Commentary

Disciples


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Sunday, December 15, 1889

     I met Clifford and Chubb at Broad Street Station at 3:15, and we went to Camden together, reaching W.'s house at about 4 or a little after. Learning from Mrs. Davis that W.'s dinner had just gone up, I put the visitors in the parlor and went and talked with W. a few minutes in his room. Urged him not to hurry. We would wait, etc. and he then: "Well—do so then: and I will come down when I am ready—and shall not hurry—shall quietly finish my meal here."

     So we sat downstairs and talked some 20 minutes, after which I up again and W. now willing to repair to the parlor, as he did, laboriously, sitting there by the window. And we then talking with him fully an hour, his power unmistakable and unusually positive for these days. Indeed, he said to us at the close,— "I don't know what has started me to chatter so." He had hardly got seated and put his cane in the corner before remarking towards Chubb (who had greeted him with ready words)— "I always used to flatter myself that I could always and easily tell an Englishman in his talk—but lately one or two instances have come up which completely stagger my faith"—meaning Chubb, for one, who, for his own part, remarked the resemblance in the speech of New and Old Englander, W. however insisting— "The New Englander I can detect with the greatest ease. The typical Bostonee, the travelled man—the travelled Southerner, the Englishman,—are

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remarkably alike; but the average New England man is not hard to point out."
"Even Emerson had it, though in Emerson later on it was all flattened out" etc.

     Chubb gave W. a card he had had from Edward Carpenter, and then W. inquired curiously after Carpenter's recent days. Impelled by questioning on Chubb's part, W. talked with considerable vehemence, and at length, about American literature and life. What was the prime defect? He responded: "Its gentility—the disposition everywhere to be genteel—to have houses, goods, ten thousand what-not a year, all that." And this, he said, "affected our poetry, as well as the general life of America." "Our people want their cake—their sugared cake—with all the delicate traceries of the confectioner's art." He asked if we had ever seen "the delicate pipes" with which this work was done—Clifford interpolating that in the factory they were not the pipes of Pan. "The old Biblical fellows did not make the cake," W. declared—Clifford wittily suggesting, "but they take the cake," and W. after laughingly saying— "Yes, but they did not make it"—and he spoke of their "aboriginal force, so to speak"—over men "pursuing elegance as the first quality"—Longfellow instanced as typical "yet a man who must be read—may be read long and long, perhaps for all time" "the truth being, the confectioners supply what will sell—the writers what the current public want." But he did not despair of America: "There were years in my life—years there in New York—when I wondered if all was not going to the bad with America—the tendency downwards—but the war saved me: what I saw in the war set up my hope for all time—the days in the hospitals." And these convincing "rather by what they revealed of the common people than by other agents"—and "these not chiefly the facts of battles, marches, what-not—but the social being-ness of the soldiers—the revelation of an exquisite courtesy—man to man—rubbing up there together: I could say in the highest sense, propriety—propriety, as in the doing of necessary unnamable things, always done with exquisite delicacy. And in

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the hospitals, illustrated in extreme considerate-ness, generosity—as in this case: one man will have a dozen oranges sent him; he will not hoard them—he will keep one—give eleven to eleven others."

     When Chubb inquired of the big cities—whether they did not militate against America, W. responded: "I think I can say without hesitating about that—no: I accept all the cities—all that America so is—then ask for more," that America were "less going wrong in what she has than what she has not." "Sometimes I fear that the mass of the people may become venerated, honeycombed—then something grand occurs to reassure me—to make the issue clear." He did not think the years since the war had known a decadence of the heroic virtues— "for in the war itself, it was not the war that was great, but the deportment of the actors," and that had lasted. I joked with him that he liked cake and candy too and he admitted— "Yes, I have quite a sweet tooth, but I look upon this as a cultivated, not the bottom taste—for after all the cake is only incidental, while for my daily food I must have bread and butter and coffee and mutton broth, and what-not, to sustain life and keep it pure."

     He alluded to Browning. "You asked me upstairs about Browning, Horace, and in today's Press there is an editorial much better than common, about Browning: written, I should say, by Talcott Williams." And then of Browning: "I don't know whether he is for me—I really know very little about him. He is a man who needs to be studied out, and that I can't do, even if I were inclined to. And yet the best readers seem in our time to take most delight in just such writing." Clifford asked, why "the best readers?" And W. added: "Perhaps that is not an admirable—the best—word: I might put it, those who seem the weightiest readers. And I do not know that it is a drawback or a lapse to be as Browning is—I do not know that he ever set up to be anything himself—the world has been left to its own conclusions—and the future may make much of him—much. He is not a man to be read as you

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go along, but what of that? Is a strip of sky to be seen or penetrated as you go along, or the river, or a boat, or the men on the street?"
And on this bent he passed into rapid review—with poetic expressiveness—his voice at its sweetest—(to the comment of both the visitors when we left)— "For what after all do we know of nature—of a tree,—of anything? There are a thousand convolutions—a thousand circles—one upon another—on and on—and what we see—what we grasp—is about the quarter of one circle." His expression that he had "no doubt America would evolute" to higher things: "America individuated, leading all by representing all, rather than by a system of exclusion." When speaking of Browning's obscurity, Clifford had asked W. if he had been taxed for meanings, and he admitted with a laugh— "Oh yes! often!" Then added with a funny gesture: "There is something irritating in the question."

     Chubb speaking of some who questioned Darwinism—rather, evolution—but—and W. said: "It sounds funny to hear that said: it seems like questioning the tides." But he was greatly interested in Chubb's statement. It was in such vigor he seemed. Inquired of Clifford after his family: assured Chubb that a call any later time before the return to Europe would be welcome. A message brought from Stedman coming in connection with facts pointing to S.'s own nervous prostration, greatly touched W. In return he wished his affection particularly sent to Sanborn (who also had sent a message by Chubb) and Stedman. Reference having been made to Cleveland's Boston speech, W. inquired of it— "Is it good? Worth my while to look up?"—and assenting with a "do—be sure to do it then" when I suggested bringing my own paper down.


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