Commentary

Disciples


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Monday, January 28, 1889

     7.50 P.M. W. reading. Cheerful. "I am still just as I was." Further: "That report may sound monotonous but I have about given up all notion of improving: it seems settled that I am to be as I am or worse." Spoke of Boulanger. "He went through: astonishing, wasn't it? It seems to have been a surprise to everybody. How do you account for it? I am puzzled: I notice all the aristocrats pulled together for him: but I suppose it is as you say: we must wait if we want to learn what it signifies: there is no other resource: we must give it time to settle down into a definition. What can be the elements in such a phenomenon heaven only knows: why such a cheap jack can be elevated into eminence, given political power, by the vote of the people—why the people do not see through him—beats hell. I may know some things but I do not know that: I give it up." W. said further: "I wonder when the people will get past the tomfoolery of having masters, rulers, bosses, guides, superiors? It's more than time: it makes me sick when I think of it: how they are outraged, robbed, tyrannized over, without suspecting it themselves, or, even if suspecting it, without knowing how to get rid of the slimy load."

     W. had a letter from Bucke. "It looks as if he might be here by the middle of the month: then anyhow, if not before: Doctor seems to be in an anxious frame of mind: why do you suppose that is? Is the Doctor beginning to be fussy? He seems lately to be lacking in patience: seems to be getting in the mood of the folks who feel that the world will go to smash if they are not on hand to take care of it. I had a friend in New York years ago, a member of a firm, a big firm, one of four, who got sick, had to take a furlough. He was one of the sort who think nothing can be done unless they are on the spot: that things would fall to pieces, go to pot, if they let go a single second. He stuck to his job as long as he could: at last he had to go anyhow: was away three or four weeks: came back: yes, came back, and found everything taken care of, the world jogging serenely on at the usual pace. He said to me: 'Walt, that taught me a lesson: I saw that I might miss the world if I lost it but that the world wouldn't miss me if it lost me.' " I said: "But Bucke: you don't set him down at that sort of a fellow, do you?" "Not exactly: not

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usually: he seems, however, of late, to have been drifting off in that direction. Primarily it's a want of faith."
And he said again suspiciously: "There's something on Bucke's mind that has thrown him off his balance: something: what is it?"

     W. had a letter from Carpenter today. Gave me proof sheets of C.'s review of N. Boughs for Scottish Art Review to read. I asked: "Is it good?" He replied: "Oh, well—read it: take it home, read it—then you tell me." I picked up a John Russell Young letter. W. described Young as "lymphatic—of course not thin: rather stout, brisk, compact—it might be said, a strong man." W. said further of Young: "I knew him pretty well: did you never meet him? He came often to see me in Washington: not during the War: after: I can fix the date: he was not a youth then: must now be a man pretty well along." "Was he friendly to Leaves of Grass?" "Yes, I think heartily: he seemed to find a good deal in it—seemed to gather something from it, but in his own way, probably not enthusiastically. Young was of the Gosse type—is still, I suppose: combed, cleaned, polished, brushed, exact." Did W. mean that Young lacked in finish, finesse? "Hardly: I had reference to the outer man—the social man. Gosse is eminently scholar—all scholar: the university man: all refined, bookish, made up. Young was not so developed: not in that direction: had more native grit."

     Saw Oldach. Took him some sheets. Promises books next week. Also saw McKay. Oldach said: "I'm getting quite a liking for your old man." W. laughed: "Tell Oldach I'm getting quite a liking for him, too." Last night Mann again spoke to me of the Johns Hopkins students who are interested in W. One of them "clean gone" on W. Talk of literary criticism, student life, &c. W. asked: "Did I ever tell you?—oh yes! I must have told you—the story of the Georgetown student? No? It was always curious, always illustrative: O'Connor always greatly enjoyed it: told it with great unction—great éclat." "What is your story, Walt?" "I'll tell you. There was a young boy, seventeen or eighteen, who went over to the Georgetown University—studied there: the University is Catholic—is run by priests, men of learning, of great learning, oh! very great: by men who esteem themselves great punkins. The boy attended a class in English literature—a class of a hundred and fifty, perhaps two hundred—with a very wise professor. The professor was one day lecturing on the

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English poets: towards the close he incidentally, not extensively, mentioned Walt Whitman: briefly but very contemptuously. Walt Whitman: what was he? What could he do? A man to whom trope, rhythm, rhyme, figure, whatever, was impossible?"

