Commentary

Disciples


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Monday, April 22, 1889

     10.45 W. reading Press. At once said: "The best news of all is, the Danmark!" Adding: "So after all they are safe—not a person drowned. Oh! what a relief that is to know!" Had indeed been picked up, as the paper predicted, by the Missouri. The day cooler. He remarked it. Did not complain of his condition. Looked better. Said: "In my mail this morning there was a letter from the Doctor." And no word from O'Connor? "Nothing direct—but a letter from Mrs. O'Connor which the Doctor encloses with his. The Doctor's note contains nothing significant. But read for yourself." And as I did so he ran along in comment. "He has the Stedman letter—accepts it." I said: "I am so glad—I was afraid he would not." And W.: "I am glad also." Bucke had also received Herald and was quite energetic in decrying the "bogus" Hartmann matter. Said W.: "Yes—Doctor sees through it. Anyone would. Hartmann, his writing, his thinking—the whole mess of him—is a bad egg!" W. added: "That is the long and short of it—as Abe Lincoln said when asked to do something for somebody—'I can't do anything for him—he is already a bad egg!'" How did he account for Herald's acceptance of such stuff? "It is not hard to explain. The Herald is sold to the extent of 60 or 70 or 80 thousand copies—maybe more: it is immaterial; each copy is read by 2 or 3 people. These people are of the mass—not discriminating—not literary—are more of less fond of a

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sensation: this constituency must be catered to, catered for—and there you have it!"
But was that excuse? "I do not state it as excuse—only explanation." But surely Walsh would have known that was humbuggery? That might be, but W. insisted still that that was not the question that entered.

     5.50 P.M. W. sitting by open middle window, reading Lippincott's, which had come today. He looked well, as he usually does after his dinner, and talked vigorously. In front of him his empty wine-bottle. Why did he not send it up to Harned to be refilled? He deprecated that— "I am ashamed to do so."

     Questioned me about my work at Ferguson's today—spoke particularly of inside margin for book. I had Brown prepare a sheet, indicating his procedure. W. inspected, was pleased, except as saying to margin as above: "I do not wish to lay it down as something for him absolutely to follow, but to suggest to him that he should have a care on that point. I have myself had so much difficulty just there—so much of experience with books, which, to be seen, had to be ripped out of the cover, so"—indicating by a motion of the hands, "and you have too, without a doubt—that now we have this matter in our grip, we may see that it is done right." Ferguson had given me a copy of The Inland Printer to show to W. for its typographical beauty. It had been rolled, and stubbornly resisted being flattened out. W. reflected: "In our printing we will bye and bye come to make up with reference to the mails." To fold was "bad enough," to roll was "despicable." I called his attention to a photo-engraving therein. "I was looking at that," he replied, "it seemed extraordinarily fine: I had that in my mind to say at the start. And the letter-press, too." The picture was of a group of tally-hos. W. remarked: "Such things we don't have at all in this country except as importations

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They are thoroughly English—seem adopted some-what in New York. But only adopted, don't originate."
Too much of our life made up so. We don't enough suit our works to our own surroundings and exigencies.

     I told W. I had received a letter from Stedman. He was at once greatly interested—urged me to read it—which I sat down and started to do. But there was suddenly started up a great racket out of doors: it was just six o'clock: the factory whistles were blowing in all quarters of the town. W. reached forward to close the window: could not do it. "I am a little deaf," he explained. I went towards him and lowered the sash. "Now," he suggested, "now let us hear it." So I read the letter, as follows, very deliberately:


April 19th 1889
Good Friday

Dear Mr. Traubel,

In response to your kind letter of the 17th, I will only remark that this is the second public letter which I have received from you within a year or two, regretting the public appearance of alleged interviews with Walt Whitman, which have not been modified equal publicity.

The special expressions referred to in the two private letters have certainly been most ingeniously cruel, & recall to mind the predicament of the rejected lover.


"To be sure she'd a right to dissemble her love,
But why did she kick me down stairs!"

At a time when a few of us are drawing so very near to our old Bard, in the sunset of life, when the roughness of life are over, it is at least a pity that color should still be given, even by vagrant interviewers, to the charge that he expresses unkind, if not unfair, judgments of his brother-writers. I suppose we all of us think that many of our clan are donkeys or popinjays in their minds & methods, but we do not feel it an imperative duty to say so.

Very truly yrs.

