Commentary

Disciples


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 010] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Wednesday, July 18, 1888.

     8 p.m. Day reasonably good for W. Ate quite fairly. Up a good part of the time. Complained, however: "While that is

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 011] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
true, my vim and strength do not return: I despair of recovering them."
I looked skeptical. "Now what's the matter?" he asked. "You promised not to despair: despair is the worst medicine." This rallied him. He laughed quietly: "You are a good doctor: I am willing to take your medicine." Had made another try at the Hicks. "It don't go very well: my brain is not equal to it: could not cope with it—gets tired, takes my pen out of my hand." Yet he said he had read considerably. "Reading only passively tires me: writing is an active assault." "Some evening," he went on, "you will come here to be told that I have pitched the Hicks into the fire. If it eludes me much longer, fools me, rejects me"—here he stopped because I interrupted him: "Nonsense! You'll do nothing of the kind!" He repeated my exclamation smilingly and replied to it: "Well, maybe I won't do that—won't be as extreme as that—but." There he stopped. "At least, before I do it I will let you look it over. I think if you saw it in its present condition you would advise me to destroy it." Finally: "Hicks is entitled to my best—not my worst. My best would be too little—my worst would be an insult."

     Still insists that O'Connor "misses his cue on Sands at Seventy." I happened to say of O'C.'s Good Gray Poet: "It is so eloquent—vocal: when I read it I want to, I do, hear it." This elicited his immediate response. "Exactly: that's just it: that's what we all felt—feel. William is in the best sense an orator—is eminently passionate, pictorial, electric. I'd rather hear O'Connor argue for what I consider wrong than hear most other people argue for what I think right: he has charm, color, vigor: he possesses himself of the field: he pierces you to the vitals and you thank him for doing it. I think he learned all that in the anti-slavery school—whether for good or bad I do not know—learned it all there, in the clash of classes—won his spurs in the struggles of the abolition period. But that is not the whole story. Williams is also a book man—profoundly so—the most bookish of all my friends, I believe (to use the word 'bookish' in an allowable way). The post-Elizabethan era in England

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 12] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
—especially in England though not confined to that one country—developed a great many men, whole classes of men, polite, educated, conventional, keen, haughty—who became exquisite fencers, exquisite literary swordsmen—men not particular what they struck or in what cause, whether for wrong or right—contented if they but displayed agility, skill, and threw their man. O'Connor, one side of him, is quite like those old literary mercenaries—that is, like them on the score of expertness, shrewdness, acumen, polish, scholastic acumen, with a distinct moral nobility added. Dr. Johnson was of the same class—in fact, one of that class before all else."
I asked him: "Was Johnson a fencer or a pugilist?" W. laughed and answered: "Perhaps a bit of a pugilist, at the worst, but, at his best, a fencer, I should say: he was not clumsy—was one of the ripest example of the school—a master graduate."

     It seems our talk on this line was all to lead up to an old O'Connor letter which W. had been reading today. This letter he handed to me with the remark: "It is one of the most splendid of all William's splendid letters: it hits you like meeting with something possessing identity in the midst of a crowd—like a sunburst on a dark day." Then: "William could not do even the comparatively innocent things without the air, the authority, of a sovereign will. Stay right where you are—read the letter—see if it is not a proud example in point." I read a large part of the letter aloud, W. listening intently, several times exclaiming "bravo!"


Washington, D. C., May 20, 1882.

Dear Walt:

I have yours of the 17th., and also your picture, for which many thanks. It is a fine presentment.

My article has gone to the Tribune with a note to Whitelaw Reid, and we await the result. I hope, if it appears, you will like it. Of course, you are not in any way responsible for it, and this is the position for you to take. Learning the facts, I use the independent privilege of a friend, and of a citizen, to criticise the offenders. I alone am responsible.


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 13] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
I composed the article under great affliction, for as the devil would have it, there were several days of shocking raw weather, followed by five consecutive days of rain, and I got the influenza, and was half dead with headache, a racking cough and all the accompaniments. Nothing therefore was right for composition but the heart. Despite conditions, Charley Eldridge, who got here from California in time to read what I have written, and of whose cool-headedness and judgmatical quality I think highly, considers it the best thing I have done, which I hope will prove true. At all events, if it gets printed, it will be the opening gun in a tremendous cannonade, and we will have war on the enemy in England at any rate, which is what will hurt Oliver Stevens and company here.

My object is to smoke the hidden movers in this business out of their holes, and I kept this in mind through the whole composition. Hence, although I knew that Marston was behind the Boston attorney, I took care not to even mention his name, but focussed all my fire right upon Oliver Stevens, who, you know, is the only one that appears officially in the transaction. He will never endure to be exclusively blistered in this way, but will in defence inculpate the State Attorney General. The minute he brings him forward, I will give them both the devil. In the present article I have been very guarded, and have interwoven fury with moderation, but when we get Marston to the front, there will be augmented fire for his hide, and I hope to make it so intolerable for him, that he will in self-defence peach on the holy citizens who have egged him on. Then, when we get their names, will be the time for punishment, memorable and terrible. They shall never be forgotten. The whole gang shall hang in chains for all time.

This must be our object—to discover the history of this persecution—the names of the subterranean movers. You must help me in this all you can. Perhaps Lathrop can discover.

