Commentary

Disciples


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Thursday, December 27, 1888.

     8 P. M. W. reading. Had a letter from Sanborn acknowledging big book and enclosing a recent address on Emerson. W. sat reading the latter. The room was comfortable. He looked well, busy. Had spent a day "much like its immediate predecessors: reading papers, writing some, taking things easy." Talked brightly. I took a chair on his urgent "sit down—sit down." It was a little colder out of doors. W. stirred the fire (he always enjoys doing it): then settled himself in his chair, asking: "Well—what do you bring now? W. handed me an envelope: "It contains Miss Gould's extracts: I don't know why I should object: neither for that matter do I know why I should approve; it is a matter of indifference to me. I have enclosed a little note to Dave saying she may use the stuff if she chooses: that while I don't interfere I have no vehement desire to see the project furthered. Read it." This was the note:


Camden, Dec. 27, '88.

I have no objection to this going in Miss Gould's little book—no objection at all, but no vehement desire either—If you can include it conveniently, do so; if not, not—I am feeling easier and freer the last four days.

Walt Whitman.


     He added: "You know I care nothing for this—no more than for the calendar." Then again: "I depend on you to talk with Dave if he wants more." He added: "These gems, extracts, specimens, tid-bits, brilliants, sparkles, chippings—oh, they are all wearisome: they might go with

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some books: yes, they fit with some books—some books fit with them: but Leaves of Grass is different—yields nothing to the seeker for sensations."
He had laid away for me, "thinking you would like it," a copy of to-day's Post. Post reporter had been in and as he said "done me up in a two inch paragraph." Gave me a Curtz printed sheet containing Bucke's letter. "This I give you along: I know you like curios." He said he had had "quite a number struck off." He picked up another from the pile on the floor. "I give you one for Clifford: if you want several more you must take them: they are made purely for the inner circle—the few of us: we count Clifford one of us." Then he said dubiously to me: "I never asked Doctor if I might print it: it struck me to-night after I had sent his copy off: I wonder how he will like it? But I conclude he will understand: it is a private affair, all in the family: only for the elect, the few: I guess he will be satisfied. It is a curious little note—powerfully eulogistic: arouses, arouses in me, the gravest doubts, hesitancies, many times over: but I have concluded to let it go." He has secured thirty copies of The Post. Asked me to look at it.

"The author of Leaves of Grass has had a long and at times very serious spell of sickness since last May, all arising, as dated by medical science, out of the severe paralysis from Whitman's continued and overstrained labors to the wounded of the Secession War. This last is the seventh attack, and has been a most severe one—and only his good constitution has brought him through but he is comparatively recovering from it. He has had what has been called a strong team to pull him through, Drs. Bucke, Osler, Wharton and Walsh, and a good nurse, Edward Wilkins, a young, strong Canadian. During his spell Whiman has had printed and finished his little book, November Boughs, and a large volume of 900 octavo pages, including all his complete works, poems and prose. He is still in good spirits, yet very feeble."


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     I read this. Then I laughed. W. asked: "Now what is the matter?" "Walt you wrote that yourself!" He was jolly over it: "Who told you such stuff as that? It don't sound a bit like me." "It don't sound like anybody else!" Then he asked: "Suppose I did: is there any harm in it?" "No, the best way to get reported straight is to report yourself." W. exclaimed: "Good: You ought to say that to William: that 's one of his pet ideas (and mine too, so far as that goes): he also thinks authors should review their own books—that there 's no other way for them to get fair reviews!" W. added: "I sent away a number of the papers this evening—to Doctor, Kennedy, my sisters, brothers, nieces, others: with each paper I enclosed one of these sheets." He pointed to the Bucke letter. "You found yours all right, did n't you?" he asked me. Then he suddenly said: "I don't believe you've read the letter yet: I 've been talking all over and around about it—not shown you the letter itself: well, read it now, this minute: let me see that you read it—hear that you read it, indeed: read it aloud." W. had provided a heading for his sheet. I read:

An impromptu criticism on the 900 page Volume, The Complete Poems and Prose of Walt Whitman, first issued December, 1888.

. . . It is grand, grander than even I had hoped. It is the volume of the future for the next thousand years, and after that (superseded by even greater poems) to live as a grand classic for ever. It is a gigantic massive autobiography, the first of its kind, (though the trick had been tried before by Goeth, Rousseau and others: but even Goethe cold not do it). The title page is perfect—I cannot conceive anything finer—and the little notes (opening and closing) are (to my notion—though you seemed so doubtful about them) just right.


Dear Walt,

you have had a hard fight and a long fight,

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but we may say of you to-day that you have won the battle. If you have fallen at the end, (though I trust even yet you may still have before you some good days), but even if you are to fall now, your fame is safe beyond all peradventure. Your work is well done; and here or elsewhere (I do not know that it matters much which—except for those you leave a little while behind you), you will live and be honored always. Yes, and loved always.


