Commentary

Disciples


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 370] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Monday, December 24, 1888.

     8 P. M. W. making some entries in his notebook. "Work—system," he called it: then laid the book down. Sitting by the light: fire quite lusty: room more than comfortable. On the table a flat box done up addressed to George Whitman. Harned was present part of the time of my stay. I brought W. a pocket book, remembering his remark a few days ago. Called it a Christmas present. W. said: "I am fortunate: now I can make sure of all my possessions. Eddy brought me a present to-day: that big bottle of sherry you find there on the table." He opened the book—counted the pockets. "It is beautiful: just what I have been wishing for." Afterwards, when Harned had come in and remarked it, he said: "Yes—it is a Christmas present"—lifting it up and shaking it towards me— "That is the fellow who did it." On the table a pile of loose change. He pointed to it. "See—I am forced to do that now: I think I must lose lots of money about here: Mary says I do." Spoke of his enjoyment of the sherry— "yet only a

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 371] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
mild enjoyment after all."
"The Doctor encourages sherry and milk: I like the milk—drink a great deal of it: but the sherry? I don't know." Tom uncorked and put his nose to the mouth of the bottle. Turned up his nose at it. "Poor stuff! But I'll send you some in a day or two that 'll make you hair stand on end!" W. laughed. "Yes, do, Tom: I accept: 'yours truly!'" Tom has always antagonized the opinion of Dr. Bucke that no drink should be pressed upon W. Spoke of whiskey. But W. did not regard that favorably. "Not whiskey, Tom: whiskey is too sharp, too strong. As the old woman said, I have no doubt that the time will come for whiskey, but for the presnt I dare not!"

     The Tolstoy on a pile of papers face down. Had he been reading? "Yes, indeed: and it is the best thing I have ever met with from Tolstoy. The first point that strikes me is the translation: the translation is so good—noble, in fact: superior to any I have seen in Tolstoy's case. It does not say who translated it?" It did—Frank D. Millet. "Anyhow, it is fine—whether it is so because from the French I don't know. The style of the book is wonderfully true, above all: it struck me most with its honesty, directness, realism. It was as if Tolstoy sat right across where you sit: his paper and pencil in his hands—so"—indicating— "the picture caught—not an essential lost—missed!" This was "another Tolstoy from the Tolstoy" of his "previous reading." "I have read several of Nathan Haskell Dole's translations: measurelessly poor, unequal, not to be considered." He was greatly taken with Howells' introduction. "Splendid, I think; wholesale, we may almost say: I never knew Howells could entuse so much—could take such an interest in any one." I reminded him of what Garland had said. W.: "Well—let us hope it is justified: let us say, God speed 'im!—God mak' 'im so!" "Certainly if this continues I shall have to warm towards Tolstoy!"

     Bucke has sent me his portrait. We looked it over together.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 372] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
W. delighted. Held it up before him a long while, looking and commenting: "Better and better! Why, the Doctor seems to have the knack of taking good pictures! How that eye has come up: and the beard—look at it! What a superb study of hair!" I said people who had seen Bucke asked me if they were related. W.: "Is it so? is there something there?" I pointed out the accented lines down from the nose. Is it a sneer? W.: "No: not a sneer: it 's the mark of the medical man—the man accustomed to treating bad bowels, bad heads, bad lungs, bad everything: the man who says half severely—what a set of forlorn helpless critters you are at the best: all of you: me too, as well as you!" W. asked me if I did not see "the Canadian" peeking out of B.'s face? I did not. What constituted the pecularity of a Canadian? "I cannot tell it: but it is there: you will know it some day: you 'll get up there, tramp about, see the Doctor, then come to know what I mean." Congratulated me on my possession of the picture. "You should have O'Connor in the same shape: if you don't get it so in any other way you should take the picture I have down stairs and have it thrown up into this size: I know a fellow in the city who does that work very well—has done some of it for me." Tried to recall the name: it would not come. "Anyhow, he is at 722 Chestnut, I am sure: upstairs, at the top: up in the tenth or twelfth story, I believe." He thought O'C.'s picture would "lend itself easily to good reproduction." I said: "O'Connor will be forever associated with you: whoever writes the book about you by and by—Dr. Bucke probably—will have O'Connor's face there with yours!" W. warmly: "Nothing is truer than that: O'Connor is one who cannot be passed over." And as to Stedman's idea that O'C. had sacrificed his public career on the altar of W.: "In a way O'Connor has risked much—staked all—on the throw of Leaves of Grass: his powerful, vehement personality crossed and inter-crossed the history of the book." This brought us to the present O'Connor. W. said: "Poor, poor, poor O'Connor!

