Commentary

Disciples


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Tuesday, September 4th, 1888.

     8 p.m. W. writing a note to his sister when I entered. "The folks went to see Eddy today so I'm writing about that." But was ready enough to drop the letter for the present. What have you got? tell me that." I handed him an envelope containing copies of frontispiece. He opened it—regarded the picture long and carefully. "It is very good: it grows better and better: a little more ink now gives it a little more life: life, life—we want life. I am glad you brought a few: I can enclose them with my letters." I said: "The presswork is first-rate—it has brought out all there is in the cut: if there's anything missing now blame the cut." He smiled: "I'll blame nothing: we'll draw out of the cut what there's in us. I used to know an old German—oh it was a long time ago—and Jeff could tell you of it, too—who had about the wheeziest, damnablest, out-of-tune piano that ever was. Yet the instant the old man sat down and commenced to play everybody would listen—I, too, and Jeff—all the talkers would listen—and we could never get enough of it, never get satiated—would listen for hours. He would draw out of it, out of himself, all there was in it, all there was in him."

     W. said of his health: "It was greatly improved Sunday and yesterday but I am not so well today. Somedays I get all fagged out, feeling bad enough to give in once for all." Gave me this message for Morse: "Yes, write to Sidney: I send him my love: say to him that I still flourish (if that word can be

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used in connection with me): that the books are in a fair way to be out soon: that we are both working like beavers (one of us a sick beaver): and that we are waiting to hear from him. Tell Sidney we are fussy—that it is his turn to write!">/q> Gilchrist has not yet arrived though there is mail here for him.

     Musgrove entered with a letter for W., who looked at the postmark and said: "It's from Atlantic City: who do we know there? Oh! Mrs. Williams. You know Frank: it's his wife." He started in at once and had read most of the letter aloud to me when he came upon the request that it should be shown to no one. "But it's done! the mischief's done! Yet I wonder why she made the suggestions." After putting the letter back in the envelope he said: "The worst of sickness is its bad humor, its peevishness, its crossness, its irritability." I looked skeptical. "But it's all there, I can assure you, Horace. I'm not all sweetness, by any means: far otherwise: you'll find in me, if you look far enough, a whole hodge-podge of bad impulses—things maybe not seen, but there, active enough, devilish enough, God knows, all the same." Paused. I said nothing. Then he went on: "I once read a story of Socrates—I can't tell where any more: I was young at the time—it was in New York: a story, if I'm not mistaken, from Bacon, or credited to him. Hardly that: it sounds too fishy: but the point is the same. At that time there were traveling phrenologists—they came into the villages, or big business centers, plying their trade. As the story goes it was such a man in old Greece who happened into the Socratian circle—into one of the groups of young fellows who hung about Socrates—who proceeded to annoy and jeer at him—taunt him: what could he do? what were his powers? pshaw! and so forth. But he was not to be downed. They were challenged to produce a subject—accepted the challenge—blindfolded him—brought Socrates in. The phrenologist went to work: here was indeed a pretty subject—a pretty subject indeed. Over the bumps went the wary hand: here was a very glutton, a rascal fond of wine—could drink swinishly: and a lecherous scamp too: you who had nice daughters, have a care!—and so on. The

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young men were hilarious—took off the bandage—released the phrenologist. 'Do you know who it is you have been saying all these beautiful things about? This is the great, the wise, Socrates, loftiest of mortals.' And they badgered the poor devil so bad he was like to give up. All the time Socrates stood there, with a smile on his face, finally protesting from his place aside. He raised his hand, this way"
—indicating— "'Not so fast now, not so fast now: don't be so sure: don't be so sure you know and he don't. Listen to me. I know better than all of you know the real facts. No one knows what is hidden away in me as I do: I tell you all this man says is true, every word of it—and more, too, if he had chosen to go farther. You must not suppose that because I suppress the evidences of it that it does not exist—that there are not in me, too, as much as in anyone, wild growths of poison flowers, mad passions of villainy, to be fought and thrown in the defence of virtue.'"

     W. told this story with great gusto. "I wish I could remember where it came from: I would like to see, read, it again. It may have been in an old magazine, though that is not likely, for magazine editors would have construed it to be licentious and not consent to give it currency. I say to my friends: Don't be so sure of my innocence: all the bad is there with all the good, only needing to be exposed—all in hiding. There's always a heap in such stories, but this, likely enough, this Socratian story, is fiction, as most of them are."

