Commentary

Disciples


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Saturday, March 9, 1889

     8. P.M. W. sitting in his chair. I noticed on approaching the house that the light in W.'s room was lowered. That meant that W. was not up to par. It was so. He said: "I have been very poorly: I have spent a miserable day: nor am I better now: still I'm not so bad as not to be sassy, as they say." Then after a pause he said, without a word meantime from me: "And my condition has not been improved by what I have heard from Washington: I have bad news from O'Connor." Reached over to a pile of books on the floor. "Now where has it gone?" he exclaimed. I had no time to ask what, before he said: "Ah! here it is: a postal from Nellie." Handed it to me. "Can you read it?" he asked. He confessed he did "not know what it meant." I read it out loud.


March 8, 1889, 5 o'clock P.M.

Dear Walt.

I have not been able to write you again for William has been and is very ill. On the 6th, Wednesday, he had five of those epileptic seizures, the last four from 5 P. M. to 9.30, going from one to another without recovering consciousness. He has not been up since, and is very weak and sick, and his mind is not clear yet. Will send word again as soon as I can. With love

Nelly O'C.


     I asked: "What do you mean when you say you don't know what it means?" He said: "Part of my difficulty was verbal: I can't quite make out Nelly's scribble: now that I hear you read it my verbal dubiosity is gone: but those seizures—what do they mean?" Then

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he said: "I'll have to make Doctor explain it to me when he comes." Then: "But didn't you bring the Doctor with you?" I told him Doctor had driven out this afternoon with Ben Wilson, in Germantown—probably would not be over till tomorrow. He was manifestly disappointed. "I am sorry: that postcard has bowled me clean over: I hoped he would come—that he would tell me what it all meant." He seemed almost irritated. "No doubt he has pressing reasons for staying away: no doubt he has: as you say, it is hard for him to get around: that must always be allowed for: but I wish he had come."

     Bucke and I had been at Germantown together. Clifford genial in his quiet way. Wilson has no time for W. "He has extreme doubts." W., who was poking away at the fire, looked over his shoulder at me with a smiling face. "Doubts? I don't wonder that he has doubts: I have doubts myself." I said: "I think Hotten had some doubts, too, though he brought out your book." He stopped his stoking. "Doubts? What do you mean?" I said: "I noticed in his letter—the letter you gave me yesterday—that each time he used the word 'poems' applied to your book he put it in quotation marks." W. seemed curious. "Did he do that? Why do you suppose he did it?" I said: "That's what I ask you." He fooled some more with the fire. Then he laid his poker down and closed the stove door. "I will get you to help me to the chair," he said. This I did. He got himself cosily fixed. "It was quite a journey," he said.

     I asked: "Well—what did he mean?" W. reflected. Answered only after considerable deliberation. "What did he mean? Maybe nothing: it never occurred to me to ask: I never even noticed the thing you point out: could he have meant it? What? but I don't know what he could mean: have you any theory in the matter?" Then he added: "Many even of my friends won't call Leaves of Grass poems: they like me, it—think I am, it is, something, some even say something considerable, but they won't admit it is poetry: perhaps even Hotten was of that turn of mind. William told me of someone in Washington who said to him: 'I'm willing to have you call the damn book anything you please but for God's sake don't call it poetry: don't rob us of that sacred word!'" W. laughed in a still sort of a way. "Don't rob us of that sacred word! that's so rich." Then again: "But William? what of William? I keep asking myself that all the time: I am haunted

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with the idea that I should be there or he should be here today."
I saw my name written on a slip on the table. "Is that for me?" There were two letters tied together. W. said: "They are testimonies, as you call them: both are: one of them is most mystifying: you will understand why even if not how." Was I to read them to him? Yes.


Paris, June 19, 1886.

Dear Mr. Whitman.

"We can point to no writer who drew early to his side a small band of eminent disciples and at the same time suffered shame and scoffing or total neglect from the crowd, who did not in the end prove a power in literature and gradually win acceptance from the world. Such was Wordsworth's position in the opening years of this century; such a little later was Shelley's position. Such was Carlyle's half a century since, and Mr. Browning's at a date more recent. Such also was Mr. Whitman's position until of late, when a considerable company has gathered to his side, and the voice of opposition has almost fallen silent."

I copy the foregoing from page 709 in the May number of the Contemporary Review in an article, The Interpretation of Literature, by Professor Dowden, thinking you may not have seen it, and it may give you pleasure to see it. At Venice, a year ago, I met Mr. Symonds, an English author of eminence, who greatly admired your writings and was eager to hear of you. Whenever I hear your works mentioned it is with a frank and outspoken admiration formerly more rare. And though you must hear this now from all sides, still there may be moments when a friendly reiteration of it, coming unexpectedly, may not be uncheering to you. I think your works are doing good in the world. The revelation which is in the life all around us and in ourselves is more listened to, more respected. What is true, then, is more respected, what is natural is more respected; less violence is done to nature, or at any rate urged and insisted on as what ought to be done. Happiness is increased, increasing, and is to be probably immeasurably more increased. To have had a share, and so large a share, in this work, must be a great happiness and cause of thankfulness for you. Excuse so long a letter. I meant it to be shorter. It calls for no answer. I hope all goes well with you. That you are in fair health and fair spirits, without pains of body or

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spirit, or cares or anxieties. I remember you always with gratitude and affection both for your books and yourself.


