Commentary

Disciples

 
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 500] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
 

 
Saturday, April 6, 1889

     10.30 A.M. W. reading Record. I had hardly got in, had my greeting, and heard him say, "I am a little eased today at least of my cold," when Ed followed me and said: "A Mister Something or other," with a name he did not catch, from Boston, wished to see W. a few minutes. W. said: "Send him up," but imposed it on Ed to say "it could really only be for a minute or two." As Ed went out W. said: "I have a postal from Nelly: it's not overbright: hopeful in the

 
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 501] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
 
main, but with a black thread running through it all: it seems that after many hideous nights William has had a good night."

     The visitor entered, books in hand. W. greeted him. Was a Harvard boy. Spoke as if he came down on no other mission but this. W. waved him to a seat on the sofa, then quietly talked with him for twelve to fifteen minutes. W. asked him how many students there were in the College. "There must be quite a crowd of young fellows up there." Later he asked: "You have a good deal to study? and do you find that it gets you anywhere?" and after the reply of the visitor: "Yes, I see: gets you ready to get there!" W. confessed the most curious lack of curiosity about Harvard. Asked some questions that he cared nothing about to keep the ball rolling. He said: "I always get Harvard and Yale mixed in my mind." Then he was asked about his health. "I am in a very poor way bodily: I can hardly get to the door there: and yet I keep up my hope, my cheer, I can almost say my buoyancy." He paused. The visitor said: "You are mostly confined to your room?" He said "Yes." Added: "Only when imprisoned in this way, as I have been for close to a year now, can anyone realize what happiness resides in the feet and knees—how much depends upon your locomotive powers." Again replying to a question W. said: "I started well—am built up bodily on a good base: I had a good father and mother, just as my father and mother again had good fathers and mothers."

     The stranger asked about the pictures in the room below. "Ah! you saw them? they are my father and my dear mother: the picture of my father is very good: that of my mother is not nearly so striking—not so sweet, strong, benign, as she was in life." The stranger said: "Your life has been very various?" W. slowly: "Yes: in a sense I have had a varied life: if having very bitter enemies and friends very sweet—a good taste of both—is variety, then I have had it." The stranger had a couple of copies of L. of G. He asked W. to sign them. One of them was old. "I got it in a secondhand bookstore in Boston." W. said yes, he would put his name in them. I dipped his pen in ink and handed it to him. He asked the other fellow: "Where shall I sign?" After patient searches among his papers, turned up a loose copy of the title-page portrait, which he handed to the visitor: "I'll give you that"—then reaching for it again: "But let me put my

 
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 502] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
 
name on it: I'll do that for you too"—writing with a red pencil. The visitor said: "There are many of the fellows up there who have the same feelings about you I do." He said: "They would like to see you: I am lucky." W. replied: "If I lived near and could, I have no doubt I should be glad to see them and perhaps they me"—adding then: "Give my regards to them all: I know what it is for one man to meet another man—what personal contact means: the magnetism of being present with your man. In the absence of that, in the presence of an impossibility, give them my love: we may never meet, but tell them how you found me here." The visitor expressed some liking for the portrait in Doctor Bucke's book. W. asked which one. "There is a frontispiece portrait, too." So their talk closed. The stranger expressed the usual pleasure. W. was as usual serene. The stranger young, with the New England accent. Slender, agile—complexion sallow. When he was gone W. said: "I rather like him—don't you? a modest, engaging fellow." I read W. the following note, which was handed to me at Ferguson's today:

Portland, Maine, April 3, 1889.


Messrs. Ferguson Bros. Co.


Gentlemen:

     I notice your imprint of the volume of Whitman's collected writings recently published and have to congratulate you on a handsome and unique work. I would like much to lay in my copy specimens of Whitman's MS and proofsheets. Can you oblige me with a specimen and if so I shall be much your debtor for the same.


Yours respectfully


H. W. Bryant,


Librarian Maine Historical Society.

