Commentary

Disciples


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 228] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Friday, August 31, 1888.

     In at Ferguson's today and Bilstein's. Received second proof of title and contents pages, W. expressing himself at once as completely satisfied with both. W. said: "Did you notice what Bucke said about you in that letter yesterday?" "What did he say?" "He said: 'H. is first-class.' I say so too. So now, ain't you some proud of yourself?" Gave me another letter from Bucke, dated London 29th. "He has heard from O'Connor. Read what he says of William." Bucke had written: "I had a letter from O'Connor. He seems wonderfully bright and lively considering. His letter was all about you and Donnelly. He sticks to you like a grand fellow as he is." W. repeated the phrase: "Like a grand fellow as he is." "Yes! yes! that and more: like a grandest fellow as he is: words are so weak and William is so strong!" Bucke had also written: "I have been thinking over the Riddle Song and have made up my mind that the answer is 'good cause' or 'old cause' or some other words meaning about the same thing.—?——." W. took the letter from me and put his finger down on Bucke's question mark. "Doctor has guessed—thinks he has guessed right. I wonder? I wonder?" I waited for him to say more. "Do you want me to answer him?" I asked. "Yes answer him: but answer him for yourself—don't answer him for me." "Will you answer the question?" "Do I ever answer questions?" He laughed quietly. "Horace, I made the puzzle: it's not my business to solve it. Doctor says he has the right answer—well, that ought to satisfy him—the right answer ought to satisfy him." I saw W. was determined to maintain his silence in the matter and said no more. People have often asked him the meaning of the poem There was a Child went Forth and he has always made the same answer: "What is the meaning? I wonder what? I wonder what?" Once he said to Bonsall: "Harry, maybe it has no meaning."


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 229] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

     W. went down stairs today for the first time—was there half an hour. "The trip down was harder than the trip up," he explained: "Things are much the same though I miss the litter in the parlor." Mrs Davis had told me of this before I saw W. In W's room I said at once: "I hear you have made a trip to Europe today." He did not at first comprehend—simply looked doubtfully at me: then suddenly his whole face lighted up. "To Europe? yes: down stairs: I did go, I made a venture. Don't you think I was a brave man to undertake such a journey?" "You must be feeling considerable better." "No—I am not: not at all better. But I wanted something down there and thought I would start off on my own hook and get it. Besides, I ought to move about some, ought to walk, must not get fixed in the chair and bed habit, which will soon turn me into a useless invalid. Mary looked scared—I don't believe she is over it yet." What he was looking for down stairs was Symonds' Greek Literature and a copy of Marcus Aurelius. "I wrote Burroughs a postcard," he remarked: "a few words only." I asked him if he contemplated making his quarters down stairs, as Bucke suggested. "I contemplate nothing: I would be a poor one to contemplate: I drift, drift: there's nothing else left me to do."

     I told W. I had sent McPhelim's America piece off to Bucke. "Ah! good! But what a mess it is! There are a thousand and one gnats, mosquitoes, camp-followers, hanging about the literary army, and each of 'em thinks he must have a fling at Walt Whitman. They know nothing about him—maylike never read or even looked at his book—but that's no matter: that, in fact, seems to be taken as a special qualification for their carpings and crowings. Walt Whitman is rowdy, rough—likes common people; is apt to write about indecent, indelicate, things—is odd, dresses informally: they all tell you that, get hold of that—then are done for." McPhelim seems to have an idea that Charles O'Connor and our William O'Connor are the same person. "I was glad to see a little notice of November Boughs," said W., "in the American Stationer: a little, not a big, notice. Take the paper along—see what you can make of it. I always find something

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 230] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
to interest me in trade papers. A man goes out of town for six months and when he returns half a dozen new inventions have come and revolutionized his profession."

     Still talks of free trade. "Well, I don't promise myself much for this year but I know the baby is born who will strangle this monster. The mass of the people will finally get it rammed into their heads what an infernal humbug the 'American System' is. The man who thinks the free traders do not know what they are about had better keep on thinking—may make a better guess second time: had better take it all out in thinking now: for soon his time will come and there will be no ground left for him to stand on. I have heard it said that reason comes with the forties. I should say as to most men, that reason does not come even then—does not come at all—for I am impressed with the general lack of it."

