Commentary

Disciples


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Tuesday, October 23, 1888.

     8 P. M. W. reading Illustrations—an English periodical.

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"I have been trying to find out what it is: have got this far"—indicating: "It seems to be an advertising sheet." Talked for over an hour—one of the best, most vigorous, talks for a month. "I count this one of my very best days, taking it altogether." Gave me a copy of Open Court which Kennedy had sent on. Returned W. Kennedy's letter. He asked me again: "Gushing, isn't it? Too much so, don't you think? How does it strike you? As a confession of faith? Some one here the other day said Kennedy was no kind of punkins anyhow: I said, Kennedy was not to be sneered away. Then they said: 'He has done nothing of note'—to which I answered: 'Well, what does that matter? It's in him—he's young—as Disraeli said of Byron: remember his youth.'" Kennedy writes pointing out some spelling errors in N. B. W. says: "I attach little importance to them: I do not know that I would go a great way to correct them."

     Saw McKay today. He acquiesced in W.'s new price for N. B. No "fighting it out" necessary. Asks W. on the other hand to sign a paper giving McKay a right to sell N. B. until the end of 1890. W. says he will keep the signed sheets in the house and only send them to the binder's when necessary in small lots. W. is still reading the sheets of the big book. After having gone over seven hundred pages he found one error. "That's pretty good for my book," he said. I had a proof of the title portrait with me at last. After having seen that it was a success, I wrote at once to Bucke to say so and to say that I expected W. to be pleased and to spend a happy evening with him in consequence. I had ordered a reproduction of the original without any accentuation of light and shade whatever, much less changes. When I handed the sheet out to W. he looked at it for a moment with a very anxious face: then broke into a serene smile. "I am satisfied," he said. Then he went on: "What does it express? Does it say anything to you? To me it has a charm in what it don't say—because it says nothing in particular—suggests, what? Not inattention, not intentness, not devil-may-care, not intellectuality: then what is it?" He studied it that way between his own questions and answers.

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"It is truth—that is enough to say: it is strong—it preserves the features: yet it is also indefinite with an indefiniteness that has a fascination of its own. I know this head is not favored, but I approve it—have liked it from the first." He added: "I think we must get seven hundred of these printed: six hundred or so for the book—a hundred for me." Then he looked at it gladly once more. "It is fine indeed: I am almost tempted to put it in the book as it is, without the lettering." But then: "There has been a place set for it and there it should go." Decided to get electro of title-page engraving. W. gave me fifteen dollars for several matters now about done—saying: "You should have that, anyhow—there's little enough, nothing, for you, but work, work, work." Then: "You've heard the story of the valet who was packing up for his master? The master asked him: 'Are you sure, now, that you have everything belonging to me—every scrap of my property?' and the man looked at him and answered: 'Yes, my lord—at least!'—and I think you should take a lesson out of that yourself."

     W. discussed an argument he had read for a universal language. "Language cannot be made by Gosses—cannot be manufactured: must grow as the trees grow. I can say I doubt the compatibility of a universal language—yet, I honor, respect, the ambition of those who idealize about it. I am inclined to feel that it goes with evolution, is incident to progress, that there should be different languages." He had "no closed theory on the question." "Many whom I know—the wisest, often, of people I know—consider that if a universal language ever comes it will be the English. There are multiplying doctrines of human solidarity to which a common language would be of great benefit, but no tendency to any general convergence of tongues seems to be at present observable. I often put the case of the orthodox church in a similar way: the fact that it exists—that there are Methodist, Episcopal, Baptist churches—is proof that here are people who need something thus provided for. So I say—let it be, let it go, let it grow! Language is a thing which takes its own path of growth—may some day

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merge all tongues into one tongue but will not do so by an edict of scholars or a pronunciamento from the universities. A universal language has a lot to provide for—must provide for the Asiatic and the African as well as for us—must not cast out any nation, any people, however remote. I do not say a universal language may not grow but I am sure it cannot be deliberately made piecemeal by scholastic machinery."

