Commentary

Disciples


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 157] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Saturday, August 18, 1888.

     7 P.M. W. on bed. Greeted me heartily, though quietly, as usual. Is never boisterous. Said concerning his health: "I hold on, as you see, but only hold on: I am not slipping down nor am I climbing up." Both Musgrove and Mrs. Davis spoke of his pallor all day. The heat is hurting him. Our talk was mostly in the dark, W. staying on the bed, I sitting over under the lowered light. Referred sympathetically to the old Aunt Mary. Then said: "Bucke's book about me is not to be skipped. I like it better now than I did when it first appeared. It is strong, suggestive: I have not always realized its full importance. It is not conclusive, of course: Doctor is a bit too much on our side, in a sense. I do not lay much stress upon his explications—upon his inferences—upon his far-away speculations: I esteem the book for its atmosphere, ruggedness, simplicity—for something that is almost like a wholesome brutality. The best thing about the book would seem to be the fact that you must go back to it if you would possess yourself of its whole truth—it has a new suggestiveness each time."

     I asked W. what he knew of Kennedy's Whitman. "What do I know of it?" asked W.: "Well, I know something but not

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 158] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
much. It is full of dash, spirit, side-flash, sparkle: whether it has any spinal thread—of that I am none too certain. Kennedy is like a brilliant soldier—a leader of cavalry—full of ability to go, to push on to an objective point—to invent means, to revise prejudices, to meet unexpected crises."
"A Sheridan, perhaps," I suggested. "Yes," nodded W., "a Sheridan—and that is a remarkably good parallel: a Sheridan, full of the fire of action, the romance of achievement: and yet far-seeing, too, and not to have his philosophical importance belittled." I quoted my observation made in a discussion about W. "You fellows admit to me that versification rules do not constitute poetry, and yet you say Whitman is not a poet because he ignores versification rules." W. exclaimed: "What an upset that must have been for their apple carts, to be sure. But I doubt if our hot and heavy arguments in themselves make an impression on the reactionaries."

     W. received copies of Notes and Queries. "I suppose they came from Mr. Hunter. The paper is a mystery to me. I doubt if it can last—there's not enough curiosity of the sort to back it up in this country. It might get on in England because there we are ushered into an entirely different situation—lords with so many thousands a year, leisure, backgrounds of lineage, old colleges—seats of learning—a great literary class: a dawdling, temporizing aristocracy trying and failing to fill out an empty life. The paper takes up the most trivial questions—questions of origins—questions of literary finesse—of words, axioms, proverbs, colloquialisms, slang, and God knows what and God knows what not. After a long debate over the question of the first authorship of this or that famous phrase, for instance—one fellow with two columns, another with four, another (going from worse to worse still) with six—then number one with two columns more: after all this I find myself just where I was before with the confusion become aggravated. There's the word 'flunkey': who first used it, why was it first used: has its meaning remained what it was: and so on and so on and so on: all about flunkey. So they set to, all fours, tooth and nail, and

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 159] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
discuss it ad nauseum—in the end with no approach to the truth on either side and little good feeling. This may be compensated for in one way, I suppose, by very interesting and valuable sidelights that may be developed in the course of the controversy: though I must say that, like all argument, or much of it, the results have not at all come up to the value of what was sacrificed in the struggle."

     W. let me read and was willing I should take his draft of an old letter to Schmidt. A mem. on the letter said: "Books sent to Mr. Clausen to send." The letter was short:


Dec. 7, 1871.

Rudolf Schmidt,
Kopenhagen, Denmark.


Dear Sir: I have received (through Mr. Clausen) your letter of 19th October from Kopenhagen, and I cheerfully forward you my poems Leaves of Grass and a small prose work Democratic Vistas. I also enclose several articles and criticisms, written about my book in England and America, within the last ten years. May I say there is something about your letter and application that has deeply pleased me. How I should like to know your country and people—and especially you yourself, and your poet Björnson and Hans Andersen. How proud I should be to become known to you all. Pray let me hear from you, and if the books and papers reach you.

My address is Washington, D. C. United States of America.


      "That" said W., "must have been one of the first letters I wrote Schmidt. The north countries were always miracle countries to me, somehow. I was particularly interested in the Norwegian Björnson. He sent me his picture once. It is that of a Viking: powerful, inflexible, clean: a face of humanity, purpose: a face of the ideal. Norway has made her best men much bigger than her own size—has made them men of world-dimensions; Ibsen, Björnson, the others." One of the things W. had laid out for me from the big budget was a Garland letter:

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 160] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
"The first to me from him, I think: the original avowal. If you don't mind I will have you read it aloud as you sit there under the light. Turn the light up a bit: yes, that is right. I will stay where I am and listen: I'm so confounded comfortable I don't want to move." He had laid the letter on the top of the pile where I had found it at his direction.


Jamaica Plain, Boston, Mass.,
Nov. 24, 1886.

Mr. Walt Whitman.

It is with profound sorrow that I read in the papers the news that you are again suffering from your old trouble. I trust it is not so serious as reported. My regard for you is so great that I am very sorry not to be able to buy more copies of your book and thus give a more substantial token of sympathy.

