Commentary

Disciples


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Thursday, April 19, 1888.

     In with W. Alluded again to Arnold. "I am apt at times to go back on my pieces: this Herald piece, now—it's not all that could be said: it don't say my say for me in the most conclusive way. [See indexical note p047.3] I'm not sure it's well to put yourself on record with such dispatch. I always say I won't do it: then I go do it." Still reading the Boswell. "I am convinced as I get farther along that Johnson was none too veracious—that he was on stilts, always—he belongs to the self-conscious literary class, who live in a house of rules and never get into the open air. Take Arnold, again. I have been looking a little into his poetry today. [See indexical note p047.4] It is fine—wonderful fine—like some delicate, precious bit of porcelain, of china, but it is fragile, it lacks substance." W. went back to Johnson. "As I read I think of a funny story Mary Davis tells me of some one who said once in a sudden humor: 'I feel like eating dough!' I don't feel like eating dough

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—I feel as if I had eaten it. Johnson fills me with a great heaviness. He gives me no lifts—never takes me up anywhere; always fastens me to the earth."
Again: "I reckon I was not made to understand the scribbling class—perhaps they were not made to understand me. We seem to have been made for different jobs. I am doing my job in my way: it don't suit them: they growl, curse, ridicule: but what is left for Walt Whitman to do but complete the job in the most workmanlike fashion he knows?"

     W. quizzed in this way: "When you write do you take anybody's advice about writing? [See indexical note p048.1] Don't do it: nothing will so mix you up as advice. If a fellow wants to keep clear about himself he must first of all swear a big oath that he'll never take any advice."

     W. brought up the subject of November Boughs. When would he bring the book out? "I don't know: I get up some mornings and say, this is the day: but somehow before the day is over I see this is not the day: yet it will come out, and before long, God willing, and you, Horace Traubel, willing: for I shall need you to help me through with this expedition. [See indexical note p048.2] If you go back on me now I might just as well fold my sails." He produced the mass of papers going to make up the copy for November Boughs: a bundle of letters, reprints, new manuscript, pictures, tied together with a bit of coarse string. "This is the sacred package," he explained, solemnly. "It is ready for the printer, ready this minute, but I do not seem to pluck up the courage to get the enterprise under way." [See indexical note p048.3] Alluded to his memory: "It lasts—lasts wonderfully well: it plays me some tricks—but then it always did: it is not a marvellous, only a decently good, memory. I remember that the Broadway stage-coachmen could turn back over a month's confusion of trips—tell with readiness and accuracy the tally-numbers of passengers of the up and down rides of any hour that could be named—the records being always kept in this simple fashion by the

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then illiterate men. What kind of a light would my little memory make alongside such faculty as that?"
W. brought out a soiled letter written on a couple of sheets of common proof paper and suggested that I should see what he had inscribed upon the corner with red ink: "beautiful good letter June '82."


Chicago May 21.

Walt Whitman.

I don't feel that I should apologize for writing to you. I have wanted to do so for years. [See indexical note p049.1] I have loved you for years with my whole heart and soul. No man ever lived whom I have so desired to take by the hand as you. I read Leaves of Grass, and got new conceptions of the dignity and beauty of my own body and of the bodies of other people; and life became more valuable in consequence. After a year or two—always carrying you in my thoughts—holding imaginary conversations with you and dreaming of you day and night, I came across a lady who knew you, Miss Lizzie Denton Seybold, now Becker. She had your portrait painted in oil. I made every effort to induce her to let me have the picture, but she would not. [See indexical note p049.2] Since that time—I was living in glorious California then—I have read with deepest interest every word about you in the papers and magazines, as well as everything you have written. Sometimes I have been furious at what immodest people, idiots, have dared say of you and have longed to write my own pure and true convictions of you. But I cannot—I am too impetuous; I feel my subject too deeply. And yet I am a writer and make a living by my pen. Now that I have come east this far, where I am employed as editor on the Saturday Express, I have the hope that I may sometime see your dearly beloved face, touch with my hand your beautiful gray hair, and possibly feel your arm about my waist. Because I love you so I have written these lines. It is nothing to me who sees them. I am proud of my feeling for you. It has educated me; it has done more to raise

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me from a poor working woman to a splendid position on one of the best papers ever published, than all the other influences of my life.


 [See indexical note p050.1] I know you must have many letters from strangers, and so I will not take any more of your time in reading what I have to say. Of course I have no hope of recieving an answer to this. But I thought it no harm to let you know that my love went with you, and perhaps in some unknown way was a blessing to you all these years.

Good-bye dear Walt Whitman—my beloved, and may every influence in life contribute to your happiness.

Most lovingly your friend

Helen Wilmans.


     W. waited till I had read this letter. Then he exclaimed: "Well, how does that strike you? [See indexical note p050.2] Don't you think that's a bright letter for a dark day? I like these letters from people I don't know, from people who don't know me, these confessions of love, these little 'how do you dos' that appear every now and then out of mysterious obscure places. I know some people will damn me and some will save me—the big guns who noise about the world: I don't know as it affects me either way. But such a letter as this has a verity, a sureness, a solid reason for itself, which gives it special value. I confess it pushed clean into my vitals."


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