Gilbert had lived in the bustling seaport town of Colon, the Atlantic railhead for his employer, the Panama Railhead, during the French effort, and died less than three years after the Americans landed and shortly thereafter proceeded “to make the dirt fly.”
Many Canal construction-era books were published in the United States between 1900 and the Canal's opening in 1915, but most were technical tomes by Canal engineers and railroad men, or scholarly histories of the Spanish Colonial and French Canal eras, or collections of photographs of that far-away land and its natives that everyone was talking about; few books had the feelings and emotion and people that the transplanted Connecticut Yankee, the poet Gilbert, offered in plain language. "Away down south in the Torrid Zone, / North latitude nearly nine," he told us, we'd find heat and rain and insects, and tropical flowers and fruits. Worse, "Beyond the Chagres River / Are paths that lead to death."
Gilbert pauses to find the beauty in a simple washer-girl, and he tells the bawdy story of saloon-keeper Woodbine Sally, and of the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of his acquaintances, of the relief of the Trade-Winds after the long rainy season; even heat rash becomes a topic we can relate to. He writes of a faithful dog, and sunsets with his "wicker jug." He tells tales of English pirates and native Indian chiefs enduring civilization's intrusions.
Gilbert added the human touch, the "color commentary" to the headlines of the day.
He brought to life the memory of poor old John Aspinwall, "A quaint old moke ... Who lives by the Dead-House gate," and we're delighted to see an actual photo of John Aspinwall himself in later editions!
And Gilbert related to the ever-present Death—right up until his own (Tracy Robinson must pick up the story there). The Isthmus of Panama was a very unhealthy place to live and work, and people died by the thousands. The story persists that a man died for every tie laid by the Panama Railroad; cemetery photos of countless headstones from that era seem to prove the rumor.
Gilbert's close friendship with American businessman Tracy Robinson, who lived in Colon for 46 years, no doubt gave Gilbert insight into as well as an introduction to local society and events. Colon, a longtime sleepy seaport, had exploded during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. The village then dozed, forgotten in the tropical sun until the French engineers arrived with money and manners. Following French failure in the late 1880s, Colon once again became a distant, disease-ridden tropical port, far from New York or London—"the Forgotten"—until President Teddy Roosevelt's edict to "let the dirt fly!"
Robinson authored Panama 1861-1907: A Personal Record of 46 Years, published in 1907, and the very rare "Song of the Palm," a collection of his poetry published in 1888. In fact, 46 Years was "Dedicated to the Memory of 'Other voices—well-loved voices, that have died,' " and almost certainly that dedication would include Gilbert, who had just passed away. Robinson was buried alongside his dear old friend in Colon's Mt. Hope Cemetery a year later.
Gilbert's first poems—collectively entitled “Gilbertiana”—were published in 1890, shortly after Robinson's collection, and Robinson may have encouraged him. A quote from Robinson's Song of the Palm appears on the cover of several editions of Panama Patchwork.
Gilbert first published Panama Patchwork in 1901, the Burr Printing House Edition, copyrighted in 1900. This edition contained new work along with poems from the 1890 “Gilbertiana” and 1894's “The Fall of Old Panama, Etc.” It opens with "Proem" on the frontispiece, and its title page defines "Patchwork" as "Something irregularly or clumsily composed—Webster." The First Edition is dedicated to "J.M.H., To him who strives to find in every man / Some kindly impulse or some noble trait; / Who knows his own, and hence doth mildly scan / His brothers' faults, this book I dedicate." Following the dedication is a brief "Explanatory" by the poet. The First Edition contains just 87 poems.
The Second Edition was published in Panama by The Star & Herald Company in 1905, and contained the introduction by Tracy Robinson. The title page notes, "Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged." The 1905 edition is "Dedicated to the Patriot Doctor Manuel Amador Guerrero, First President of the Republic of Panama, Born into the Great Family of Nations November 3, 1903." "Hail Panama" makes its first appearance in this volume, and Gilbert includes an "Introductory" by his friend Robinson. This is the first use of the "Palm Tree P" in the cover artwork, a logo which would later return. This edition also contains the "long grass" Statue of Columbus and the Indian Girl. Two poems—In Quarantine and The Devil's Gift—appear only in this edition, with Epilogue seeming to be a chapter of In Quarantine, due to its page location and the size of its title. In fact, the brief Epilogue does not appear in the Table of Contents in the Second Edition.
The Third Edition first appeared in 1906, shortly before the poet's death. Robinson notes the addition of "nearly 20" poems in this edition. It was published by Robert Greer Cooke, Inc. in New York. This, the most common, edition has several variations in date, publisher and cover art. Following Gilbert's death, it was printed by The Trow Press and The Star & Herald Company (see below). The Third Edition uses the Statue of Columbus and the Indian Girl with the grass neatly manicured. It's dedicated "To President Theodore Roosevelt, in honor of his noble determination that the great Panama Canal shall be made, for the glory of America, and for the future benefit of all nations, this book is dedicated, with profound respect." It reprints the "Introductory" as the "Introduction to the Second Edition," and adds a "Foreword to the Third Edition." There are 103 poems. This edition was also printed by the Star & Herald Company, New York and Panama, by The Trow Press, New York in 1906 and 1908, with the frontispiece statue photo changing to a portrait of the late poet in 1908.
The 1909 and 1911 Editions were published by The Trow Press, New York, and are notable for being copyrighted (in 1909) by Tracy Robinson. These return to the "Palm Tree P" cover, in red cloth, and include the "Obituary."
The illustrated "Mystery Edition" was certainly published after Gilbert's death, as it includes the date of his death under the poet's photo on the frontispiece, and the Obituary. However, no other dates or publisher's information appear. None of Robinson's work is included. There are at least three different colors of cloth cover, in red, brown and olive green. This book contains black and white photos on one-sided glossy insert pages typical of that period. There are 102 poems.
A Special Edition was published in Panama in 1917 by E. de Brucq, Cristobal and Colon, Isthmus of Panama.
A "Sixth" Edition was published by J.V. Beverhoudt, Cristobal and Colon, Isthmus of Panama, in 1920. The publisher probably counts the "Mystery Edition" and either the Robinson Copyright or de Brucq Editions as unnumbered Editions "Four" and "Five." However, as this volume seems a close reprint of de Brucq, Robinson seems more likely.
The 1937 Star & Herald Memorial Edition, printed in Panama, was largely based on the Robinson's 3rd Edition. It contains additional photos, including Gilbert's former home and his grave marker, along with editorial material, a biography and a glossary written by Editor W.C. Haskins.