Title: William D. O'Connor to Walt Whitman, 20 May 1882
Date: May 20, 1882
Source: Transcribed from digital images or a microfilm reproduction of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.
Location: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Whitman Archive ID: loc.03042
Contributors to digital file: Stefan Schöberlein, Nima Najafi Kianfar, Eder Jaramillo, and Nicole Gray
May 20, 1882
I have yours of the 17th, and also your picture, for which many thanks. It is a fine presentment.
My article has gone to the Tribune with a note to Whitelaw Reid, and we await the result. I hope, if it appears, you will like it. Of course, you are not in any way responsible for it, and this is the position for you to take. Learning the facts, I use the independent privilege of a friend, and of a citizen, to criticise the offenders. I alone am responsible.
I composed the article under great affliction, for as the devil would have it, there were several days of shocking raw weather, followed by five consecutive days of rain, and I got the influenza, and was half dead with headache, a racking cough and all the accompaniments. Nothing therefore was right for composition but the heart. Despite conditions, Charley Eldridge, who got here from California in time to read what I have written, and of whose cool-headedness and judgmatical quality I think highly, considers it the best thing I have done, which I hope will prove true. At all events, if it gets printed, it will be the opening gun in a tremendous cannonade, and we will have war on the enemy in England at any rate, which is what will hurt Oliver Stevens and company here.
My object is to smoke the hidden movers in this business out of their holes, and I kept this in mind through the whole composition. Hence, although I knew that Marston was behind the Boston attorney, I took care not to even mention his name, but focussed all my fire right upon Oliver Stevens, who, you know, is the only one that appears officially in the transaction. He will never endure to be exclusively blistered in this way, but will in defence inculpate the State Attorney General. The minute he brings him forward, I will give them both the devil. In the present article, I have been very guarded, and have interwoven fury with moderation, but when we get Marston to the front, there will be augmented fire for his hide, and I hope to make it so intolerable for him, that he will in self-defence peach on the holy citizens who have egged him on. Then, when we get their names, will be the time for punishment, memorable and terrible. They shall never be forgotten. The whole gang shall hang in chains for all time.
This must be our object—to discover the history of this persecution—the names of the subterranean movers. You must help me in this all you can. Perhaps Lathrop can discover.
You are quite right in feeling as you do toward Osgood & Co., besides being magnanimous, but it is not for me, nor for anyone else to approve their course, which has simply been on the lowest plane of huckster prudence. You had grounds against them for an action for damages. They solicited your book, they knew its character, they agreed to non-expurgation, and at the first breath of trouble, they flunked. It is all right for you to take such an attitude as you do toward them—for you personally; but my part, and the part of all your friends, is to whale them. You, of course, are not responsible.
I have a strong suspicion that when the truth comes to be known, the Rev. Thomas Wentworth Higginson will be found behind the State Attorney General as an instigator. His tone toward you, in the Woman's Journal article (and the Nation was probably his,) shows extreme venom. I know him, and know just where he is vulnerable, and will in due time plant a javelin where it will do him good.
I have seen and read twice your article in the N. A. Review. It is splendid, and cannot fail to do good. I only wish the style was a little clearer. I like better your earlier manner, so free from sub-clauses, involutions, parentheses—so direct and simple. In this country, in this age, when the necessity is upon us of addressing the whole people, and not the college professors or bookmen merely, I set extreme value upon communication. To be readily apprehended by your auditory is, the truth being yours, the whole battle.
Your position in the Review article is impregnable. Gibraltar is less strong. It only remains to show the relations of poetic statements to these didactic truths. With many excellent people, especially when devoid of imagination, the trouble is to accept a passional expression, though they are quite willing to accept one simply descriptive, as in a physiological treatise. We live in a cursed abyss of society. Everything is sophisticated, everything polluted. To a sane man or woman it is simply monstrous that the august and tender supra-mortal experience of a nuptial night, cannot be put into living poetry.
—I hope my Tribune letter will appear and be satisfactory to you. It cost me great pains, as I had to move gingerly and with audacity at the same time. You will see how I have worked Emerson's letter against Stevens like an engine.
You must be careful in what you say of Emerson's position toward your amative passages. You have often told us that in his talk with you on the Common he had nothing to say on intrinsic grounds against these passages, but only on commercial or popular grounds. I remember your telling me that it was the saddest thing you ever heard that Emerson had nothing to urge in all his vehement talk, but that the exclusion of these passages would make the book sell better. Nor could he have had. These passages are capable of the most unanswerable vindication on purely intellectual grounds merely, not to go deeper, and this Emerson knew. In his letter to you he approves them. What else does his panegyric on your "courage of treatment" mean?—I mention this because I have thought from your way of mentioning the matter, that the enemy might say that you had allowed that Emerson was opposed to these passages on moral grounds, which would be untrue.
W. D. O'Connor.