Commentary

Disciples


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Saturday, October 27, 1888.

     7.45 evening. W. sitting up talking with Harned. W. said: "My day was bad but I came up smiling this evening." Discussed the Sackville West excitement. "The use they are making of his letter is natural but despicable. These fellows argue—these Republicans: this is a Roland for your Oliver—we give you West for Burchard: but it is an utterly base agitation. Take West's letter of itself: it's harmless enough—in fact, if it was worse I should still say: let it be, let it go! And whatever the case proves it in no way compromises Cleveland: Cleveland is no more responsible for West's writing than he would have been for his not writing—no more than Blaine for Burchard. Besides, why should it be out of place for him, for any man, to speak his mind? Should not freedom commend it, or, if not commend, excuse it? My only thought has been, how could a man in West's position write so insipid, so stupid, a letter? How could he have been so green—been taken in so easily? Had he no eyes, no ears? So far as the sentiments of the letter are concerned, they are harmless. They are weak, puerile, tepid. It was the most cowardly and sneakiest thing to get hold of the letter—use it—in that way. Look at the headline in The Press: 'The British Minister tells an American citizen how to vote in the coming election.' As if West was telling anybody anything he didn't know already." Harned said: "Blaine claims that the woes of Ireland are owed to British free trade." "Tom—that's damn fool rot—that's not only not true: that's not anything like the truth. What do you suppose Blaine cares about the big question anyhow? Blaine wants votes—votes—votes—no matter how they're got. The prime question is: What can I say—what word, what thought—which will gain most votes in Maine, Texas, Pennsylvania? It is in the nature of the politician, the schemer, the plotter, to degrade his warfare to the level of the lowest weapons of controversy and gain. I have spoken of Blaine: I don't know but Cleveland acts from the same motives—though I should perhaps not say that: I

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have not the same evidence of it. Blaine is a typical politician—sees everything for its end in prestige, power, property: Blaine of all Americans most eminently today enforces that observation. Take the West letter—the use he makes of it: a palpably dishonest bid for Irish votes. And it will have some effect, too. An Irishman hates England—at least, the English government. There is a vast aliment of wind, foam, gas, an immense fund of it, running through the Irish character, along with truly admirable, lovable, brilliant traits: a great deal of what an Irishman thinks, feels, does, rises out of that. It is such a consideration which explains to me the noise over the West letter. Blaine everywhere seeks to say that which will most touch, draw upon, this emotionalism—this one-sided quality."
Here W. turned to Harned: "what was it Tom: that trouble in the court house here with the English visitors that time, not many months ago? Wasn't Tom Curley in it? It has escaped me a little—the details of it. What were they here for?" T. explaining: "they came, as favoring arbitration"—W. nodding: "Yes, I remember now"—and Tom describing the interruptions of Irishmen present, concluding: "The fun of it was the visitors were all Home Rulers—every one of them." W. exclaimed: "Bad! bad!—wasn't it? I remember: I had Bonsall tell me about it and was very strong in my denunciation of it at the time."

     Harned asked W. if he had read Ingersoll's reply to Manning yet? W. answered: "Yes—all of it." Then T. inquired: "Don't you think Ingersoll uses him up?" W. repeating H's words: "Yes, he uses him up—completely. He uses them all up. Who is there to cope with him in that line?" W. "excused" himself however, "from any kind of sympathy" with Manning. "He harps on one string—one monotonous string. He goes too deep into the Popes for me: takes them up A to Z, lauds them—never qualifies"—adding after a pause, and with a gesture and look towards Tom: "And yet everybody knows they're the damnedest set of scoundrels out of hell—the earth-hell: and that's hell enough!" Then: "You know, Elias Hicks would say, there's no worse devil than man, and he was right,

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undoubtedly right: neither is there any worse hell than we make for ourselves right here."
He quoted a more optimistic line from Hegel and added: "I repeat that verdict—maybe come back to it in the end: but in the meantime I believe Hicks was right. You know there's a streak of bad in us along with the good—a streak of very bad: we can't ignore it: it forces its presence upon our attention: though man finally is much more than the sum of all his villainy—much more: I always wind up with this consoling observation."

     Harned had been over in New York—seen Jerome Buck again—talked with him about two unpublishable letters of Franklin and Washington. W. was amused, but skeptical. "I allow all you will on that, but must still put the main part of such gossip down to the inventive faculty: yes, fully nine-tenths—I may say, forty-nine fiftieths." He continued: "I have had plenty of experience going to show I do right. You both know many of the Lincoln stories: the thousands of them given currency, laughed over, brought down, accepted. I think few of them are entitled to respect. It is true, James Parton once told me—told me in conversation—that the true life of Washington could not be printed—no respectable Northern publishing house or public would be responsible for its appearance. Yet I know too much at first hand not to see origins, explanations, that take you below the superficial ugliness of these stories. As I was saying, take Lincoln. I can speak from knowledge of those department fellows. When I was in Washington, there were about two thousand of them, full half of whom had nothing to do. All day long these boys would loaf about, talk together, invent stories—invent filthy stories: their minds ran upon such themes. A fellow would sit at his desk—the fellow with something to do: along would come somebody: 'Have you heard the latest?' The busy man would look up with surprise: 'No, what's that?'—then his visitor would likely come closer—whisper: 'Have you a minute to spare?'—and generally it would be 'yes'. Then he would take a seat, draw up his chair—'listen'—and tell you some story."

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W. laughed: "I have often seen it done: been a party to it—a victim!" And added: "Then in a day or two the story would turn up in the papers foisted on Lincoln—fastened to him—thenceforth to take a place among the 'facts' of his life. This sort of thing does throw a doubt upon all history—eats away at its foundations. What does somebody say? 'I know it's false'—'Why?'—'I found it in a history!' That is great logic. My experience with life makes me afraid of the historian: the historian, if not a liar himself, is largely at the mercy of liars."

     Some one had sent him a tariff pamphlet "giving both sides." He said: "I won't read it: would have to change a very old habit to read it." North American today contained a study of W. W. by George Rogers. Harned read it while he was with us. Passed it over to W. with the remark: "It's darn green, Walt"—W. thereat saying: "I don't doubt it: studies mostly are:"—asking then: "And who is George Rogers? Do either of you fellows know who George Rogers is?" Not being enlightened he laughed: "Well—I will see for myself when I read this fling in the morning: I will know his size and shape. The best way to get to know a man sometimes is not to get acquainted with him." Gave me a letter from Bucke. "Nothing special in it." Note to me from Arthur Stedman today asking for the Linton cut, which I sent to him.

     W. referred to his "big secret" this evening again: "I am daily more anxious to have you know the story—all of it: it belongs to you by right of our sacred association—and when the proper moment comes you shall be made acquainted with all its facts. There are best reasons why I have not heretofore told you—there are also best reasons why I should tell you now. It's not so much that I desire to confide a secret to you as that I wish you on general principles to be made familiar with the one big factor, entanglement (I may almost say tragedy) of my life about which I have not so far talked freely with you." I waited for more but that was all he said—except that, seeing inquiry on my face, he concluded: "Not to-night, Horace, dear boy—not tonight." Finally I said: "Walt, you seem to be

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getting a little steadier every day—a little more reliable for work."
He smiled. "Sometimes it looks that way: but on the whole I am only passably well—am in fact downcast, physically speaking. I have seen the iron collars on the slaves in the South—bits on the wrist here, a chain—back of the collar a spike: the effect of all not pain, not anguish, but a dull weight—making its wearer incapable of effort—bearing him down. It is such a collar I wear day by day: a burden impossible to shake off—vitiating all my attempts to get on my feet again."


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