Commentary

Disciples


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Sunday, August 5, 1888.

      Very hot sultry day. W. a little stronger and less languid. He stayed on his bed—talked fully an hour, cheerfully, of matters general and particular. He asked me: "What do you mean by the word 'enervation'?" adding after my reply: "I see I am all right: I often use the word and yet lose the sense of it. I feel enervated—the weather melts me—melts me completely. This is the kind of weather from which people want to escape somewhere, anywhere, only to get off—to get beyond the ordinary tones and semi-tones of life. It is a study—a profound study—the play in life as much as the work in life—and it is all right, too, that the people should go—should have the gala-days. They talk of the extravagance of the people. Nonsense. The people spend their money—help each other—save something—are generous, sacrificial—in so far as they can be are most lavish. Sometimes you don't pay too much for play if you pay your last cent for it."


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      Letter from Elmina Slenker today. "She is in Virginia—has read some of the—highly-colored reports in the papers—is afraid that I'm pegging out—so writes me, wishing me well in the most friendly fashion. I am inclined to be agreeably impressed—she seems interested and interesting. She approaches me freely—is an aged woman—she has given much time to the study of sexual matters (sees a hint in that direction in Leaves of Grass): she has done her work, her good work, and is now hale, placid, companionable, in every way rounded, on all sides. The old woman is always the best woman, certain other things being equal." Again W. said: "It is curious, what are people's likes and dislikes—how their hates appear and remain, as well as their loves. You will find one man who hates another worse than the devil, exhibiting almost a snake-like poisonous antipathy, and yet can give no reason for it, has no reason for it—simply knows he feels it, that is all. I have myself been the victim of such humors in the human critter—repeatedly the victim—so that nowadays I attach very little significance to the phenomenon. A man came to me in Washington once and said: 'Walt Whitman, I hate myself for hating you, but I hate you!' I assumed at first that he was joking but he would not let it go that way. 'It's no joke, no mistake,' he said, 'somehow there's something in you, in your work, to excite me to a fierce animosity: I don't like it, but it exists.' Wasn't that a touch of psychology for the initiated? I never quite made it out myself."

      Spoke of Philadelphia Ledger. "The Ledger fights shy of me. It is queer, too, Childs being so unmistakably my friend. But the Ledger, as a paper, is McKean's work, I suppose, and he don't like me, has no time for me—is, in fact, devoutly opposed to me. I imagine that it is an act of religion in McKean not to patronize a man of my make. I like the Ledger—some of it—but not its tariff. It is probably a tariff paper under pressure. Some of my enemies are malignants—for instance, Littlebill Winter, as O'Connor calls him, and Stoddard, and others of that stripe—violently on the other side—Winter especially—Winter, who is a little man in all ways: little in body,

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little in soul, little in spirit—a dried-up cadaverous school-master who flourishes his nasty doctrines threateningly over the heads of the anointed."

      Read a poem by Florence Earle Coates in The Century. "I am told she bears me in mind and is of a disposition to look with something of favor on my work—which I might say, quoting one of William's playful quips, 'shows her good sense.' They tell me Mrs. Coates is quite a woman among women—is beautiful, shines with great brightness, and, by those who know her well, is admired and cherished. I used to meet Mrs. Winter, now and then—found her quite attractive, though I never could reconcile myself to the literary fiddle-faddle for which her husband in common with so many New Yorkers and others stood and which he swore by. I always found Gilder and Stedman in a group by themselves in that New York art delirium—two always sane men in the general madness."

      I asked W. whether he had read Browning's Paracelsus. He talked then of Browning: "You should read The Ring and The Book. That, at least, it would repay anybody who had the leisure to read. Browning is in some respects utterly free—free not to explain: free to put down his statement where it may be seen and then let the world find its own way to a meaning—free of the desire to be at once or ever understood. Browning was also free of humor as an architect of verse, though I feel that his freedom here drifts him rather towards an angular than a facile result. Browning has what O'Connor calls 'elements'—powers of the first class—virility, fiber. I think it would mean a hard tussle for anyone to take Browning up in the bulk—attempt to take him in in the large—the whole of him for better or for worse. I don't believe I could do it. I don't find Browning's technique easy—it beats me sore, bruises me—though I don't make much of that: the fault is mainly my own. I have friends who dose themselves with Browning to the bitter end and regard him as the most invigorating influence in the modern world of books. Browning is full of Italy—knows it—writes of it—has something of its air, its sky, in his work, his soul. And there is even to me a

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great charm in Italy, in things Italian, in the simple Italian immigrant, in so far as I can get the feel of the country at this distance. When I got sick that time and went down to the Staffords' on Timber Creek, there was a gang of Italian laborers came along to work on the narrow gauge railroad then just being laid: a number of Italians came, all sorts—they lived in huts there, accessible, of course, to me, and I, as you may well believe, was only too ready to seize the opportunity and prospect among them a little. Oh! the good talks we had together! We became almost intimate. I found in them the same courtesy, the same charm, the same poetic flavor, that have always been associated with Italy and things Italian. I often read of accidents on the road—accidents in which the little Italians are the main victims. They are accorded but scant sympathy—nobody seems to care: it makes me sad and mad—riles me. Yes, they are the 'damned dagoes'—always so harmless, quiet, inoffensive. Italy seems in some things to represent qualities the exact opposite of qualities we cultivate here in America: the Italians are more fervent, tenderer, gentler, more considerate—less mercenary: it runs through the whole race, cultivated and ignorant—this manifest superiority.

