Commentary

Disciples


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Wednesday, February 6, 1889

     7.45 P.M. W. talking with Mrs. Davis, who sat on the sofa. He was very vivacious. In good voice. He asked me how I was. I said: "Very well." I asked him how he was. He said: "Very well," too. Then Mary and he went on with their talk, which was about Herbert's picture, now in the Academy exhibition. Mary asked W. if the picture was the one H. painted here. W. said: "No: but he worked from that: this is the London picture." Then, after a brief pause: "Old Mr. Ingram has been here: he told me that his daughter, or somebody, had been in the Academy Sunday: that there was a great crowd of people there—many, many: that she, in going about, was attracted to one spot by a thick group of visitors: found they were looking at Herbert's picture." W. also said: "Herbert himself says the picture is well-hung—is in a first rate position just on the line." Mrs. Davis here got up to go. W protested. "Why, Mary, what are you going for?" She said: "Oh, I haven't paid my visit: now I'll say goodnight: I'll not see you again tonight." W. responded: "Well, then good night! good night!" Mrs. Davis gave me H.G.'s Contemporary Club money left here by him for me last night. "Then Herbert was here? I passed him down the street." W.: "Yes, he came in: as he got up to go, was arranging his cloak, he said something about calling on you: I told him he wouldn't find you at home—that you had gone over the river again. I suppose it was that money matter that he wanted most to see you about." Had he brought any news? "Oh no: hardly that: but we had quite a talk: he stayed quite a while. He is very cheery—well, busy, satisfied with the outlook. Put all that with youth: what more could a man want?"

     Intensely cold today. The first severe day of the winter. W. asked me about it. "I envy you who can sally forth and breathe it in." Had

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he felt it? "No—not in the slightest degree: first, I have some fat left: then Ed has kept a ruddy fire going." Sat with the big robe on the back of his chair, the lap robe over his legs. Mostly sits about not putting on his breeches at all. W. said: "I call this extreme négligé—but it's comfortable." And he also said: "According to all prescriptions I should be freezing when it gets nearly down to zero—but here I am feeling as springtimey as the lark."

     I had a letter from Morse, dated the 4th. W. said: "Read it." I sent Morse the Whitman busts he left here. He had this to say about them: "They fail to impress people so far. Blake failed to enthuse. The lady in the house said if she should see one in the night she would faint away. That was the impression she got." W. took the humoristic report rather seriously. "Was it only the Whitman busts you sent, and the Cleveland? Is it those he refers to?" and when I answered him "yes" he remarked dubiously: "Well, well: but what more does he say?" Morse went on: "But I shall take them to the Art Institute when I go—my lecture is postponed on account of the exhibit of paintings by the Russian artist that fill all the available space." I half stopped. W. said instantly: "Oh go on, go on: let me hear it all!" And so: "These paintings I have not yet seen. People who have seen them seem dazed, and don't know whether or not to say they're great." W. interrupted: "But they are great: they are among the greatest: they are very deep, subtle, powerful, pathetic." I proceeded: "The critics write them up and write them down." W.: "How's that?" I repeated. He said: "Of course they do: that's what they think they're here for." I again went on: "Verestchagin is the name. The critics handle him as though they knew. Hoothoo! what definite ideas these unfledged mortals have!" W. laughed heartily: "Oh Sidney, Sidney! as though they knew! How significant, how profound, how cute, that is: as though they knew!" He again said: "But go on." Sidney wrote: "The papers here din din at the Anarchists all the while. The effect is, that people begin to wonder if there isn't something genuine underneath what they have misjudged after all. The police captains kicked vigorously against that judge's decision, but have finally quieted down." W. then: "They did well to do so—to quiet down: that's what police captains, policemen, soldiers, secret service men, everywhere, should always do: quiet down—quiet down: yet, disappear."


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     Took W. Andrew Lang's Bobs and Pinches—Murray paper on American-English courtesies, &c. W. pleased. "Yes, I like to see all such things—to look through them, if for nothing else than to find there's nothing in 'em!—and I often enough—oftener than enough—find there is nothing in them." Then: "I shall lay it aside for tomorrow with the other thing you brought"—San Francisco Chronicle with adverse review of November Boughs. W. asked: "Does the review amount to much?—to anything?" Spoke of the paper on slang I left with him yesterday. Had he read it? "I could hardly say yes to that: I have looked it through. I can tell very soon after dipping into a book or what not whether there's anything in it for me: a few sentences in this piece convinced me that the writer knew nothing at all about his subject. It sounds like the case of the editor who goes to one of his staff—says: 'Here, you: I want five pages, or six, on such and such a theme—on American slang, for instance': or perhaps he would put it in this way: 'I have such and such space to fill up: you must exercise your ingenuity in filling it': the chosen man straightway sitting down, going to work, grinding it out. This article seems to illustrate such a supposition."

