Commentary

Disciples


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Sunday, May 6, 1888.

     W. drove up to Harned's at six, evening. Seemed rather feeble as he alighted, but joyous. The open air had done him good. "It's fine to see the green again. I wonder how many more springs I will last? [See indexical note p107.3] Not many, I guess. You should see the wheat—wheat, wheat, everywhere. How tired, how good, I feel! Very tired, O very—but not sick. The sweet sun has got into all my old bones."

     Here are a few of W.'s detached sayings from the talk today: "I believe in the eligibility of the human soul for all perfect things." "All the 'great phases' in history are no doubt fictions." [See indexical note p107.4] "There's a beautiful woman: she is not beautiful alone or chiefly because of her eyes, her complexion, the mellowness of her body, though these, too, play their parts, but because of a certain unity, atmosphere, a certain balance of light and shade, which accounts for every detail—finally gives the detail its proper environment: yes, takes leave of the detail in the whole." "I believe in saints if they're far enough off."


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     W. spoke of "the nebulous South American republics which one day will melt in our North American sun." [See indexical note p108.1] Corning present. Talked again of Greek art. W. said: "I have always wished to know more about certain mysteries in Greek art—of Greek painting and music—their comparative primitiveness as compared with their literature and sculpture." [See indexical note p108.2] Had been looking over Notes and Queries. "It is a sort of small bug business. You have to take a magnifying glass to inspect the arguments." "I have this morning sent to The Herald the last little poem I had."

     W. talked humorously of portraits, of traditions about public men. "I meet new Walt Whitmans every day. There are a dozen of me afloat. [See indexical note p108.3] I don't know which Walt Whitman I am. Now, there's Abraham Lincoln: people get to know his traits, his habits of life, some of his characteristics set off in the most positive relief: soon all sorts of stories are fathered on him—some of them true, some of them apocryphal—volumes of stories (stories decent and indecent) fathered on him: legitimate stories, illegitimate: and so Lincoln comes to us more or less falsified. [See indexical note p108.4] Yet I know that the hero is after all greater than any idealization. Undoubtedly—just as the man is greater than his portrait—the landscape than the picture of it—the fact than anything we can say about the fact. While I accept the records I think we know very little of the actual. I often reflect, how very different every fellow must have been from the fellow we come upon in the myths—with the surroundings, the incidents, the push and pull of the concrete moment, all left out or wrongly set forth. [See indexical note p108.5] It is hard to extract a man's real self—any man—from such a chaotic mass—from such historical debris.

      [See indexical note p108.6] At the table there was a discussion started upon the need for preaching. "I am radical, severe, on that point," said W., "I am not willing to admit that we have any further serious use for the old style authoritative preacher. As I

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was telling Horace yesterday, we might as well think of curing people of the measles, the smallpox, what not, by mere sermonizings, yawpings, as of saving their souls by such tactics. [See indexical note p109.1] The world has got away from that. I do not mean by this that the mind may not be an aid in the cure of disease, in the saving of souls, as they call it—yes—I only mean that no amount of formal, salaried petitioning of God will serve to work out the result aimed for."
But were not the old orthodoxies necessary? Would they still exist if they were not necessary? "Necessary? In a sense, yes. In another sense, no. Take that Methodist church we were talking about awhile ago—do you call that necessary? [See indexical note p109.2] It exists, therefore it's necessary. That is good enough as far as it goes. If it is necessary the symptom it exposes is a sad one. You speak of that particular church? If the truth was told about it—the record compiled of things begun there, finished there, of things conceived and executed there—you would find it was a house of assignation—a bagnio—rather than a church. Have you ever been to a darky camp-meeting in the south? Do you know what it signifies? Well—that is the church we have been speaking about. It is a darky camp-meeting with all the attachments thereof—the foul attachments. You think I stand for freedom and that this is only freedom. No—no—no—it is not freedom. [See indexical note p109.3] It is abandon, surrender." Corning interjected a few mild protests which, however, had no effect on W. "The whole ideal of the church is low, loathsome, horrible—a sort of moral negation—as if men got down in the mud to worship—delighting in the filth: out of touch entirely with the great struggles of contemporary humanity."

     W. talked then of America: "It is said reproachfully of America that she is material, but that to me is her glory—the body must precede the soul: the body is the other side of the soul." [See indexical note p109.4] Corning asked: "Is that not like putting off the good thing for the bad?" "No—not at all—not more

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than youth is a putting off of maturity. It is the necessity of the process: the railways, mines, markets—the eatings and drinkings—all steered for one end in America's purpose. I do not believe in the body as an end, of course, but as a beginning, or rather, as a necessary item in the combinations of material that go to the making of a man."

