Commentary

Disciples


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Sunday, March 31, 1889

     5.30 P.M. W. sitting by the open window. Spoke of his surprise to see snow (now all melted) on waking this morning. Sat so for the greater part of my half-hour's stay—closing the window finally himself.

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As to his cold: "It is at its worst—no doubt about that: I have been in a bad way all day over it." And yet he talked vigorously: his color was (for him) good: he seemed interested.

      "Tom and Mrs. Harned were here—came in for a short visit—after church, I suppose!" Then he suddenly asked: "Did you have Stedman's letter? Tom asked to see it—I could not find its whereabouts—concluded you had it." But I had not. I showed him where he had put it yesterday after my reading. Said again: "I wrote to Stedman today: also a postal to Dr. Bucke: also a postal to O'Connor. But I have had no word from O'Connor—none since that the other day—or yesterday was it?" Was "more and more interested" in Stedman's book. Spoke of Swinburne's poem from Athenaeum in yesterday's Press beginning: "The wind wears roun', the day wears down"—no title being given it. Said W.: "I started it, intending to go straight through: something interrupted me: I dropped it." I spoke rather highly of some phases of S.'s work, but W. did not acquiesce. As to Atalanta—he admitted that he had read it and that "it had some power": but beyond that he would say nothing. "The new poem is Scotch: Swinburne himself is Scotch, isn't he?"

     I referred to Frank Williams, whom I passed in Germantown today. W. responded: "I always like Frank and his wife: they are very generous, pleasant—cute too!" And as to Bucke's statement that Williams "amounted to little in the literary sense," W. asked: "What does that matter?—does not some critic say it is not the way the thing is written but the spirit in which it is produced?" I laughed and said: "Perhaps Williams wouldn't thank you to have you say that: most men would rather be called a damned knave than a damned fool." W. laughed, as Stedman says, "consumedly": "That is so: it is like saying to a woman: 'You are handsome but sour as the devil!'" But: "Frank knows me—knows what I think about him: he knows I don't share any such opinion as the Doctor's—that I assume no such contemptuous point of view: Frank has a great deal more guts than a lot of the bookish asses who are braying a big noise out into the world. To me personally he has been generous in the extreme: whatever may be true of his standing as an artist, his standing with me as a man is unqualifiable."

     What had I been doing all day? I was just in from Germantown. "What of the Bright sermon? did Clifford do the thing right?" I

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quoted from it more or less—ideas, not words. W. listening and questioning meanwhile with great evident relish. "And how was I brought in in connection with it? tell me that." As I did—repeating Clifford's account of Gladstone's Commons speech greeting the newborn nation he had discovered in the Southern Confederacy, and Bright's reply: "I have a sweeter vision" or something of that tenor— "of an America from the Arctics to the Tropics, united, and over all Freedom." "As reinforcing this," I said: "he cites you: that's how and where you come in." W. was impressed. "That sounds wonderful, fine: see if I understand it right: Gladstone makes the anti-North speech: Bright gets up on the spur of the moment, combats it, warms into fiery eloquence and professes his faith in a continental America. Is that the purport of the story?" Then I gave him the details of C.'s touching references to W. in quoting it. W. exclaiming: "Oh! the grand good fellow!—the tender thought of me!"

     Of the German and American fleets at Samoa—three vessels each—four were absolutely wrecked and destroyed and the other two stranded in a typhoon. This was in this morning's papers. W. spoke of it: "It was a dreadful disaster—dreadful!" Then, pursuing the subject: "It is a wonderful and curious spectacle anyhow—the United States having the vessels there at all: for my part I should say, let me go about my own business undisturbed: not a word shall I say or a step take till I am interfered with—till my freedom is invaded: and what I offer for the individual—to me as a person—I should apply to our government as well: let us stay at home—mind and mend our own affairs." And after further waiting: "I should not interfere by a sign even if a civilized power should take in tow the barbarous, the savage, far-away tribes, peoples." Alluded to the International Congress of American Governments, once proposed by Blaine, now revived—there is a story in today's news—by the new administration. W. asked: "I wonder if they can do anything without the Congressional sanction?" And he added: "I think there should be some way of referring such movements inviting serious changes of policy to the people." And he said: "We've got a hell of a lot to learn yet before we're a real democracy: we've gone beyond all the others, very far beyond some, but we're far from having yet achieved our dream: we'll do it, after a hell of a lot of bellyaching,

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retching—often making mistakes, committing crimes: we'll get there in the end: God knows we're not there yet."

