Commentary

Disciples


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Thursday, March 5, 1891

     6 P.M. Stayed a full half hour with W. He had been in the bathroom. Came laboriously over and took a seat in the small light chair by the fire. How was he? "If anything, eased—if any change, it is that way—but this indigestion, this tied-up-ness, is bad, persistent."

     Adler had asked me Sunday if there was anything he could send to add to W.'s comfort. I negatived. W. now said, "You were right—I can see nothing. I am as comfortable as a man could be in my condition: well-cared for, enough to eat and drink, friends. The last few years I have made considerable money by my writing itself, which had never been the case before. The last few days my mail has been the most horrible medley of requests, favors, flatteries you can think of. And I have had simply to lump them all in the fire. But I was about to say, thank the Professor for me—give him my love. Say I have my measure of ease here, such as it is; that I am happy to have him think of me but that he must not do more than he is already doing," alluding to the fund. "As for food, I eat enough—too much, I sometimes think. This noon Mary brought in some rice pudding. It was delicious—tasted it—kept on tasting it—till finally it was all gone. Now I am sorry—my stomach won't digest it—and there it is! I find that so much of my food seems to amount to nothing just in that way."


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     Had slept better last night. Urine restored to its normal color. Bucke has been writing of the election in Canada today. W. warned, "It may sail us nearer, nearer, union." I returned old proofs to Myrick today and brought W. two new galleys. In improved humor about it. "We are almost done with these poems—good!" On the bed a package marked thus: N A Rev: article
'National Literature'
two copies



     Said it was for me. How did the piece grow on him? "It does not grow. I feel now as I look at it that it don't really touch the National Literature subject—don't even graze the edge of it: only suggests, suggests, suggests, leading to nothing definite." I remarked, "Well, it may be like 'Leaves of Grass'—important in the things it leads out to, not in any outright gift." And he, "Yes, perhaps. And that is in fact the true spinal thing in all books. We need go no further," but, granting this, "I am still not satisfied with the piece. It seems to leave everything untold—everything." And then, "The slips are now in your hands. Examine them. I got them today after all—have now sent most of them away. We must wait and see what they come to."

     Gave me quite a package of mail—a book among them, ordered by a Western man. Returned me Harper's Weekly and Current Literature.

     I alluded to the intelligence of my news-agent, whereat he remarked, "I understand. Such men—of the streets—mechanics: they are very mines, offering every treasure." I brought him new bills in exchange for the $20 bill he gave me yesterday and he was delighted, fingering them with childlike pleasure. After contemplating the five for some time without a word, he suddenly turned to me and said, "We have our international copyright at last—the bill is signed today. The United States, which should have been the first to pass the thing, is the last. Now all civilized nations have it. It is a question of honesty—of morals—of a literature, in fact. I know it will be said by some—Here,

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now, how is it that you, Walt Whitman, author of 'Leaves of Grass,' are in favor of such a thing? Ought the world not to own the world in common? Well, when others do, we will, too. This copyright bill is the doing as we would be done by."
I laughed and suggested that Congressmen opposed it so long on the pleas that it would deprive the people of books, W. exclaiming, "Not so—that was not the issue—the issue was, whether the man here who manufactured doll's eyes should be wiped out of the market by some Swiss or other manufacturer of doll's eyes who would make them two cents a hundred cheaper." What form literary protection would after a while take he "would not prophesy." But "there will come changes and mighty ones."

     Speaking of copyright again, W. said, "It is comparative, this virtue matter. What is true and right to one generation is wrong or unfinished to the next."

     I had a couple of letters from Symonds this morning—remarkable, both. Here they are:
Am Hof, Davos Platz, Switzerland
Feb. 21, 1891

Dear Mr. Traubel

Your letter of the 7th and the beautiful verses, original in thought & graceful in expression, which you sent with it, bring back to my memory a letter which I once wrote you on the occasion of the paragraph I sent for Walt's anniversary.

I wrote the letter, & tore it up, because I thought that the friendly feeling expressed in it from me to a stranger whom it was not likely I should ever see, might appear to you sentimental or unreal.

