Commentary

Disciples

 
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 113] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
 

 
Saturday, November 17, 1888.

     3.30 P.M. W. reading Bucke's Whitman. Was cordial—quite bright. Sat by the table, the strong light streaming into the room. Temperature comfortable. A dull fire in the stove. I brought him from McKay ten copies of November Boughs. I asked: "Shall I put them on the pile with the others?" He said: "Yes: but give me one: I want to see how it looks." As I worked I went on talking. "Dave tells me that he this morning sent two hundred and fifty copies in sheets off to Paisley, Scotland, to some fellow—I forget his name." W. asked: "Why not bind them? I doubt if they'll get up as good a book as this there." I said: "You seem now to have come to like Dave's cover." "Yes, I don't know but that now I like it better than my own: I know Bucke don't—know you don't." He added: "You remember that the other sheets sent to England did not turn out extra well." I gave him several bills received to-day. One from Adams. One from Dave. Also receipt from Bilstein. I advised him to keep them together—accessible. He said: "I always do—always." I looked incredulous. "Well, I mean to, anyhow."

     W. had received a copy of the Boston Transcript to-day containing Garland's column review. Garland wrote, too, enclosing the slip. W. gave the note and slip to me. "I laid them aside here thinking you would like them: the paper I made up for Bucke: it is there"—pointing to where it was on a chair next another package addressed to O'Connor. He spoke of the O'Connor paper. "It is another issue of The Transcript: I send it to O'Connor because O'Reilly has something in it—Boyle O'Reilly: a poem on the Boston Massacre, read at the celebration: I know O'Connor always keeps up with such things." Did the poem appeal to him? "I can scarcely say it did: I read it: it was strong: but to my ear it is rather the rhetoric, the rhetorical quality, which comes uppermost—most forces itself upon my attention. The poem is artistically fine,

 
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 114] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
 
polished. It is like a big feast: the setting superb: everything there: not a good thing missing: finger-glasses, wines, fruits, pastries: yet I growl, yet I am not satisfied, yet I think of the ten cent dinners." I spoke of the Taylor Centennial Ode, which I heard Taylor recite in '76. Was it not another case in point? W. said at once: "Yes, there 's no doubt of it." Here reverted to The Transcript piece. "It contains some of the most shocking typographical errors—slips of phrase." "But you make nothing of them, do you?" I asked. "No: I am willing to excuse them. I like the piece: think you will like it: it has spirit, movement: inspires me as a horseman determined to push on—to tolerate no stop: on and on, whatever happens. It is written by an admirer: that can be seen: Garland is surely an admirer."

Jamaica Plain, Nov. 16, 1888.


Dear Mr. Whitman:

     I send a copy of The Transcript containing a notice of your work. It is not intended to be a study or an elaborate review but simply a good word which will allay if possible some of the antagonism which still exists toward your work. I shall do more of course but this little notice has its work to do. I sent copies to Mr. Howells and to Mr. Burroughs. I hope you are feeling as well as when you last wrote. I saw Judge Chamberlain and others of our friends to-day. Called on O'Reilly, but he was out. Hope to see him soon. I hope to do something specially useful for you by and bye. Baxter has returned from Europe. I shall see him in a day or two at his home.


Steadfastly,


Hamlin Garland

     W. said: Garland's letter is quite busy—it addresses itself to a lot of people and things. The Transcript piece has as a trifle a certain air almost of apology: but for that feature I like it. We are forcing the enemy to listen to us: not hurrah for us but listen to us: that so far is about our only accomplished asset." He advised me to

 
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 115] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
 