     Card photo of Sarah Bernhardt on table. I happened to pick it up to look at it. W. remarked: "Take it along to Aggie: I like to remember her: you should take something." As to Bernhardt's personal or professional power: "I know nothing of her—have never met her—never even seen her on the stage." He said: "You know I have soft side for actors: the stage appeals to me: I never happen to have seen this woman: she must be a masterful creature. I used to have all sorts of dreams: I was to lecture: you know how I planned lectures: I wanted to speak—to take to the rostrum: I thought I might get some things said that way that I could say in no other way." I put in: "If you had gone about the country reading your poems you'd protected yourself somewhat against the literary obstacles that were always set up against you: you'd have reached the people direct: the organs of public opinion have always stood between you and your natural audience." W. said: "I am glad to hear you say that: it confirms my own theory: I never lived out my idea: I let it slide: yet at one time I contemplated throwing everything else aside and taking to the road as a reader." I asked: "Don't you take easily to the platform?" "Yes: I don't seem to have any stage-fright: I am at home anywhere: they say a man who's his own lawyer has a fool for a client: it might be said that poet who's his own reader has a fool for a listener: anyway, almost embarked: I feel sure that my fondness for the stage in general would have seen me through the experiment."

     He gave me a Burroughs letter: 1878. "There's a little bit of history in it," he said: "Walt Whitman history."


Esopus, N.Y., Feb. 3d, 1878.

Dear Walt:

Gilder suggests that a benefit be got up for you in N.Y., and that you be asked to lecture on Lincoln. He thinks it would go with a rush under proper management, and that lots of money might be made. The suggestion to me seems timely and just the thing, and we will set the ball agoing if you are willing, and have, or can have, the lecture ready. I saw Stedman when I passed through N.Y. and liked him. I think he would take hold and give the project a lift. Of

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course Swinton and many others would too. I think in fact we might have a big time and make it pay. Write me how you feel about it and if you favor it, how soon you could be on hand. As ever


John Burroughs.


     W. had blue-pencilled on the envelope: "John Burroughs Feb 3 '78 (first suggestion of lecture)." It was addressed to W. on Stevens Street. W. said "The event didn't really come off for nine years: this was the first declaration in the matter." W. also handed me out a Schmidt letter. "There's always something in these letters I can't make out: maybe you can do better with them: if you can get through this one I'd be glad to have you read it to me: try it any-how." I struck no terrible snags.


Copenhagen, January 26, 1874.

Dear Walt Whitman.

1. The address of K. Elster is, Mr. Kristian Elster, Strandgade 38, Trondhjem, Norway.

2. I wrote in the midst of March a long letter to you in a large yellow envelope; have you received it?

3. I should be glad if John Burroughs would send me his photography; tell him that I like his book very much.

4. I received in March or April with an interval of eight days both the Prayer of Columbus and The Redwood Tree in Harper's Magazine. Of The Redwood Tree I have had the greatest. It is your old great theme in a simple and powerful style, embracing the holy and original nation of the far West.

5. I am very glad to be furnished with new materials concerning the American humor. In these waggish gasconades lies the embryon of a comical poet greater than any of the old world's in present and past. But your humorists of the day I don't like. Mark Twain has been translated into Danish this year. He is a detestable fool.

6. Clemens Petersen's letter has amused me very much. His force is the psychological critic, the analysing power which he can't use in America, where the minds have too much to do to follow such subtle explorings. Therefore he has tried to be poetical traveller; but his fancy is impotent and he has no great turn of observation. In Sweden he never has had his foot. Touching is what he speaks of "a

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His mother, which he shall never see more, is the only being in the world, which he loves. I should be glad to have the continuation of his letters.


7. I have sent you all the criticisms on your book, slang, chatter and earnest critic—all: the criticism in Dagstelegrafen is good, but the best is Elster's. I got the number of Aftenbladet here in Copenhagen, and sent it you for security's sake; probably it has also been sent you from Norway. It should interest me to know what impression all these variegated opinions have made on you? Particularly I long to hear if the criticism of Elster has been completely translated to you.

8. Has this translation of your book into Danish not been spoken of in the American papers?

May the lines meet you in good health and joyful. Do you understand my bad English?

Yours,

Rudolph Schmidt.


     W. said: "You've done better with that than I ever did: his English itself is somewhat upside down—sort of cut bias, as William would say. Schmidt has been my friend now for years: I have every reason for feeling myself to be in good hands in Denmark. I am assured that Schmidt's translation is superb."


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