I feel I was mistaken; for yours which lies before me now is full of that confidence & straightforward comradeship which inspires a like return, & would have justified the warmth of my spontaneous utterance.

We English people, especially those of us who have "aristocratic" connections, & who have been bred at a public school like Eton or Harrow, & at Oxford or Cambridge, we, I say, find it hard to break the conventional husk, & be as simple as God made us.

These national peculiarities have great drawbacks, & offer obstacles to the free currents of manly sympathy. Yet they have stood the

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Anglo-Saxon in good stead during his long brutal warfare with new lands & savage populations. So I ought not to complain only I feel it rather ridiculous to have written you a long letter of sincere feeling, & to have torn it up, because I thought it "too forthcoming"—now that I am sure you would have liked it.


I hope that the spirit of our Master, if it water & leaven the whole mass, will eventually do much to lift what is free & noble in men above the petty pens of their castes & creeds & prejudices. It has already done this in those of us who carry written on our hearts (if hearts can be tattooed by life-long thought-preoccupations), the letters W. W. Queen Mary said that "Calais" would be found tattooed upon her heart, poor woman!

Still we must be careful, walking in the footsteps of the Master, not to break the limits of a masculine reserve. It is very difficult, I think—at least, it requires a wonderful equipoise of factors in the man—to be as fluid & responsive, as elastic in sympathy & as full of buoyant impulse, as Walt Whitman is, without tumbling over into what the English call "gush."

This sort of predicament is drawn forth from me by the very keen interest I take in all that you have said to me about your life with Walt. I want to tell you, candidly & sincerely, how grateful all disciples of our Master must be to those who tend & brighten with their service and affection his declining years: & how much I personally thank you for the good thought which inspired you to write to me as you have done. I am easily drawn to all those who have a clear unsuspicious nature, such as I find here among my dear friends of these Swiss mountains—people whose only faults are hereditary love of hard blows, love of the wine-cup, and love of mastering their neighbors in business; but who, for the rest, give their hands & hearts to a comrade. I am sure I owe it to Walt that I am able to appreciate this grand stuff of humanity, in spite of my culture & my criticism & the burden of book-learning I carry about with me, & like a pedlar display to the public in my literary products.

And I owe it to him that my heart warms to you, who are helping him, & who are so generous in friendly feeling toward myself. What a man he is! who can make the world kin by common touch & central throb of his own vital self!

Write to me again, & send me, if you wish, a photograph by wh. I may know you as in a glass darkly. I seek and feel after the bodily

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presentment of a man who occupies my thought. And it is only too probable that we shall never meet; for life is growing for me yearly more & more difficult. I find it every year more troublesome to live, more irksome to do my daily tale of work.


I exchanged some words by letter with Walt lately about his "Calamus." I do not think he quite understood what I was driving at. Yet that does not signify. I wish you would tell me what you & your friends feel to be the central point in this most vital doctrine of comradeship. Out here in Europe I see signs of an awakening of enthusiastic relations between men, which tend to assume a passionate character. I am not alarmed by this, but I think it ought to be studied.

In true friendship, yours,

John Addington Symonds



Am Hof, Davos Platz, Switzerland

Dear Mr. T.,

Here are a few sentences about Walt, if you can or care to use them. They are dictated in simple truth by a sense of the impossibility of saying aught to the point yet on Walt's work.

Yours,

J.A.S.



[See Appendix II, page 593, for the text of this letter]
Did not give to W., but spoke of the personal letter, which I promised to leave with him tomorrow. W. said, "Poor fellow! He seems on the down-road. Must be sicker, sicker. You remember, he speaks in the letter to Johnston of being decrepit—poor fellow!" And several times again referred to Symonds. "I do not always seem the worst of the lot, though bad enough, God knows! Poor Symonds! And so the letters come—brimful—but in a lowered key!"

     Referred me to an English reprint of Ingersoll's address. "Not handsome, but useful." Gratified. It would give the cause still greater currency, and so on, speaking in most delightful, impersonal way.


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