Commentary

Disciples


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Saturday, April 7, 1888.

     W. is always a good deal interested in public discussions of the college.  [See indexical note p015.1] How much freedom could be expected in the atmosphere and teaching of the schools? "To what extent can professors and editors, scholars tied up with institutions and writers writing for their daily bread (and writing under the severest conditions) be expected to talk out and defy the formal monitors of speech?" W. says the college is "of necessity an aristocracy." We have often gone over that same ground.  [See indexical note p015.2] Today he revived the subject by producing a letter from Lathrop written to Burroughs in 1877. "This," W. contended, "shows how serious such difficulties are—how far they crawl serpent-like out from the college walls into the general world." To him Lathrop's letter was "touched with spiritual tragedy." "Hope deferred makes the heart sick—so does speech deferred." But what can a man do when he finds himself driven up against that wall? [See indexical note p015.3] "Come forward and make a peaceful surrender, be dragged out and grudgingly capitulate or stand where he is and be shot." This confession from Lathrop, W. contended, served to show why it would "be impossible for such a man, fine as he is, fine as his letter is, to really build up and round out a capacious career": there was a "lesion somewhere in his marrow." He looked at me and seemed to see some distrust in my face. "You think I am condemning Lathrop? Thousands from it! I love him—honor him: if there's anything comes short it excites my regret: I judge no one." This is the letter:


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Cambridge, May 19, '77.

My dear Mr. Burroughs,

 [See indexical note p016.1] I have just finished your book on Birds and Poets. I like your writing, always, and I have keenly enjoyed this. But you will not quarrel with me if I pass that matter over, in order to speak of Walt Whitman. Ever since I first gained some fragmentary knowledge of him thro' the pruned and lopped English edition, I have not for a moment flagged in the belief that he is our greatest poet, altogether, and beyond any measurement. He threw open a wide gate for me, and I passed through it gladly—thinking to be able in my separate way to make a kind of companionship with him. [See indexical note p016.2] From the start, my intentions have been very different in some respects from those of which he has given such huge exemplification; but, as I took to his poetry without any premonitory shrinking, and felt that at last here was something real, I knew that I should in some measure respond to his voice in what I should do, however far off, however fainter, and however much unlike in seeming it might be.

But my circumstances have been strangely hampering. I find myself in the midst of the camp which adheres to the old and the conventional. I am an accepted servant in it, trying to pass through my bondage patiently, working year after year in a roundabout way slowly trying to secure my position, and hoping at last to be able to let out the accumulating thunder in my own way. I get my hands loose now and then, and feel that I have done a little something. This much I thought it necessary to say because I suppose you at a distance hardly imagine that a young Cambridge literary apprentice can say his soul's his own or cherish in himself a whole revolution against the powers whom for a time he is working with. [See indexical note p016.3] I say it also, to explain why I would like now to convey through you to Walt Whitman some message expressing the fact that I have long wished to speak a word of gratitude to him. To a man so wronged

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even this little tribute may have its value. It is also a great satisfaction to me to think of speaking the truth about him to him and through one who understands it. [See indexical note p017.1] There are two persons hereabouts who appreciate Whitman, whom I know. Doubtless there are many more who are unknown to me. But I can believe that the scoffing narrowness which meets any avowal of their appreciation has driven them, as it has me, to preserve silence.


It is a great pity his works are not really published, and I have been wondering, long, how to get them. I have nothing but Rossetti's edition. Is there no way of obtaining them? I should be very glad if you would inform me as to this.

I frequently debate plans of some change of base, so as to secure something approaching independence. I was not born in New England, tho' of Puritan descent, but in the tropics. [See indexical note p017.2] I like many things here and dislike others as much. I am a great lover of cities for their crowds, their human sublimities and horrors, yet carry always an insatiable yearning for the wilds. I don't know where to go, if I go from here, where I am now editing the Atlantic with Mr. Howells; but I have before now thought of your region. I have no map showing Esopus. Is it in the Highlands—anything like Milton? Would you be willing to tell me something of your mode of life, or whether one can subsist in that vicinity on slender means?

Sincerely yours,

G. P. Lathrop.



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