Commentary

Disciples


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Thursday, September 11, 1890

     5:10 P.M. Excellent long talk with W. in his own room. Thought he would go out shortly though it drizzled somewhat. In very good mood.

     Returned me the Harper's Weekly with a remark expressing his wittiest word and conviction "that it now was sure the tip-top thing in its line."


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     On table, in an old envelope addressed to him by Bucke, W. had inserted the note spoken of yesterday—took the Walt Whitman, etc. off of envelope and writing with blue pencil— "Horace, the phrenological items."

     I told him I was writing a column about Frederick Hedge for the paper, and he said, "I am glad, he deserves it." And again: "His 'Prose Writers of Germany' has been one of my longest treasures. I can never be shaken from my love of it. I can hardly tell how many years it has been inspiration, aid, sunlight. The great feature in Hedge was his kindly spirit—his gentle disposition: he did not start out to criticize these men but to present them; and all down the line, starting with Luther, then with Lessing, through the Goethe-Schiller period, all that. I was going to say Freiligrath, though he didn't include Freiligrath. He is the sure man, hospitable, generous, his receptivity the most marked quality of all. Yes indeed, the world needed him. He is a type. I wish there were more of his order. But the fellows who get known, who get into prominence, the magazines, are lesser men, vagrant in powers, gifts, with absolutely no future." I said, "The more I see of literary men the more I feel they have no convictions." To which: "And I could say, as you go on you will be more and more confirmed in that opinion. They have none. I know the fellows in New York: New York is a dampener to everything like enthusiasm. It tones everybody down, insists that art is cold, is judicial to the point of extinction. The demand is for smart men—for good writers. There seem to be periods in the world harmonies when our native forces are cropped very close—where convention curbs all down—and this is one of them."

     I told him of a talk I had with Miss Porter the other evening. She said Trumbull was a veritable personage, living in New England (Connecticut, I think)—well known in circles of Shakespearean scholarship. She had felt that Trumbull missed W. in his piece and had herself been prepared to quote "November Boughs" when W.'s note opportunely arrived. W. said, "Then

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I'm almost sorry I did not let her alone. Those two pieces on Shakespeare in 'November Boughs' are my best statement of the case, of my case. I had prepared to send more to the Poet-Lore people—had in fact written more, but parts of what I had written got lost in the heap of things here. I looked all about, but could not find a trace of them, so simply sent what I had and what they will print."

     I remarked, "I judge from what Miss Porter said that Poet-Lore itself takes ground against mere art-form in literature." To which: "If it does, then it is with us. It is their victory as well as our own." I told him the keynote of the piece they would print for me in October was this: that a literary journal that did not recognize as its first duty the defense of the liberation of literature had forfeited its truest foundation. W. at once replied, "That touches the very heart of the matter. Oh, it is splendidly told." And to Miss Porter's view that the Critic had lost spiritual grasp these last few years, W. at once responded, "I can easily see what she means—sees literature, literary things, from the standpoint of the publisher, the market, books, useless things from its human, abstract relationship. It might be hard to tell why this should be so of the Critic, too. It is how the mass stands, though I know there comes a period in the life of many men and women when they say, 'Now enough of this damned enthusiasm! I've played enthusiastic long enough—sacrificed enough, for that principle—and the world no better or worse for it. Now for taking care of enthusiastic me!' I have met many persons who held to that conviction, giving up their whole past. It is a frightful surrender, but not the only surrender men of insight learn to know."

     W. referred to the Holmes piece in the Atlantic. "I read it today and found it at first very dull, unsatisfactory." Then after a pause: "I find anyhow that I cannot read in any humor. My mind will not stick by me for consecutive work." Did his eyes fail him? "No, my eyes are pretty good, though dimming." And, further: "As I was saying, at first I thought to read Holmes'

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piece in the simple points, but found it was necessary to read all to get his point. He speaks of Emerson, too. His argument appears to be that neither Ralph Waldo Emerson nor Walt Whitman are in themselves originals, Americanos. I think that was an idea years ago put out by Longfellow into the speech of some character in 'Hyperion'—that there is no such thing as originality. Holmes would say if it is originality that is looked for, there is Sir Timothy Dexter who lived maybe several hundred years ago. My first impression of the book would be of its superficiality, but you get over that conviction as you get further along, see the quite serious purpose that animates all: and that redeems it, of course. I find I am sprinkled all through the article. It sticks in his craw to have anyone Billed, Jacked, Walted; I am Mr. Whitman throughout. I was interested in it as I am always interested in what is said by the opposition. I have always craved to hear the damndest that could be said of me, and the damndest has been said, I do believe. I have welcomed all that could be advanced, as much can well be, I know. Once or twice things have been said with such insight, I have ordered my course accordingly. I well remember the famous talk with Emerson. It was so full of the things I most welcome. Holmes is at the very top peak in such criticism. It is well to know how our small concerns look from his height."
I said, "Morris had rather felt that the piece was written under pressure." W. responding to my mention of it: "I must confess, there is a suspicion of two, three, four times water in the tea, but I let that pass. Holmes is no fool—is a man of marked intellect—but nearly always too palpably witty—deliberately so. I think that of all else, deliberate wit is best calculated for failure. Deliberate anything, in fact, the determined starting out to do a thing. Ingersoll's strength in his best work is great for his spontaneousness: the feeling it gives out, that the wit, the satire, however bitter it may have seemed, flowed freely forth, was not pored over and figured out. And in his later work—that which is making him truly superb—I think I can

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detect certain intimations of receptivity towards motives—what-not—in the church he previously would not hear."
He thought he would like to give the piece another reading, and he did. "There was another piece with it which struck me—something on the study of history by Justin Winsor—who is he?—written rather cynically, but with some effect."

     W. had heard things which made him "wish to see more of Ingersoll's article on Tolstoi. You say Tom has this magazine? I will stop up there someday to get it."

     On the chair pictures of Harleigh Cemetery. "You ought to go out," said W. with a smile, "and see Walt Whitman's grave!"


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