     W. repeated this with great vehemence. "There was a rule in the class, a recognized procedure, that students might ask questions, even express doubts: a sort of talking back process. The boy heard what was said of Walt Whitman: sort of lifted his head in protest as it was uttered: whereat the professor went at him without gloves. 'Well, my young smithkin, you don't believe that? you dissent from that?' 'Yes, I do.' 'Ah! and why and how and what do you know about it anyhow.' The young man stoutly persisted: the professor was up in arms: the scholar all on qui vive. 'If you doubt why do you doubt? Give us examples: show us line for line what you mean.' The boy was not abashed: said he did not know that he could give the lines: but he had pretty clear and emphatic impressions that they existed: but the professor could not yield: he must have, say, at least a few examples, one example. Driven that way the boy gave an instance"—here W. stopped, trying to think of the words— "ah! this: 'the crunching cow, with head depressed' "—then seemed in doubt— "something of that sort, anyhow: at any rate the line answered the requisites: then there came others: another, another: the boy ready every time: the professor confused." W. concluded: "In the end it was the complete knock-down of the Englishman—the professor: the triumph of the boy. I am told the class greatly enjoyed it: I had the story from a woman who got it from a student who was present but did not share in the discussion."

     W. said: "The great function of the critic is to say bright things—sparkle, effervesce: probably three-quarters, perhaps even more, of them do not take the trouble to examine what they start out to criticize—to judge a man from his own standpoint, to even find out what that standpoint is. I sometimes ask myself: 'Am I not too one of the worst of those offenders? have not I too said this, that, where silence would have been better, honester?' I have asked myself in the face of criticism of my own work: 'Should I reply—should I expose, denounce, explain?' But my final conviction has always been that there is no better reply than silence. Besides, I am conscious that I have peculiarly laid myself open to ridicule—to the shafts of critics,

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readers, glittering paragraphers: yet I am profoundly sure of one thing: that never, never, has even calumny deflected me from the course I had determined to pursue."
He stopped here a bit. Then: "Perhaps it is the function of critics, even the dull critics, to bring the gods, the high ones, down from their great conceit: drag them down, down into the mud, into the gutter: the difficulty is, the whole world seems now bitten with the idea that to criticize, to pick to pieces, to expose, is the all in all of life—the whole story: but is it? Take that Repplier woman, for instance: she's one of them: she, with her shining emptiness—with her smart vacuums."

     W. handed me a stained letter which he wished me to read back to him. Up in the corner of the note he had written in red ink: "No hurry about sending them to Dr. Bucke—your postal of Oct. 5 rec'd." I asked: "Who was that memorandum for?" He said: "Probably William: I have passed many of my letters around, as you know—from one to the other: sometimes starting with Bucke, sometimes with William: now and then with Kennedy." I read.


Oakenholt Hall
near Flint, North Wales, Eng.
Nov. 19, 1880.

Dear Walt Whitman:

I had a nice letter the other day from Mr. Ruskin and among other things he says he is very much absorbed in your volumes just now, and is receiving good inspiring thoughts from them. You will I am sure be glad to hear this—that the "smut-charged muzzle" is doing such good work with such a good and pure man, the most Christlike in his daily life—not to speak of his thought (printed)—of his age. In minor matters he says good things of the binding, pronouncing it "most satisfactory."

A very pleasing thing happened to me the other week. A workingman—a jointer—to whom I had lent your books, called upon me and thanked me, as I have never been thanked before, for the loan. "I never read such wonderful live words. I am regularly possessed with them. While I am working in my shop the very wood seems written all over with them. How he knows the life of us working men! And what a love for us!" These were as nearly as I remember his words: and on my promising to tell you of them, he was very

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pleased, and added that he only hoped you would not think it presuming. I told him no, that these were the things that best repaid you—if such a thought ever indeed occurs to you.


Your friends here are all talking about Stedman's generous words about you in Scribner's. Will you let me tell you that I think he hits you well and directly in that passage about the Underside of Nature? It is the first time in literature that such a view has been made a concrete thought, and at present the general verdict is that it is just. Will it be out of order if I ask what you think of it?—for myself alone and not with any ulterior designs of printing what you say.

I have been wondering how your health is progressing. I heartily hope your stay with Doctor Bucke in London has been a thoroughly good time for you. He seems to be very genuine.

I send you my last essay—on Ouida. Have you read her Tricotrin? It is a grand book.

With love to yourself and hoping for a line or two ere long I remain

Yours affectionately

Herbert J. Bathgate.


     W.'s running comments as I read were shrewd. "I get many asides from Ruskin but nothing direct." "No doubt he's a good and pure man, but why make so much of it? I'm afraid of too much goodness, too much purity: ain't you?" "Yes: I hope they're live words: if anybody knows it the workingman should: live words: the workingman is the average man: if Leaves of Grass is not for the average man it is for nobody: not the average bad man or average good man: no: the average bad good man: if I have failed to make that clear then I've missed my mission for certain." "So he thought he might be 'presuming.' How English that is! As if his idea passed to me by another might be resented by me! Don't you suppose that may illustrate one of the distinctions between the English and American psychology?" "Stedman is fine: I say so too: but why say 'generous'? If what he said is true then it is not generous: if it is only generous and not true, then what do we want with it?" "Bathgate writes genuinely, considerately: he has no affectations: I answer him in his own spirit."

     As I left, W. said: "I'm doing all I can from day to day to put you

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in possession of papers, data, which will fortify you for any biographical undertakings, if any, you may be drawn into concerning me, us, in the future."


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