Commentary

Disciples


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Saturday, July 28, 1888.

     This is the Curtis letter W. gave me yesterday:


Washington, Armory Sq Hospital,
Sunday Evening Oct 4

Dear Madam,

Your letter reached me this forenoon with the $30 for my dear boys, for very dear they have become to me, wounded and sick here in the government hospitals.—As it happens I find myself rapidly making acknowledgement of your welcome letter and contribution from the midst of those it was sent to aid—and best by a sample of actual hospital life on the spot, and of my own goings around the last two or three hours—As I write I sit in a large pretty well-filled ward by the cot of a lad of 18 belonging to Company M 2d N Y cavalry, wounded three weeks ago today at Culpeper—hit by fragment of a shell in the leg below the knee—a large part of the calf of the leg is torn away, (it killed his horse)—still no bones broken, but a pretty large ugly wound—I have been writing to his mother at Comac, Suffolk co. N Y—. She must have a letter just as if from him, about every three days—it pleases the boy very much—he has four married sisters—them also I have to write to occasionally—Although so young he has been in many fights and tells me shrewdly about them, but only when I ask him. He

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is a cheerful good-natured child—has to lie in bed constantly his leg in a box—I bring him things—he says little or nothing in the way of thanks—is a country boy—always smiles and brightens much when I appear—looks straight in my face and never at what I may have in my hand for him—I mention him for a specimen as he is within reach of my hand and I can see that his eyes have been steadily fixed on me from his cot ever since I began to write this letter. This youngster is no special favorite—only a needful case—it will not do at all to show partiality here—there are some 25 or 30 wards, barracks, tents &c in this hospital—This is ward C, has beds for 60 patients—they are mostly full—most of the other principal wards about the same—so you see a U S general hospital here is quite an establishment—this has a regular police, armed sentries at the gates and in the passages &c,—and a great staff of surgeons, cadets, women and men nurses &c &c. I come here pretty regularly because this hospital receives I think the worst cases and is one of the least visited—there is not much hospital visiting here now—it has become an old story—the principal here, Dr. Bliss, is a very fine operating surgeon—sometimes he performs several amputations or other operataions of importance in a day—amputations, blood, death are nothing to him—you will see a group absorbed in playing cards up at the other end of the room.


I visit the sick every day or evening—sometimes I stay far in the night, on special occasions. I believe I have not missed more than two days in past six months. It is quite an art to visit the hospitals to advantage. The amount of sickness, and the number of poor, wounded, dying young men is appalling. One often feels lost, despondent, his labors not even a drop in the bucket—the wretched little he can do in proportion.

I believe I mentioned in my letter to Dr. Russell that I try to distribute something, even if but the merest trifle, all round, without missing any, when I visit a ward, going round rather rapidly—and then devoting myself more at leisure to the cases that need special attention. One who is experienced may find

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in almost any ward at any time one or two patients or more who are at that time trembling in the balance, the crisis of the wound, recovery uncertain, yet death also uncertain. I will confess to you madam that I think I have an instinct and faculty for these cases. Poor young men, how many have I seen and know—how pitiful it is to see them,—one must be calm and cheerful and not let on how their case really is, must stop much with them, find out their idiosyncrasies—do anything for them—nourish them—judiciously give them the right things to drink,—bringing in the affections, soothe them, brace them up, kiss them, discard all ceremony, and fight for them, as it were, with all weapons. I need not tell your womanly soul that such work blesses him that works as much as the object of it. I have never been happier than in some of these hospital ministering hours.


It is now between 8 and 9 evening—the atmosphere is rather solemn here to-night—there are some very sick men here—the scene is a curious one—the ward is perhaps 120 or 30 feet long—the cots each have their white mosquito curtains—all is quite still—an occasional sigh or groan—up in the middle of the ward the lady nurse sits at a little table with a shaded lamp, reading—the walls, roof, &c are all whitewashed—the light up and down the ward from a few gas-burners about half turned down—It is Sunday evening— to-day I have been in the hospital, one part or another, since three o'clock—to a few of the men, pretty sick, or just convalescing and with delicate stomachs or perhaps badly wounded arms, I have fed their suppers—partly peaches peeled, and cut up with powdered sugar, very cool and refreshing,—they like to have me sit by them and peel them, cut them in a glass, and sprinkle on the sugar—(all these little items maybe may interest you).

I have given three of the men this afternoon, small sums of money—I provide myself with a lot of bright new 10 ct and 5 ct bills, and when I give little sums of change I give the bright new bills. Every little thing even must be taken advantage of—to give bright fresh 10 ct. bills instead of any other helps break the dullness of hospital life—



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     I said to W.: "What you said the other day about Burroughs I think also applies to you. This letter is alive all through—every word of it. It carries me back with you into that old experience. I think I can see you there writing in the hospital and see that boy looking at you and smell the medicines."—W. broke in: "Good for me if you can do all that: good enough for me! My main motive would be to say things: not to say them prettily—not to stun the reader with surprises—with fancy turns of speech—with unusual, unaccustomed words—but to say them—to shoot my gun without a flourish and reach the mark if I can. The days in the hospitals were too serious for that."

     W. spoke of this as his "best day since the throw-down." "I took a bath as I like to—alone, quietly." Resents the attentions of Musgrove. He got to like Baker but Musgrove rubs him the wrong way. Did not go down stairs yesterday. For the first time fully dressed this evening—gray coat and all—as he sat in his chair. "If I remind myself of it I can see that my mind is not quite all right, but otherwise I can be as chipper as a well man." Feeling weak but very cheerful. I had with me concluding proofs of Last of the War Cases. Letters from Bucke and Logan Smith today. The latter writes from London. W. laughed: "The fellows abroad have an idea, all of them, that we're roasting here. Every letter I receive condoles with me over the heat by which I am tortured." He stopped to pick up his knife that had fallen to the floor. He often plays with his penknife, opening and shutting as he talks. "This is on the contrary the most remarkable July I have ever known—so far it has been entirely comfortable."

