Commentary

Disciples


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Sunday, November 4, 1888.

     7.15 P. M. I found W. writing. " I 'm thinking of a squib for the big book," he said. He thought he would call it "a note in conclusion." Not sure yet, however. His writing pad was on his lap. He had been busy. "I am feeling about a bit to see whether I should or should not write a little prefatory note and perhaps an epilogue—something of the kind. What do you think of the idea? Would it seem superfluous to make the addition?" So far he had been saying: "I guess I'll let the book go as it is: no intermediating words are necessary." Now he says: "If you say yes I'll do yes. What do you say?" I said yes, of course. W. then: "Well— that 's a vote: two for, none against: I'll work on the thing to-morrow—will have the copy for you to-morrow evening. I have spent most of the day arguing it over with myself: I needed you to bring me to a conclusion—to end my vacillation."

     W. very cheery. Said he felt "almost flirty" most of the day. "Hunter did not get here: I expected him—wanted him: but Tom came in with Frank and young Mr. Corning. We talked politics: Tom is hot about the election but I don't feel my pulse stirred a bit: even my hopes are only lukewarm: for Cleveland personally, I care nothing: he don't attract me: is rather beefy, elephantine: yet I do care for some of the things he represents. I have no feelings against Harrison as a man: he may be good enough looked at as a hail fellow well met—but so is Dick Turpin: the fact remains that I dread what his election must inevitably

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bring about. No man can look into what we call party politics without seeing what a mockery it all is—how little either Democrats or Republicans know about essential truths."
W. said again: " It 's fine to see Tom so hot in the collar but I always wish it was in the interest of something more important: I am always quoting Epictetus myself: he said: 'Don't fret, don't excite yourself: be satisfied: the man who must win will win.': which is an admonition to self-control." He did not like Harrison's attitude towards the South. "I recognize all the flummery of the South—the flummeriness, the tinsel: but I would humor it in that—give it plenty of rope: yes, humor it, as I would a bad boy or a bad horse: humor it, wait, rest my faith in the developmental energies: giving the good a chance to drive out the bad, as it will, is sure to, with time. This may seem like a trifle, but trifles move mountains. I remember a story which Bryant told me. There was a banquet arranged for: the guests came—were gathered about: a waiter brought in a big bowl of soup, placed it on the table: one of the guests took a toothpick, used it and threw it into the soup. That toothpick was a little thing, but it nullified the soup: it was only a detail, a trifle, but it changed the face of that world. This represents the Harrison case to me: Harrison's election could only be that toothpick—and yet! Now," he concluded, "let them all have their useless says: all of them: even The Press man over there in Philadelphia with his damned cartoons, which, if I had a weak stomach, would make me throw up. What do you think of The Press anyway? To me it gets worse and worse: of all the political horrors it is the most horrible horror."

     W. passed me back The Star piece about Carlyle: "I read it with considerable interest: it corroborates all that has gone before—is in the usual strain: is genuine: it adds nothing to the Carlyle story but goes over the old ground vividly." He quizzed me. "How does the title page seem to you to-day? Do you think it looks lean? Has it a

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thinnish air? I am more and more interested in the reproduction: Clifford is right—it beats the original: this half-tone gives an effect of richness—in tint, effect, delicacy—that the photo itself does not possess."
And he said further: "I am a little suspicious of the picture in one regard: it seems to give me a superior niceness which I have never thought of as an element in my makeup." Referred to "O'Connor's orator nature—his mobile, passionate, high-strung orator nature," and spoke again of William as being "all over eyes to see and ears to hear—his senses are so infinitely comprehensive." Nora Baldwin said to me this afternoon in Germantown: "The carpenter portrait of Walt is prevailingly sad—seems sad first and last—is overpoweringly pathetic to me." W. admitted: "It is open to such a suspicion: it must be touched with what is tragic—the minor key: the idea has been exploited before: even Dr. Bucke has made something of it: but Bucke speaks of it as an elusive, fleeting phase only."

