Commentary

Disciples


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Friday, October 25, 1889

     6 P.M. W. in semi-darkness—had just finished his dinner—fire burning merrily, through the half-open stove-door throwing outward upon the wall its dancing, flickering light. To Warren, who came in and proposed lighting the gas, W. said, "No, Warrie—we will like it this way—to sit in the pleasant twilight—Horace and I." I was there nearly half an hour. He sat part of the time looking out the window—then turned around, stirred the fire, and sat directly facing me. In this position the light of the fire played in his beard and upon his face, with a revelation and an effect very beautiful.

     I returned him the Lippincott's Magazine with some frank expression of dislike of Stoddard's paper therein. W. said: "I do not wonder: it is thin gossip and thinner garrulity, and he has the bad taste to lug in more of his personal considerations. There is very little worse writing than that in the magazines." Here his voice assumed a tone of mockery— "And let me tell you, boy—if you don't make your paper more interesting than this—more pithy, to the point—it'll fare hard with you!" A letter from Bucke. "He describes some more of their merry-making. He has been off to a place called Delaware, where they always seem to have a good time—went with one or more of his children."

     Announced that he had "already read all your book—the Hawthorne part of it"—and "with much interest." Then added: "Fields was a very good fellow anyhow: I knew him. I think a man of means—a man who never wanted for money. He always had to make a fight for health—I think was not strong. He was not an old man, as I knew him—at least, not a man who threw out the sense of age—made you remark it."

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To my remark, "I do not think Hawthorne could take Lincoln's measure," W. assented: "No indeed—it is clear he could not. We would be very like to say that, too—Horace. To our fellows—to those insisting upon, so to call them, our standards, Hawthorne's method would never be satisfactory though to the literary craft—to the men who look upon literature as a thing in itself—clear-cut writing—phrasing—mastery of expression an end—Hawthorne would have to be an eminent figure—among the best, consummate. But these are to some of us things of the past. We have had men in our century who have taken the wind out of all theories of literature that confine it, restrict it, belittle it: for literature in its deepest sense defies measurement, rules, standards. Victor Hugo was one of these men—daring with the daring. Oh! who could say, doing how much good!"

     I have just been reading Burroughs' essay, "A Malformed Giant," that giant being Hugo—and now said, "John Burroughs would probably not fall in with such an estimate." To which W.: "No—looking at it as John does, it would be impossible for him to do so. He examines it from a single standpoint, that does not wholly display the man. I have no doubt but Hugo is eligible to many strictures—lays himself open to severe criticism—on one score, for his theatricality, his choice of matter, subjects, scenes. But O'Connor, who often enough met this charge against Hugo, was accustomed to complaining, that we judged Hugo as Americans, not as world-men, not as Frenchmen. That to rightly know him, we had to enter upon the subject of his times, circumstances,—the French people—what was exacted of him in the nature of things—the arena, in fact, of his life. Then again, as I know, John has the misfortune to come upon Hugo only through—not second or third or fourth or fifth rate translations—but the worst translations ever suffered by a writer. I myself am inclined to believe that Hugo shines most truly himself—is really the most sublime figure—in his poems—the grand, grand, poems, many of them." And so W. went on, referring again as

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so often before to the French friend who "in the old times translated for me as I sat—sitting with him as I now sit with you—and added to the text, the light of a living eye, the tone of an actual voice—a palpitating expression"—etc. And the consideration of this aroused "other reflections" in him. "In our own life here, see how our writers travel and travel and travel for subjects, go into the great west—into forbidden places—or forbidding—lug in hard cases, crimes, criminals, desperadoes—seek out, as I so often say, the delirium tremens of our national life—display that as the essence of it all—us all—passing by in the act all the natural, unheralded heroisms—the nobility of our every-day life—the romance of the streets, courts, palaces, hovels, by-ways, cities, farms, mines. Not but that our actual life has its hard ends to show—its pimps, panders, thieves, bums, whores,—diseases, dirt, smutch, syphilis—enough to answer for all accusations. Though these to me, in the ensemble, the whole, of our life, are small specks: for we need not go into Greece to know the gods—heroes,—Hercules,—all the great figures: here they are, all of them—the equal of the best—waiting at our doors." I put in— "Could we but open to them." And he "Yes—a noble thought: could we but open to them, but how often we do not!" And he declared: "Bret Harte and John Hay are fond of the Western types, so-called—the delirium tremens type—as I signify them. And the magazines lately have been exploiting various developments of that character. But beyond this—above it, below it, around it—how much more runs on, how much that is different, how much that is disregarded, because it is commonplace, yet is greatest because it is commonplace, too!"


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