     I picked up a paper-bound book lying on the table—a copy of the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass. "There was a history and a grief attached to that edition," said W.: "It was got up by a friend of mine, a young fellow, printed from type, in New York. One day I received the intelligence (I was then in Washington) that the place had been seized for debt. I received a portion of the books remaining—the most of them were lost, scattered God knows where, God knows how. But this," he said, picking up another book, "this is the best of the editions, the '72 edition—printed by Green." I read aloud from the title page imprint, "Washington." "No," objected W., "dated

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Washington but Green was in New York. I have a few of those copies left—one for you if you want it, if you have none."

     We talked of anthologies. "I am usually left out. Bryant, I think, ignored me in early editions, but some later editor seems to have included me. Dana quoted me copiously in his book—was my genial friend." "Why did Emerson ignore you in Parnassus?" "I do not know. I have ceased not only inquiring but caring. I am satisfied to wait—satisfied to have things take their own time. I have never had, nor have, any wish to make a big flare-up: a big flare-up is soon out. I am aware that my work, if it has any stuff in it—any substance that can endure—needs time, to make its way, and if it has not is as well dropped now as later." We talked some about the O'Connor letter which he gave me on Sunday. "It is brilliant," said W.— "like a bright star in a clear sky. William is a man who never needs a prod—is always afire: in fence he is a ways ready—his weapons are always on edge. I doubt if America has so far produced another man his equal in the things for which his temperament may be said to stand."


Providence, R. I.
April 1, 1883.

Dear Walt:

I got your note of the 29th and in the afternoon of the same day (March 30) the package of books came. It was very kind in you to send them. As Dr. Channing's family are ardent friends of you and your book, and have no recent issues, I turned over to them one copy of the poems and the copy of Specimen Days—you know I have both myself (Specimen Days, I regret to say, I have never found time to read, but shall, from the copy you sent me, when I return to Washington, as I shall have more leisure this spring and summer than I had in the dreadful months of labor when the book came.) The other copy of the poems, I shall reserve for some one who shall prove to be worthy: and I hope this disposition of your kind gift will please you.

The Channing family are staunch adherents, and the girls

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(Mary and Grace—Mary was recently married and is living in Cambridge—) both gave their cousin, Col. Higginson, (whom I have gone for so savagely in the Introductory) a round talking-to on your account, apropos of his article in The Woman's Journal. But Higginson is incorrigible. I imagine, however, that the rhinoceros spear I have planted in and turned by steam in his hide (in the Introductory) will startle his supercilious composure, especially what I say about his Port Royal experience, and I guess he will be mad as a wet hen. All right: people that live in porcelain towers or crystal palaces, shouldn't throw stones at the "lower horders," such as we are,—we whose armorial legend is: "'eave 'arf a brick at 'im!"


It was very kind to send Karl Elze's book, which I have read (you know I am a very rapid reader) and will return to you by express. I knew him already by his life of Byron, which I own, and the best thing in which is his perfectly exterminating analysis of Mrs. Stowe's (or rather Lady Bryon's) ridiculous slander. Otherwise in this Byron book, as in the book on Shakespeare, he is a perfect Bismarck philistine, with a head of wood just larded with brains. The lack of political freedom, inducing proclivity to aristocratic ideas, and utter lack of sympathy with democratic or republican thought, makes all the Germans, even the great ones (and Elze is not great), perfectly worthless whenever they approach topics connected with the questions of liberty and humanity: and Shakespeare cannot be successfully approached in criticism except in connection with the mighty human movement which made the life of his age— "the world-bettering age," as one of the great Elizabethan men calls it. Hence this supper of sawdust, such as Carl Elze, and others like him, sets for us. A dull fellow, moreover, which only partly accounts for his slurring notice of Hugo's magnificent book on Shakespeare—Bismarckism being accountable for the rest of it. However, what paralyzes all Shakespearean criticism, Elze's as well as the rest, is the obstinate consideration of the work with that Stratford chucklehead and his chucklehead biography. If we had no notion whatever of the author, we

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should fare better in understanding the work than we do with William Shakespeare on our brains as an incubus. To know a man is to know his book. To be dead sure in advance that Barnum wrote Hamlet and the Tempest, is to be dead sure of knowing little or nothing of those works forever.


