Commentary

Disciples


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Friday, August 10, 1888.

     I have been writing Bucke frankly about W.'s condition. Bucke today referred to my letters in writing to W. This was

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a mistake. W. consequently a little reticent. When I quizzed him he said frankly: "I don't want Bucke to know the worst until the worst is hopeless: he worries over bad news: write him in a cheerful vein—lie to him, buoy him up." "Lie to him?" "Well—lies won't help, I suppose—but don't tell him the evil until there's no more any good to tell about." W. is reading and writing again, almost steadily, for several hours of each day. Said he worked too hard yesterday. "It told on me so that I got up this morning feeling stale." Sometimes W. suffers a sort of aphasia—can't get his words without a search: but his mind is always clear. Lay on the bed most of or all the time of our talk. Was at times even hilarious. He has been interested in the Blaine reception in New York, but says: "I doubt if there are even a few of the noisy hurrahers who could stop their noise for a minute or two and tell us why their great man is great." Then: "The working class is slow to learn—they are cheated, swindled, robbed, pay all the pipers' bills and hear none of the music—yet go on year after year putting their robbers back in Congress, in the legislatures—making them mayors and what not."

     Spoke of Kennedy's W. W. "It seems to come to nothing. And Kennedy himself—what's the matter with him? He writes a trite message—then ends." Said he was not in favor of the W. W. calendar: "I not only don't enthuse—I do not even approve. Leaves of Grass does not lend itself to piecemeal quotation: can only find its reflection in ensemble, ensemble: cannot be rendered by any selection of pretty lines, strange allusions, passages from here and there: it belongs to bulk, mass, unity: must be seen be with reference to its eligibility to express world-meanings rather than literary prettiness. It is true O'Connor thinks a good deal of the calendar: it comes from his nieces: and then Grace Channing is a bright, good girl, too, and might to trusted to do what could be done in that sort of work and with Leaves of Grass. But my first impression was a bad one and I have not moved from it. I shall not interfere (I did not interfere with Walt Whitman Club in Boston)

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but I shall have my friends know that I don't endorse calendars or any other such miniaturing from Leaves of Grass."
He thinks: "The New York fellers regard me as an oddity—most of them—even those who more than half like me. No one can know Leaves of Grass who judges it piecemeal: it makes no revelations to the merely literary eye."

      Asked me questions about Wagner operas. "So many of my friends say Wagner is Leaves of Grass done into music that I begin to suspect there must be something in it. Doctor Bucke, who don't go much on operas, banks a lot on Wagner. I was never wholly convinced—there was always a remaining question. I have got rather off the field—the Wagner opera has had its vogue only in these later years since I got out of the way of going to the theater. Do you figure out Wagner to be a force making for democracy or the opposite? O'Connor swears to the democracy—swears to it with a big oath. Others have said to me that Wagner's art was distinctly the art of a caste—for the few. What am I to believe? I confess that I have heard bits here and there at concerts, from orchestras, bands, which have astonished, ravished me, like the discovery of a new world. The masters keep on coming and coming again: nature can always do better than her best: is prodigal, exhaustless."

     I have started a Whitman fund—am trying to get a small monthly guarantee each from a group of people to pay for the nurse and the extras required by W.'s persistent illness. W. does not know about the fund. He knows the nurse is put here by his friends. I have not explained anything to him in detail. Hard to find the friends, however. Many excuse themselves when approached on the subject. I said to W.: "I sometimes find that certain people who profess a big conviction about you do not back it up." He laughed. "Are you just learning that? A lot of the Whitman talk is simply glamor (I call it that: is it a right use of the word?)—pretense, good nature, and so on—not being willing to justify itself in a crisis. I do not complain—only I like to know a fact for a fact. A man wrote in a paper the other day: 'All this English talk about Walt Whitman is a fraud:

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the English accept Whitman as an eccentric, a rough, something different. He is not sincerely considered: he pleases a whim and when that whim has fed itself full good-bye Whitman in England.' That's about what was said. Whether true or not, the truth of it, the falsity of it, will find a proper level in time—like water whatever its troubles finds its level at last." Again: "They used to load all their indecent stories on Lincoln: now some people are loading all their indecent interpretations on me."

     I said to W.: "Ferguson lets us have our own way in his place." "That is true—and we appreciate—yes, respect the concession. Such treatment involves reciprocal obligations: it removes our relations to a plane above trade." "The 'prize package' yesterday contained four jewels instead of one jewel," I said to W. He appeared pleased. "Which half do you want?" I asked him. He remembered that he had said he would go me halves if I found a jewel. "My half is in seeing you tickled," he replied. Then he asked me seriously: "You found something there worth preserving? It all contributes towards the history. It won't be long and I will be dead and gone: then they will hale you into court—put you into the witness box—ply you with questions—try to mix you up with questions: this Walt Whitman—this scamp poet—this arch-pretender—what did you make him out to be? And you will have to answer—and be sure you answer honest, so help you God!"

