Commentary

Disciples


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Saturday, May 4, 1889

     10 A.M. W. had just finished his breakfast. Had got up feeling very well, and now was engaged with the papers. Seemed in unusually happy mood. Called my attention to several matters, and as I sat down and read he pored over the papers—patiently handled the Press, laid it down, took up the Record. "I see," he said, "that Harrison has been speaking again—welcoming the new British minister." But the speech was, as he thought, "without merit." Returned me the copies of Harpers Weekly with some general word of appreciation. But would "keep" Current Literature, unless I was in a hurry for it—as of course I was not. I spoke to him of Joe Adams—told him what I had heard, but that as he was flitting all along the road I should be compelled to take my chances about meeting him. Said W.: "Well—the main point of your errand is accomplished—you have found that he is alive. That is chiefly what I wanted to know."

      "I have a book here," he said suddenly, laying down his paper an instant— "at last—the Sarrazin book—it came this

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morning. Did you tell me you knew some one who was an expert in French?"
And afterward: "Alas! I shall never have back the grand old days, and my friend Obin, here across from me, translating, explicating, as he read! I have told you about him—his help in Washington, in things I could not help myself to—all the French authors, mainly Hugo, our theme. Obin would sit with me, read, about as I am talking now, easily, clearly, deliberately. It was a privilege—a priceless privilege." He added: "I am not certain about O'Connor's ability to read French: he knew the French writers, but how I could not say,—at least do not remember clearly." Had in the meantime handed me the thick volume. It was a soft book—blue paper covers. "And the type?" W. asked, "don't you think that is small pica?" The portion devoted to W. was about 40 pages. W. had cut the prefatory and the Whitman pages. The rest was uncut. He had looked over it. "It is so much Greek," he said, "I can see nothing of it." Among others were essays on Shelley, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning—perhaps Byron, too, but of this I forget as I write. W. again: "What a pity I can't read it myself! I should like to see what he says of the other fellows, too: I am quite bitten with his talk of me. The style of that whets an appetite for more." Twelve pages, anyhow, of the Whitman essay were given over to quotes. The book was simply inscribed to W. by the author in a written two or three lines, with no comment attending. W. took the book from me. "And see," he advised, "you notice the typographical beauty of the book? It is really grand—beats anything we do here. I gather a vast satisfaction out of that printing feature alone: the big liberal type, the whole manner and attitude of the volume." I asked him if he did not imagine they would print equally well here if there arose a demand? But he insisted: "I mean what I said—it seems to me we are going backward instead of forward. Look at this book now"—reaching forward and picking from a pile on the floor a copy of his yellowed, aged, patched,

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pamphlet Consuelo: "Look at this—wouldn't you call that fine? Do we do anything like that nowadays? It is superb work—superb. I have read this book through and through and through—often and often and often—and not an error, either. Certainly a wonderful production." Graham, New York, Tribune building was its publisher. "I remember the place well," W. said, adding: "And this probably was not considered anything unusual in the way of printing at the time. Probably the printer was some unheard of man—some not-famous individual." He turned over the title page—read aloud on the obverse—"New England Stereotype Foundry"—saying then: "Printed, maybe, in Boston. Take that Sarrazin book too—it is cheap, no doubt—probably no big price put on it." Then he explained: "It came just as you see it there—no letter, no word. But I shall write, acknowledging its arrival." Then he said in half-soliloquy as to his French friend again: "No written translation could have the charm of his voice—the charm that always comes of renderings face to face."

     Suddenly he turned to his table again. "No word from Washington this morning, but this with the Sarrazin book"—passing over a copy of The Literary News adding: "and somebody has been doing us up big there, I think Mrs. Leypold." After a pause: "Though there are things there which people would say a woman is not likely to write." Full two pages of close matter, really of most favorable quality. A passage there in which it was said W. "occupied" himself at a certain age with "making disciples," excited him to great laughter. He thought if he had ever been guiltless of any one thing, it was of any endeavor to develop "disciples." Said: "I knew Mrs. Leypold's husband—he is dead now. I only surmise, of course, that she wrote that piece." As I left W.'s last words were: "Be sure you get the pictures"—adding slowly, knowing our frequent disappointments— "if they are done!"


