Commentary

Disciples


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Wednesday, August 22, 1888.

     W. perseveres in his reading of Scott. He seemed unusually quiet and feeble. "No—I have not felt well: not for some days past—am unable to write or do anything consecutive. I did write to Bucke today, however—but what had I to tell him? Nothing—no news. How could a feller sitting here in this room, cut off from the world, have news? With me it is but one thing

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—one stale thing: if I write I must harp on that alone. I sit here all day, or lie over there"—motioning towards the bed—"and that is what my life amounts to."
Has not examined proofs today. "I am on the disabled list for sure. I have taken a little look in on Scott—only a little look: even that would not go."

     I read him a Bucke letter. Bucke expects to make money out of Gurd's water meter. W. says of that: "I can imagine no worse fortune for a man who amounts to anything, who hopes to grow and flower, who has in him the stuff of achievement, than to come into an income, ease, goods—be put into pawn to the world's patronage. May God help Bucke to remain a poor man!" "And me—Walt: do you pray for me, too?" "I don't need to: you'll never be rich: you'd run away if you saw riches coming." "Morse used to write me that when our million shiners came in we could pack up and go to Paris together—or something like that." "To Paris? And why to Paris? I don't see what use either one of you could make of Paris. Paris is a good thing to see in order to be through with it—to have it over with: like a fever or a great many evils that afflict us: or like the boy with his first watch, for instance—he can't be cured of it till he has it!"

     Someone called his attention to an error in Leaves of Grass. "I see—I see: it must be wrong—but that is one of my idiocrities—to put it there and let it be, wrong or right. Maybe what is wrong for him is right for me: such things, too, do happen." Submitted him samples of paper for the two books. He looked them over. "After all, however, I leave that to you—what you all agree to I will approve. I want you to rub up against the pressman, too—get his advice. Pressmen know the kind of paper they can handle with the best results."

     William Winter has been making a speech in England defending America against the negations of Arnold. W. said: "I have seen and read it—part of it, anyway. It came along from Kennedy, in a copy of The Transcipt, and I afterwards passed it on to O'Connor. There was nothing in it to stick a pin through.

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He made some reference to me, not by name, if I remember rightly, but by innuendo: some statement generously conceding my personal decency, even my goodness, and then dismissing my literary insanity and worse with a shrug of his literary shoulders, and an intimation in words that I was altogether off so far as concerned any serious poetic purpose and reputation."

     We had a little talk about Bucke's Man's Moral Nature, W. saying: "Oh yes, I have read it—more than once—more than twice. It is a book you have to chew on—chew on with good teeth, faithfully, loyally; it pays principal and interest in the end if you stick to it. No one can hop skip and jump through it—it needs to be let altogether alone or very seriously read. It is worked out on daring lines—clearly, reverently, impartially. I understand that the scientific men are coming round very generally to the same view. Of course that is not conclusive: they are all come, come again, come, come: then a new rebel appears, goes still beyond, and the men of science get up again for another walk. Speculation has its place but is not infallible—goes oftener wrong than right. We feel like saying to the metaphysicians and moralists: hold your horses, keep them well in hand—you never know when you've got to take a sharp turn-about! It's like in medicine—this year's dogma is tomorrow thrown away."

     W. much amused by a newspaper editorial someone had sent him from the West. It had a question for a headline: "Who is this Walt Whitman, anyway?" He thought the "furious phosphorescent" inquiry of his assailant "refreshing." "Who is this Walt Whitman, anyway? Well, who is he? Do you know, Horace? Yes, you know—I haven't fooled you. But just see how I have juggled with the rest of the world!" I said: "I know who you are—you are the dirty novel man!" This broke him down utterly. He laughed more heartily than I have known him to do for months. I had reminded him of a story. Years ago—I was a small boy—we were on a ferry-boat together, sitting in front of the cabin. A well-dressed man leaning against the rail had been watching us intently. Finally he motioned to

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me—called me by crooking his forefinger. I got up and went over to where he stood. "Say," he said—"say, bubby—is that Walt Whitman, the man who writes the dirty novels?" I was convulsed but said "Yes." When I got back Walt remarked: "He was speaking about me—what did he say?" I told him. He took the dose calmly for he saw the man still looking at him. Later on, however, he let himself go in quiet little chuckles of amusement. Again and again afterward he would hand me out manuscripts to look at—poems, often, and say: "There's my latest dirty novel." This was the incident recalled when I said tonight: "You are the dirty novel man."

