strangers who have not even the claim of literary brotherhood to write you. If it is you must be frightfully tormented with letters and I am sorry to have written this. I have, however, the claim of liking you—for your words are your own soul and even if you do not read my letter it is no less a pleasure to me to write it. Shelley wrote to William Godwin and they became friends. I am not Shelley and you are not Godwin and so I will only hope that sometime I may meet you face to face and perhaps shake hands with you. If I ever do it will be one of the greatest pleasures of my life … The way I came to you was this. A notice of your poems appeared some two years ago or more in Temple Bar magazine. I glanced at it and took its dictum as final, and laughed at you among friends. I say it to my own shame but not to regret for it has taught me a lesson to last my life out—without ever having seen your poems. More than a year after I heard two men in College talking of you. One of them had your book (Rossetti’s edition) and was reading aloud some passages at which both laughed. They chose only those passages which are most foreign to British ears and made fun of them. Something struck me that I had judged you hastily. I took home the volume and read far into the night. Since then I have to thank you for many happy hours, for I have read your poems with my door locked late at night and I have read them on the seashore where I could look all round me and see no more sign of human life than the ships out at sea: and here I often found myself waking up from a reverie with the book open before me. I love all poetry, and high generous thoughts make the tears rush to my eyes, but sometimes a word or a phrase of yours takes me away from the world around me and places me in an ideal land surrounded by realities more than any poem I ever read. Last year I was sitting on the beach on a summer’s day reading your preface to the Leaves of Grass as printed in Rossetti’s edition … One thought struck me and I pondered over it for several hours—“the weather-beaten vessels entering new ports,” you who wrote the words know them better than I do: and to you who sing of your land of progress the words have a meaning that I can only imagine. But be assured of this Walt Whitman—that a man of less than half your own age, reared a conservative in a conservative country, and who has always heard your name cried down by the great mass of people who mention it, here felt his heart leap towards you across the Atlantic and his soul swelling at the words or rather the thoughts. It is vain for me to quote an instances of what thoughts of yours I like best—for I like them all and you must feel you are reading the true words of one who feels with you. You see, I have called you by your name. I have been more candid with you—have said more about myself to you than I have said to anyone before. You will not be angry with me if you have read so far. You will not laugh at me for writing this to you. It was no small effort that I began to write and I feel reluctant to stop, but I must not tire you any more. If you would ever care to have more you can imagine, for you have a great heart, how much pleasure it would be to me to write more to you. How sweet a thing it is for a strong healthy man with a woman’s eye and a child’s wishes to feel that he can speak to a man who can be if he wishes father, and brother and wife to his soul. I don’t think you will laugh, Walt Whitman, nor despise me, but at all events I thank you for all the love and sympathy you have given me in common with my kind.

Bram Stoker

Never one to discourage a young admirer, especially a fellow writer, Whitman responded:

BRAM STOKER,—My dear young man,—Your letters have been most welcome to me—welcome to me as a Person and then as Author—I don’t know which most. You did so well to write to me so unconventionally, so fresh, so manly, and affectionately too. I, too, hope (though it is not probable) that we will some day personally meet each other. Meantime, I send my friendship and thanks.

Edward Dowden’s letter containing among others your subscription for a copy of my new edition has just been recd. I shall send the book very soon by express in a package to his address. I have just written to E.D.

My physique is entirely shatter’d—doubtless permanently—from paralysis and other ailments. But I am up and dress’d, and get out every day a little, live here quite lonesome, but hearty, and good spirits.—Write to me again.

Walt Whitman

The two men periodically corresponded but did not meet face-to-face until 1884. During one of Stoker’s American tours, Whitman invited Stoker (who reluctantly brought Henry Irving along) to meet at the home of American writer Henry Donaldson. Stoker was just as impressed with his idol in the flesh: “He was burly, with a large head and high forehead slightly bald. Great shaggy masses of grey-white hair fell over his collar. His mustache was large and thick and fell over his mouth so as to mingle with the top of the mass of the bushy flowing beard.”

Walt Whitman

The two men engaged in a pleasant conversation, with an amused Donaldson and bored Irving (who could never stand not being the center of attention) watching Stoker and Whitman discuss each other’s work.  “I found him all that I had ever dreamed of, or wished for in him,” gushed Stoker: “large-minded, broad-viewed, tolerant to the last degree; incarnate sympathy; understanding with an insight that seemed more than human.” Whitman found the young Irishman equally charming, calling him “a breath of good, healthy, breezy sea air.”

Two years passed until they met again, when Stoker visited Whitman at his home in Camden, New Jersey.  Stoker noted, with some disappointment, that his idol had visibly aged: “He seemed feebler, and when he rose from his chair or moved about the room did so with difficulty. I could notice his eyes better now. They were not so quick and searching as before.” But Whitman proved equally captivating, regaling Stoker with his memories of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War in an all-night monologue. “The memory of that room will never leave me,” Stoker recalled.

Bram Stoker

Their final face-to-face meeting occurred a year later, when Stoker asked Whitman for permission to edit a new collection of Whitman’s poetry. For the first and only time in their relationship, the two clashed, with Whitman growing angered at his protege’s request and swearing that “I shall never cut a line so long as I live!” Nonetheless, they parted on good terms: Whitman gifted Stoker a signed copy of Leaves of Grass, along with a photograph. Years later, after Whitman’s death in 1892, Stoker was astonished that Whitman bequeathed to him handwritten notes from his lectures on Lincoln.

Historians, biographers and literary critics have long teased the relationship between the American genius and his Irish admirer. Clearly there’s an undertow of passion that ranges from extreme hero worship to sexual attraction. Some scholars have claimed that his portrayal of Dracula draws on Whitman, an ambivalent mixture of sensual excitement and repulsion towards the Great American Poet; readers may interpret this how they will (it seems more likely that Stoker’s long-time friend and business partner, Henry Irving, inspired the vampire). But it certainly provides a fascinating footnote in the annals of literary history.