Commentary

Disciples


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Thursday, May 3, 1888.

     In with W. "I've had a bad day of it," he said as I raised the light— "a bad day altogether." He was on the sofa. I told him I had seen the Hempsteads about the Mount Temple gift. [See indexical note p094.3] Who was the Lady Mount Temple? What had she done? "I know little about her. She is not literary: but she is evidently a reader of books. I have had several letters from her—she has bought several copies of Leaves of Grass direct from me. She is a friend of my Quaker friend, Mary Costelloe: it was no doubt through Mary that we came together." "You are constantly getting gifts. You take them very composedly." "Why shouldn't I? They are pleasant—we all like to be tickled, to be soft-soaped: we like to have our fur rubbed the right way."

      [See indexical note p094.4] W. again: "I had a Boston visitor today: Thayer, a young man, a Cambridge man, author of The Confessions of Hermes, published last year—a good fellow, interesting, of means I judge, who has travelled and makes a facile talker.

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Thayer,"
he reasoned, "is fairly a type of the literary feller—the class that looks upon literature as an exercise—as a bit of legerdemain—who have nothing native to themselves to give, but who keep right on writing, for what end God only knows. [See indexical note p095.1] The Confessions was written in the form of Pope—of the Essay on Man." "Well—what did the thing come to?" "He unpacked himself in it—that's about all I can say." "Is Thayer radical?" "I think so—in his proclivities—but, like men of that class, always making I would not wait upon I should."

     W. said he had just heard from Rhys, writing from the Union League, New York, on his way to Baltimore and to Philadelphia. [See indexical note p095.2] "We will see him again before he takes his steamer for the return trip." "What do you think, Horace? He didn't, he will not, go to see Niagara. Think of a man coming to America and not seeing Niagara! It's refreshing. All the strangers come over and see a few of the ostentatious things and then feel satisfied that they are equipped for literary service. The foreign professionals cross the sea, visit Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago—see a few elect people—hurry, skurry—then go back again and write a book: all in a breath—all over night, metaphorically speaking. [See indexical note p095.3] Do you think they know America? Not a bit of it. I do not mean to connect these people with Rhys—I am only speaking of the average traveller and his less than average work. I do not know that his position, or his offense, is a singular one. Don't most men who write write without knowing life? Write all over the surface of the earth, never dig a foot into the ground—everlastingly write."

     W. talked of Arnold. "Arnold had no genius—only a peculiarly clever order of refined talent. [See indexical note p095.4] Arnold is much that sort of man who would be in his place as Keeper of Her Majesty's Despatches, careful that never a word be misapplied or misspelled—or he might serve as a tutor for

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gentlemen's sons, or sons of lords: but as for genius—no—no—not at all—that is not there. These men have their functioning to do—they are not waste, they are not useless: but they do not inspire—they do not lift you off your feet—they are without inspiration. [See indexical note p096.1] They make more fuss over foliage than root, if that may be: think the foliage may be superior to the root—neglect the root. Well—I mustn't go on too much about Arnold. I do not feel myself to be against him in any way: but so much is made of the Arnold type of man that we are liable to miss our normal gauge of value."

     I mentioned Lafcadio Hearn. [See indexical note p096.2] W. said: "My attention was first called to him by William O'Connor, who may have met him personally—I don't feel clear on that point—but who at any rate entertained great hopes for his future—hopes that are being justified. I had one of his books here which Dr. Bucke carried off with him. Hearn has a delicate beautiful nature: he got into instant rapport with the Japanese. These story writers do not as a rule reach me—I find they stay too much on the surface of the ground. [See indexical note p096.3] I have tried to read Cable—have read several of his stories—Madame Delphine for one, brought here by Logan Smith. They are modelled on the French—show great delicacy, precision, analysis: a capacity for taking up a single act or character—a fragment—and working it out to an extreme individual conclusion, meanwhile missing the law, missing the general atmosphere. [See indexical note p096.4] I think the American theory would be, should be, must be, something different. My taste has been modelled on another theory—in the school of Scott, of Cooper, of some others of the older writers. How much I am indebted to Scott no one can tell—I couldn't tell it myself—but it has permeated me through and through. If you could reduce the Leaves to their elements you would see Scott unmistakably active at the roots. [See indexical note p096.5] I remember the Tales of my Landlord, Ivanhoe, The Fortunes of Nigel—

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yes, and Kenilworth—its great pageantry—then there's The Heart of Midlothian, which I have read a dozen times and more. I might say just about the same thing about Cooper, too. [See indexical note p097.1] He has written books which will survive into the farthest future. Try to think of literature, of the world of boys, today, without Natty Bumppo, The Spy, The Red Rover—Oh the Red Rover—it used to stir me up clarionlike: I read it many times. Is all this old fashioned? I am not sworn to the old things—not at all—that is, not to old things at the expense of new—but some of the oldest things are the newest. I should not refuse to see and welcome anyone who came to violate the precedents—on the contrary I am looking about for just such men—but a lot of the fresh things are not new—they are only repetitions after all: they do not seem to take life forward but to take it back. [See indexical note p097.2] I look for the things that take life forward—the new things, the old things, that take life forward. Scott, Cooper, such men, always, perpetually, as a matter of course, always take life forward—take each new generation forward."

     I asked W. whether he had met Cable. [See indexical note p097.3] "Yes—once: and he is the thinnest, most uninteresting, man I ever struck—the typical Sunday School superintendent, with all that that signifies. I am told that he has a class, a Sunday School class, in Boston—that he conducts it from Sunday to Sunday. I don't see how such a man could interest anybody for ten minutes, much less an afternoon. In fact, the last person from whom I should expect any inspiration would be the average Sunday School teacher—the typical good man of the churches—the pillar—the money bag of the parish, though I do not, of course, class Cable, who has undisputed parts, with the money bags. [See indexical note p097.4] To me the negative virtues of the churches are the most menacing, to me the most abhorrent, of all professed virtues." W. stopped. I waited, knowing he would go on. "The morals of the churches: they might be morals if they were not something

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else. I have always looked about to discover a word to describe the situation: how Jesus and the churches have got divorced; how the institution has destroyed the spirit. [See indexical note p098.1] It is an old story. Don't you remember how Wanamaker used to treat the Leaves in his store when McKay first published it? I understood from McKay that they originally had the Leaves in the store—considered it—but decided finally that it would not do for them in any way to seem to back up the book. I can see how all this should be all right from the dyed-in-the-wool shopkeeper point of view. [See indexical note p098.2] The store is full of goody-goody girls and men—full of them: people who have been foully taught about sex, about motherhood, about the body. It is easy to see what Leaves of Grass must look like to people with such eyes. The Leaves do not need any excuse: they do need to be understood. If I did not understand them I would dislike them myself, God knows!  [See indexical note p098.3] But all this fear of indecency, all this noise about purity and sex and the social order and the Comstockism particular and general is nasty—too nasty to make any compromise with. I never come up against it but I think of what Heine said to a woman who had expressed to him some suspicion about the body. 'Madame,' said Heine, 'are we not all naked under our clothes?'"

     I have not yet succeeded in getting the waistcoat out of customs. "A lot of red tape has first to be encountered and escaped: then the customs bill will have to be paid: that damned customs bill, as utter a piece of piracy as being held up by a robber on the high seas." [See indexical note p098.4] As I left W. called after me: "Don't think I have forgotten about the Boughs. A few days more and we will be ready. You can roll up your sleeves any time now."


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