     Kennedy writes that he gets "despair" from reading Hugo—that Hugo "depresses" him. W. replies talking with me about it: "That is extraordinary: I never supposed anybody regarded Hugo as a pessimistic force. I have not felt it so. I always have looked upon Hugo as a man among the first forces in literature—in the literature of aspiration. Yet Les Miserables has a good deal to do with horror, convicts—hopeless convicts—with that phase of life. It may be that Hugo exalts, toplofticates, the ragamuffins too much. But that is only one side of the question. Hugo cannot be judged simply from one phase of his work. While I allow that Kennedy is right as a critic—sees enough as a critic to warrant that he should state his experience—I don't regard the thing in any serious light: even if it exists, it does no hurt: I accept it." W. went on expositing at considerable length, defending Hugo against wholesale charges, yet permitting slight deductions. "I can imagine O'Connor taking issue—taking the matter into his hands—defending Hugo: what a flash!—how he would flame up! O'Connor would say, Hugo's real heroes were the cavaliers, the ladies, the gentlemen, lords: in America, it was the wise, the imposed, task, to exalt the common people—to make much of the multitude: Hugo, in Europe, in France, whether to do this thing or another, was the man needed by Europe, by France, to meet a certain crisis of his time." W. said again: "Hugo's immortal works were the dramas, the plays, the poems: least accessible, yet greatest of all—greater than the novels, stories, orations. I have described to you how I used to get at them." He had no fear at bottom that Hugo unduly exalted the common people. "No—he knew what they needed: what was there to

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respond. He filled his place: like Napoleon with his guns, served with the set purpose of genius: all the equipment at hand: armament: weapons of all sorts: it was but for him to set to—to go on—to effect his ends. I am ready to recognize a complaint that I also may be said to have unduly patronized the masses. I have often been accused of undervaluing the leaders—of exaggerating the importance of the miserable—of unreasonably exalting the rank and file. Military men have often taken me up on that score—have said: 'If you will look, you cannot but see that officers are as important as men'. I might say 'yes' to that: yet I see more than that, too."

     I read W. Dr. B.'s letter of 20th. There occurred this passage: "No, Gilchrist has never written me: I did not praise his picture last year, and I have a feeling since that he thinks of me somewhat as the Bishop thought of Gil Blas under similar circumstances." W. laughed most heartily: then, as if to satisfy himself, went over the story half in soliloquy, with great unction, himself. "And the Bishops are not all dead yet: they still crop up to remind us of the faithfulness of the old story." Bucke had written also of the probable demise of Pardee within a few weeks, and of O'Connor's remarkable failure of the past few years. W. shook his head gloomily: "It is bad—bad: bad all around—bad news: and Pardee is a very worthy man (Bucke thinks a good deal of him, I think)." At this point he hunted among the papers and found Dr. Bucke's letter to him (20th)—saying: "Here—take this along with you: there are things in it for you to see—things about the books: Doctor often writes with great pith straight to the end." Bucke says: "The complete works take time, a lot of time, but that is all right—take time, enough of it, and have it right. It is worth taking pains about. It will be a standard book for many a day. To many and many it will be a sacred, and altogether priceless, volume—a bible of the bibles—a resumé of them all." W. said: "Go to the plate men: thank them. We will pay their bill later on but they must be thanked at once." This is the Trowbridge letter given me day before yesterday: W. says of it again today: "It

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throws a little side-light on the stage—helps to show you what a few of us were about those days."


Somerville, Feb. 12, 1864.

My dear Walt Whitman.

I have not seen your friend Babbitt since he left the Mason Hospital (about the time I wrote you before); but I have been there to inquire about him. Three days ago I called, and a soldier who had recently seen him reported him as gradually regaining his strength, though not his voice. He is able to go out a little. He is with, or near, some good friends of his, who are no doubt a comfort to him.

What you write me of yourself and of your experiences, interests me, and makes me almost envy you the privilege of being with our noble unfortunate soldiers. You ought to write the epic of this war. By the way, has anything been done with Drum Taps? O'Connor said he would communicate with Carleton on the subject. I have spoken to one publisher here about them; but he did not bite.

An item of great domestic importance to us will perhaps interest you. A boy was born to me yesterday—a lusty little chap, fat, well-formed, weight ten pounds. Mother doing well thus far. I have seen the new moon over my right shoulder to some purpose lately.

A few days ago I wrote a letter about you to Secretary Chase. I hope you will yet hear from him. He acknowledged at the time the receipt of the book you handed him; so I knew the package must have reached you. I am heartily glad if the books have been put to any use. How is your friend Brown who was to lose his foot?

Give my love to the O'Connors.

Good bye. Your friend,

J. T. Trowbridge.



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