     W. said: "Slang is too stubborn a subject to answer the beck and call of every incidental scribbler." I spoke of it as "the beginnings of language." W. said: "It is more that than people generally imagine: but all slang is not equally good: there are slang words, phrases, which carry no meaning with them—out of which a meaning cannot even by investigation be extracted. I could instance cases. The other day I hit upon the expression, 'in the soup': I could not make a meaning for it or out of it." I said a man drunk was described as "full of soup." W. said: "That's better: I get more out of that." Then he added: "In the old days—maybe still, but in the old days—down in the Bowery there was much slang. It was all sorts: derived from all tongues and no tongue: the French call it argot, patois—we call it slang. There were many fine examples of it current, particularly among the theatrical people, the actors: argot." He half remembered one of their words— "a very common often used word." His memory wouldn't work. "I knew it well: it was a word signifying a hit, a take, a fetch—as when an actor had made a point, was applauded, brought down the house, as we say." W. smiled: "Not getting that word tantalizes me: I've got plenty of words: but

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where is the word?"
He said "clever" was a word much in use among actors "long ago as well as today," "but that is a legitimate word"; "has its authenticated papa and mama," I said. "It carries its own lexicographical origin with it: a clean fellow—able, equal to emergencies, with some initiative. You hear that word very often if you loaf in New England farming places: they use it, the farmers use it, to indicate honesty, straight-forwardness, amiability—a sort of all round social man according to the ideals generally accepted." The argot in New York "has the most curious ramifications." "No roundaboutness—everything direct. Take a case: counterfeit money: a fellow wants to pass it: he uses every word through a substitute: he don't 'pass' it—he 'shoves' it: it is not 'counterfeit'— it is 'queer': he therefore 'shoves the queer.' That is argot. Strange to say argot found it hard to get into the lingo of the soldier class. The average soldier in the War was from the back-country: honest, honorable, totally illiterate, of good instincts, hearty, friendly to a degree: he took slowly—very slowly—to the slanginess so common almost everywhere else." But finally "it crept in even there." The boys got so "they demanded a vocabulary that could be called their own."

     Talking of the army brought out another matter. W. called my attention to a pamphlet: A Glimpse of the United States Military Telegraph Corps and of Abraham Lincoln. "It was sent me by this man"—pointing to the author's name, William B. Wilson— "and I would advise you, if you can, to get a copy." He wants to use his copy. "I may write something with it as my text." W. also said: "It is a curious pamphlet: it has unusual interest: more odd than its fascination is the fact that so many years have passed and no one has attempted to do justice to these men—young men, boys, as they were—whom Wilson writes about." I had never hit upon such a story. "No, you have not: you could not—how could you? there has been none." He had himself "thought to while away some of the tedious hours in this room" by "autobiographying" over such facts as far as he could recall them. "There were three classes who served nobly during the War to whom justice has never been done—the telegraph boys, the cadet physicians, the nurses in the hospitals. Some day somebody will write all that down circumstantially. The trouble is that it looks now as if the thing would be delayed till all the actors are dead. The telegraph boys were a remarkable body:

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picked up here and there—often waifs, mechanics, sometimes boys of well-to-do families: they were wonderfully sharp-witted—distinguished so, as a body: alert, active, bright, noble, industrious, temperate."
W. had "met hundreds of them: there were hundreds, thousands": and he thought "perhaps the most remarkable feature of the whole case" was the fact that "though they lived at the very heart of affairs there in the army and were necessarily admitted to confidences, secrecies, of an almost unparalleled character," there had "never been one—not one—who had violated the faith of the service." This should "be emphasized above all else" in the story. "Indeed if I should write of this, I should say what I have so often said before—always insisted upon: that this loyalty penetrated the whole service, top to bottom—every man in it: as I have put it of the Presidents—every man, whatever may have been his antecedents, whatever he had been before—what his origins, associations—the instant he takes the Presidential chair does his damnedest best, his damnedest best, to justify those who elevated him to the office. I believe this even of Andy Johnson—in many respects the least likeable of the lot: I was near him: my position in the Attorney General's Office placed me in almost daily contact with those who were close to him: even Johnson went according to his light, though his light flickered enough and was often near to going out, to be sure. As with the Presidents, so with all."

