Commentary

Disciples


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Thursday, August 22, 1889

     7.40 P.M. Went to W.'s with Mrs. Fels, Jennie May, and my sister Agnes. W. sitting in the parlor, in his usual position at the window. I went in first—he greeted me—then saw and recognized Aggie—said: "How are you, my dear?" And then: "And who are the other girls you have with you?" At once invited all to be seated—turned to me— "Horace, I guess I'll get you"—stopping here long enough to fumble in his pocket for a match— "to light the gas out there—there in the entry-way"—which I did. He at once entered into conversation with the girls—seemed more animated than I had known him for weeks. Yet he said he was "poorly" and that he had not ventured out today. The girls had brought him flowers, which he greatly cherished—had me go back to the kitchen and get a mug and water to hold them—then put them right in front of him on the table. They had brought him some pears, too, which by and by were referred to—fine samples of the fruit over which he expressed a great pleasure—saying finally: "Well—I shall take the mellow one for breakfast, anyhow—although I must be very careful what I eat nowadays." The talk was of a general character, of course. He seemed unusually willing to benefit the girls. I asked him if he had seen a

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portrait of Lincoln made by Wyatt Eaton in 1877, and he said he thought he had not—adding: "Oh! Lincoln! No one can know better than I the preciousness of that gift to the age, to America! But we have never had a portrait of Lincoln—perhaps not the man to paint it. Charley Elliott, perhaps, though he never tried it of course. Carpenter painted Lincoln, after a sense, but an absolutely good picture—no—we have not had it." I referred to the usual first judgment on Lincoln as to his ungainliness—W. saying: "Yes—I know! and that's enough for me!" Turning away from the subject, then.

     I asked W. if he had seen Charles DeKay's article in Sept. number of the Magazine of Art on "George Fuller, Painter"? And he at once said no. It was given to extended comparison of Fuller and Whitman. W. repeated me: "An article in the Magazine of Art on George Fuller in which Walt Whitman is greatly implicated?"—as he often does to make sure he understands the questioner. First he asks us: "And who was George Fuller? Tell me about him?" And after I had run into some little description, he assented: "True enough—I must have known him—I can recall, now you speak of him—open the subject." Quite humorously spoke of DeKay—asking me initially: "You know about DeKay—who he is? He is Mrs. Gilder's brother" turning laughingly to Aggie and Mrs. Fels who sat at his left— "and he has written big volumes of poetry—or rhyme—what-not—fine gilt-edged affairs, produced unexceptionally. He has money, I believe—is rich, or what they call well-off, anyhow. DeKay is now abroad—has been sent over to write up Irish matters—in some such capacity, as I understand it, as that in which George Kennan was sent to Siberia." I objected— "But he has not Kennan's ability!" W. then quickly: "No indeed—no ability at all, I should say. He has been thrown up much as many writers are, by connections or propitious circumstances." "And yet," he added, "John Burroughs thinks he sees something in DeKay, and John is not a man easily captured, deceived." He expressed no curiosity to see the piece.


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     Aggie had explained to W. that she was now living off in the country, loafing—he wondering if she did this "as the pigs and chickens do." They "wished" they could have him on their porch, etc.—but he said protestingly: "My great hankering heretofore has been to get out where nobody else is—to get away from groups, from company. But the great thing for one to do when he is used up, is to go out to nature—throw yourself in her arms—submit to her destinies. Many years ago I passed some time down on Timber Creek." They did not know where this was—questioned him—he responding: "Oh! it is down here a little ways—a matter of 8 or 10 miles or so—near Kirkwood—Kirkwood is on the railroad. My friends the Staffords lived away from the town—had a farm. They were quite a family—farm folks—father, mother, children, boys and girls." He paused—then: "It was six months or so after I came to these parts—I was in a poor way—a sad plight—had been doctoring a good deal. Now I ceased all that—simply gave myself over to nature. Have you ever thought how much is in the negative quality of nature—the negative—the simply loafing, doing nothing, worrying about nothing, living out of doors and getting fresh air, plenty of sleep—letting everything else take care of itself?" He alluded to the "cat-birdy" quality of the life down there—how "native" it seemed to him—of "the insect life—life of birds, animals, clouds, rivers." How much it had done for him "how much it will do for anyone." I asked him if he had heard anything of a celebration of Tennyson's birthday, and he said: "No—have you?" Then remarked: "Herbert Gilchrist was over last night—we spoke of the well-preservedness of the big men over there—of how much more marked is their vigor, old age, power to work: and we concluded it was this, that they were all well groomed—that they all had wives—oh! wonders of women!—or sometimes sisters—or, as it happened, valets—miracles of valets—who made it their whole business to preserve them, watch them—habits, what they ate, drank, wore. We take no such care of ourselves here—the American