"keep a sharp look-out now for paper reviews: the Doctor will expect us to be vigilant: now that I don't get about at all I have to depend upon other people for these things." Remarked: "My friend Julius Chambers, I see, has gone on The World." Yet he thought "the young Bennett kindly disposed" and that The Herald would "still credit W.W. some." He gave me a copy of the title page head for Mrs. Baldwin, writing his name and the date on it with a blue pencil. " It 's rather hazy and indefinite: but then, that 's what they say of me— that 's me!" He had notions about indorsing pictures. "No set one—sometimes preferring to put the name above, sometimes below," but "never across any part of the picture itself." I referred to the Burroughs piece. W. advised me: "Keep it—I have found several more"—pointing to the box at his feet on which were two or three sets tied with a string. On the hearth was a torn set. "Ah! that was incomplete: I started to kindle fire with it." Then as to the set I had at home: "You will probably want to read it carefully—to take your time over it. I find that it is characteristic of John's pieces—you are not satisfied to let them go at the first reading—don't in fact grasp them at the first reading." I asked: " Is n't that to be said impartially of all good writing?" He responded: "You are right: but there is something in John which especially persuades you to persevere." I said something about the aptness of Burroughs' quotations. W. commented: "Yes, that probably is true: yet it has been one of my complaints that John quotes too much. It is true he does it well. Quoting is a thing that gets to be a disease." He indicated the passage from Drum Taps rendered by B. "Don't you think there 's too much?" I did not. Yet he appeared to be unconvinced.

     Our talk brought up Burroughs' statement that the first edition was all sold after the Emerson letter, &c., &c.—a public demand having been created by it. W. said the edition "had disappeared, no one could tell where." Yet all the books were not lost. "there have been ten or twelve

 
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 116] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
 
sent to me for my signature." But he thought "John was wrong" "it must have been a slip: I doubt if even ten were sold—even one." The "whole Wells case," as stated by Burroughs, W. "was inclined to question." "If they were sold I am sure I must have come in for my share: but I don't remember a dollar, or cent, even." He called Wells "a shrewd Yankee"—then described W. B. Scott, who "may have purchased a batch" from Wells, and taken them to England. "Scott was one of the fellows who make a business of underselling." J. B. had said that L. of G. was made a butt of in newspaper offices, &c., &c. W. said : "That was true: I had friends there who kept me informed. When they found that my hide was thick—that it could stand all sorts of rubbing and drubbing—they brought these stories, odds and ends, reports, to me." I asked: "You stood it easily, it did not disturb you, even at the time?" "Not at all: they did it for their amusement: I was inclined to let them be amused." He went on with his story. "I think it was The Press—the New York Press, as it was called." Described: "the fellows congregating there Saturdays for their pay": "sometimes they would have an hour or two to wait: the cashier would perhaps be delayed with the money. One Saturday this happened—the men were there chatting, talking—were kept two hours, full: something had detained the cashier: so to while away the time one of the fellows drew a copy of Leaves of Grass out of his pocket—read it, made light of it: the others, too: the strokes bright, witty, unsparing." I suggested: "Good fellows, probably?" W. heartily: "Yes, none better." How had this all come to him so explicitly? He said: "At Pfaff's." Then spoke of Pfaff's— it 's frequenters, &c.: "down town": "a great number of the fellows there": "we talked, discussed: all sorts of questions were up. It was a place, say, like this room, with an area extending under the pavement: considered famous in its time: all now obliterated."

     W. then proceeded: "It was there I learned about this

 
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 117] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
 
affair: one of the young fellows was there: went over the tale for our edification (chiefly for mine, I supposed)." W. paused. Then: "I understood there was one dissident in the group that day. He said nothing at first—then protested." W. hesitated for some two or three minutes. "Oh! what is his name? What is it? What is it?" As he paused I put in: " It 's important to have that name: the man is one of the immortals—he deserves to be canonized." Still his memory fooled him. He started disappointedly into an enumeration of further details—had said but two or three words—when his face lighted into a smile. "Oh! Ned Wilkins! That 's the name—I have it!" It was interesting to see his face. I looked over my shoulder at the door of the adjoining room. "Ned Wilkins! that 's pretty near!" W. nodding "So it is—it is a coincidence." Then: "Well: Ned Wilkins it must be: noble, slim, sickish, dressy, Frenchy—consumptive in look, in gait: weak-voiced: oh! I think he had the weakest voice I ever knew in a man. But Ned was courageous: in an out and out way very friendly to Leaves of Grass: free spoken—always willing to let it be known what he thought: in fact, was what we nowadays call a dude: kid-gloved, scrupulous—oh! squeamish!—about his linen, about his tie—all that." I suggested: "But evidently not intrinsically a dude." He continued: Oh! no—no—not intrinsically. It illustrates what I said to you the other night—that we should not take too much for granted—not too hastily discard a man on appearances. A dude is not likely to turn out well, but may: I have known men dressy, perfumed, washèd"—emphasis on è— "and yet at bottom tiptop soldiers, men of affairs, professionals." Here was Ned.