     W. picked up The North American Review volume on Lincoln and opened it at his own piece. He pointed to the portrait facing it. "See this: of all the Lincoln pictures this is the best." He looked at it long and earnestly in silence. "I think I must at one time have collected fully fifty pictures of Lincoln: there were lots of them; they were countless: most of them very cheap and hideous—as ugly as the devil. I had a copy of this picture: they wanted it: I sent it for the book. They promised me faithfully they would use it and return it, which they have never done. The figure is better than St. Gaudens'—far better: Lincoln has for the most part been slanderously portrayed. I vividly remember a street view I once had of Lincoln: he was on a balcony speaking to a big crowd—a mixed popular assemblage—a usual American audience—not too still, not too noisy: it affected me powerfully: Lincoln stood just as we see him here—he had one hand behind him, he was in spite of his speechifying calm and in a way reposed: his face—its fine rugged lines—was

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lighted up: it seemed removed, beyond, disembodied: I see it all over again now: this picture is like enough to have been seized out of that scene."
Then he spoke of photography itself. "The art is growing with strides and leaps: God knows what it will come to: some of the smart wide awake fellows even back in that Lincoln time had a knack of catching life on the run, in a flash, as it shifted, moved, evolved." Don Piatt's name was there before us in the Lincoln book. W. remarked: "He makes me think of a sloop, a yacht, without an anchor, that would forever keep on going like hell." He spoke of Piatt's "fermentative lightness." "The only thing in Piatt that interests me is his free-tradeism: the free-trade principle is like the sun—it shines upon the good and the bad alike: Piatt has a right to his evil and his free-trade, both: he is a fiery cuss who burns but does not shine."

     W. asked me further about the Germantown party at Clifford's. Some one there had asked about W.'s weight at the the time the steel was made. W. said: "I should say about forty pounds less than for the last twenty years—about a hundred and sixty-five or thereabouts: I formerly lacked in flesh, though I was not thin: I was less fleshy than in after years—had less belly—though I never had belly in excess—was never at all portly: I had a good liberal frame—was all right that way: I owed a lot to my mothers and fathers." Another question came up. Had Sam Longfellow been over during his occupancy of the Germantown Unitarian pulpit which Clifford now has charge of? Clifford said: "He must have been here at the time of the Boston affair: if so, if he was Walt's friend, it was his place to call—to put himself on record by Walt's side." W. said to that: "I should never have thought of that myself but now that Clifford says it I can see very well why it should have been said. I don't think Sam was ever here: I may have met him over there in the city—in Germantown—though even that seems doubtful. Sam is a fellow who would not do anything to

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endanger his share of a good dinner—of one or two thousand a year. I know very well that this is not so of Clifford: it would not be like him: being brave, on the right side, uncompromising, goes of course with such a man."

     Clifford had said to me: "Sam Longfellow is in some ways at least a more powerful figure than Henry." W. took that up when I repeated it. "I have said that to myself more than a few times: but then I am not sure enough of my ground to dogmatize about it. Perhaps Sam is like our man there in The Pall Mall Gazette as Mary Costelloe describes him—inordinately lazy. Henry's face does not suggest strength: no—not at all: it suggests grace, finish, affability, sweetness, suavity." I alluded to the Longfellow diary notes in Sam's Life of Henry as "almost insipid." W. took me up. "Regarding them critically that probably might be said—but you must not regard them critically. Take Longfellow for what he was: a man of a certain sort, of his own sort (more or less traditional, according to rule)—as necessary as men to whom we would attribute an ampler genius, larger purposes. Longfellow was no revolutionaire: never travelled new paths: of course never broke new paths: in fact was a man who shrank from unusual things—from what was highly colored, dynamic, drastic. Longfellow was the expresser of the common themes—of the little songs of the masses—perhaps will always have some vogue among average readers of English. Such a man is always in order—could not be dispensed with—maintains a popular conventional pertinency."

