Commentary

Disciples


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 50] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Friday, April 20, 1888.

      "Emerson's objections to the outcast passages in Leaves of Grass," said W. tonight, "were neither moral nor literary, but were given with an eye to my worldly success. [See indexical note p050.3] He believed the book would sell—said that the American people should know the book: yes, would know it but for its sex handicap: and he thought he saw the way by which to accomplish what he called 'the desirable end.' He did not say I should drop a single line—he did not put it that way at

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 51] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
all: he asked whether I could consent to eliminate certain popularly objectionable poems and passages. Emerson's position has been misunderstood: he offered absolutely no spiritual argument against the book exactly as it stood. Give it a chance to be seen, give the people a chance to want to see it—that was the gist of his contention. [See indexical note p051.1] If there was any weakness in his position it was in his idea that the particular poems could be dropped and the Leaves remain the Leaves still: he did not see the significance of the sex element as I had put it into the book and resolutely there stuck to it—he did not see that if I had cut sex out I might just as well have cut everything out—the full scheme would no longer exist—it would have been violated in its most sensitive spot."

      [See indexical note p051.2] I read W. a story about Turner—how he had on varnishing day once blacked out one of his brilliant canvases in order to save some adjacent pictures of other men from the destructive contrast. W. exclaimed: "Beautiful! beautiful! It's as fine as anything in Plutarch. The common heroisms of life are anyhow the real heroisms; the impressive heroisms; not the military kind, not the political kind: just the ordinary world kind, the bits of brave conduct happening about us: things that don't get into the papers—things that the preachers don't thank God for in their pulpits—the real things, nevertheless—the only things that eventuate in a good harvest."

      [See indexical note p051.3] As I left W. put into my hands an O'Connor letter, old date, of which he said: "Put this with your Emerson papers: it throws more light on Emerson matters: O'Connor is always throwing light on things—lavishing light, we might say: vehement, penetrating light: light that nothing can stand up against. William is a torrent—he sweeps everything before him. [See indexical note p051.4] This letter is only one letter of many letters—all of them alike in that: alike in their power to make themselves felt. I don't believe William ever wrote

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 52] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
an inconsequential letter—ever wrote in a muffled key: ever was commonplace, ever was in the evil sense of that word diplomatic. No—no. He was always outright—took the immediate course—refused all roundabout methods. But read the letter. It is like a plunging, irresistible overflow of mad waters: read the letter."


Washington, D.C., June 3, 1882.

Dear Walt:

Your two letters, full of memoranda, of May 28 and 30, came duly. [See indexical note p052.1] I have "toiled terribly," as Cecil said of Raleigh, and sent off another letter to The Tribune, which I think will make Mr. Chadwick wear a toupee, for I have snatched him baldheaded. It has cost me great labor, though you may not think so when you read it, it runs off so savagely easy; but the difficulty in a controversy of this kind is to mould everything so as not to lay yourself open, and to give no points to the enemy, and this costs time and care. My old fencing-master, Boulet, (no better ever lived; he taught once at West Point,) taught me always to cover my breast with hilt and point, even in the lunge, and I think of his lessons when engaged in fence of another kind. [See indexical note p052.2] I hope I have succeeded in being both guarded and bold in this new encounter with Chadwick.

I have freely used the memoranda you sent, and got in as much of it as I could see my way to employ, and as much as I dared. I think you will feel satisfied with the use I have made of it. Some things I thought it prudent to withhold, because they might provoke replication when we are not in a position to defend ourselves, not being ever sure that a single organ is open to us.

You must be very careful in this matter. [See indexical note p052.3] Even words must be carefully chosen, for the enemy is unscrupulous and uses every advantage we give him. I came near getting into a pretty scrape by trusting to your memorandum about the appearance of Emerson's letter in Cooke's memoir published

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 53] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
by Osgood. It was a splendid point to make, that the letter appeared verbatim in a book issued with Emerson's own sanction a year ago, and I worked it in and made the most of it. But at the last I thought it would be prudent to see the book, and there was the letter sure enough, but with a lot of remarks by the editor to the effect that "it is understood" (the usual sneaking lie in putting it) that Emerson had considerably modified his feeling, and regretted, etc. etc. [See indexical note p053.1] Fortunately, there is not a word in the preface to show that the book had Emerson's sanction,—but just see the scrape I would have been in had I used the information in the shape you sent it!! Indeed, Walt, you ought to be more careful. "A wild and many-weaponed throng, hang on our front and flank and rear." [See indexical note p053.2] If I had said that the letter was reprinted in a book with Emerson's sanction, Chadwick would have had me. Our stronghold is the Emerson letter, unretracted by himself. Next thing we shall have to meet will be the stories of what Emerson said to this man and that man. We must deny them all, and call for proof. Let us admit nothing. Make the other side prove their allegations.


I hope my new letter will be as successful with you and the public as the first. [See indexical note p053.3] My aim has been to shut Chadwick up for good, for I don't want to be bothered on a side issue by this egotistic jackass.

Letters are pouring in upon me. One from John Hay, very cordial. One from the Melancholy Club of New York, very overflowing, inviting me to a grand supper to be given on Saturday (this) evening in honor of you and of my letter. Have you been invited? And who are the Melancholy Club men of Lexington Avenue? [See indexical note p053.4] I returned them a civil letter of regret at my inability to be present, etc., and consoled them by offering as a toast "old Selden's trumpet sentence—'Before all things, Liberty!'"—"Words," I said, "which are good to remember when thought is menaced by

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 54] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
law." I have had a number of other letters from persons unknown. [See indexical note p054.1] One from Bucke, quite jubilant over my letter, and telling me the fix I have got his book into, which is comic as a scene from Moliere. You will see the fun when you know that he had sent his MS. to Osgood!! I also got a letter from John Burroughs, announcing his arrival, and I at once sent him a Tribune containing the letter. [See indexical note p054.2] I also have a letter from Dr. Channing at Providence, red-hot for you, and proposing to reprint my Good Gray Poet at his expense!!


There has been quite a swarming of people after me. The press notices are generally favorable and hearty. I hope nothing adverse or disastrous will happen. I want the matter to result in your getting a publisher, as it ought.

Watch the Tribune for my anti-Chadwick. [See indexical note p054.3] I hardly think it will fail to bring him down. At the last moment, after two days of anxious cogitation, I cut out of it several pages of really withering ridicule, excellent in itself, but positively injurious to the main effect. You see how solely I consider the interests of our cause—sacrificing thereto my choicest satirical felicities!

Good bye!

Yours faithfully

W. D. O'Connor.


      [See indexical note p054.4] When W. saw I was through reading this vigorous letter he said: "That's like a battle-ship firing both sides and fore and aft: no man in America carries as big an armament for controversy as William—can do as heavy immediate execution. I would hate to be in his way myself—to have him feel me to be an obstruction, that he had to strike me down; I'd far rather have him on my side. I was going to say What a fighter! I won't say that: I will say: What a lover! For, after all, William is a lover: after all? yes—and before all, too."


Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.