      W. always gets exasperated when he reads a protection argument. He said: "I believe in the higher patriotism—not, my country whether or no, God bless it and damn the rest!—no, not that—but my country, to be kept big, to grow bigger, to lead the procession, not in conquest, however, but in inspiration. If the procession, not in conquest, however, but in inspiration. If Patrick Ford rightly reports himself in his North American Review article when he attributes the miseries of Ireland to English free trade, then Pat Ford is the biggest fool of the whole lot of fools—then Pat Ford is the prize fool of our time. As for Ireland, who can point out the queen bee in the clusters of reason for her condition? The reasons come by many ways, mysterious reasons, plain reasons—each reason important with other reasons—no one reason telling the whole rank tale." "Then you think the Irish have a grievance? that the tale is really rank?" "Rank? Rank as hell!"


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     W. is terribly persecuted for autographs. "If the thing gets any worse I shall be driven to an old trick. I used to put portraits containing my autograph with the folks out at the Children's Home, turning all applications over to the Home, which asked a dollar apiece for the pictures, and, often, got it." Talked of Burns: "He was all heart—Scotch from top to toe, which means human from top to toe: with limitations, to be sure, but limitations that seemed to rather perfect than mar him. James Hunter was here today—you know Hunter?—Scotch, too, as he is, to the bone: hearty, merry, laughing, canny (using 'canny' in the right sense): pouring over your troubled waters the oil of a pacifying humor." I asked W.: "Would you say the best man would be imperfect with humor left out of his composition?" "I don't know: would I?" "Or could a man without humor be a best man?" "I don't know: could he? You are driving me hard with major questions." "Emerson thought it a defect in Jesus that he lacked humor—if the records are correct." "I am not so sure: the idea startles me." "Emerson don't mean laughter or guffawing but that something or other which oils life—gets rid of its angles and incongruities—a sort of lubricator." "Does he make humor to mean that?" "I make it to mean that after reading Emerson." "Good! Good! that is a noble distinction to make: I don't know but having the distinction made that way I am prepared to accept it."

      W. asked me if the Boston Investigator is still in existence. "It is of the free-thinking bigoted order—much needed, of course, but very narrow and very small in some of its definitions. We seem to require all kinds of bigots to complete the chapter of our sorrows—Methodist bigots, Presbyterian bigots, the bigots for the Bible, the bigots against the Bible, Quaker bigots, stiffer than their hats: all sorts, all sorts: we need them all to finish off the ornament of our hari-kari world." I laughed. "Is that all?" I asked. "It stands for all, I guess. We ought not to neglect to include the political party newspapers—they are as bad as the worst."

      W. gave me a war-time letter from B. P. Shillaber. Asked

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me if I knew Shillaber. I was familiar with his Mrs. Partington fictions. Had also visited him once at Chelsea with Sidney Morse. W. said: "That interests me. Some day you will have to tell me about it. They say he was a good deal of a man. You will remember about the soldier Babbitt he mentions in the letter—I asked someone up there (was it the Curtis or the Wigglesworth women?) to look him up. Shillaber found him—found that he remembered me (God bless 'im). Do you know, Horace such things as that—just little things, insignificant things—are the big things of life after all? Babbitt didn't say I wrote beautiful poems or did anything that people looked at but just 'brightened up' on hearing my name mentioned. Ain't that a thousand times better than writing poems—just that—to brighten up those who suffer?" "Except it happens that the poems also brighten them up." "Well, that is a reasonable amendment. But the man always comes before and always remains after the poem."

      This is Shillaber's letter:


Boston, December 10, 1863.

Walt Whitman—

My dear sir—I went to the hospital in Pemberton Square yesterday and saw your friend Babbitt. I found him in a bad way. For two months, he tells me, he has been unable to do any thing for himself on account of giddiness if he attempts to rise. He therefor is confined to one position—poor fellow!—flat on his back, but is cheerful nevertheless, and on hearing your name he brightened up and gave me a warm welcome. He was in Barre some time after his return from under your care, and among his friends he grew better—was able to go about; but the ride—some sixty miles, I think—so unsettled his nervous organization that for three weeks it seemed to him that he was still on the cars. He has not sat up since. He was very grateful for your interest, and his last words to me were—"tell him to write to me." He cannot speak a loud word owing to his diseased throat. He looks pretty well, however, and his hand

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was strong and honest when I shook it at parting. His case I think a very painful one—how much harder than though he had gone into the battle and lost his life or a limb! There seems a sort of hopelessness about this, and being unused to hospitals my feelings were far from cheerful, though I tried to say brave and encouraging things to him and uttered the customary platitudes—the "Be thou clothed" and "Be thou fed" formulas,—without giving a rag or a crumb else. I asked if I could do anything for him. He told me no, thanking me. His thought seemed most on getting a letter from you.


If you are in the Armory Hospital and inquire for Frank McDonald, Ward E., I believe you may say a kind word to a friend of mine.

Hoping what I have written may interest you, I remain with much regard

Yours

B. P. Shillaber.



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