     I said: "Clifford spoke of O'Connor's two letters as unmatched in English literature." W. at once assented: "There is nothing in their line anywhere near equal to them: William was vehement: he was boundless in his forthreach: he went into the anti-slavery fight hot, ripe, for all encounters: transcendentally powerful: enjoyed the smoke of battle: had not fire in his eye (his eye was gentle)

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but certainly was a burning bush of justice. I was always anti-slavery myself but never was able wholly to sympathize with O'Connor's fervid dead-earnestness."
I cited Emerson's "what right have you to your one virtue?" But Walt dissented: "I don't know that it was for Emerson's reason or for any conscious reason: I felt, I feel, that the cosmos includes Emperors as well as Presidents, good as well as bad. Why should n't I?" W. stuck his fingers under some papers on the table and pulled out a letter which he handed me. "Read that," he said: " it 's not new according to the calendar but it 's brand new according to its goodwill. Read it aloud: I 've read it often but I'd like to hear it again." So I read.


Chicago, Feb. 3rd, 1887.

My dear and honored Walt Whitman:

It is less than a year ago that I made your acquaintance so to speak, quite by accident, searching among the shelves of a book store. I was attracted by the curious title: Leaves of Grass, opened the book at random, and my eyes met the lines of Elemental Drifts. You then and there entered my soul, have not departed, and never will depart.

Be assured that there is as least one (and I hope there are many others) who understands you as you wish to be understood; one, moreover, who has weighed you in the balance of his intuition and finds you the greatest of poets.

To a man who can resolve himself into subtle unison with Nature and Humanity as you have done, who can blend the soul harmoniously with materials, who sees good in all and overflows in sympathy toward all things, enfolding them with his spirit: to such a man I joyfully give the name of Poet—the most precious of all names.

At the time I first met your work, I was engaged upon the essay which I herewith send you. I had just finished Decadence. In the Spring Song and the Song of the Depths my orbit responded to the new attracting sun. I send you this essay because it is your opinion above all

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other opinions that I should most highly value. What you may say in praise or encouragement will please me, but sympathetic surgery will better please. I know that I am not presuming, for have you not said: "I concentrate toward them that are nigh" "will you speak before I am gone? Will you prove already too late?"


After all, words fail me in writing to you. Imagine that I have expressed to you my sincere conviction of what I owe to you.

The essay is my first effort at the age of thirty. I, too, "have sweated through fog with linguists and contenders." I, too, "have pried through the strata, analyzed to a hair," reaching for the basis of a virile and indigenous art. Holding on in silence to this day, for fear of foolish utterances, I hope at least that my words may carry the weight of conviction.

Trusting that it may not be in vain that I hope to hear from you, believe me, noble man, affectionately your distant friend,

Louis H. Sullivan.


     When I was through W. asked: "Ain't that catchin'? It sounds like something good that comes along on the wind for them as know enough to suck in. I'd say that feller's some shucks himself: whatever he does I'll bet he does big: he writes as if he reached way round things and encircled them. He 's an architect or something: and he 's a man for sure. Take the letter along, Horace: keep it near you: use it now and then when it comes in just right."

     I had casually mentioned Harrison Morris: W. thereupon suddenly starting to hunt something up among his papers—finally pulling out a copy of The Poetry of the Future—a pamphlet such as he had sent to Jerome Buck. W. said then to me: "Show this to Morris sometime: There 's a passage along here which exactly meets his case." Turning to page 202, he marked the following with his

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blue pencil, saying at the same time: "They sent me several of these pamphlets from New York there: I think Bromley had a hand in it: you know it is Bromley who sent me this book"—holding up the Lincoln volume: "He is a Friend."

"Is there not even now, indeed, an evolution—a departure from the masters? Venerable and unsurpassable after their kind as are the old works, and always unspeakably precious as studies (for Americans more than any other people), is it too much to say that by the shifted combinations of the modern mind the whole underlying theory of first-class verse has changed? 'Formerly, during the period termed classic,' says Sainte-Beuve, 'when literature was governed by recognized rules, he was considered the best poet who had composed the most perfect work, the most beautiful poem, the most intelligible, the most agreeable to read, the most complete in every respect—the Æneid, the Gerusalemme, a fine tragedy. To-day, something else is wanted. For us the greatest poet is he who in his best works most stimulates the reader's imagination and reflection, who excites him the most himself to poetize. The greatest poet is not he who has done the best; it is he who suggests the most; he, not all of whose meaning is at first obvious, and who leaves you much to desire, to explain, to study, much to complete in your turn.'"


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