You are quite right in feeling as you do towards Osgood and Company, besides being magnanimous, but it is not for me, nor

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 14] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
for anyone else, to approve their course, which has simply been on the lowest plane of huckster providence. You had grounds against them for an action for damages. They solicited your book, they knew its character, they agreed to non-expurgation, and at the first breath of trouble, they flunked. It is all right for you to take such an attitude as you do toward them—for you personally: but my part, and the part of all your friends, is to whale them. You, of course, are not responsible.


I have a strong suspicion that when the truth comes to be known, the Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson will be found behind the State Attorney General as an instigator. His tone toward you, in the Woman's Journal article (and the Nation was probably his,) shows extreme venom. I know him, and know just where he is vulnerable, and will in due time plant a javelin where it will do him good.

I have seen and read twice your article in the N. A. Review. It is splendid and cannot fail to do good. I only wish the style was a little clearer. I like better your earlier manner, so free from sub-clauses, involutions, parentheses—so direct and simple. In this country, in this age, when the necessity is upon us of addressing the whole people, and not the college professors or bookmen merely, I set extreme value upon communication. To be readily apprehended by your auditory is, the truth being yours, the whole battle.

Your position in the Review article is impregnable. Gibraltar is less strong. It only remains to show the relations of poetic statements to these didactic truths. With many excellent people, especially when devoid of imagination, the trouble is to accept a passional expression, though they are quite willing to accept one simply descriptive, as in a physiological treatise. We live in a cursed abyss of society. Everything is sophisticated, everything polluted. To a sane man or woman it is simply monstrous that the august and tender supra-mortal experience of a nuptial night cannot be put into living poetry.

I hope my Tribune letter will appear and be satisfactory to you. It cost me great pain, as I had to move gingerly and with

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 015] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
audacity at the same time. You will see how I have worked Emerson's letter against Stevens like an engine.


You must be careful in what you say of Emerson's position toward your amative passages. You have often told us that in his talk with you on the Common he had nothing to say on intrinsic grounds against these passages, but only on commercial or popular grounds. I remember your telling me that it was the saddest thing you ever heard that Emerson had nothing to urge in all his vehement talk, but that the exclusion of these passages would make the book sell better. Nor could he have had. These passages are capable of the most unanswerable vindication on purely intellectual grounds merely, not to go deeper, and this Emerson knew. In his letter to you he approves them. What else does his panegyric on your "courage of treatment" mean? I mention this because I have thought from your way of mentioning the matter, that the enemy might say that you had allowed that Emerson was opposed to these passages on moral grounds, which would be untrue.

Good-bye.

Yours Faithfully,

W. D. O'Connor.


     I said to W.: "O'Connor gives your style a rap." He smiled over this. "So he does, so he does—but then my style has got nothing but raps from the start, so I am well used by this time to the man who says no. O'Connor himself would fly into a fury over my literary sins—give me hell about some comma I did use or some comma I didn't use. You mustn't suppose that because William is so staunchly my friend he will stand for everything I do. Somehow, it always nettles me some to be lectured about my style—to have much said about style anyhow—said pro, said con. I am willing they should all take a fly at it—only I wish they would meanwhile let me alone—not bother me about it. A plague on the whole worriment—the worriment of blame, the worriment of applause—both: a plague on 'em!" I said to W.: "I suppose William is right about Emerson. You

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 016] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
have always explained the incident to me in the same way."
"Exactly right—right to the letter. In fact, Emerson distinctly said to me that I was not to construe any of his objections to be against the purport of the book. He repeated that assurance to me over and once again, in different ways—seemed anxious on that point beyond any other to be rightly understood."

     Talked of Voltaire. "Now there was a great man, too," said W.: "an emancipator—a shining spiritual light: a miraculous man whose ridicule did more for justice than the battles of armies." "Voltaire never was of a mind to condone Shake-speare: Shake-speare's crudities were offensive to him: there was something crude, powerful, drastic, in the Shakes-speare plays: Voltaire could not reconcile his nerves to their brutal might. But you cannot shift such luminaries from their orbit by a sneer—by an adjective. Do you think Leaves of Grass was ever really hurt by the people who went at it with a club?"

     Had he met George Bancroft in Washington? "No—we never met—though I have seen him many times. If the way had been open I would have introduced myself. Even as it is, today, were I eligible, I would take the trouble to write, if do no more by him. Bancroft is a man of sagacity—honest—rather prosy and slow: a plodding hewer of wood and drawer of water—yet an indispensable collector—a man going before to gather materials for philosophy." Had Bancroft any opinion of Leaves of Grass? "None that I ever heard of." What of Holmes? Had Holmes such an opinion? "Holmes seems to prefer to keep his mouth shut—to say nothing." But Lowell? "Ah! there we are on surer ground. Lowell says no to me in ways anybody can understand."

     W. threatens each day to take a trip down stairs. Each day I jolly him about it. "Set the day," I said: "I want to be around." He was merry over it. "That's what I dare not do. I am a poor hand to make promises: I never make a promise that I can avoid. I guess that's the reason I never got married; if I had a set apart a day I might have begged off when the date arrived." I rose to go. Kissed W. for good-night. He said: "Sometime

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 017] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
there will be a last good-night. Then you'll have to keep up the story alone."
I said however: "But that don't worry you: a man who isn't afraid of life isn't afraid of death." He fervently answered: "No indeed! I do not worry—I am not afraid: it all belongs to the same scheme: we've got to see it through in the spirit of the cheerfullest faith."


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.