I am an enthusiastic reader of your books, both volumes of which I have within reach of hand. I am, everywhere in my talking and writing, making your claims felt and shall continue to do so. I have demonstrated (what of course you know) that there is no veil, no impediment, between your mind and your audience, when your writings are voiced [ "That's a point to chew on!" W. exclaimed, breaking in: "Read it again: I want to get it clear in my noddle for keeps!"] The formlessness is only seeming, not real. I have never read a page of your poetry, or quoted a line, that has not commanded admiration. The music is there and the grandeur of thought is there, if the reader reads guided by the sense and not by the external lining or paragraphing. Even very young pupils feel the thrill of the deep rolling music though the thought may be too profound for them to grasp. In a course of lectures before the Boston School of Oratory last summer I made a test of the matter. I do not think a single pupil held out against my arguments supplemented by readings from your work. The trouble is they get at your work through the daily press or through the defenders of Longfellow or Tennyson (whom it is supposed you utterly antagonize). When it is brought to them by one whose appreciates

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 161] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
and measurably understands your methods and ideals, I do not think there is any doubt of the favorable result. I have found much opposition but it was mostly ignorant or misled.


I am a young man of very ordinary attainments and do not presume to do more than give you a glimpse of the temper of that public which would not do you wrong, deliberately, but who by reason of the causes hinted at above, fail to get at the transcendent power of Leaves of Grass. If I have given you the impression that I believe in you and strive to interpret you, you will not feel that I over-stepped the privilege of a pupil in the presence of a great teacher.

The enclosed slip is a meagre outline of a volume which I am writing and which I hope to get out this coming spring. As the motto page of this volume I have used a paragraph from your Collect which is entitled Foundation Stages—then Others. While it is not strictly essential to the book, yet I should esteem it a favor if you would consent to its use. One sentence, "In nothing is there more evolution than in the American mind," I have also used in company with Spencer's great law of progress upon my title page. It helped to decide the title, which is: The Evolution of American Thought: an outline study of the leading phases of American literature, etc. In the latter part of the volume I have treated of the Age of Democracy and its thought, taking as foundation the splendid utterances of M. Taine upon the modern age. It is in this chapter that I place your work. I quote from you quite largely both in treating of your writings and in treating the general theme of present and future democratic ideals. I hope to be able please you with my treatment of your great work. Beside this I am preparing special lectures upon the same subject. Have you any objection to the quotations which I find it necessary to use?

In conclusion let me say that without any bias in your favor (rather the opposite from newspapers) your poems thrilled me, reversed many of my ideas, confirmed me in others, helped to make me what I am. I am a border-man,—born in Wisconsin and raised on the prairie frontier. I am a disciple of Mr. Spencer

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 162] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
and therefore strive at comparative methods of criticism. That your poems should thus convert me, is to me a revelation of their power, especially when I can convince others in the same manner.


And now revered friend (for I feel you are a friend) think of me as one of who radiates the principles of the modern age, and who will in his best manner (poor at best) strive to make his hearers and readers better aware of the "Good Gray Poet" and his elemental lines.

Your readers are increasing, and may you live to see the circle infinitely extended is my fervent hope. I do not expect a reply to this other than the signification whether I may quote you or not. I wish I might see and talk with you but that is not possible—except through your volumes.

I am most sincerely yours,

Hamlin Garland.


     I said to W.: "Garland's practice of reading you aloud is one that Ingersoll, too, has told me he followed." "How so? What did the Colonel say?" "That all great literature lent itself to the lips—that you were never so impressive as when rightly read aloud." "Did he say that? How interesting that is. Is that all he said?" "No—not all. He said that he often argued with people about you—that argument most times did not have much effect. He said that when he found his arguments were making no impression he resorted to your book and read from it: that the argument of the book, given in that way, was many times conclusive." W. exclaimed: "How fine! And that is probably what Garland meant, too. I shouldn't wonder but it's all true. That is a striking theory of the Colonel's: All great utterance in literature lends itself to the lips! I shall never forget that—it is very startling, incisive: it's not difficult to remember anything expressed with such piercing directness." He paused for a spell. Then went on: "Now —wasn't that a dandy letter from Garland? This was his first salutation—this was what he said when he first came along: a first confession:

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 163] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
not an obsequious obeisance made to the ground but just a manly equal shake of the hand—like that, no more. Did you notice, too, that he speaks of himself as a borderman?—a child of the western prairies? That appeals to me—hits me hardest where I enjoy being hit. That country out there is my own country though I have mainly had to view it from afar. I always seem to expect the men and women of the West to take me in in—what shall I say?—oh! take me in in one gulp! Where the East might gag over me the West should swallow me with a free throat. That letter of Garland's was two years ago—already two years ago. He ought to do something with the West—get it into great books."
"The East is like hope and the West is like more hope!" I said. W. shook his finger off the bed at me. "That's very clever—very true—Horace. Be careful—be careful: they will get you into the papers—quote you—pass you around: then your troubles will begin."

     I got up to go. W. said: "If you really find a Gilder letter right there on the top of the pile, take it—read it when you get home: I will tell you more about it to-morrow." I found the letter. It had no envelope. W. said again: "Just turn the light down a wee mite: that's it—that's it." I crossed the room to the bed, leaned over, kissed him, and left.


Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.