Commentary

Disciples


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Saturday, January 26, 1889

     7.30 P.M. W. reading Harper's! "Rather—looking at the pictures," he said. Said he had spent one of his "usual days." Very cheerful. Talked freely. "I've been speechifying nearly all day to anybody who would listen to me." Adler's flowers on the table. "And more than Adler's too: somebody else sent me in an addition." Then: "My room is like out-of-doors today: these flowers civilize it: almost make me content to stay here." Asked his usual questions: "How is the weather? tell me. Is it foggy? can you see the stars? what does it look like on the river? They say the fog of the other day was for two or three hours the thickest ever known: they had it in New York harbor, too: I know what fogs are there: mariners dread fogs: nothing else so gets their nerve, as we say: they have superstitions about fogs, too." W. suddenly asked: "What about that letter of mine to Rossetti? Did you read it?" "Rather." "Have you got it with you?" "Yes." "Read it to me before you take it away for good." Funny notion he has of having me do this with letters. He does everything equably, cautiously, as well as with decision. I read. W. had marginaled the letter: "Went in steamer Dec. 4—ought to arrive Dec. 16 or 17." "to Mr. Rossetti—sent Dec. 3 1867 (Dec. 7 from N.Y.)"


December 3, 1867.

My dear Mr. Rossetti.

I have just received and have considered your letter of Nov. 17.

In order that there be the frankest understanding with respect to my position, I hasten to write you that the authorization, in my letter of Nov. 1st to Mr. Conway for you to make verbal alterations, substitute words, &c. was meant to be construed as an answer to the case presented in Mr. Conway's letter of Oct. 12. Mr. Conway stated the case of a volume of selections, in which it had been decided that the poems reprinted in London should appear verbatim, and asking my authority to change certain words in the Preface to first edition of poems, &c.

I will be candid with you, and say I had not the slightest idea of applying my authorization to a reprint of the full volume of my poems. As such a volume was not proposed, and as your courteous

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and honorable course and attitude called and call for no niggardly or hesitating response from me, I penned that authorization and did not feel to set limits to it. But abstractly, and standing alone, and not read in connection with Mr. C.'s letter of Oct. 12 I see now it is far too loose and needs distinct guarding. I cannot and will not consent of my own volition to countenance an expurgated edition of my pieces. I have steadily refused to do so here in my own country, even under seductive offers; and must not do so in another country.


I feel it due to myself to write you explicitly thus, my dear Mr. Rossetti, though it may seem harsh and perhaps ungenerous. Yet I rely upon you to absolve me sooner or later. Could you see Mr. Conway's letter Oct. 12 you would I think more fully comprehend the integrity of my explanation.

I have to add that the points made in that letter in relation to the proposed reprint, as originally designed, exactly correspond with those on the same subject in your own late letter—that the kind and appreciative tone of both letters is in the highest degree gratifying and is most cordially and affectionately responded to by me; and that the fault of sending the loose authorization has surely been to a large degree my own.

And now, my friend, having set myself right on that matter I proceed to say on the other hand, for you and Mr. Hotten, that if, before the arrival of this letter, you have practically invested in, and accomplished or partially accomplished, any plan, even contrary to this letter, I do not expect you to abandon it at loss of outlay, but shall bona fide consider you blameless if [you] let it go on and be carried out as you may have arranged. It is the question of the authorization of an expurgated edition proceeding from me that deepest engages me. The facts of the different ways, one way or another way, in which the Book may appear in England out of influences not under the shelter of my umbrage are of much less importance to me.

After making the foregoing explanation I shall, I think, accept kindly whatever happens. For I feel, indeed know, I am in the hands of a friend, that my pieces will receive that truest brightest of light and perception coming from love. In that, all other and lesser requisites become pale.


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It would be better, in any introduction, to make no allusion to me as authorizing, or not prohibiting, &c.

The whole affair is somewhat mixed, and I write offhand, to catch tomorrow's New York steamer,—but I guess you will pick out my meaning. Probably, indeed, Mr. Hotten has preferred to go on after the original plan, which, if so, saves all trouble.

I have to add that I only wish you could know how deeply the beautiful tones and passages of your letter of Nov. 17, have penetrated and touched me. It is such things that go to our hearts and reward us and make up for all else for years. Permit me to offer you my friendship.

I sent you hence Nov. 23d a letter, through Mr. Conway. Also a copy of Mr. Burroughs' Notes, Mr. O'Connor's pamphlet and some papers containing criticisms of Leaves of Grass. Also, later, a prose article of mine named Democracy, in a magazine.