     W. heard it with interest. "That is good—good"—and after a pause: "I'll think about that—perhaps give you a sheet or so after awhile for you to send on: it is modest—not merely curiosity, I judge: I have no rigid rules with regard to autographs: I mainly refuse them: but perhaps I should respond in this case. Anyhow, keep the letter and let me tell you by and by what I think." He laughed. "You notice he says 'handsome and unique work': think of it: such testimony from a bookman in the face of Dave's fear and trembling"—adding: "You should take this note over and show it to

 
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 503] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
 
Dave." He spoke of it as "very significant—from a bookophite, a librarian, one who probably handles books of all nations and languages." He said: "Dave knows the common any sort of a book better than we do, but I flatter myself that in this sort of thing we leave Dave way behind: he simply don't know: we have, of course, deliberately violated publisherial manners in producing this book towards an end: from choice—yes, from choice: we did that which in our august judgment best served the requirements of the occasion."

     W. made me out a check for forty-six dollars for Hamilton to pay for the paper for pocket edition. While he was laboriously doing so I sat on the sofa and read a couple of scraps which I picked out of the woodbox—old proofs of Proud Music of the Storm and the manuscript of Paumanok, in Sands at Seventy. Handed me check. "What have you got there?" I showed him the sheets. He said: "Keep them if you want them." Said: "I used to thrust papers, things, into my pockets: always had a lot of reading matter about my person somewhere: on ferries, cars, anywhere, I would read, read, read: it's a good habit to get into: have you ever noticed how most people absolutely waste most all their spare time?" As I took the check and bill he said: "I think I shall give you something for Brown too—the three dollars to make him even on the rejected picture: it is but right: I owe it to him." I said: "Then you've determined to pay that bill after all?" He smiled. "You never forget anything, do you? I confess I was a little resentful of Brown's stubbornness but in the end I came round to his way of thinking: it was only a question of right finally and I settled it Brown's way, as I was bound to." I laughed. "You think I weakened—eh? Maybe I did: still, I hardly think it was that: I didn't want to be trod on, walked over—that was all: Brown was a bit testy—he was a challenge: so I kicked: but after all Brown was right, I was wrong."

     Reached towards table. "I have a letter here from Judge Garrison. He wants a dozen more copies of November Boughs: I have been thinking we would have to get out an extra edition of the book—a small extra edition—for my use." We debated the subject somewhat. W.'s ideas were these: "Whether to get out more on sumptuous paper with wide margins—whether on cheaper paper and with the usual

 
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 504] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
 
margins: that is yet to be decided: I have not settled on any obstinate order of procedure: I think I shall let Dave's name remain on the title page: we commenced that way." He felt he had "done very well" with that little book "at home here."

     Marked cut of figure to indicate how much he desired taken from each side. "But of course I leave this again mainly to the printer's judgment of what is correct: as it now is, it goes beyond the page—will therefore not do at all. In a larger book I should not object."

     He touched the vol. on his chair: "I have read all the Doctor's part of the report: it is quite a collection of things." And if I wanted to take it now, "take it: I shall not want it for a week again, at least." I did not take it—but that "week again" is quite a current phrase with him. He'll never in the world again read that report.

     In regard to The Critic's feeble protest: "We are inclined to think he does not credit Whitman with all the gifts which belong to him," W. said: "We could hardly expect more of them: they have to keep one eye on respectability." I said: "You don't feel nasty towards the respectables, do you, Walt?" He laughed: "Not at all: only—you can't be both respectable and the other thing: the two elements won't mix: respectability has no use for me: I suppose the distaste is mutual." And he added: "My friends, some of them, the more conservative of them (wishing me well as they did), were always saying to others, to me, in print, vocally, that if I would only tame myself a little I might, and so forth and so forth." I said: "But that if tells the whole story: that if makes you Walt Whitman." Then: "Yes, Horace: that's in substance what I used to say, if I said anything at all, which in most cases I did not."