     What is the place of sickness in character? W. asked himself that question. "They speak of Emerson as being sickly, weak, ailing: all biographies repeat the statement: I guess there is something to it. But, do you know, I never think of Emerson as a sick man. I met him twenty and more times: he was always lithe, active, of good complexion, with a clear eye: gave out no notion of dubious health—was physically jubilant, in a quiet way, as was like him. Indeed, Emerson was almost impatient of sickness—was bright, wonderfully bright, to the very last. Why, I can recall the occasion of our last meeting: it was there at Concord: it was the final visit; he was still possessed of the same imperturbable courage. I was reading the correspondence today—and fine it is, too. All the letters were prepared letters—designed, mulled over, worked out and out. Letters were events in those days. There's something peculiar in my notion about this book. I can read with perfect composure Emerson's soft-soaping of Carlyle, but when Carlyle enters into a sort of responding mood of laudation I am mad—find it artificial. Can you explain that? I can't." I said: "Morse prefers the Carlyle letters." "I do not: I always have liked Emerson's letters—they are not formal, they seem just right to be his."


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 231] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

     After a pause W. added: "I think Burroughs has written some of the best things about Carlyle. And now, while I'm upon that, let me say: the next time you write Burroughs add this to your letter: 'Walt Whitman advises that you gather together all you have ever written about Carlyle—essays, scraps, notes—and print them in a little volume, booklet, so they may be preserved.' Burroughs' espousal of Carlyle is a queer thing, too, taken one way, though I have always upheld his hands in that—always unequivocally endorsed it. It was not strange that I, for instance, should have found friends in England—should have attracted Mrs. Gilchrist, for one: not strange that I should have attracted any one person: but it is significant that that one person should be a woman, in the first place, and then a woman marked for culture, refinement, scholarship. I have a similar feeling of wonder when I remember that Carlyle's most significant living adherent in America should be a man like John: a scholar, concrete—all of him concrete: materialistic (using that word with its broadest amplifications) to a degree. It is curious about Carlyle, too, that his friends here have been our staunchest Americans—in spite of his mean flings, our best democrats—among whom I hope I deserve to be counted."

     W. reminded me of my remark last night that I had a couple of editorial letters still left unread. "Why not read them now," he said, "and be done with 'em?" I replied: "Maybe you would rather not hear them read: they might hurt your feelings." He answered, with a laugh: "I suppose you mean by that that they're both favorable letters?" "Exactly." He was grave for a moment. Then he said: "You seem to have been right about that particular collection of letters—they happened to be in the main or wholly of a pleasant nature: but you may believe me when I say I can more than match 'em with others not only politely haughty but often offensively and vituperatively inimical. An editor wrote me: 'How dare you, Walt Whitman,' and so forth: and another said in an effort to be funny: 'Your poem was submitted to the editor of our joke department but he said he could not see the humor of it so with regrets we return it to

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 232] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
you.'"
After W. had somewhat gravely quoted his second incident he added: "Though you won't call that insulting, of course." I said: "I confess I am not inclined to take it seriously." W. further said before I read the letters: "There was a New York editor who wrote and assured me that though he could not get interested in my poems he was sure that if I would submit some of my short stories to him we could do some business together." "Had you sent the poems?" "No—but he was afraid I would." Now I read the letters.


The North American Review,
New York City, Oct. 20, 1885.

Dear Mr. Whitman:

Enclosed please find a check for fifty dollars for the article in the November number of the North American Review on Slang in America. This is the very highest rate that is paid for contributions, and exactly double what is paid for nine-tenths of the articles that appear in it. I trust it is satisfactory. When will you have your article on Lincoln ready? Mr. Rice is quite impatient for it. If any question of pay stands in the way won't you please state what you will ask for it, and then I shall have the matter off my mind. I wish you would answer this letter today, as I am about to start on a two weeks' trip to the West.

Yours very truly,

James Redpath.



Magazine of Art,
London, E. C., Nov. 30, 1887.

Walt Whitman, Esq.,
Sir,


Having added the editorship of this magazine to my duties on the Pall Mall Gazette my thoughts at once turned to you, in the hope that you would let me have a poem for publication in this very widely circulated serial.

Will you have the kindness to inform me if you have such a poem by you—not too long—and unpublished, of course—and,

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 233] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
preferably, one which would lend itself to illustration? And also on what terms you would let me have such a poem? And, if you haven't this, if you would write one?


I send a copy of the magazine herewith for you to judge of.

Awaiting the favor of your reply, and in the hope that your health is in a satisfactory condition,

I am, Sir, Faithfully yours,

M. H. Spielmann,
Editor.



     As I concluded reading I exclaimed: "Well, Walt, this was not a frost—it was an ovation." How heartily he laughed! "So it was—so it was: I must have put my hand on the wrong bundle when I turned those letters over to you for opposition votes. Horace, I hereby apologize to the bundle! Look at Redpath's letter, anyhow: he paid me 'the very highest rate.' Why, that looks almost like popularity, prosperity! You see, however, that I survived all the letters without a fortune. I answered the Spielmann letter by sending the Twenty Years poem which has just appeared. What stuff of bodies and souls history is made of, Horace! What troubles, labors, doubts, as well as what joys, satisfactions, triumphs! No story is complete without the slaps as well as the kisses."