Let me know how the work goes on, what shape it takes, &c. Finally, I charge you to construe all I have written through my declared and fervid realization of your goodness toward me, nobleness of intention, and, I am prone to hope, personal, as, surely, literary and moral sympathy and attachment. And so, for the present,

Farewell

Walt Whitman.


     W. listened to this with attention. "It's as interesting to me as if I didn't write it myself and never heard of it before," he said. I asked: "Walt, is that the last thing you feel like saying on the subject of expurgation?" He replied: "It's a nasty word: I do not like it: I don't think I ever thought expurgation in my life: Rossetti wished to cut out or change a few words: only a few words: I said, yes, do it: that was long ago: if the question came up today I would say, no, do not do it: I think as time has passed I have got an increased horror of expurgation: would not think of such a thing as the exclusion or the alteration of a single word now: it seems so false: to do it at all seems like beginning to do it altogether. Horace, take my advice—though I have always advised you not to take advice: if such a problem should in any way at any time in your own career present itself to you, be obdurate, yield nothing, insist upon your unmitigated self." I said: "Walt, I never heard you talk so vehemently before on expurgation." He said: "Maybe I never

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felt so vehemently: maybe I never before so realized its dangers: censorship: I don't like it: even the censorship of a man who is his own victim: it's all bad, all wrong, all corrupt: it reduces a fellow to a cipher: seems just like an apology, a confession: it's a sort of suicide. Much as I love Rossetti I would not today if the affair was opened up ever again consent to have anything whatever done with the text of the poems: I'd say even to dear Rossetti, all or nothing: not wishing to be ugly: only determined to be firm. Even the gentle Emerson so far forgot who I was and who he was as to suggest that I should expurgate, cut out, eliminate: which is as if I was to hide some of myself away: was to win a success by false pretences: which God forbid: I'd rather go to eternal ruin than climb to glory by such humbug."
I asked: "Emerson didn't call it humbug when he gave you that counsel, did he?" "Oh no: it wasn't humbug to him: he was anxious to have people read me: he thought it was better to have the people read some of me, even the worst of me, than not to read me at all: that's the way he put it himself."

     W. spoke of a Bucke letter. "Doctor devotes most of his time to the Howells piece, which was, after all, inconsequential. Doctor asks: 'You don't like it, do you? I rather guess not': Doctor probably takes it for about what it is worth. Howells always seems to stop short of what is possible for him: he never goes his own full gait." W. then got talking of Canada. Said I should take a Canadian trip. "You should see the Doctor there: it is not a long trip: not expensive: you should see the Doctor in his own environment. It is much easier to manage a trip now than when I went: there are less of what I call the infernalities, interferences: less tariff obstructions. You could take an easy trip: off today at nine, arrive tomorrow at one: the Doctor would meet you with his carriage at London: the rest is easy. Or you could stop off at Niagara—take a day there: then pass on. We can never truly know a man till we have seen him in his habitat. Bucke and you will understand each other better under such intimate conditions." Back then to the Howells piece. "When I heard that he was to do it I anticipated a better result: though the literary formalists, even the gifted ones, go to pieces somewhere almost inevitably before they finish a job. Howells seems equipped: seems competent, adequate, every way: but who can say he fulfils himself?" Referred to something about W. W. in the San Francisco Chronicle.

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"You said it was not favorable? What does that matter? I like to see, to hear, all that is said provided it is serious—presents a point of view: I don't care what side it looks at me from so it looks honestly."

     I met the Johns Hopkins man again today. We had a talk. He spoke of some W. W. dispute that had occurred in the University a few years ago: "a quarrel between some students and a professor." I asked W. if he knew of that incident? "Yes—in a dim way: yes: someone wrote me at the time saying I had become a bone of contention for some reason or other." They seemed to be still suggesting that W. should go to Baltimore and lecture. "I received an intimation: someone wanted me to come: I had to decline: it was a long trip: I was not in condition. But it did—it does—me good to hear the kind words: they are from the young men: the young: they are the future America." I quoted Adler. "We must not count: we must weigh." W. said: "That's so: when we do that, we have some reason to feel that we have moved on a bit: by that test Leaves of Grass gains a little in plausibility."

     W. said again: "You circulate among the boys and girls, the radicals, the adventurers, the all-alive people: you are next to, in, the deepest currents, the strong-flowing tides: you can sense the world: you know its surfaces, its underpinnings: you are abreast the newest life." He said youth was "prone to fly off the handle" but "just as likely to take, justify, the most preposterous, magnificent, chances." I asked W.: "You always seem to be equable. Don't you ever get mad?" This warmed him up. "Mad? I boil: burn up: but often I keep my mouth shut: I am a slow mover: I don't hurry even in my tantrums: my passions are all ready for action but—well, there are many buts." He referred to Lincoln's "Noble control" which was "induced greatly by the times—by his recognition of their gravity."