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 373] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
he is in the worst way. Do you know what paresis is? No. Nor do I. But it seems with him"
—motioning with his forefinger and thumb— "the lid of the eye hangs down—can only be raised this way, with the finger, if he wishes to see. It is a deep-rooted trouble, I think: sometimes it crops out otherwhere: in the fingers—draws two together, as I do now—or the toes—then away again. O'Connor does not seem to improve—not at all: Nellie's letter is not cheering: O'Connor himself still thinks that if he had the right doctor he would come up again, get entirely cured—not relieved simply but absolutely cured." I said Bucke's diagnosis sounded accurate. W.: "Yes indeed: the evidence all tends that way." Then of O'Connor's optimism: "I don't believe a word of it—not a word: I think O'Connor is fatally afflicted: what surprises me most in the matter is the fact that O'Connor is himself deluded: how can he be? He is one of the subtlest, keenest,shrewdest, never-to-be-deceived men that ever lived: how he could have failed to see, to face, this, baffles me." I wondered if O'C. was as philosophically calm as W.? W. shook his head: "I don't know: for keenness, immense power, to measure, to group, as if by instinct, he is pre-eminent." And then he asked me: "I so often talk of his keenness: would you consider his keenness abnormal?" Talked this matter over some time, W. animated and cheerful.

     The missing soft book turned up. "Yes, I have found it: I am going to use it for corrections. I have already found four or five—strange to say none of them in Leaves of Grass. Kennedy pointed out a number—one of them in November Boughs: a place where I used the word encyclopædia—i-a—instead of i-e—which he says is correct. I did not know it—the French." W. had "a very cheery bright letter" from Rhys to-day. This he forwarded at once to Bucke. "Rhys has heard of Herbert's great success here—says the young fellows in London have got wind of it and are preparing to emigrate to America." What was the "great success"? W. answered: "He has got a foothold:

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 374] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
for a young man it is success to get a foothold."
Something was said by Harned about an English lawyer visiting over the States just now. Harned said: "He has sent some pretty nasty notes to an English paper about us." W. broke in: "But what does he know? What does any casual traveller know? He has no way of knowing: they come here, fidget about a bit in the clubs—then go home and report. And such reports! Why Tom it 's the God damnedest farrago of nonsense thirteen times out of twelve! They don't see the people at all—they only see the swells—they only look at themselves in the glass: then they go home: they say America is so and so and so and so." W. paused a minute. Then added: "I think the English are about the worst offenders in this direction. It is well for us to remember our debt to England—yet we must not be blind to other facts equally important, at least—perhaps more: notably, American leadership already in mechanincs—by and by perhaps as inevitably in art, literature, science. But we must not go too fast in boasting of our material acquisitions: remember that something more, deepest fixed in everybody: think of Emerson's repeated question: are there to be no men there? no men?"—W. very vehement— "And the men! ah! that is the task—that is the necessity—after all!"

     A neighbor, a man, came in. Was only there a few minutes. He asked after W.'s health. W. said: "I could ask nothing better than to continue as I am: I enjoy a total absence of anything like discomfort or pain." Gave me a Bucke letter dated 21st. "It contains a message for you: Bucke is always having messages for you." Harned asked W.: "Do you always feel as if it was quite certain that Emerson will size in history ultimately bigger than Thoreau?" W. replied: "Tom, you've a hell of a habit of putting the most difficult questions to me when I 'm least prepared for them." T. got back: "But that 's not answering the question. Do you?" W. took his glasses off his nose and said: "Tom, I 'm not dead sure on that point either way: my prejudices, if I may call them that, are all

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 375] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
with Emerson: but Thoreau was a surprising fellow—he is not easily grasped—is elusive: yet he is one of the native forces—stands for a fact, a movement, an upheaval: Thoreau belongs to America, to the transcendental, to the protesters: then he is an outdoor man: all oudoor men everything else being equal appeal to me. Thoreau was not so precious, tender, a personality as Emerson: but he was a force—he looms up bigger and bigger: his dying does not seem to have hurt him a bit: every year has added to his fame. One thing about Thoreau keeps him very near to me: I refer to his lawlessness—his dissent—his going his own absolute road let hell blaze all it chooses."

