Commentary

Disciples


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Sunday, November 25, 1888

     6.55 P.M. W. reading Boswell: his first look into it for some months. The humor to read had struck him: he reached for a book: Boswell was there: so I found him reading Boswell. The Press was near by. On a basket in front of him was to-day's N. Y. Tribune, left by Harned. W. was not very cheerful—talked wearily: sat by the light: fire burning low. This personal was in to-day's Press: "Walt Whitman, the poet, is confined to his room with a serious cold." Had he seen it? "Oh! yes: who could have put it there?"

     As I entered the house I found a reporter at the front door questioning Ed. W. wanted to know who he was and what Ed told him. How could the reporters have learned of his cold, etc.? "That is easily explained: the object, the principle, of a reporter is to make a story—a story at all hazards: if the victim does not want to contribute towards it, make him." After a half stop: "Of all newspaper men George Childs is the only one—the only

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one out of the whole pack—who wants the truth. I think it is a standing rule in The Ledger office that there shall be every care exercised to insure accuracy in reports. This is called old fashioned. Child deserves a good deal of credit: The Ledger has lost something in brightness, gained in justice. Years ago we took The Ledger: that was when I lived with my brother on Stevens Street: now I get The Record and The Press: I think I should drop The Press and take The Ledger."
He spoke of The Press's "capacity for lying: its utter seeming want of conscience." "I get many papers: some from New York: The Herald often: Kennedy sends me The Transcript from Boston."

     My father had reinforced W. in his Goethean views. I had repeated these views from my notes. W.: "Oh! that is good news to hear: your father speaks almost by authority: I know how well equipped he is to formulate the German writers." Was disappointed that "no mail—not a letter or paper—or any sign of anything," as he expressed it, had been given Ed at the postoffice this evening. "They put him off wilfully," he said: "when my carrier is there, he looks and gets what is owing me, but the others are official-wise and do not look: it is much easier to sit on a stool and say 'no.'" He had particularly wished The Critic.

     W. spoke of the labor question: then of the Malthusian doctrine— "its horrible falsity": for he "had never been inclined to a moment's acceptance of it." The earth crowded? It was "absurd" on the face of it. Instanced Texas: Henry George's declaration that it could almost or quite feed the population of the world. "That," said W. "is wonderfully instructive, if true—and mainly true I have no doubt it is." "I have myself," he went on, "learned much at this point, simply by crude observations and reasoning." His Colorado trip— "the road to Denver—miles, thousands of miles, of arable land left wild, unsubdued, fruitless." Overpopulation? "That is a pure confession of incapacity to explain social sores. Why, even

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New Jersey, one of the oldest States in th Union, is but sparsely settled."
He spoke of Long Island: his early tramps: what he had learned from them. "The Long Island land is better than ours here: some of it barren: twenty miles or so to the east: but no land I know there is as bad as that we see on the road from Camden to Atlantic City." I expressed my faith that finally science would find ways to vitalize what we now regard as waste or desert land. W.: "You must be right: it will be confirmed: I too have often thought that." Again: "No social theories complaining of overpopulation are to me tenable: whatever the reason for poverty may be, it 's not that."

     Returned me Baba's pamphlet, The Political Condition of Japan, remarking: "I read it through—every word of it: there are curious institutions over there which we all ought to know about"—things, as he thought, "we can only come to know from such native sources." Commended Baba's English as "more than good." Then asked me about Baba: listened attentively and questioned me. Baba is out at the University. Some mention of Carlyle induced me to say: "What an occasion that would have been—you and Carlyle sitting opposite to each other in this room talking." W. laughed. " Would n't it? I reckon on one certain thing had that occurred: I would have done my best to draw from him all he knew, thought, especially what he thought, about America. Do you know, I have myself imagined such a meeting." W. spoke of Gladstone: "Gladstone is one of the curiousities: his age, vigor, wonderful alertness, put together, excite respect." He spoke of G.'s "wide awakeness"—called him the "rarest thing among well preserved human beings." Allusion was made to Webster—Carlyle's impression of him. W. said: "I heard Webster often—heard him deliver some of th greatest of his political speeches. The effect he had on me was more of grandeur of manner, size, importance, power—the breathing forth of these—than of things said, anything said." I referred to Theodore Parker: remarked that Parker looked a bit like Webster.


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     W. reflected: "How can that be so? If that is so it may be an important thing to know—to have said." Then: "But the men are no way alike in essentials: Parker is way and beyond bigger, more expansive, sincerer: he leaves Webster in the lurch everyhow: why, in pure intellectuality, where Webster shone, Parker was a brilliant luminary." I said: "I would rather say the godlike Theodore than the godlike Dan." W. fervently: "So would I: good, good: so would I rather—a thousand times rather."

