American poet Walt Whitman died on March 26, 1892, at the age of 72. For the next few days, newspapers, including Duluth newspapers, were filled with stories about his life and writings, his death, and his funeral. Then, on March 30, 1892, the Duluth Daily News printed a letter offering an unpublished poem by Walt Whitman entitled “Duluth.” The anonymous letter writer claimed that Whitman had visited Duluth for his health the previous summer and that he had “Formed a very high opinion of Duluth and her destiny. It will probably cause general surprise, and, if we mistake not, widespread interest and gratification to read the following fragment of verses on Duluth which the great poet shortly afterwards penned in the course of a letter to a friend at the head of the lakes.”
The poem “Duluth” follows:
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
Of hammers striking the uncomplaining
These are all in thy voice,
To what end? Because thou sing’st
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,
Or it will repent ye
When the bridegroom cometh.
The letter was signed, “Respectfully yours, MENDAX.”
The story of the previously unpublished Whitman poem was picked up by a few newspapers around the country. 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 The Philadelphia Inquirer, on April 8, 1892, printed the poem under the headline, “An Unpublished Poem by Whitman: What Walt Sang About Duluth, the City of the Lakes.”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 poem was apparently forgotten for a few years, but it was noticed by Dr. Emory Holloway, a Whitman scholar and English professor at Adelphi College in New York. In 1927, Holloway won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography or Autobiography for his 1926 book, Whitman, an Interpretation in Narrative. Earlier, Holloway was researching Whitman’s uncollected writings and found the poem in the New Orleans Item. He 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.
Dr. Holloway sensed that the poem was not Whitman’s, but he included it in his collection because he had no proof that it wasn’t genuine. Instead of relying on the New Orleans Item article in researching the poem, though, he 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, who along with colleague Rollo Silver had been researching some questionable references to Whitman’s work, contacted Edna G. Moore, the head librarian at the Duluth Public Library, to ask if she could locate the original letter that the Duluth newspaper printed during April 1892. According to a May 15, 1931, Duluth Herald article, Moore first searched through bound volumes of the Duluth Evening Herald, and when she failed to find it there, she searched the Duluth Daily News. She located the letter on page two of the March 30, 1892, issue.
Moore retyped the letter (this was before the days of photocopiers) and mailed it to Dr. Mabbott. When he saw the original letter as it appeared in the Duluth Daily News, he knew immediately that the poem “Duluth” was a fake. The signature, MENDAX, is Latin for liar, false, or deceitful. 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, Mendax, remains a mystery.