Commentary

Disciples


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Wednesday, August 15, 1888.

     W. physically bad today. Called at 10.30. Sat reading papers. Nurse said he stayed up unusually late last evening. Generally turns in about ten. Last night it was eleven. When I asked W. how he felt he replied: "How do I feel? only so-so, only so-so." He had read Lüders' paper in last Saturday's American. "Somebody sent it to me—it came in Sunday's mail: I read it—not critically—scanned it, ran over it. It's not bad—only it lacks guts." "I like the way some people say no better than the way some other people say yes," I put in. "Exactly—exactly: so do I: this man says neither in a way to excite my admiration. I admire a good many of my enemies more than I admire some of my friends. If these fellows would only read Leaves of Grass—read it through their eyes rather than through their prejudices: but when they condemn it without reading it—that's what nettles me. Lüders (how do you pronounce his name?) gags at my 'catalogues.' Oh God! how tired I get of hearing that said about the 'catalogues!' I resolved at the start to diagnose, recognize, state, the case of the mechanics,

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laborers, artisans, of America—to get into the stream with them—give them a voice in literature: not an echoed voice—no: their own voice—that which they had never had before. I meant to do this naturally, however—not with apologies—not to lug them in by the neck and heels, in season and out of season, where they did belong and where they didn't belong—but to welcome them to their legitimate superior place—to give them entrance and lodgment by all fair means. Maybe I have failed, maybe I have succeeded—but whatever, my intention has always remained clear, unshakable. I have often heard the dismal growl—here, Walt Whitman, what do you mean?—the shadow of the same axe has always been on my head: has been made the staple of quite a number of the brilliant assaults of which I have been the victim. I have never budged—never. I have had five or six chances to revise—to concede a point here and there to conciliate the howlers: Leaves of Grass has gone through a number of editions since those objections were first promulged: but the more I consider my purpose, my early and now confirmed end, aim, hope, the more the propriety, the justice, the inevitability, of all I have done is driven in upon me."

     He paused. I was wholly silent. He then went on with the same line of thought: "I have deeper reason than all that however: a reason deeper than reasons—a reason that always seems conclusive, to say the last word—the conviction that the thing is because it is, being what it is because it must be just that—as a tree is a tree, a river a river, the sky the sky. A curious affinity exists right there between me and the Quakers, who always say, this is so or so because of some inner justifying fact—because it could not be otherwise. I remember a beautiful old Quakeress saying to me once: 'Walt—I feel thee is right—I could not tell why but I feel thee is right!'—and that seemed to me to be more significant than much that passes for reason in the world."

     I wrote to Stedman and Burroughs today repeating his messages. W. said: "John particularly will be glad to hear I am on the mend. Tell him all the favorable things you can but don't

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brag."
W. copied Taps for Donaldson today. "I don't know what got into his noddle, but he seemed to be particularly urgent in the matter. He did not come over—he wrote." Handed him cash for the English note. Alluding to one of his poems I said: "Things you write sometimes may lack the formal body but they certainly contain the soul of a poem." "Do you say that deliberately? The trouble with most poems is that they are nothing but poems—all poetry, all literary, not in any way human." Not entirely satisfied with the Linton portrait: "It is good—I have always thought it good—rather rough as a woodcut, but if rough then like me. It fails in one thing surely, if in no other thing—in the eyes—and fails there as much and much in the same fashion as Hollyer does. My eyes are by no means bright, liquid, startling—no, not a bit that sort of eyes: they are rather dull—rather sluggish—to be pictured, as I often say, by what they are not rather than by what they are."

     The Herald poem now being copied everywhere as Taps was sent in as Interpolations. "What are taps?" he asked me. "I have a dim notion of the truth in my brain but I am not confident I know. I want you to ask the first soldier you meet for a lucid explanation—then I want you to repeat his explanation to me. As I guess at it now it is a military good-night—a last sort of ceremony before turning in—the final message of the drums before sleep. It has a certain kind of solemn significance: I notice that the soldiers attach great sentiment to it—regard it with great respect."

     An actor, Nestor Lennon, sent up his name. W. handed the card to me. "Who is it—do you know?" Musgrove intervened: "He says he's in the profession." "The profession," smiling—"yes, I see—that's the way they speak of it: the Jews speak of the people. Anyhow," finally said W., "tell him to come up—it won't hurt—but tell him, too, it must be only for a minute—or two minutes." Lennon came up—stayed ten minutes. He made a lot of formal remarks to W., who took them with rather a bored air. He then asked for some autographs. W. gave him three. Lennon said: "One of these is for Steele Mackaye."

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W. thereupon monologued a bit: "I have a weakness for actors—they seem to have a weakness for me: that makes our meetings rather like family affairs." Then asked Lennon: "Do you like your business real well?" When Lennon got up to go he cleared his throat, hitched his trousers, scratched his head and blurted out to W. as if it was a hard job to get his message delivered right: "Mr. Whitman, do you need money? I've been delegated to ask you whether you need money. I know a hundred actors in places about and in New York who would like to get together and give you a benefit." W. was visibly touched. He frankly offered Lennon his hand and said with a voice that was shaken with emotion: "God bless you—God bless you all—for that! I have enough money, more than enough, for all my earthly wants, so I need not acquiesce in your beautiful plans: but you make me happy, nevertheless. I shall feed on your good will for many a day to come. Tell all the boys what I have said to you about that—give them my love." As Lennon was withdrawing W. added: "The English theatrical people have always seemed to like me—Irving has been here—Wilson Barrett, too: I have had letters from Ellen Terry: then there is Bram Stoker—he has treated me like a best son." Lennon was not to be outdone: "Yes I know, Mr. Whitman: they like you, no doubt—like you: but we—we love you." After Lennon was gone W. said: "Did you notice how he set his American love up against the English like? It was very pretty, Horace. And his offer—what did you think of that? It was very handsome—it took me unawares—almost bowled me over."

     W. pointed to a pile of letters and papers on the table. "That came out of the grab-basket Mary brought up stairs. Most of it will eventually go to you, no doubt: you'd starve to death if I didn't feed you! I will look it all through as I can—report to you on it from time to time. You must possess your soul in patience. And by the way, our 'surprise,' that we have talked so much about, has threatened to be a boomerang." I pricked up my ears. Was the revelation about to come? He saw my interested face. "Are you ready for it?" I laughingly replied:

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"I'm leanin' up against myself strong!" He took this in a jolly way. "How good that is—leanin' up against yourself! That's about the best any man can do when he needs support. But to go back to the surprise, I don't mind telling you about it—also, why it has hung fire. You remember I have several times promised you a couple of Bayard Taylor letters I knew I had? The letters turned up one day awhile ago in a mess of things when I wasn't looking for 'em. That night when I first mentioned the surprise to you was the night of the day of the find. I wanted to read the letters again before I passed 'em over to you. The next day when I looked for the letters they were gone. They had evidently got pushed back into chaos again. And so every day until today. Today I found one of the letters. Where the devil the other is I don't know. I won't wait for the other before giving you this because we had better secure our prizes when we have them. You will take this along with you and chew on it and tell me how it strikes you. When the other finally shows up again we will put that with this. This rare game seems hard to bag. I have very particular reasons for wishing to get these letters into your hands where they may be kept and used on occasion in the future. Things said of me in the Tribune and by way of gossip attributed to Taylor in recent years will find a foil in the cordial warmth, the enthusiasm almost, of these two volunteered letters." I started to open the letter right where I was. "No, not now," said W., "open it in broad daylight when you can get it in a sunny perspective."


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