R. M. Bucke.


     W. had pinned the original proof with his blue-pencilled corrections to my sheet. He tied the papers together. He said he was "careful not to ostentate with the sheets" "only to send them to the few" he "knew would approve its appearance if not its sentiments." Even with Morse he hesitated. "Would Sidney be interested?" "I remember Doctor's emphasis on that phrase— 'one of us'? We talked once about Stedman—more than once: but this was a particular time. Maurice declared—was emphatic: 'I can't think—no, I can't think, he is one of us!' He thought probably that I was too warm: something I said, probably, aroused him." I said: "Dave was nearly struck dumb when I told him to-day that Stedman gives you thirteen pages in his book whereas the average is three." W. asked me to repeat. Then: "Yes, it is significant: you are right: there is no doubt but Stedman has changed a good deal—in fact as towards his older point of view has changed utterly: has turned his back on all that." I said: "I meet men who say—Whitman is great, perhaps, but no poet. They refer to Stedman. But Stedman is nowadays among the readiest to call you a poet and love you as such whatever he may have said in the past." W. nodded his head: "It is true: whatever else is true, that is true, too." Then asked about S.'s book: how many volumes, &c. Had seen none. "I suppose I come up at the last with the W.'s?" But I found the order was different, coming in periods: colonial, &c. W. said in conclusion that if S.

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was not to be reckoned as "one of us," he was "at least extremely friendly, growing closer with the years that pass."

     W. gave me back The Publishers' Weekly. I'll send it to Bucke. "I have looked it over carefully—was interested in the pictures, the printing: but it struck me to ask, if Dave paid fifty dollars ( did n't you say fifty?) to get that portrait in, was it a paying investment?" Gave me check for Ferguson—eighty-four dollars seventy-five cents: paying in full. Advised also that I get F. to "certify" to the deposit of the plates with him. One box from Oldach still unopened down stairs. W. wished to pay bill. I advised: Wait till we are sure: I will open the box and make my count in a day or two. He said: "Well—do as you think best, but I am in the humor now—have no doubt at all but that things are all right: besides, I have softened to old Oldach: he has so gratified me with the book I want to testify to it." The W. paragraph was not in all editions of yesterday's Record. W. said: "It happened so once with The Herald: some one said he had a copy reporting that I was dying, but when he went and secured a second copy—the same date—the paragraph was not to be found. Probably later information showed the report to be false." W. leaned over towards the fire: picked up the old-fashioned tongs. "What do you think of this? this is the latest"—opened and shut: looked at it asquint: then seemed to study it: handle graceful—a good looking tool. "Warren Fritzinger, one of Mrs. Davis's boys, knows an old Irish lady living not far from here—right in the neighborhood. She had this—was not using it: she would not sell it but would let me have it till I got another. Don't it have the true look? It is made for work not for appearance. You go into the parlors: there are the tongs, brassed, shining—a long handle—graceful, pretty, dainty—but never intended to touch the dirty fire with. I need such a thing as to stir up the fire here." He thought "forty or fifty years ago I might have handled this weapon with

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agility,"
but now he was "very long out of practice" and had "to relearn the art."

     I had read McCosh's paper on Arnold. W. said: "Yes, I see he has been doing it, and he is very severe too—thinks, evidently, there was no place for Arnold." I asked W.: "Don't you think that 's from the theological bias?" W.: "That is true: McCosh is the priest: he has the priestly twist. I imagine, if Arnold, Arnold's spirit, is hovering about these days—could be cognizant of McCosh, of others—he would care little about what they think—what Mr. McCosh thinks, anyhow. My own criticism of Arnold—the worst I could say of him—the severest: I who probably have no right to any opinion at all—who, having read so little, should keep his mouth shut on the subject: my worst criticism would be, that Arnold brings coal to Newcastle—that he brings to the world what the world already has a surfeit of: is rich, hefted, lousy, reeking, with delicacy, refinement, elegance, prettiness, propriety, criticism, analysis: all of them things which threaten to overwhelm us." Yet he "understood that." He was aware that "we must be in no haste to dismiss Arnold." "John Burroughs, who has read him, knows him, is certain Arnold has a place and a significance—a great place, too." I suggested: "You don't credit the critics much: John Burroughs thinks you are pretty considerable of a critic in your way." W. said: "Does he? How could John? If I am it must be in an intuitive fashion: but I guess I am not. That reminds me of a story told of Socrates: you have probably heard it: perhaps I have repeated it before myself. It lugs in the oracle—is told of Athens: some one coming to Socrates and telling him the oracle had named him the wisest man in Athens: he resisting, explaining, questioning: how was it? how could it be? could the friend, servant, courier, messenger—or whoever—give reasons? unravel the mystery? Well—Socrates would find them for himself. Why was Socrates the wisest man in all Athens? Simply because of this—simply because of this: because while the whole pack

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of so-called philosophers, scholars, learned men, were damned fools—utter damned fools—and did n't know it, he, who was also a fool, as much as any, knew it, acknowledged it."