     W. handed me a couple of Bucke letters. He read me several sentences from the letter of the 30th March: "I have seen nothing about Tennyson's illness. Too bad such men must grow old and die. He is a grand fellow—ought to be immortal (will be, I hope)." I said: "Is, I say." W. "Yes: that's an improvement." Then he said: "Here's the reference to alcohol: Doctor's: the thing I tried to tell you the other day." Read: "Very sorry to hear such bad accounts of the cold but trust it will soon be better. Wish you could have a good alcohol bath. Real good sweat would help you very much. Can you not get some one in Camden to help you to arrange an alcohol bath? It is extremely simple."

 
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 505] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
 

     7.30 P.M. W. reading papers. Seemed rather bright once more. I asked him about the "epilogue," as we call it. But he shook his head. "No: I have not done it yet: but, the Lord willing, I shall make a break before many days." He has scrawled notes for it, in pen and pencil, on sheets or slips of paper. They are pinned together. Spoke with surprise of Booth's "intemperance." I asked him what he meant. "Didn't you read it? the cause of his breakdown? his intemperance? not with drink but with tobacco." Added: "His twenty cigars per day stagger me." After a pause: "Yes: twenty cigars are twenty times too many." I asked him some questions. Janauschek was referred to. "Yes: I have seen her: she is a great force: I remember her in Marie Stuart, for one thing: she is elemental. And Ristori: "O yes! she was one of the old familiar stage figures to me."

     I had proof of title page with me. Myrick made several tries at it. I could see at once that W. was not favorably impressed. As to the two subheads—Sands at Seventy, and A Backward Glance—he said: "I shall not like them: they are much too heavy." I asked of Sands at Seventy: "Why that at all? I thought that was now included in Leaves of Grass?" He answered: "In a sense it is, in a sense not"—but did not explain how. The line "Leaves of Grass" pleased him: "I like it well: I must look the whole thing over tomorrow." Went on to say: "I had a little note from Bucke today, but there's nothing in it: he says Gurd has gone off East: not here, but to New York, or up in New England—to make a gas meter." I said: "Water meter—not gas meter." W. laughed. "It's equally useless whether it's the one thing or the other," W. said. Then went on: "Doctor says there's nothing new with him: he is working very hard: gets ten hours' sleep out of each twenty-four"—stopped to chuckle a bit— "which should be enough for one man and a half if not two." Alluded to the young visitor of the morning. "I liked him very much: did you catch his name?" None of us had—not even Ed. W. said: "What do you make out of the college business? I confess I am still skeptical: no doubt they get a sort of technical knowledge in the schools—the technique, as they call it—but the real stuff, oh! that is to be found somewhere else: that is outside all institutions: that can only be won from life itself." He referred to my printer apprenticeship. "The benefits are inestimable: there you get your culture direct: not

 
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 506] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
 
through borrowed sources—no: a century of college training could not confer such results on anyone." Then paused. "But this boy—I liked him: he had a good face: one of the books he had with him—the book I signed—was quite old, torn: he said he had found it in a secondhand store: one was from a friend in the college who asked him to bring it down and have me put my name in it." Then he added: "But you were here and heard it all."

     I left the portrait plate with Bilstein for him to shave it off. "In this age," W. said: "our age, they seem to be able to do wonders in the engraving line—chiefly wood engraving: it is displayed everywhere, in wonderful results: it staggers me: then remember, this is only the beginning: it is a new art still—a baby art: wait till it grows up." He was tickled with the way the Lincoln picture showed up in the Stedman book. "There's life in the old cut yet!" he said. Returned me The Valkyr libretto. "How much I must have missed in not seeing the opera itself! I have read along through this pretty well: about half of it, the first half of it, very closely: no doubt Wagner is our man—the man for us." I said: "He has done for music what you have done for poetry; freed it, disclosed its unity with life, set aside its harassing traditions." To which W.: "Yes, I can conceive why you should see it so—why you should say that."