      [See indexical note p110.1] Of the announced reply of Ingersoll to Gladstone W. said: "I do not assent to Gladstone's claim upon the attention of scholars: I do not feel that he deserves it: either for his Homeric or theological—perhaps not even for his political—work—though, I acknowledge, something may be really said about his politics. I think Gladstone a wearisome old man determined to keep in the swim till he dies. Take Emerson's old age: how much more beautiful it was: not meddlesome, not insistent: yes, take Darwin's old age, too: how clean it was kept—how sanely and equably sufficient. [See indexical note p110.2] Gladstone seems restless to be seen and heard like a fourth-rate theatrical star."

     In answering the question: "Do you think the church could be safely destroyed?" W. replied: "Yes, why not? Men make churches: men may destroy churches. I see no use for the church: it lags superfluous on the stage. Yet that is not the whole story. [See indexical note p110.3] That's my part of the story. I suppose we must concede that all these things, these social furbelows, have a reason for being."

     W. said: "I believe in immortality, and by that I mean identity. I know I have arrived at this result more by what may be called feeling than formal reason—but I believe it: yes, I know it. [See indexical note p110.4] I am easily put to flight, I assure you, when attacked, but I return to the faith, inevitably—believe it, and stick to it, to the end. Emerson somewhere speaks of encountering irresistable logic and yet standing fast to his conviction. There is judgment back of judgment—defeat only seems like defeat: there is a fierce fight: the smoke is gone—your enemies are nowhere to be seen—you are placidly

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victorious after all—the finish of the day is yours. Logic does very little for me: my enemies say it, meaning one thing—I say it, meaning another thing."
 [See indexical note p111.1] This, also, from W.: "Howells, Aldrich, good fellows: I have met them and like them (Howells especially is genial and ample—rather inclined to be big—full size)—but they are thin—no weight: such men are in certain ways important—they run a few temporary errands but they are not out for immortal service: perhaps even Hawthorne, though not surely Hawthorne: Hawthorne, in whom there is a morbid streak to which I can never accomodate myself. [See indexical note p111.2] I call this thing in our modern literature delirium tremens." Some one kicked. Hawthorne deserved to be exempt from this classification. "Well—you may be right: I know he was a man of talent, even genius: he was even a master, yes a master, within certain limits. Still, I think he is monotonous, he wears me out: I do not read him with pleasure."

     Before I left W. asked me: "What did you make of the Trowbridge memorandum I gave you the other day?" [See indexical note p111.3] I asked in return. "What did you make out of the Emerson item? You have said you thought Emerson never qualified. Here you say he did." W. replied at once: "There was an if attached. If Trowbridge understood right, if, if—but who can decide about that if? Since that story, since that if, other things have occurred to make the Trowbridge version seem impossible. I have had letters myself from here and there tending to show that Emerson was rather silenced than changed." "Don't you think we are making too much of this Emerson business any way?" [See indexical note p111.4] "Yes I do—let us drop it—drop it right here. O'Connor used to make the plea that he kept harping upon it not because it would help Walt Whitman to have the thing settled right but because it would help Waldo Emerson. After all it don't much matter what Emerson thought of me or what I thought of him. The public want to know whether I have been an honest servant

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—whether I have stuck to my guns (to their guns): Emerson the same: I reckon that tells the whole tale so far as the public is concerned."
 [See indexical note p112.1] W. futher said: "The New England crowd below stairs didn't like me—couldn't stand me—good or bad felt they must declare against me. And that was right. I could only have commanded their approval by being false to the job I had to do. I have been turning over that bit of ground a little today. This letter from Professor Palmer recalled it." Passing an envelope over to me. "See how he looks at me. He is sweet, affable, courteous: he takes me, not for all in all but for part in part, this or that—yes, with mild qualification: yet he takes me on good behavior. I like all these fellows—they are hearty, as far as they dare be, as far as their scholarliness will let them be, but they never quite know when to say yes and let yes be." This is the letter, which W. finally called "a characteristic whiff from Cambridge with a leaning towards mercy."


Cambridge, Feb. 20, 1885.

Dear Mr. Whitman:

I want to thank you for the beautiful photograph of yourself sent through Miss Smith. [See indexical note p112.2] It is too true a likeness of you as you are to represent the author of the Leaves of Grass. The picture which hung on yr wall showed that person better—his paganism, his full senses, his readiness to identify himself with all things, his insubordination, and his recklessness of the fine relations which change a world of things into a world of persons. If I could prefer a poet to a man, I should like that picture better. But this will be the best reminder of the beautiful ripened spirit who met me in Camden and said: "I did the work sincerely. [See indexical note p112.3] So it is honorable. God shall use it to help men, or else let him throw it away."

With warm regard, I am

Sincerely yours,

G. H. Palmer.



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