     One of the jewels was a portrait which W. had endorsed in this way: "Rudolph Schmidt Copenhagen Denmark April 5 '74." He said of it: "It is simple, imperative, pleasing: is the face of a man not too much in doubt about himself—a telling autobiographical item. I always remember that Schmidt has broken several lances in my interest off in that strange country." The other jewels were letters from William Michael Rossetti and Mrs. Watson Gilder to W. and a never-delivered letter from William Swinton to Charles Sumner "to introduce Walt Whitman." When I got talking of these letters to-night he had me start reading them to him. I first took the Gilder letter. He had

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written in red ink on a blank page: "From Mr. and Mrs. Gilder New York (Gilder you know is a sort of chief literary man now on Scribner's)."


"Kaywood," Staten Island,
Nov. 20th, '80.

Dear Mr. Whitman,

We were delighted at receiving your books—and from you. We have always intended owning them and were only waiting to return to our little house in town, as we have now a volume belonging to Mr. Burroughs. Your poems have a great hold on us, and grow more and more to us in value.

In London last winter we saw the Gilchrists several times and of course talked of you. Mrs. Gilchrist spoke most enthusiastically and affectionately of you, and Mme. Modjeska who was acting there wanted us to remind you of her having had the pleasure of meeting you. She is making a great success.

We read some of you poems to a group of people—artists etc.—in London, who were all intensely interested and impressed. One, Alfred Hunt, the landscape painter, was much moved over some of the descriptions of nature, the mocking bird and the pine trees especially. Richard talked about you with William M. Rossetti, your good friend, and others, who all were anxious to hear from you. Richard is very desirous to know whether you got some of your poems done into Provencal, by W. C. Bonaparte Wyse. Would you write a line of acknowledgment to the latter, to be forwarded through Richard? Mr. Wyse would value it very greatly.

Mr. Burroughs and Richard were camping out in September and there was a great deal of talk of W. W. under the pine trees beside the little Ulster Co. lake.

I know you love children and I wish I could show you my little boy, of whom I am very proud.

In February we will be again in our house—hope to see you there once more.


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With renewed thanks I am dear Mr. Whitman one of your sincerest admirers

Helena deKay Gilder.


We are both greatly obliged to you and I endorse the foregoing.
R. W. G.


      "Horace," said W., "you must never forget this of the Gilders—that at a time when most everybody else in their set was throwing me down they were nobly and unhesitatingly hospitable. This letter gives you a clue—a fine clue. It was about that same period some other woman in New York invited me to a dinner but just as I was about to start off for the trip sent me a second letter withdrawing the invitation on the ground that some guests who were indispensable to the success of the dinner refused to sit at the table with me." The story seemed incredible. While I was wondering what to say W. added: "It was God's truth, Horace—God's amazing truth! Nor was the affair a solitary one—I had dozens of such or similar rubs if I had two. Now, the Gilders were without pride and without shame—they just asked me along in the natural way. It was beautiful, beautiful. You know how at one time the church was an asylum for fugitives—the church, God's right arm, fending the innocent. I was such an innocent and the Gilders took me in." While I was reading the Swinton letter W. said: "William just let himself go—kept nothing vital back. I never delivered the letter. I felt that I would rather own the letter than have the job it asked for. Would you have supposed the school-bookman—Swinton—William—could ever so forget himself—wax so eloquent, make such a darling hullaballoo—about a man like your uncle? Some of my friends when they fairly got going about me made the stars look faint. My friends were fewer than my enemies but they blew a trumpet loud enough for everybody to hear." Swinton's letter was enclosed in a New York Times envelope.


Washington, Jany 6th, 1863.

Hon. Charles Sumner:

My Dear Sir: The bearer of this is Walt Whitman—of New York—a poet and absolute devotee to literature in the sense of giving America something genuinely her own—something that is robust while full of feeling and idiomatic while universal. He is the author of Leaves of Grass. He is ardent for future poetic works—I think noble and enduring ones. In New York the young men count with faith upon his future.

Mr. Whitman has for years remained poor. He is in Washington seeking to push his fortune,—to get some clerk-ship, appointment or whatnot. His claim rests upon literary grounds, not political ones—though he is and has long been a Republican in politics.

I have known him for years and know that he is an honorable and trustworthy man in all relations and in the highest sense.

Finding him here without access to the great quarters, I have taken the liberty to give him this note to one so well fitted to advise him; and although I see and know what demands are made upon your time and influence, I am sure you will not confound Mr. Whitman with the ordinary herd of Washington axe-grinders.

With best respects and regards,

William Swinton.


     It was getting after ten. W. looked tired, I said: "Let's lay over the Rossetti letter until to-morrow." He acquiesced: "All right— to-morrow. Did you particularly notice in William's letter—'robust while full of feeling and individual while universal'? That fits my intentions to a t—describes my ideal absolutely. Leaves of Grass must answer to that call or be forgotten. Don't you think it was a bold thing for a man to say at that time: 'The young men count with faith upon his future'? That letter is a capital example of what I call let-go. A man who will talk that way in the face of a general opposition must

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care very very much or very very little for his reputation." W. finally said: "Take care of the book—the book's the thing!"


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