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     7.35 P.M. With W. about an hour tonight. Found him writing a letter, the pad on his knee. "Go on," I said, "you'll want to send it by this evening's mail—finish it—it will wait." But he said: "Never mind—I'll lay it aside now—'tis only for Doctor—and I mean to put the finishing touch on it tomorrow any how." Then as I came near and shook hands with him—he advised: "See this—I'm trying to show Doctor what sort of book Sarrazin has sent us—puts us in." Had transcribed carefully in ink on a loose slip (the letter proper in pencil) the full title of the book. I leaned forward, found the dubious name Coleridge's instead of Byron's (see A.M. notes) and remarked what had been my doubt. W. said: "That is so—why not Byron? I had been looking for him myself." Then reflectively: "There are several of them here, his contemporaries—Shelley, Coleridge, Wordsworth." But when I said: "I suppose he chose them for purposes of giving different phrases," W. assented— "I suppose that is the explanation."

     Apropos of the letter to Bucke, I remarked that I thought, from what he said that Bucke had seven or eight hundred of them in his possession. W. appeared startled—looked at me in mock horror. "Can that be? It seems impossible! I am as bad as Carlyle himself. That is doing pretty good for a fellow who prided himself on writing few letters—for one whose early printer predilection for a letter on one sheet only and one side only of that sheet still persists." Then he asked: "Do you suppose Doctor keeps them all?" And when I nodded—he exclaimed— "Good! Good!": I said I hoped he had given us all a good character in 'em, and he laughed. "I did not know that of the Doctor. I can quite understand it of O'Connor. O'Connor is very sensitive to the magnetism of presence, contact, the spiritual forces. I can realize that he would love to take my postals, hold them, keep them in his hands long and long, look at the address in the big spread it makes." I said I thought all his postals to O'Connor were preserved: Mrs. O'Connor had shown me a pile of them on his desk when I was down there.

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W. asked: "So that is the case? I'm only sorry they are not more worthy. They are all so short, so empty—so much the result rather of a desire to write than of any feeling of anything particular to say." Yet was not that enough? Presence, without a word, often the sacredest inspiration? I reminded him of his own poem (man and boy &c.). When he said: "That is so—I can see how that—that alone—transcends all speech, all utterance." And he continued: "There's nothing I should like better than to write six or a dozen lines—a little poemlet, poemette, giving in a few words, the picture of the revolution days—the glooms, despairs, sufferings, horrors, suspicions, of that time: the sprinkly trailing of faith through it all, the final victory. Then show how vastly, vastly greater that is than the celebration of it we have been having this past week: the dull speeches, platitudes—Harrison's worst of the worst." And afterwards: "The poor, pitiful Harrison! I should say of him—of all things, he lacks most in background—lacks it utterly. John Burroughs, in one of the pieces in which he is at his best, sets out to show how wholly inefficient beauty is—the world's beauty, so called—without background: that in background is beauty's whole secret, essence, justification. He uses the Spenserian figure of Una riding the lion—makes it a grand figure. There was always a surpassing power to me in this—John so nobly uses it." Then he said: "Poor Harrison! And yet, that office seeking business would knock the devil out of a man. I know it would be a horror to me. I have often wondered if nothing could be done—no scheme be devised—by which to defend our Presidents against this, some scheme by which the offices are given out by others. Have the Civil Service reformers ever tackled the question—planned anything? I can easily see how it must always be the President's function to choose his Cabinet: but for the rest, it seems to me there might be put up a defense of some kind."

     Lincoln's, now for the first time printed, defense of the draft (in the current Century) had aroused W.'s interest. "I

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read it. That it was not published was not at all wonderful. People little know how less than a thousandth part—a thousandth thousandth part—of things written, prepared, studied, gets into print. All that goes to the making of what published is unknown—ever must be unknown. And it is a vast sea of itself. Oh the tragedy and pathos of it!"
I alluded to a page I had once written, which had taken me about a week to write, and for which I got about two dollars. W. laughed— said it was "like enough" and then proceeded: "And by the way, there was the article you had in the paper you left with me—the American: I can tell you I read it with a great deal of interest too. I should advise to cultivate that vein. I have always known you had a quite remarkable seeing power—power to grasp a fact, a gift to touch easily to the heart of appearances—I may say, an artistic sense, which you show in your criticism, handlings of affairs, of things. That you ought to cultivate. But I should warn you—don't worry about abstractions—the philosophy of what you see. Keep you eyes wide open—I need hardly advise you to do that—you do that anyhow: but I mean, describe what you see,—people, stands, stores, vehicles, shows, the human curios—and let the rest tell itself. It will! The French are uniquely gifted in that way—oh wonderfully—only with this drawback—a tendency I always dislike, never will accept—a superciliousness which seems to hold them from mixing with the event, the fact, they describe. It is a quality our own humorists have had—which is their weakness: Bret Harte, Mark Twain—the others—who fairly enough touch off the rude Western life but always as though with the insinuation, 'see how far we are removed from all that—we good gentlemen with out dress suits and parlor accompaniments!' " W. criticised the want of truth in the magazine stories now vogued— "the stories of Western, South-Western, life. "Hit" they will say for 'it,' for instance. That is news to me. If it has come into use, it has come lately—for in my time there was no exaggerated emphasis. In fact, that