Sincerely yours,

Edward T. Potter.


     W. said: "You'll understand that but I'm not sure you'll understand the other letter. It's astonishing how many different sorts of reasons have been given by some people for liking and by many more people for not liking Leaves of Grass: then you'll find one person liking in it what another person dislikes in it: it makes me dizzy trying to straighten out these extraordinary contradictions." "Here goes for the other letter," I said. "Yes," said W., "read it: see what you can make of it: I have myself had various moods in the matter: I have not the right to determine percentages in a thing like this." W. had repeated in ink on the end and across the face of the yellow envelope: "Letter from Hartford." He had written in pencil: "? insane asylum." The envelope was not otherwise addressed or stamped. I asked him how it got into his hands. He said: "How?" and there stopped. Then he added: "Read it: you'll find it raises more questions than you can answer." "Did it raise more questions than you could answer?" He said "yes" and "read it" and didn't seem to want to enlarge. So I let go.


Hartford, July 11th, 1860.

Know Walt Whitman that I am a woman! I am not beautiful, but I love you! I am thirty-two years old. I am one of the workers of the world. A friend carelessly lends me Leaves of Grass for a day. Stealing an hour from labor I take it out for a walk. I do not know what I carry in my arms pressed close to my side and bosom! I feel a strange new sympathy! a mysterious delicious thrill! what means it? It is the loving contact of an affinite soul blending harmoniously with mine. I begin to know Walt Whitman. I have not yet seen him. I feel that I must be alone. I turn my steps to "Zion's Mill" a cemetery. The sun shines, the air is clear and fine, the birds trill songs, love songs, songs of praise for the boon of existence, or chirrup amorously to each other. They do not hesitate to tell their love: why should I? I seat myself under a tree and muse a moment. A lovely panorama is before me. Hartford and the surrounding country. I hear no human voice, see no human form. The ashes of the

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dead are spread around me. "Did I say the dead?" I am alone. "Am I alone?" I could sit thus forever with my newly-found soul. But somebody whispers, open your book! What care I for books now (though loved companions ever before). I have that which is better than books. The book opens itself. What do I behold! oh! blessed eyes! I see the image of the great beloved soul, which has already embraced encompassed me. Blessed be thy father and thy mother and the hour of thy conception. Oh! rich is America in her noble, manly, fearless son.


Know Walt Whitman that thou hast a child for me! A noble beautiful perfect manchild. I charge you my love not to give it to another woman. The world demands it! It is not for you and me, is our child, but for the world. My womb is clean and pure. It is ready for thy child my love. Angels guard the vestibule until thou comest to deposit our and the world's precious treasure. Then oh! how tenderly, oh! how lovingly will I cherish and guard it, our child my love. Thine the pleasure my love. Mine the sweet burden and pain. Mine the sacrifice. Mine to have the stinging rebuke, the shame. I am willing. My motives are pure and holy. Our boy my love! Do you not already love him? He must be begotten on a mountain top, in the open air. Not in lust, not in mere gratification of sensual passion, but in holy ennobling pure strong deep glorious passionate broad universal love. I charge you to prepare my love.

I love you, I love you, come, come. Write.

Susan Garnet Smith

Hartford, Connecticut


     I said to W.: "Why did you write '? insane asylum' there?" He asked: "Isn't it crazy?" "No: it's Leaves of Grass." "What do you mean?" "Why—it sounds like somebody who's taking you at your word." He said: "I've had more than one notion of the letter: I suppose the fact that certain things are unexpected, unusual, makes it hard to get them in their proper perspective: the process of adjustment is a severe one." I said: "You should have been the last man in the world to write 'insane' on that envelope." Then I added: "But the question mark saves you." W. said: "I thought the letter would mystify you: but no—you seem to have a defined theory concerning it." I denied this. But I said: "You might as well write 'insane' across Children of Adam and the Song of Myself." He said: "Many