E. C. Stedman



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     W. was more and more interested, the deeper I got into it: laughed heartily at the couplet, but said it was new to him: yet was serious enough, regarding the tone of the letter as a whole. When I had completely finished, he exclaimed: "He's mad! He's mad!" I was grieved: had been ever since receiving the letter in the early afternoon, and I could see he was as well. He looked out the window, across at the northern sky, then at me. "I do not think I am prepared to make a public disavowal of it—I have never done so; in all my life, from the very first, I have avoided that." Hartmann's offense was undoubted and heinous. That he felt as deeply as any. "He is Moncure Conway multiplied by five," he said. Yet it was not to Stedman alone that the trouble accrued. "I, too, must suffer it. It is unkind and unjust to me that at a time of such particular friendliness, generosity, in Stedman, I should be put in such a position of vulgar indifference and worse." I said: "It is unfortunate, too, that the worst paragraph, the severest, in the whole column, was that about Stedman." W.: "Yes, that is unhappy. But even about Holmes, it is bad enough. I never said that of him—I never thought of him, it is true, but anything I could have thought at any time would have been different from what is put down for me there." As to the paragraph about Harrison, while— "I never have met Hartmann since Harrison has been up, in"—nevertheless— "I do not so much regret that. Because I think very little of Harrison anyway. The only trouble is, this opinion of Harrison is of late growth—more induced or solidified by recent events than any long gone." He did not fully endorse my insistence that the Herald should have penetrated the horrible vulgarity of that column. But he did say: "There is a whole host of writers for the press—there always have been a host of 'em, though never, I think, so wholesale in their methods as now—to whom the truth was of no account, to whom the only things of account were, to create interest and get pay for it! There was a world of this work done in Dryden's time."

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"I have no doubt, as I have told you, that this is the same stuff that Hartmann offered Kennedy, but which K. was too cute to be fooled with—which he sent me on here, inquiring of its authenticity, and which I returned at once with a negative." And in a tone of pathetic regret: "That is the fat of it—that is the whole story," adding as to Stedman: "Time may perhaps mollify him: let us hope it will." He had himself suffered so much from misreports, now for 30 and more years, the list has got to be a long, almost tragic, one. He was pained to have this last happen—but what could be done? I had from the first felt W. would make no public matter of this.

     Then came a considerable silence. Then he questioned me: "And the Missouri—what of her? Has she come?" Just the few minutes before, in crossing the river I had seen the Missouri being put into her wharf. W. greatly interested: "Is she a fine boat? Good sized? as big as the boats of the American line?—the Ohio, the Pennsylvania?" And then he said: "It is a glorious story all through. The Captain—what is his name? I don't know what will be the future of him—of his exploit, but it occurs to me he will be made immortal." "Many, many years ago, when I was a young fellow, there was a parallel case—a case parallel in some particulars—a grand rescue. It was a thing that affected me greatly at the time—affected me by day, by night, for weeks. Our government was sending some soldiers around the Horn—five or six hundred of them. They started off—were gone several days—probably some hundreds of miles—when a storm—it was said, the worst storm ever known—sprang up. The boat was a good one—among the best ever built—but things went wrong, and the whole business was in imminent peril. There had been a sort of house built on board—on deck—in which several hundred soldiers were housed. An affair to add to accommodations. A big wave—or big wave on big wave—rose, dashed, literally swept the whole house away, soldiers and all—and every man in it was drowned. The situation grew desperate—there were hundreds

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remaining—even women and children; the government allowed this, the wives of soldiers."
W.'s manner, brief, sketchy, was intense: "And now the grandeur of the story. When things were at their worse, another boat appears on the scene—it was called The Three Bells—named so after three brothers Bell, somewhere in Scotland." W. described the Captain— "a homely, stubbly fellow—but brave—circumspect to the utmost": and he had "signalled the sufferers" had "put up—chalked on a board—one message after another, declaring he would stick to 'em; and he did, along on the seas for several days, fast, never fluctuating, now losing a moment's sight of them, then regaining, till the storm was over, the waters calm." Then he had made the rescue, "brought them up to New York." "It was here I met him. The town was full of the story of it." Had he ever written anything about it? "No—it was not necessary: papers, everything, were full of it. And the town would have lionized him, but he objected. One day, on one of the Fulton ferry boats—I was so often on 'em, and knew all the boys who worked 'em—I was up in the pilot house, with Captain Brace, when he suddenly called to me 'By God! there comes Captain'"—here W. stopped— "Oh! the Captain of The Three Bells—what was his name—what was his name? I cannot recall it now—yet it will come, bye and bye, without a doubt. Was it Gibson—Captain Gibson?"—And he asked me: "Is the story at all known to you?" It was not. Then he went on: "Anyhow, Captain Brace turned to me, called: 'By God! there comes Captain Gibson!'—and if that was the name. He could not leave the wheelhouse at the time, but he sent word down that if the Captain would not go ashore on the other side, would wait till he, Brace, had seen him, it would be good of him, & I was all interest myself and when the boat was over and fast, Captain Brace went down stairs, I down with him. Then we met the man—had a short talk—not more than five minutes in all. It was a happy incident for me—I have always vividly remembered it. The man was thoroughly Scotch—

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bushy thick hair, round head, stub nose, ruddy color, strong compact body—easy, plain, modest, not a trace in him of self consciousness; altogether the remarkable self-contained man you would have thought necessary to the event."
W. said he had been as never before or since, except now, awake and interested in such an act of heroism. And speaking of the emotion everywhere prevalent then as now: "It is the touch of the human: it is the circle of the great unfathomed electric something in nature which makes us one, glorifies us all." My notes show for a week and more past his own dwelling upon the subject. "I suppose the papers will be full of it tomorrow—full of it—part truth, a good part fiction, only that this is an event that baffles the reporter-imagination—that needs no aids, no bolsterings."


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