     We talked some over a Rossetti letter which W. produced and gave to me. He asked me to read it. "Why do you have me read all these things, Walt?" I asked him: "You know I 'm nothing of a reader." W. said: "There are two reasons—1st, I like to hear your voice: 2d, I like to hear these letters, such things, back in the voice in another." Then he said: "I often read them aloud to myself: I like to read them in a palpable voice: I try my poems that way—always have: read them aloud to myself: I seem to get a new angle on them—see things I could not see in any other way. So with the letters: you give the letters extra meanings: I am passing many of them over to you: I want to sort of fasten them in my mind before you tuck them away in your safe." I laughed about the safe. He too. "You and Bucke hang on to these things as if they were life preservers." I said: "They are." He looked at me quizzically. Then he added: "Oh! I see." W. said: "I was looking over the London Times awhile ago—this paper or a piece of it: someone writing there (I think it was The Times: it certainly was an English paper): he spoke of William Rossetti as 'garrulous.' What do you suppose was meant by that?" I had n't the least idea. W. said: "Neither have I: I thought maybe you had seen the same thing or heard it quoted. I have had many letters from Rossetti: they never seem overdone—never seem too full

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 376] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
—too wordy: if he is garrulous it never got into his correspondence: I don't know who in England or America writes more definitely to a point with so little switch around as Rossetti. Garrulous? It may be: but he looks different to me. I was stopped by Dana—Charles Dana—in New York one day: one of the far back days: we had a chat about Emerson: Dana was amused over what some one had asked him: 'Don't you find Emerson a very talkative man?' This made Dana laugh: 'Whitman, could anything be more ridiculous?' I suspect that Rossetti is about as much garrulous as Emerson was talkative. Read that letter: you won't find any waste words in it":


Euston Sq., London, N. W., 8 Octr. [1871].

Dear Mr. Whitman:

I was extremely obliged to you for the present of your photograph and books; the vol. of poems containing (what I read for the first time in that shape) the important section of Passage to India and many modifications here and there in other compositions. It happens that I have lately been compiling a vol. of selections from American Poets, and had had to use your earlier editions for the purposes of this compilation: but I have now set these aside and used your new edition throughout—so the kind and welcome gift came to me at a very apposite moment. I confess to a certain reluctance to lose the old title A Voice out of the Sea of that most splendid poem (rated by most of your English admirerers, I observe, as the finest of all, tho I am not prepared to acquiesce in that estimate): however, in this as all other respects where the editions differ, I have followed your new edition. Many thanks also for the separate poem subsequently received, After all not to create only—replete with important truths. I don't well know when my American Selection will be out: my work on it is done, and the rest depends on the printer and publisher. I shall hope to beg your acceptance of a copy in due course.


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 377] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
I sent on the copy of your work transmitted for "the Lady" after some little delay occasioned by my being absent from England up to the end of August. She was (and I think still is) in the country: but, to judge from a letter of acknowledgment she wrote to me, you have probably by this time heard from her direct. I know also that you have heard from Prof. Dowden, the writer of the article in the Westminster.

Mr. Burroughs called here on 5 Octr., and is to dine with us to-morrow: I like his frank manly aspect and tone, and need not say that you were a principal subject of conversation between us. He seems very considerably impressed with the objects and matters of interest in London: I wish it might be my good fortune to see you here also some day. Rumors of your projected arrival here have been rife for some while past, but, as I learn from Burroughs, the prospect is as yet not a very definite one.

Believe me most respectfully your friend,

W. M. Rossetti.


     W. asked me: "Does that sound garrulous to you? The lady was Mrs. Gilchrist: Rossetti knew her well: it was through him that she finally got in touch with me: she was a wonderful woman—a sort of human miracle to me: built on a large plan—delicate, too: oh! so profoundly considerate, intuitional, knowing: I guess I should not talk about her: not even to you, maybe: my emotion gets the better of me." He was very quiet. I was surprised. He is generally so reticent in matters so personal. Not even to me, he said. He does not talk most things with me. He said further: "Her taking off—Mrs. Gilchrist's death—was a great shock to me: she was subtle: her grasp on my work was tremendous—so sure, so all around, so adequate." He said of the letter itself: "I think John was himself disappointed in that first interview with Rossetti—he wrote me as if it had not gone off right—but when John wrote again, ac-

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 378] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
quiescing in the invitation Rossetti mentions in the letter, they seemed to have opened up to each other on a normal plane and been mutally won."
W. showed me a big photo of himself. "Who made it?" He tried to say. Could n't. "Some day I'll think of it." I looked it over: "Does it look glum—sickish—painful? Has it that in it? They say so. I hate to think of myself as pensive, despondent, melancholy. How is it?" He asked again: "Does it look unkind? No man has any excuse for looking morose or cruel: he should do better." I said: "May I take it along?" He nodded. "Yes: I 'm willing you should have it: but does it look glum? That is so important to me: to not look downcast—cloud up things." "Maybe you are serious: you are never sour." He laughed: "Well, that 's an admission. But I 'm not quite satisfied yet. If you should ever use this portrait in any way—for this, that—be sure to say Walt Whitman was not a glum man despite his photographers."


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.