Salmagundi

May 01, 1992

IN JEFF McNelly's "Shoe" comic strip, the central bird-newspaperman is a duffer who sits day after day at a rolltop desk half-hidden under a snowdrift of print matter. He cannot bring himself to throw anything out.

The tradition carries over onto other newspapers. Mary Knudsen, a recent Sun alumna, was famous for her clutter; so also Carl Schoettler of The Evening Sun (now of The Sun), and old alum Jim Bready, the back-issue saver of the editorial department. The messy-desk legend still enfolds Judy Bachrach -- her specialty was the permanently pulled-out drawer, from which yet another mound arose.

For an all-time champion, let us contemplate Walt Whitman, in his later years in Camden, N.J.

His biographer, Justin Kaplan, pictures the free-verse poet's bedroom as resembling "a newspaper office; a cornfield at husking time. . . the Sargasso Sea. . . He had kept every imaginable variety of written and printed matter; manuscripts, old letterheads and billheads thriftily saved and written over, faded scraps of writing paper and even wallpaper pinned, pasted or tied together in ragged bundles that had a before-the-flood look, notebooks and diaries, many of them homemade, scrapbooks, letters received and drafts of letters sent, printer's proofs and samples, photographs, memoranda, circulars, receipts and accounts rendered, official documents, clippings from magazines and newspapers.

"With an occasional shoe or wad of stamps or stick of kindling mixed in haphazardly, this tide churned in a widening semi-circle in front of Whitman's chair, seeped into the corners of the room and was tracked out into the hallway.

"Year after year, Whitman stirred his archive with the crook of his cane. . . ."

Observances are in progress: it is 100 years since the death of the man who wrote "Leaves of Grass" -- that "great poem of joy and liberation. . . the song of himself, his nation, his century," as Kaplan calls it.

So it is fitting, therefore, to recall the day when Folger McKinsey got Walt Whitman to travel to Elkton for a formal lecture, about Abraham Lincoln whom Whitman had met in wartime Washington.

Later on (1902-1948), McKinsey was the Bentztown Bard, this newspaper's very own typewriter poet, but in youth he had known Whitman, an old newspaperman himself, in New Jersey. Then McKinsey got a newspaper job in Elkton.

There's a clipping here somewhere that would provide the exact date, and some account of the talk; no, it's not in either of the

small brown envelopes, or the large white one, or the poetry anthology, or the center-drawer collection of paper-clipped stuff -- wait, maybe in the box of stuff from other Maryland papers, except that box may not yet have come back downtown after last year's local-authors piece. Hang on a moment, won't you?

The thing's got to be here someplace.

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