     I asked W.: "What do you think of the anti-Zola decision?" He: "It is very bad indeed." I asked: "How about The Press statement?" "I have forgotten that part of it: how did The Press put it?" The Press argued that the French should not be condemned: it reaches scholars, does not harm them: the English reaches the masses, who would be hurt—therefore should be censored. W. said. "That is characteristically bad—ridiculous, in fact. Such hair splitting is unmanly and degrading." He had "no sympathy" with attempts "to style Zola": "we seem to have fallen into an age of meteors—small appearances, lights, pen pictures: poor petty wonders, worships: but I look forward to a time beyond that, to a heroic purification: more drastic, healthier, cleaner ways and means of life." I told him of several of Zola's minor stories which I have recently read—also of Sims's recent criticism, which W. had not read. I knew W. was attracted by the nature of that question. He asked: "How are you impressed? tell me that." Then said: "Zola has been friendly to me—is an admirer, reader: so, at least, I am told: reads Leaves of Grass, accepts. He send me word of it three or four years ago. A man who had met him, dined with him—Minturn was his name: of New York—was charged by Zola when he returned to come and see me—come for him—say this." Did he feel dishonored? "Oh!" he said, laughing: "nothing like that I guess." Had he read much of Zola? "Not much—only here and there: it seems to me—"here he stopped to ask: "What do you think about

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it?"
—continuing: "It seems to me that Zola has often been unfortunate in his translations—poor scribblers doing no justice to him." Perhaps because the good translators shrank from an association with Zola? Still, he excepted Vizetelly. "I suppose that is it—that is one reason." W. said: "I have no desire to see freedom attacked, whether through Zola or any other. As to indecency and all that—am I not judged by the same standards?" Here I quoted what my sister Agnes said to-day regarding L. of G.: "I see nothing in it to trouble me." W. instantly: "I should hope not: some day it will be read right."

     W. asked me: "Where are you going this evening?" And when I said Adler was in Philadelphia and I expected to hear him speak W. said: "Ah! that is good news!" Had he a message for Adler? "I have nothing to say to him—nothing in the way of news: yet you can tell him that I send my affectionate remembrances—tell him I hope he prospers: tell him I am still chained here, confined—but helped, hopeful, with my head up." Adler was "considerable of a man." Some one had spoken of the Ethical movement as "dangerous." "Dangerous!" exclaimed W.: "that sounds hopeful—that is encouraging!"—then: "Well, let 'em damn! What fol de rol!" Shook his head over Republican propositions to "settle the Southern question with bayonets,"&c. It would "never do." That was "cast-off clothing." Gave me sheets of Complete Walt Whitman with illustrations, etc., as he wished them bound: on top a memorandum of instructions, steadily written, ink and pencil. "I leave it with you now: I guess the notes there will be easily understood." The directions were extremely simple. I am to see Oldach to-morrow.

     He handed me the Montefiore piece I left with him yesterday. Then reached for it again—took a bit of string (rather, rope) and tied it up loosely with Baba's pamphlet, monologuing meanwhile: "It is really a formidable article: more than that, it is mainly true." I said: "It is a coincidence: the English visitors here hit at once upon our pov-

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erty, our men in England upon theirs."
W.: "Yes, but more curious than that seems another fact—this difference: that with us this poverty, degradation, filth, horror, is foreign—mainly confined to the foreign populations. And again, there is another curious fact: go out among the miners in Pennsylvania—Hungarians, Poles, Italians: it is not menial." Explained that he "found a complete illustration of this in the War: coming in contact with Southern soldiers, prisoners, the sick. I found them illiterate, yet fascinating: they would stand erect, look you straight in the eye." They were "honest": "fellows you'd like to be with—to have opposite you at meals: I learned how to love them much: the common soldier: never menial: the air of something other than that—beyond that. The poverty of what is called East End in London is mostly native: there may be some little of it floating over from the continent: but beyond that little it was a congregation of human vermin—the human sewerage—of England, the islands, slumped together there in a degradation, squalor, past describing. But however painful, sad, heart-breaking, this may be, it is but the legitimate offset to top-loftification." England had suffered "an extreme development of that: indeed, right there we touch on our danger." He described "the big cities, the immense accumulation of peoples, the squalid poverty: the danger of our experiment: hunger: madness to make money whatever happens": all of that had "to be skillfully piloted through if we are finally to come out safe."