     After the event of the reporters W. met N. W. several times. "I think it was at Ada Clare's: and by the way, it is very curious that the girls have been my sturdiest defenders, upholders. Some would say they were girls little to my credit, but I disagree with them there (I suppose that 's not the only place we disagree, either!). Ned's

 
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 118] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
 
dressiness was immense—almost painful: his perfume, washèdness, strangely excessive: yet in spite of all that he was as a man one we would call notable: and Ned was always plucky. He was always plucky: he was not a talker: was rather taciturn. He had a most sickish voice, as I have said: a habit of waiting till a room was all silence, quiet, then interjecting some remark in weak, frail, drawling, Dundrearyish tones." It had been a source of both comment and amusement. "But let me say this: I never heard Ned say a foolish thing: every remark had its place, its point." I questioned: "How do you explain his liking for Leaves of Grass?" W. answering: "Ned himself was naturally weak, loose-jointed, thin in the girth: illish: he realized it himself—felt the need of something strong, virile, life-giving: he thought he had found this in Leaves of Grass: an external agent: so leaned upon it—accepted, acquired it." Then W. said sadly: "You know he died within a couple of years." W. added: "Such a defender at that time was appreciated. I don't know if you have ever realized it—ever realized what it means to be a horror in the sight of the people about you: but there was a time when I felt it to the full—when the enemy—and nearly all were the enemy then—wanted for nothing better or more than simply, without remorse, to crush me, to brush me, without compunction or mercy, out of sight, out of hearing: to do anything, everything, to rid themselves of me."

     His tribute to Wilkins was full of feeling: his reference to the devotion of the girls, and the closing line, alluding to Wilkins' death, notably tender—almost admonitory. After a few minutes W. said: "And there 's another thing, Horace, I have found, in looking through this stuff to-day. You remember that phrase. 'Still lives the song though Regner dies.'" He stopped an instant: "I made use of it in the book, in November Boughs—in A Backward Glance. I could not remember where I had found it. Today it turned up: the mystery is revealed. It is from

 
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 119] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
 
Sterling—Carlyle's Sterling: you recall it? He wrote some poetry—we read about it just a little time ago there in Carlyle's book: Sterling thought he could write poetry and Carlyle was always trying to persuade him another way. It was from Sterling, then, that this line had come: and whatever the defects of the rest this is a notable bit indeed" Had I ever had a volume of Sterling's poetry? W. "supposed" he had seen— "perhaps had"—a copy: but if so "it had made little impression on" him and "been mainly or wholly forgotten—almost certainly wholly. It is interesting—even odd—how many things come into, stay in, a man's mind which he cannot account for!" Then they would "pop up" after awhile, "a man thinking he owned them himself." I argued: "These forgotten things all go to the making of power—soul, soil: the leaves are crumbled, but they still persist, in a sense: unseen, still enrich the earth." W. exclaimed: "That is a very striking way to put it: better still, it is true." I said: "What a strange make-up of beginnings and ending and appropriations we are!" I was standing by W. The runner of his chair caught in a pile of manuscript and picked it off the floor. He saw me look at it. He said: "That is one of the things the begun, ended, appropriated!" I looked more closely: found it was the manuscript of Poetry in America: much ruffled, old, dirty, written on paper of various colors—some of it yellow, some white, and so forth.

     When I left I took along to the post office W.'s packages of papers for Bucke and O'Connor. Article in December issue of Magazine of Art on portraits of Dante Rossetti written by William his brother. My copy came to-day. W.'s not here yet. "I get it rather late." Should I bring down mine? "I can wait—I can wait." Some one in to-day: Washburne, writing up Swinburne for the Encyclopædia Britannica: came to learn what W. knew about S. Was not admitted. W. pleaded off. W. still refusing to tell me his "secret," as he called it. I don't know what to make of it. I wonder what it is? Sometimes I think

 
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 120] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
 
it is just his playfulness. Then again I get the feeling that he really has something serious to say to me. But I can't push him.

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.