     Showed W. in Harper's Bazar a double–page picture of Jules Breton's called Twilight. A peasant picture. W. studied it for a long time without a word. "It's our picture," he said: "isn't it in the line of our man—of Millet?" W. had written no letters or postals—made up no papers at all—this afternoon. Ed had nothing to take to the post office. He came back with a big white envelope containing the usual monthly announcement of the Contemporary meeting. W. said: "This properly goes to you, Horace: I am no longer a functioner." I had with me a copy of Society containing Harrison Morris' account of the birth of the Contemporary Club. W. looked the article and the magazine over. I said: "You are responsible for the Club, Walt." He asked: "How do you puzzle that out?" I then quoted Morris; "As might be expected, the venerable poet Walt Whitman is the center of the group." Meaning the Camden group in which I figured—I who was the founder of the Club. "So you see, Walt, you are the guilty party!" He said: "It's rather roundabout—the way you come to that conclusion—but I suppose there's

 
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 507] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
 
nothing for me to do but admit the corn." I said: "We have Browning clubs, Emerson clubs; the Whitman clubs come next." W. then vehemently: "And that will be the windup: the story will stop right there." He "rather liked" the "bold brazen blazing red headline of the paper." But there "was nothing inside" to appeal to him. "Gossip, what not!" he called the contents. Then dismissed the subject. I said: "Morris is coming on." He asked. "What do you mean? coming on?" "Coming on towards you—warming up towards you." He asked: "Do you see signs of that?" Then genially: "Let him come: there's plently of room: he's welcome."

     I showed McKay the Portland letter today. He handed it back while saying: "He ought to know better than to say that"—adding something about "the bookseller's point of view" from which the book would be regarded as being cheap and crude. But when I told him of Stedman's letter and of the Aldrich incident he was plainly astonished. "Is that so?"—his tone being one of great surprise. He admitted that the book was "characteristic" and that perhaps "its very imperfections would sell it" but "nothing else would."

     The bookseller's point of view had no attractions for W. He exclaimed: "Oh! damn the booksellers!" And when I said: "I think Dave is a little put out that you have rather taken the reins in you own hands the last year," he replied: "I think it is partly that—partly something else: I care little how he regards it: as it is, so it must be: it is our deliberate choice: it is no chance humor, caprice." He laughed quietly: "So Dave is put out: well—give him a little time: we'll give him time to get put in again!" He called Dave's surprise re Stedman and Aldrich, "quite a little victory for our side: Dave is very funny sometimes in his fixednesses, unalterabilities—in his adamantine prejudices." W. said: "That is very funny: that is worth preserving." Then spoke of "our success with the big book" as "in one sense providential."

     I asked W.: "Isn't it interesting to know that the thing we want most in a book's appearance—to have it characteristic—is the thing the publishers seem to object to?" He replied: "It is very curious indeed: but then they deal with the public, and cannot do as they please: they are tied: they have their orthodoxies to preserve." But I objected: "Of course we would not look for that in the ordinary book: the average book has as little character inside as in the cover

 
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - [Begin page 508] - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
 
the publisher puts on it." W.: "That is a fruitful thought—and true, too." I expressed a love for Emerson early editions, and W. acquiesced. "You are right to do so—they have never been excelled." He was good natured about it all, but emphatic: "We must have our way in some things: in some ways I say to everybody: Hands off! Even Dave, whom I greatly respect, must not be allowed to trespass too far: I am willing to allow him all sorts of liberties, but when he mistakes me, when he takes it for granted that he is to walk in and take possession of the house, then I must assert my priority." This made me laugh. "I don't believe Dave ever has wished or would wish to do that sort of thing, Walt." He laughed too as he cooled down and said: "I don't believe so either: I didn't say he had: I only said when, when: it's as if I said if he should attempt it—leaving you to infer what would happen in such a crisis." I said: "Walt, you're pretty slick: you almost got yourself in a hole: you just pulled yourself together in time."

Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.