I have heard nothing yet about the Heywood trial. You and McKay did perfectly right in keeping aloof and not contributing to the defense. Your connection could not help him and might hurt you. "Against stupidity the gods themselves are powerless," says Euripides, and Heywood is certainly a champion jackass. I am sorry for him, but his bed is his own making, and he should have known what Comstock could do to him if he advertised war on the ovaries. I only hope we shall escape the consequences of his folly.

I suppose the correction has been made, but I noticed in Bucke's Latin motto the error of the diphthong œ (in the fourth line) in the word præclarius. It should be æ not œ. Munro spells it praeclarius without using the diphthong character at all, which is sensible. It is a glorious epigraph.

I have just been down to the Post Office, and got your letter of yesterday, but not the revise, which will not come until tomorrow morning. I am rejoiced at what you say of my contribution, but feel dreadfully at the prospect your letter opens of my paragraphing being changed. I could bear with equanimity anything but that—especially the breaking up of my running account of the great books into paragraphs. That I never can like. The effect will be horrible. Besides, you told me I was to have my way.

I will write you again after I get the revise. I expect to leave here tomorrow evening and arrive in Washington on Tuesday afternoon: so unless you hear to the contrary, address me at the Office of the Life Saving Service, as usual.

I leave heavy-hearted, for Jeannie is very feeble, and I fear the worst. Yet I must go on to Washington even if I have to return again. I can only hope that she will revive as the days go on (illness has its ebbs and flows,) and be able to

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journey home. At present she is too ill and weak to leave her bed.


I shall probably return you the revise from Washington, though I may be able to look over it before I leave, if I get it tomorrow morning. Thanks to Protestantism, Sunday knocks post-office usages endways. The post-office can only be open for an hour on God's day, so that I get your letter but not the proof, there not being time for the officials to over-haul postal matter of the second or third or fourth class until Monday!

Goodbye.

Faithfully

W. D. O'Connor.


     It was the simplest human touch in this letter that hit W. hardest—the reference to Jeannie. "Jeannie's death was the tragedy of their history—and a tragedy in my history, too. Too much must not be said of that or the like of that—it gets down in you where words do not go. Of all the dear, dear friends of those days, Nellie, William, were dearest, dearest." He looked at me: his eyes were full of tears. He turned away. Then he added: "But let's not let go, Horace: we know how to take death, to see death, right, don't we? Let's not let go." W. rarely gives way externally to his extreme emotions.

     W. took his broken-backed check book and wrote me out a check for the paper bill—$240.10. When I got up to go I said: "This is the first temptation you have offered me to skip." He laughed and I started off. I got out into the hallway when he called me back. "I was about to say, if you skipped with the check it wouldn't be the check I'd regret but you—the loss of you. I am daily praying that nothing may happen to you until these books are out—yes, until I am all out, too, Horace. I am damned selfish—I want you to live, live, if only for me." "I want to live—if only for you!" Then I asked him a question: "Do you think a right strong young fellow can think death even?—even if aware that it may come any time?" He reflected: "No—I don't believe he can: more than that, I don't believe he

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ought: thinking life is the condition of being alive. It is always my point—don't submit to provocations, irritabilities, black fancies of the superficial day: go your way unmoved—on and on to what you are required to do: the rest will take care of itself

     The Parodies, which we talked about yesterday or day before, starts off with W. W. by a brief biographical statement, which is highly favorable—speaking of his "vigor"—of the "mock modesty" that refuses to include "many of his finest thoughts on the mysteries of nature" in English editions. "Whitman is emphatically a poet for men not for 'Select Academies for the Daughters of Gentlemen only' and whilst much that he has written is glorious poetry to those who will, and can, imbibe its spirit freely, to those who cannot so absorb it the Parodies will appear nearly as poetical as the originals." Speaks furthermore of Leaves of Grass as "a marvellous book:" then proceeds to quote in whole or in part Song of Myself, Miracles, A Thanksgiving Day, interspersing remarks— "this is not poetry of the tinkling rhyme"—referring to Tennyson's friendship for W. and Swinburne's before he "took to renouncing all the opinions of his youth"—and quoting the Emerson letter: following all with a dozen parodies from English and American sources. Covers six pages and more.


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