     Going to Lincoln got him also to Hay and Nicolay. "I never really knew Nicolay: I saw him: he was secretary there contemporaneously with Hay, but was more sedentary—an indoors man: less frank: more reticent. Hay I knew well: we met often: Hay at that time was younger I think than Nicolay: he was a very handsome fellow: good body, open face, easy manners. Hay was made a colonel at a time Lincoln wished him to make advance negotiations South—needed to invest him with a show of authority, with credentials. Hay married a millionairess: a girl whose father was worth several

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millions: I don't know just who, where: he has, however, remained simple, himself, unaffected—and is still my friend. I cannot swear to all these details: what I give you is the residuum."
As to the rich girl—he laughed. "I don't mean to say John did not marry for love, did not marry as the other men marry: only, as we read of it in Tennyson's Northern Farmer, the rest given, stocks, bonds, bank accounts, are no bar." "Hell of a lot you care for the surpluses, Walt!" "Well—have it so: but I must be fair to John: hell of a lot he cares for surpluses for themselves: but a surplus, while an incident, may have its pleasant sides, too." Amused. Laughed. "John went up to New York: by and by the father died: they came into several hundred thousand." I asked: "And now you don't think John wrote that piece in the Tribune?" "Oh no! no! John is not treacherous: not a drop in his blood: on the contrary he is punctiliously loyal: I have every right to call him my friend: not deep, not enthusiastic, but, in his average light, cordial, cheery, hospitable, unequivocal: he does not see all, but what he takes in he holds on to. Besides, Hay is a hearty good fellow: sound all through: has ingratiating personal qualities: is manly: was much liked by all grades of people in Washington."

     W. has a peculiar way of sitting with his glasses stuck on the thumb of his left hand while he uses his right hand for playing with his paper knife, resting both elbows on the arms of his big chair as he does so and talking straight on in the best of humors. This he did all this evening. In other moods, when not feeling well, when depressed, he never drops into this playful physical demonstration but is curiously impassive.

     Had he written the N. A. Review piece yet? "Not a word: I don't know what to write—how to start." Did he read much current or any fiction anyhow? I knew he did not. Scarcely any of it outside of Scott and Cooper and George Sand (and then only her Consuelo): none at all, in fact. "No—not much: but I get a look in on it now and then, here, there: a taste of it in the magazines: sometimes even a whole book. I can say this: that I am not worried by tendencies: I accept the situation: let all the forces have their way: all of them: in art, science, writing: the eyes that look back as well as the eyes that look ahead: Presbyterians, Mormons, Anarchists: the point with us in this country is the removal of impedimenta, the throwing

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off of restrictions: what we most need, must always demand, is a clear road to freedom. I'll probably write in this strain if I write at all: applying my principle to fiction, American, English, French, any fiction, as I would on any other field."

     I said to W.: "I've got a long letter from Bucke about the meter. Shall I read it to you?" W. said at once: "For God's sake, spare me! That infernal damned meter's getting on my nerves. It'll never mean a damned thing to Doctor but trouble: it'll never come to anything." [1913. It never did.] I asked: "How can you know?" He laughed. Tapped his nose and his instep with his paper knife. "My head and my heels tell me so." In an envelope which he had endorsed "printer's proofs short poems Walt Whitman 1888 (autographic)" he had laid aside for me a printed sheet containing Old Age's Lambent Peaks, A Carol Closing Sixty-nine, To Get the Final Lilt of Songs—the Curtz slips. Gave me a letter he endorsed with red ink: "from Miss A. T. Smith Washington intr. by John Swinton Sept: 77." Said: "You can throw the stuff away if it's a nuisance." Laughed. Knew I wouldn't. Had cut a picture of Madame Récamier from a paper: called my attention to it with some remark about her beauty. "I have also sent some scraps and portraits to Sarrazin." "Very few visitors for a week," he said. I was to hear Thomas Davidson recite Scotch poems tonight at the Ethical Society. W. asked me to tell him about Davidson. "I seem to know of him vaguely: we have never met." Then: "I like the idea of his Scotch ancestry: it is good stock: none better anywhere." Also: "Well—listen for me as well as yourself." After a pause: "See how you are getting to be my representative as well as your own: how you go about these days with doubled responsibilities. Don't be discouraged: don't resent it: you'll come to your reward some day: in the future, far in the future, after I am gone, will come to your doubled reward."


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