     News in papers to-day of Tennyson's helpless condition: some improvement. W. visibly relieved. Also reports of John Bright's cantankerousness with doctors which W. sets down to "newspaper storytelling." Said nothing about the American piece. I forgot to ask. W. was rather cranky to-night. Jumped on me for not having some message from Ferguson. "What the hell?" he asked two or three times. I got tired of hearing it and asked him: "What the hell?" too. That made him laugh. I said: "If I 'm doing so

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miserable bad why don't you bounce me?"
He look indignant for a minute: then said: "I could n't: you would n't be bounced." "Then you'd better accept me the way I am." I was a bit mad myself. We don't have many tiffs. Finally he said: "Don't let's go in that vein: I 've got something pleasanter here: what do you think of it?" He reached smilingly to the table, picked up a letter, and handed it to me. I read the letter. "Is it for me?" I asked. It hardly seemed possible. "Yes, it 's for you: for your safe box: but you have n't said what you think of it." "What can I say? Only that I never expected to see the letter: you know you said a bit ago that you did n't think it would ever turn up again." He: "Well, it did turn up. Read it to me." I said: "I bet you know it by heart." "So I do: but I can listen to it again coming to me in your voice." I read:


New York, July 30, 1865.

Dear Sir:

Looking over a file of papers in the reading room I saw a paragraph about your dismissal from the Interior Department, and as I once read your book, I am moved to express my feelings in the matter. The act strikes me as pretty mean but quite of a piece with Harlan's character. As I see you are in the Atty Gen's office I will call on you when I come to W. in a few days and tell you in confidence a little transaction I once had with Harlan, long time ago, which will show you what kind of chap he is. I read your book when it first came out and though I must admit a good deal of it was blind to me, I saw considerable which struck me as first class, though I don't pretend to much judgment in such matters. Anyhow I did n't see anything worse in what Harlan makes so much of than what is in old Bill Shakespeare and the Bible, and dashed in pretty thick too. Some folks are more squeamish than me, though.

Perhaps you might like to hear something Mr. Lincoln once said of you, which you probably never heard of. It was n't much to say, but the way he said it struck me a

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good deal. It was in the winter time, I think in '64. I went up to the White House with a friend of mine, an M. C., who had some business with the President. He had gone out, so we did n't stop, but coming down the stairs, quite near the door, we met the President coming in, and we stept back into the East Room and stood near the front windows, where my friends had a confab with him. It did n't last more than three or four minutes, but there was something about a letter which my friend had handed the President, and Mr. Lincoln had read it and was holding it in his hand like one thinking it over and looking out of the window, when you went by, quite slow, with your hands in the breastpockets of your overcoat and a sizeable felt hat on your head pretty well up, just as I have often seen you on Broadway. Mr. Lincoln asked who you were, or something like that. I spoke up and said, mentioning your name, that you had written Leaves of Grass, etc. Mr. Lincoln did n't say anything but took a good long look till you were quite gone by. Then he says (I can't give you his way of saying it, but it was quite emphatic, and odd), "Well," he says, "he looks like a man." He said it pretty loud but in a sort of absent way and with the emphasis on the words I have underscored. He did n't say any more but began to talk again about the letter and in a minute or so we went off. Seeing your name just now in the paper put me in mind of it it and I thought it was an item you might like to know. It was the only time I spoke to Mr. Lincoln though I saw him often.


I expect to be in Washington on my way down South in a few days and will take the freedom of giving you a call. Please don't mention my name in connection with what I write about Harlan. I'll explain why when I see you and you will see the reason for not spreading it round.

With respect &c., truly yours,

A. Van Rensallaer.


     W. must have seen the big smile on my face. He looked extra pleased himself. "I am twice glad to see the letter

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again: once glad for myself, once glad for you."
I said: " I 'm a hundred times glad for myself." Then he said: "I think that letter will convince you: I have sometimes thought you had an idea we were romancing a bit in telling that story about Lincoln: now you can see for yourself that we 've kept strictly literally prosaically to the figures—have added nothing to them." I turned the letter over and over in my hands. "This is the real thing," I said: "This puts the Lincoln story on ice." W. was heartily amused. "You are a damned impertinent snip after all: you 'wouldn't believe until you were convinced,' as you say: you held off: you half thought I was lying: William too—all the fellows. Well, the dispute is settled now? or have you still some suspicions—maybe that letter is forged?" We laughed together. I kissed him good night. He held my hand for an extra clasp. "Don't let our fight prejudice you against me," he said.


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