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is the prevailing error—an aggravation of the peculiarities of dialects. It spoils some of those very good stories in the magazines—stories excellent in themselves, but too apt to exceed the truth, perhaps to excite our interest, perhaps from defect of ear."
He counselled me then: "Watch yourself closely. Make a habit of noting things you see—buildings, people, the crowds you face, stands,—touch off the fakirs along the busy ways—fear nothing except to overstep the truth. It would be a good thing to do if only for exercise, but you will do it for more than that."

     I had brought him the long-desired pictures. They proved to be excellently printed with much softness and effect. I could see at once that he was pleased. He asked of it: "Don't you think this should go in as frontispiece?" Adding after my assent: "That is my conviction too. Here was Leaves of Grass in gestation. Nothing could more fitly preface it." And as to the minute reproductions of even the scratches of the photograph— "I can readily see them—but they don't affect me, except for good. You know, a man may be so dressed, combed, he looks too damned nice. We have to look out for that." He signed a couple of the pictures for me "Walt Whitman 1849" saying: "That must have been the time—I should say from 1846 to 1849. What did I sign Dave's?" Put the two dates on Dave's—1850 and 1849. It seems to me that the 70th year picture has been injured by its trip to N. Y. but W. said: "I notice no difference—it seems to me about the same."

     The Critic said today, reviewing the Authors at Home volume: "Much is told us by an intimate friend of Walt Whitman's, whose head of silver and heart of gold gleam in these sympathetic pages as never before." When I gave this to W., he would have me repeat it—he saying them after me— "head of silver and heart of gold, eh? That sounds very friendly—very warm. We cannot turn from a good work like that." But when I quoted from Elizabeth Stuart Phelps' Forum paper on "The Christianity of Christ" the phrase "in all uninspired

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literature what is finer than the scene between the Bishop and Valjean"
&c.—the word "uninspired" struck W. as unfortunate and he said of it, laughing— "Rats! is the most appropriate answer for that." "I can hear the boys now yelling 'Rats!' in response to it." Then he said: "Well do I remember Valjean, the Bishop—indeed the whole story." No Critic came to him today. Said: "I think Kennedy might have the quality I remarked in O'Connor. Of the Doctor I should not be certain. I sent Kennedy a postal today—sent off also a foreign postal. I wished Sarrazin to know at once that the book had come." Adler speaks in town tomorrow on "The Character of Washington." W. predicted: "I am certain it will be fine. What a treat it would be, if one could be there. I have no special message to send to the Professor. Only tell him I still sit here day by day in my big chair, back against the wolf-skin robe, working, thinking, pursuing what I can. Not all bereft of buoyancy yet. Give him my love and affectionate remembrances." This led him to a little talk of his condition. "It is better," he said to my assurance, "better beyond a doubt. I feel ever so much relieved: now if I could only get out!" Referred to the Joe Adams I had searched for, and W. was affectionate in his reference. "We struck up quite a friendship. Joe is not a young man anymore—is of middling size, has a sandy, red beard, is rather pale. He has a family—I think a daughter of 22 or more—and there is a son, too—a son named for me—Walt Whitman Adams." W. laughed over the patriotic conjunction. "Joe is a genuine fellow of the soil—has about him the flavor of woods, grass, fences, roads. It is uplifting to get near him."

     We discussed somewhat the Millet article in the Century again. Especially the phrases there quoted from Millet: "One must be able to make use of the trivial for the expression of the sublime," and: "The man who finds any phase or effect in nature not beautiful, the lack is in his own heart." These were "deeply impressive" to W. He asked me: "And did you find

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the article interesting—very interesting?"
And to the sentence where Eaton says, "Two Americans have reminded me of Millet—George Heller in the general appearance of his figure and Walt Whitman in his large and easy manner." W. remarked: "It may be true, but I do not know how Eaton knows it, I am not conscious of ever having met him. Of course he might have seen me anyhow." As to resemblances, spiritual, artistic, or personal W. would say nothing. W. asked me what I made up "as Millet's opinion of Parisian artists?" Returned me Current Literature with remarks of its "wonderful richness of contents."


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