     Speaking of churches: "I never made any vows to go or not to go: I went, at intervals, but anywhere—to no one place: was a wanderer: went oftenest in my earlier life—gradually dropped off altogether: today a church is a sort of offense to me. I never had any 'views'—was always free—made no pledges, adopted no creeds, never joined parties or 'bodies.' Many years ago a reporter came to me about some comments anent me that

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appeared in Appleton's Journal: how did I dress when I was young, how now, what were my habits—and more like that. I said to him: I always dressed as I do now and spoke and acted as I do now—that's all I know about it—that's all I can tell you. And that's what I could say now about churches and views: I am as I was: I have not changed. I have met many preachers in my time—some of the sleek kind, but many of them personally good fellows, who treated me well. Always remember, though I hate preaching I do not hate preachers."
Pointed out to me an editorial paragraph in the Tribune: "I regret that anybody is willing to accept the doctrine of protection no matter what may be its good fruits—that anybody in America is willing to acknowledge no obligations to other lands, other peoples, demanding protection, welfare, for themselves, no matter how it is secured. America should be an example not an echo—therein lies her chief function—not to follow, oh no, but to lead the way." W. believes in "free Sundays. The boys should have their ball or any frolic they choose: the grown folks should do very much as they please: theaters should be open—there should be plenty of music. Sunday should be a light, not a dark, day. Any law that interferes with innocent enjoyment is a barbarous law no matter who is in favor of it. I would wipe such laws out with a sponge—every one of them,—if I could."

     Some one asked W. if Emerson's manner lacked in emotion, W. answering: "I do not think so: it had the true ring: Emerson would satisfy all demands of that sort I could make of him. I did think that Thoreau and Emerson, both of them, years ago, in the Brooklyn days, were a little bookish in their expression of love: I say I used to think so, for I don't know how the thing would strike me now." W. has not read Carlyle's Sterling or his Frederick. Said he would "like to read the Sterling—indeed, thought" he "should do it" but imagined "the Frederick is much too big a big thing for" him "to tackle at this late day." "I do not believe the book would interest me a great deal anyhow: I have looked it over—Carlyle makes too much of the battles. My experiences on the fields have shown me that

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the writers catch very little of the real atmosphere of the battle. It is an assault, an immense noise, somebody driven off the field—a victory won: that is all. It is like trying to photograph a tempest."

     I said to W. this evening: "Your style is not very new—it is very old." He laughed, shaking a finger towards me: "That is wicked: who told you? Who put you on to my secret?" "It's not even a secret—anybody might know it who looked." To which he replied: "So they might—so they might—if they would only forget their canons, rules, for awhile. It's a great thought, Horace,—you have said it all. I am willing to acquiesce in Heine's notions of criticism. Heine would ask of a book and its writer, not, 'has he written it as I would like him to do it?' but first: 'had he an idea, a point of view, a central thought?' and then, 'has he said what he undertook to say?—done what he undertook to do?' Heine had no doctrine of art with which to flay the rebel: he let the rebel alone: he knew that the rebel was a rebel for reasons."

     W. wondered "what the Germans would think of Lewes' Life of Goethe," adding: "I have my own troubles with the German poets: I ought to read them a lot but the translations do not satisfy me. Leland's translation of the Reisebilder is, however, a joy and a delight. My nature, my temperament, my blood, should take me close to the Teuton." "It is singular," said W. suddenly, "how people may get to believe they are saying a new thing when they are simply rehashing a very ancient text. Take Democracy, for instance: the American, the average American, thinks he has a new idea. The truth is that even our proud modern definitions of democracy are antiquated—can be heard reflected in the language of the Elizabethan period in England—in the atmosphere created by Bacon, Ben Jonson, and the rest of that crowd. I would not like to say there might not have been latent in the utterances of that group of men the seed stuff of our American liberty—not to speak of the still older suggestions of it to be found in Greek and Roman sources." Referring to an Italian who had been murdered: "The poor

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Italian immigrants! The popular fury now seems to be applied to them—and what have they done, indeed? I wonder if our people really believe the Chinese menace our institutions—the industrious, quiet, inoffensive Chinese? Maybe our institutions ain't no good if they're as thin-skinned as that."

     Pointing to a scrapbook on the floor at his feet: "It is a strange miscellany—a hodge-podge, some of it only pulp, some of it very vital: curious, rejected reviews, critiques, odds and ends of newspaper gossip—all of it in the past, the far past—gathered together fifty years ago and on from that time for many years. I have always had it about me as a book for personal reference. It was mislaid for a long time, then reappeared—has been fished out of its barrel again lately: I am again making use of it." "What has that particular book to do with Leaves of Grass?" "Oh! everything! is full of its beginnings—is the a b c of the book—contains the first lisps of the song. How much of it has come and gone like last night's rain!" he exclaimed. "But," I protested, "that was sweet and useful." "Yes—so it was—and so was the book—sweet and useful! Here was my first tally of life—here were my first tries with the lute—in that book I am just like a man tuning up his instrument before the play begins." [The contents of the book were afterwards included by Dr. Bucke in Notes and Fragments. 1906] Finally he said as I was about to withdraw: "Our talk to-night has not been a song without words. I have talked like a man with a new dictionary—have celebrated my re-entrance into clothes by tooting for two hours on my tin horn."


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