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people do."
"Yes," I replied: "they do—but you don't." He assented by a nod of the head: "I suppose you are right." I said: "We will go far ahead some day: do you think the marriage system will remain where it is now?" "That's impossible." I asked: "Then what will it lead on to?" He said: "To something in which the law will have little or nothing to say—in which fatherhood and motherhood will have everything to say." I said: "When you say that, Walt, you practically proclaim this woman sane, don't you?" He said: "That's the way it looks to you, does it?" I said: "I don't know who she was, good or bad, wise or foolish: her letter itself is extraordinary in what it offers, in what it imposes." W. smiled. "You are eloquent: yes, convincing: you are perhaps putting my felt and not said things into words." I asked him: "Haven't you many such things in Leaves of Grass? things felt, atmospheric, not said? This woman has applied you." W. said: "I don't know how much validity your argument would possess in a court of law but it has extraordinary force here, now, in this room, as we talk together man to man, without quibbles on either side." I said to W.: "A woman I knew once asked a man to give her a child: she was greatly in love with him: it was not done: he did not care that much for her: he said to her, 'all children should be love children': then he thought she might repent if the thing was done: after his refusal she said: 'Now I suppose you despise me.' He said: 'Despise you? no: I respect you: I feel that you have conferred the highest honor on me.' Years after, he met her again. She was married—had children. But she said to him: 'I still love my dream-child best.'" Walt beamed upon me, half in tears, half choked: "Oh Horace! how beautiful, wonderful, final, that is! some things go way beyond anything else—entail incalculable, inestimable, suppositions. I'm glad you told me the story: it's so unexampled—so like nothing but itself." Then he paused. "And the moral of it is—": he said that and stopped as if for me to fill it in. "That the Hartford woman honored herself and honored you." He said then earnestly: "Yes: no doubt that's the only conclusion that is justified."

     W. asked: "What is new in the meter matter?" I said a few things about it. W. showed no desire to hear more. His question was only formal. I said: "I don't believe you take any real interest in the meter, Walt: I believe you'd rather have the damn thing fail." He

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laughed. "Your detective faculty is certainly remarkable!" Sarcastic, a bit. But he finally said: "I'm not enthralled: I'm concerned about the Doctor: I don't want anything to happen to spoil him: I'm afraid of money—much money: nothing but a miracle can save a man from the menace of his dollars."

     Bucke took a glass of champagne at Wilson's last night. Clifford laughed over it. They jollied B. on his temperance advocacy. He defended himself. "I have principles but no cast-iron rules." W. laughed. "That's very good." Then: "The Doctor has advised me against drink—all drink: I consider the general basis of his counsel correct: yet I pursue my own road—in the end do as I please—which does not of course mean that I am bent on committing suicide." He regarded Bucke as "a strenuous advocate of no liquor, no cigar theories though he was not absolutely abstinent himself." He felt that "Bucke's common sense" saved him "from his medicine—from professionalism." He said then: "We don't want medicine: we want science: science can determine medicine: medicine can never determine science."

     W. had found Doctor's copy of the Gardner portrait. Had written below it with his name: "1864." He had put 1863 on mine. I spoke of it. Put his finger on the figures: "Is that 1864?"—adding: "Well—'63 or '64, it is all one: it amounts to about the same thing. I should find another copy of the picture for O'Connor." Then of O'Connor again: "Poor William: it is dreadful news indeed!" Then: "I can't get my mind off it: I have been thinking, worrying over him all day." Ed told me W. had got up bad and had got no better through the day. Has not worked. W. leaned over to tease the fire a little. After a few shoves with the poker into the flames he threw himself back in his chair as if exhausted. "I feel a little faint—some dizziness." Complexion not bad. "The devil's in me today," he said: "has complete possession." After going down stairs it struck me that it might be best for B. to come to Camden in the forenoon. I also wished to take Nelly's postcard to Doctor. I went back to W.'s room. He was much pleased with the idea. The light was down. He sat there his head resting on his left hand. "Bucke says we make too much of our fears concerning William." But W. said: "I know Maurice wants us to keep a stiff upper lip: we'll do so: but it can't be denied that the prospect is dark indeed."


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     Then to Philadelphia. At Dooner's, before I had said a word, the clerk asked: "Are you after the Doctor? He just this minute went out the door—I don't know which way." So I dusted at once, hurrying to the corner of Tenth and Chestnut. I looked west first, then east. There, sure enough, was the familiar grey hat, under the electric light in front of Reed's big clothing store. Bucke shook his head over William. "I'm trying to believe otherwise," he said, "but his end is near." He said he did not like the news I brought from Walt, either. "Things look bad all around," he said. He walked past the post office in the chill March wind. We stood at the corner of Ninth and Market and talked for a long time. Then I took a car and went uptown. B. engaged to meet me at W.'s in the morning at half-past nine. I said to B.: "Walt has the feeling that you can help him: he says he wants you to come over without your medicine chest: he says he does not want the pills but you: he says you are a tonic: he says your best advice to him has been in telling him not what to do but what not to do." B. said: "The old man's as cute as they make 'em! No doctor can tell him anything about his condition that he does not already know himself." I said: "You seem to think Walt allseeing." He laughed. "It amounts to that," he said. I said: "Walt would rather not have it so." B. retorted hotly: "Walt's got nothing to do with it."


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