     W. had been reading in a paper about a big free trade meeting in New York addressed by Henry George and William Lloyd Garrison. "I wish you would hunt me up a good report. That man Garrison seems like 'a worth while son to a worth while father,' as you so well said the other day talking of our own Charley Garrison. Sons of the big men are rarely big: it would be curious if William Lloyd Garrison two should get as famous as Garrison one, but I don't expect it. Look at the younger Henry James—I don't see anything above common in him: he has a vogue—but surely his vogue won't last: he don't stand permanently for anything. The elder James must have been quite a man: I know several of his companions: they held him in high esteem. And he had an opinion about me, too."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 234] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
"Was it a good one?" "No—sharp, discouraging. I had a friend up there—a woman friend—who knew him well and often talked with him about authors—sometimes about me. Her great claim for Walt Whitman was that he asserted virility, health, but James used to say to her as to that: 'That's just the trouble: no man can be a great poet who has not known sickness, disease,' and so on. I was always impressed with the idea—it hit me powerful like—impatient as I have always been toward invalidism. James seemed to think a potentially great poet, before he achieves greatness, must encounter opposition, ostracism, illness: must shed the literal blood from his veins in the cause he upholds: and why isn't he right? Do you know any reason, Horace, for saying he is not right?" I said: "Whatever may have been the case when James applied his theory to you you've had all the prescribed experience since." W. smiled and assented. "Time: time: but that alone does not make the great poet: something must go before!" I added: "Well, Walt, I accept James' theory and accept Walt Whitman without hurt to the truth." "Do you say that, Horace? But then you are always saying things!"

     We put the matter aside here by silence, both. W. was the first to speak. "There's Bucke: Bucke thinks there was a weakening of my pulse already in Drum Taps: that Drum Taps showed a distinct drop in power. No matter for that: I feel myself satisfied to let all go as you find it today—the additions, just as they are, down to the very latest utterance of the Leaves. Of my personal ailments, of sickness as an element, I never spoke a word until the first of the poems I call Sands at Seventy were written, and then some expression of invalidism seemed to be called for. It cannot be skipped—it should not be made too much of. I feel that there is a solid basis for what I have done—a root-idea justifying all—from the first leaf of all the Leaves to the last leaf—the very last: as there must also be for anything that is yet to come. There is another point it's just as well to bear in mind—that a man may be sick for sins a dead generation

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 235] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
committed: that admonishes us to be a bit gentle in applying the rod."

     Referring to the American-Canadian fisheries dispute W. said: "I expect it to be a mere matter of wind, hollow as hollow can be on both sides." This led him to speak of Canada. "It is a country of characteristics—the landscape has characteristics, the people have characteristics. Canada has been injured by its colonial adhesion to England. I used to walk about when I was up there with Bucke and talk with the people. Canada should be on its own feet, asserting the life which properly belongs to it. I should say that we on this side of the border are too much inclined to minimize its importance. It is good to get about among other peoples: to not take any one nation too much for granted in its superiorities: to take a little off our prejudices here, and put a little on our admirations there—just so's we may finally establish ourselves on the right family basis among the nations."

     Recurring to Bucke's opinion of Drum Taps: "I can understand Bucke: he has his reasons, good reasons: but still the conviction abides with me that I am in the end right—must be sustained, convinced, as I feel myself to be, by a logic I cannot state but must stand by, insist upon"—he laughed— "world without end." Then he referred to James again. "He may have been right—certainly was in part right. James was himself sickly, I was always well: we were physically antithetical. It is hard for a perfectly well man to thoroughly understand a perfectly sick man, or vice versa."

     He mentioned the visit of the Coateses. "They are so cheery—she particularly: so hopeful both of them—and fine—I have had them in my mind ever since. The mere atmosphere of such an invasion scatters blessings in my path: a sort of rain of blessings. I know I have felt better for their courtesy." He remarked as I got up to leave: "I shall very likely go down stairs again to-morrow but of course not by laying plans to do so (how can I make plans? plans mean work!) but if and when the mood strikes me." I said to him: "Mrs Harned is nearing her confinement.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 236] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Her doctor says she is one of the most perfectly organized women physically speaking that she has ever attended—that she is in almost unprecedented condition."
W. cried "Good! good! good! Horace, I can't say good often enough! Who could better realize what that means—who better understand, who more thoroughly rejoice in, what you tell me: who more full appreciate its significance—than I do—I, whose gospel, if I have a gospel (God help me!) it exemplifies and celebrates? Tell her this for me—congratulate her for me. There are many kinds of mothers, Horace, but there is only one final kind of mother. Give the new mother my love: tell her I glorify her in my thanksgivings—that Walt Whitman glorifies her: tell her that."


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.