     W. generally flouts The Path. But this time he found something in it to read—a piece on Tennyson's Idylls of the King. I showed him a newspaper account of what Longfellow is reported to have said in reply to the charges of plagiarism in connection with Hiawatha. W. adjusted his glasses. Started to read. Then handed the slip to me. "You read it to me." He settled back in his chair.

      "A New York paper, in some pleasant gossip about Mr. Longfellow, tells a story of the way he treated the charges of plagiarism against the Indian poem Hiawatha, in following closely both the form and substance of The Kalevala, the national epic of Finland. When they began to appear, he showed a profound indifference on the subject; but before long his publisher thought best to call his attention to them, and suggested that a reply from the poet be written. 'Well, I'll think about it,' said Mr. Longfellow, and there the matter dropped. The press continued to echo and re-echo the charge;

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the publisher again called on the poet, saying, 'Really, Mr. Longfellow, I think it is high time this charge was answered.' Again Longfellow said: 'I'll see about it,' adding quietly, 'How is the book selling?' 'Oh, wonderfully well,' said the publisher.' Better than my other books?' 'Oh, much better,' and he named the figures. Shortly after this interview (Mr. Longfellow still keeping silence) the Tribune came out with almost a page of broadsides on the subject. The publisher was now really excited. He called on the poet again. 'It will not do,' he said, very decidedly, 'to let this thing go on any longer.' 'How does the book sell?' asked Longfellow. 'Amazingly: the sale is already equal to the combined sales of your other books.' 'Then,' said Longfellow, 'I think we ought to be thankful to these critics. Let them talk. Seems to me they are giving us a large amount of gratuitous advertising. Better let them alone.' And let alone they were."

     When I had finished W. said: "It makes a very good story," and he said: "but—." I laughed. "Then you don't believe the story?" He said: "I can't say it's not true: it sounds very fishy to me: I can hardly think of Longfellow as meeting the charge just in that way: I imagine he'd meet it with entire silence or with some graver statement: that smart version sounds more like another type of man—the smart aleck kind."

     Saw McKay today. Also Oldach. Dave is still talking of the limited edition. W. still says: "I said no: I meant no: can't you get that into Dave's stubborn skull?" Traces of irritation. "I've said it over and over again, Walt." "Don't he understand you, then?" "He understands but he thinks you're making a damn fool of yourself." "He does, does he? Well—you tell Dave that Walt Whitman has a right to make a damn fool of himself any time he pleases." This made me scream, "Walt, you're certainly whimsical sometimes: a few days ago you said you wanted to please Dave: now you get mad because he differs from you about something that's of no importance whatever. I think you're right but I don't think Dave has committed any crime." This mollified W. He said: "No doubt all that's as you say it is: only, I hate to have anyone attempt to drive me." I suggested: "Walt: Dave has his eye on the market: you have your eye on yourself: that's why you don't agree." W. retorted: "Then to hell with the market, I say: when the market asks me to give up some principle I

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deem precious, I say, to hell with it,"
"I say so, too," I said. W. quietly wound up by saying: "Tell this all to Dave: he may then understand."

     Oldach is having trouble getting leather for the books. W. is impatient. W. says: "I think we should sell a lot of books in England if we get introduced there right." I renewed our insurance for three months.

     W. spoke of literary style. Said "high wrought" expression was "distasteful" to him, though "some of the Elizabethan fellows did the job rather handsomely." "They particularly studied, affected, worked it: the higher the better: were never satisfied with the direct word." Even in Scott "the finest of most fine souls," "one of the most pure, lofty, excellent" men in literature, "we find this appetite for tropes." "The mother of the milky herd, for instance," he said: "not 'cow' but the sublimated term." I referred to Kenilworth. W. thought that "one of the very best—but not the best." He said Quentin Durward and Ivanhoe were "just as wonderful." He felt Scott to be "perennial." "I can always go back to him and find him fresh." W. said anent something quoted from Morse's letter: "New York's the place! If you wish the profound, generous, encompassing things, New York is your natural center of gravity."


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