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people have not hit upon that conviction yet. Not at all."
He suddenly asked me: "Have you ever had anything to do with circus men—any intimacies?" and on my shaking my head: "Well—I have—particularly years ago—in younger years. I remember when I was quite a boy I know a circus company in which there was an old horse—I think 22 years old—who yet would go into the ring—perform prodigies. I asked his keeper how it was—how he could explain it, and his answer was, that this horse was given extraordinary care—that no man in Brooklyn or New York was so well guarded, cared-for, as this fine animal—groomed, curried, rested, watched, unweariedly, constantly. This is the explanation, I think, of the fellows over there—Gladstone, who had his wife; and Brougham—do you know about him?—and Disraeli, with his wife, too—and many—many." "There is Harrison, now," he continued, "careful enough to shake off the cares of office, but likely to founder on the other rock—rich dinners, entertainment" etc.—and when I spoke of Harrison's "insignificance" W. added: "Insignificant indeed!—to me, the most insignificant—perhaps the only really insignificant man—in the long line of our Presidents. Let me predict this—that as long as Harrison remains in office, the aura of the Presidency will give him prominence—be his savior—but after that—oh! what will be his oblivion!—utter!" And as to Cleveland's simple tastes: "Yes—so I have heard—and it is a gratifying exception. Simple as a child, I hear." Americans he thought "worked like the devil till they were all worked out"—though sometimes he "envied them." Spoke of his brothers as exceptional. "There is Jeff, in the west—was at St. Louis for a number of years—constructed and managed the waterworks there till a political trouble of some sort came and threw him out. Why, he works and works—and George, too, up here at Burlington—bot of them big hearty preserved fellows—George working. I was going to say, not only like a house afire, as the story goes, but like half a dozen houses afire!"


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     Turned to me with the question: "By the way, Horace—speaking of Tennyson—did you know the editor of the North American Review had invited me to write him an article of about 3000 words about Tennyson?" "Well, will you do it?" "Oh! I don't know! That remains to be seen!" Aggie seemed surprised at the limit, whereupon W. said: "Yes, Aggie—that's the way they do it nowadays—these publishers have it down very fine—so many words to a line—so many lines to a page. Why, a few years ago, when I was writing for the Review, I could tell just about how much space a page of my writing would take up, was quite an adept." I remarked: "It would be more interesting to have the editor of the North American Review write Tennyson to write about Walt Whitman!" W. laughed: "He would do it!—I have no doubt he would do it!—but then, like the lawyer, he would charge 'em a devil of a price! The story is that the publisher of the Youth's Companion asked Tennyson if he would write them a poem—and he assented, on condition they paid him his price, which was a thousand dollars. And they took it—paid him—and I am told it was about the dullest piece he ever printed—no doubt taken out of his scrapbook, where he has many more like it!" I joked: "There was a time when they would not have you at any price." To which he responded: "Ah Horace! And I am not sure that time is yet past—at least with some of them!"

     Thus freely he talked. At one moment: "I have no news—no letters from known persons—though letters, of course, from unknown—from friend, family—but not a word from John." Then again: "It reminds me of my favorite story—the story of the Dutchman—a miller—who would say, 'Vell, vat do I care for vere die veat comes from, so it is good?'" W.'s power to tell this dialect story good in spirit but poor in twang. It was mightily interesting at the moment we were going—the three girls there in a group bidding him good-by—he reaching forward out of his chair—taking Miss May's hand with his

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right, saying, "goodbye my dear"— and saluting the others with his left—his head thrown as he did so in the full strength of the light from the hallway: a sight I shall never forget—and the tone of his voice inexpressibly tender and conciliating. Said also to the girls— "It was good of you to come." I lingered a few minutes before my departure—asked him if he would not give me a Whitman forecast for p. 4—and he said immediately: "Yes—of course—I have already commenced such a thing: I will let you have it at once." Kissed him goodby—he held my hand warmly—said "Goodnight boy—goodnight! We'll meet again!"—and so I left. A memorable night: the flowers, fruit, girls, seemed to conspire for his joy, peace and power: for certainly his speech was strangely strong in the face of his present suffering.


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