Commentary

Disciples

 
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Sunday, July 22, 1888.

     A good day but no strength gained. Worked enough to get the Hicks piece into shape for the printer—at least as much of it as related to Hicks direct. Originally the study embraced both Hicks and George Fox. W. now decides to halve the paper. I am to take the Hicks to Ferguson. Yesterday afternoon and today wrote a prefatory note. "The text is a little mixed up," W. said of it apologetically: "My mind is not now-a-days a perfect

 
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machine." He has had some trouble finding it a satisfactory head-line but at last struck upon one that relieves the paper of assumption without convicting it of weakness. The manuscript is on sheets of various sizes, thicknesses, and colors. The old matter was written with an indelible pencil—purple. That is, the matter written before his illness. The new is in ink. The old phrasing is "vigorous and sure," as he says of it himself. The new is less certain, "unkempt-like" in his own words. "My brain often takes speed and is away—gets rein-free and flies without will or plan—and I am helpless for it all."

     W. received today from the Century people proofs of the War Memoranda—Army Hospitals and Cases they have so long held up. It is to appear in October. W. read the four galleys "and did not detect a single error." He had not originally intended putting this matter into November Boughs but thinks he can now do so. Will write Gilder for permission. Gilder had added underneath the headline: "By Walt Whitman, volunteer hospital nurse." This excited W.'s ire. "My whole soul revolts against that line: my very first feeling was one of utter disgust." I laughed. He asked: "What do you mean by that laugh?" "That you take the matter too seriously." He queried: "Do you say that too? That's what Talcott Williams says. He was here today with Mrs. Williams."

     W. then talked about the War itself: "As the period of the War recedes I am more than ever convinced that it is important for those of us who were on the scene to put our experiences on record." W. said the Harlan piece sent to the printer the other day was his "first public expression in that matter," adding: "And even that I put forth, not because it has any personal significance, but for its bearing on the events of its day—as one evidence of the curious things thrown to the surface in an era of major disturbance. There is infinite treasure—oh! inestimable riches—in that mine. And the secret of it all is, to write in the gush, the throb, the flood, of the moment—to put things down without deliberation—without worrying about their style—without waiting for a fit time or place. I always worked that way. I took the

 
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first scrap of paper, the first doorstep, the first desk, and wrote—wrote, wrote. No prepared picture, no elaborated poem, no after-narrative, could be what the thing itself is. You want to catch its first spirit—to tally its birth. By writing at the instant the very heart-beat of life is caught. My place in Washington was a peculiar one—my reasons for being there, my doing there what I did do. I do not think I quite had my match. People went there for all sorts of reasons, none of which were my reasons: went to convert, to proselyte, to observe, to do good, to sentimentalize, from a sense of duty, from philanthropic motives: women, preachers, emotionalists, gushing girls: and I honor them all—all: knew them, hundreds of them, well, and in many cases came to love them. But no one—at least no one that I met—went just from my own reasons—from a profound conviction of necessity, affinity—coming into closest relations—relations oh! so close and dear!—with the whole strange welter of life gathered to that mad focus. I could not expect to do more for my own part at this late day than collect a little of the driftwood of that epoch and pass it down to the future."

     So he talked on, in monologue, I putting in scarcely a word. Then Harlan was mentioned again. "Harlan was a despicable man—had a sort of penny-a-line character: was made for little issues, was set for small victories. He was a child of the Methodistic order. The Methodists were entitled to Lincoln's attention—not his alone but everybody's—for their loyalty in the War—their abounding loyalty, which marked them out in a crowd of other sects in the North. What I put into that little piece I got chiefly from Philbrick, a clerk at the White House, who was always favorably disposed towards me—often met and talked with me in those days. Nicolay I did not know in Washington—Nicolay, who probably has little use for me now as he had then—would hardly perhaps remember my name. I did meet Hay in Washington during the war—talked with him frequently at the White House. Hay and Nicolay were for Harlan at that time, but Hay, at least, warmed towards me later on and has been nobly loyal ever since." W. full of fervent reminiscence. Still

 
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kept on: "Life is seen more richly in Washington than at any other one point on this continent, taking it all in all—except perhaps, if we include the great Southern bar-rooms: for instance, those in New Orleans—the acre-large bar-rooms—in which come all classes, for talk, discussion: and the listeners, too, silent, inarticulate. I have known men in such places to be speaking to a group of a hundred and more people, spontaneously gathered together—several groups like that—no one group interrupted by any other group. Some of this life was mad, wild, hellish, to contemplate—to diagnose." He remarked "the propensity of certain kinds of men—especially the kinds that hang round a capital like Washington, living on their wits—to desert sinking ships—to scamper from declining reputations." Then: "Take a case like Harlan's. Time has now made it possible for us to see why it was inevitable that he should be deserted, fall from his high place, sink into total obscurity: but on the stage, at the moment, while the play was going on, he seemed like a chief figure to which ruin was impossible."

     I spoke of an unconventional photographer who had met with hot professional opposition in making experiments looking towards the progress of his art. W. forcibly exclaimed: "There it is over again—the same old bark: the canons: sticking to the old road—the prior claims of rule, custom: the old anti-Napoleonic objurgation: 'He ought to lose the battle—ought to lose it even if he does not—because he don't prepare to win it according to rules!'" Feeling better W. is beginning to see his way towards an enlargement of the book. "Why, I'm feeling so good today I'm almost nasty. A day or two more like this and I'll fight!"


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