     W. recited this with great spirit—slowly, as usual, threading his strange but strikingly coherent sentences through with an infalliable circumspection. Then he said with vim: "That is the story in substance. It has no doubt often been better told—I myself have told it better, perhaps. Did I never before allude to it? It is the oldest of the Socratian stories to me: I met it very young, when I was sixteen or seventeen—met with it in a book somewhere—I don't know in what. It has clung to me all these years: it is a touchstone: it seems to me, O very deep—very deep!" The story was familar to me but his way of retelling it was inimitable—his enjoyment of it immense. "There is of course a not literally true element in these stories: yet all of them are essentially true—must be: they bear the stamp." We quoted a number of Socrates stories. W. said they contained for him "a perpetual and perpetuating interest." The story he had told was "in a sense" an answer to John who thought him a critic, "with the difference that John set nothing up egotistically." "But W. W. knows W. W. is a damned fool if no on else does." I asked him: "You speak of well told stories: don't you think most of the stories in books are too well told?" He said without hesitation: "Yes I do—I do." I said the best criticisms, the best stories, are heard in parlors, in crowds, informally. W.: "That, too, is true: see the theaters: the best criticisms are heard in the lobbies, at the time, impromptu, unstudied: yet lost, swallowed up, unheard of." Took him the Carlyle-Goethe correspondence. "Is it Tolstoy?" he asked. I handed it to him. When he had seen what it was: "Well—this, too, is something: we 'll see." In another reference to John's saying W. was a good critic W. quoted something Emerson said to him in one of their talks: " 'You surprise me in one way, Mr. Whitman: sur-

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prise me greatly: yet do not surprise me either: for I might have assumed as much: that is, I find you a copious book man—a readier knower of conventional things in literature than I had thought you to be.'
"
W. was still. Then: "The gentle Emerson: I was surprising him in more ways than one." Referred to the Sanborn letter. "No—he does not enthuse: he is cautious, moves slowly—accepts carefully, moderately: but I consider Sanborn one of my best friends—one who leans my way, who I in turn may lean upon." Further: "Sanborn was one of John Brown's big young men in the old times—was a fighter: up in arms—a devotee. You can take the letter along: but I want you to read it to me first. You will meet Frank some day: he is one of your sort: the revolutionary crusader sort: gets hot in the collar about the enemy, as you do: is quick on the trigger: noble, whole sized, optimistic. But read."


Concord, Mass., Dec. 25, 1888.

Dear Friend:

I received you noble volume of Works just in time to make it a Christmas present from you,—and none could have been more highly valued. I hope it may not be the final edition but that you may live to add more prose and verse to the monument which will preserve your name in the Future, for which you write, and to which you truly belong. But in the Present and the Past also you have done your work, and thus have gained a claim on the Future, which will not be denied you.

I cherish two copies of the first edition of your Leaves of Grass—one given to me by Emerson in the year it was published, and one left to me by Sophia Thoreau—her brother Henry's copy. I shall place these and your fullgrown volume together, and hand them down to my children.

I enclose the report of an essay I lately read in New York. The omitted passage is one about Emerson, which did not properly belong there, and was not read by me—

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but the reporter found it among the sheets which I handed him to use, not to print entire.


Yours with friendly regard

F. B. Sanborn.


     I said: " I'd like to see the Thoreau copy of the Leaves. It would be interesting to know whether Thoreau soaked you any on the margins or put any amens there." W.: "You might write Frank and ask: yes, it would be interesting to know: for Henry was not all for me—he had his reservations: he held back some: he accepted me—my book—as on the whole something to be reckoned with: he allowed that I was formidable: said so to me much in that way: over in Brooklyn: why, that very first visit: 'Whitman, do you have any idea that you are rather bigger and outside the average—may perhaps have immense significance?' That 's what he said: I did not answer. He also said: 'There is much in you to which I cannot accommodate myself: the defect may be mine: but the objections are there.'" Then: "You know, Alcott was to see me, too: they were all in some particulars much alike—Emerson, Alcott, Thoreau: then they were different too: but they all had the same manner—a sort of aloofness: only so far: that coming an inch beyond that would mean disaster for us all." W. laughed quietly. "You see, the cultivated fellows all carry that air about with them: it is not dishonest, though an acquirement: yet because of it they in some ways, the best of them, Emerson himself (and Emerson knew it) compare unfavorably with the urchins on the street."


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