     W. asked me: "What do you know of Lionel Johnson? Is he doing anything in the world that you know anything about?" "Why do you ask?" "Look at this." Handed an open letter to me. It was written on a small note sheet in a very delicate sensitive hand. "It came two and more years ago, as you see: it was a very remarkable letter—and he was so young, a mere boy. It hits me hard when young people take such a shine to me—makes me feel as if I had to behave myself specially well. But this Johnson—this boy: I felt that he would do, if he had not already done, some signal writing of a sort—he seemed to have writing stuff in him. We must watch for his apparition: it will surely appear. Read the letter and see if I am likely to prove a false prophet."


Rose Cottage, Winchester, Hampshire, England,
Oct. 20th, 1885.

Dear Walt Whitman:

I write to you, though personally unknown, as writing to a dear friend: because, though happy to call many about me by the name of friends, I have no truer friend than yourself: if friendship means the receiving of light and delight and strength from the spirit of a brother man. I have lived as yet but eighteen years; yet in all the constant thoughts and acts of my last few years, your words have been my guides and true oracles. I cannot hope to see you face to face and tell you this: but you will at least believe it and feel that I am not

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writing from an unworthy spirit of self-assertion: but that I should feel shame for myself, were I not to show the reality of my gratitude to you, even through the weakness of words—you, whom I thankfully acknowledge for my veritable master and dear brother.


You, in your age and glorious approach to the sure future of death—you will know that I am speaking neither empty adulation nor shallow shams.

I am proud of belonging to the oldest school of any in England—to the great foundation of the strong priest and ruler, William of Wykeham: and it was under the shadows of the ancient walls of his college, still flourishing through the influence of his powerful personality, that I first received Leaves of Grass from the hands of a most dear friend. And the help and exaltation I have won from it have been won by many another boy and young man, of those in whose hearts rests the immediate history of the coming years—to make it splendid with strong actions and strong asserted truths. It is in your works, as in the great powers of earth and sea, that the inspiring force of no school is to be found: certain to dare all things by the strength of body and soul inseparable.

Whether I am right or not in writing to you, I neither know nor care: I do know that I cannot keep silence.

I am, in love and reverence,

Lionel Johnson.


      "That sounds very ripe for a boy of eighteen," said W.—"ripe enough already to shed fruit. It is singular how soon some natures come to a head and how long it takes others to ripen, though I believe, as a rule, the slow fruit is the best. It's not the least flattering feature of my experience that I have been most successful with young people, the just-comers, and least successful with the full done and over done literary masters of ceremony." Finally he said: "Keep a weather eye open for that boy: he will appear again." Asked me if I had ever seen

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"this" portrait of Rudolf Schmidt. No I had not. He said "You might put it away in your Whitman rag-bag: it will be of use to you by and bye when you come of literary age and act as the historian of our many battles." I was present once when a preacher dropped in to see W. The visitor got talking special salvation to W. W. was impatient but held in. Finally the talker stopped as if to invite W.'s comment. W. looked up at the man, who was standing, and simply said: "Oh, hell!" The preacher looked at W. more hurt than horrified. "Is that all you have to say, Mr. Whitman?" W. was by this time thoroughly annoyed, though he only asked: "What more would you have me say, Mr. Ross?" Then the visitor left. W. turned to me and asked wickedly: "Horace, don't you think oh, hell covered the whole case?"


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