Interviews and Reminiscences

About this Item

Title: In RE Walt Whitman: Walt Whitman at Date

Creator: Horace L. Traubel

Date: 1893

Whitman Archive ID: med.00581

Source: Our transcription is based on Horace L. Traubel, In RE Walt Whitman (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1893), 109–147. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the interviews, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Brett Barney, Nic Swiercek, and Shea Montgomerey



John Addington Symonds has recently said: "'Leaves of Grass,' which I first read at the age of twenty-five, influenced me more, perhaps, than any other book has done, except the Bible; more than Plato, more than Goethe." A confession so frank, clothing so exalted an estimate, avowed by such a man, commands attention. For as values are here distributed, it is not in voice or echo of actors long dead, or of prophets remembered for special and temporary reasons of race or creed, but from a man the selected flower of our modern democracy, an American—a great, robust, often decried, but always far-seeing American —that the amplest single message so far known in literature is heard. "Except the Bible," it is held; but the Bible is a mosaic, complex in range and approach, evoked of many hands, out of we know not what varied conditions, to except which is to make no exception at all.

If the judgment of Symonds is to be confirmed or its correctness is even suspected, a stream of incalculable ramifications has been set free in the modern world. And it is to some of the flowers along the way and the wood that drifts with the tide that these notes are dedicated. We need not—as we cannot —get away from the man to the book, or from the book to the man, but we can indicate by touches rightly bestowed how man and book run on together, and become in their way vocative of democracy and its future.

While the world knows Walt Whitman by name, or from the controversies he has aroused, it is often strangely ignorant of the direct principles for which he stands as a writer, or the gifts which distinguish him as a person, and of the splendid courage

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with which he has passed triumphantly through a generation of abuse and misunderstanding. My purpose here is mainly to depict what passes for his average daily life. How stands he among his friends and in the street, how is his philosophy lived out, into what runs the red flood of his everyday life? We have known him showered with defamation on the one hand, and on the other hand ignored. Yet he has always proved to be a man with whom a policy of avoidance was not wise, and a policy of brutality futile. His great friend O'Connor loved to describe, as on a memorable day to me not long before his death, the simple power that Whitman asserted in the merely casual deeds of his life in Washington. O'Connor would tell of the unstudied majesty of his physical port—of its betrayal in the carriage of the head, the swing of the body, the ease and confidence of the step. He would say that some looked to applaud, some to disdain, but that all looked, and all were indefinably moved by the imminence of an unusual personality.

There have been discussions of the form of Whitman's work, of his dislike for hampering traditions, of his philosophy as developed in religious, political or other directions. Critics have doubted his art, questioned his integrity, stood aghast at his "impurity," been dismayed by his lusty first-hand power, and shaken wise heads over the alleged downward tendency of his realism. Yet the earlier shock yields in almost every vigorous person to steady influences. There is no quality of his individuality without a similar history, running the thread of enmity to conquest and unswerving loyalty. Some to whom at this moment he stands pre-eminent for poetic genius were not long ago prepared to deny that such a guerilla could meet the first trial of poetic virtue. Worshipers of old standards are friends of new. Victim is transformed to victor. It is from this change of feeling, and the quality of the many who have come in touch with the poet and his work, that there appear reasons for desiring to know the habits and humors of the man.

With Lincoln, Emerson and Walt Whitman as positive factors in the turbulence of its first century, America has no need to turn apologetically to the older countries and to past times.

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When I once asked Whitman what three or four names of absolute greatness he thought America had so far offered, he answered interrogatively: "What would you say to Washington, Lincoln, Grant, and Emerson?" I have frequently heard from him the highest mention of Cooper in the same connection. To these, or to any others which might be insisted upon, I do not hesitate to add his own name.

The aureola circling Lincoln, Emerson, Whitman, satisfies the present and foretells the future glory of our national life. For nearly a quarter of a century the fame of Lincoln has been gathering its shadows and laughter into the evidence of a marvelous character rooted in universal soils. Already is Emerson current in every stream, serene in every area of spiritual performance. Whitman, the last of the triad, threading still the ways of this mortal life, living a new youth in old age—laboring, believing —clear of soul, prophetic, losing neither sweetness nor sanity as troubles multiply and the future puts on somber robes, completes and cement the chain. But abating here all questions of greatness, I wish to jot roughly something of Walt Whitman, the man, as I know him in these later years. I assume that he is eminent, and that as time absorbs these details of days, these throbs of passing loss and gain, in their more general effects, what "Leaves of Grass" signifies, and, furthermore, what color the daily life of the poet has worn, will be increasingly questions of interest and demand.

Walt Whitman came to Camden in 1873, and I have known him ever since. It is one of the pleasant mysteries of our intercourse how our ways first crossed, for neither of us has even a faint or dulled remembrance of an introduction or a start. "We simply grew into each other," said Whitman—"perhaps always were part and parcel of one influence." The history of the years preceding this change of habitat are well known or easily accessible. Whitman's life has now covered seventy-one years. From 1819 to 1855, at which last date "Leaves of Grass" achieved its first public expression, Whitman's experience had been most varied, always in the line of the preservation of those primary rugged qualities which are the necessary background of

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great events or great persons. He had been builder, type-setter, reporter, teacher, editor; and through the association thus brought had penetrated with uniform subtlety the shallows and deeps of American character. Losing any part of these, of travels North and South, of contact with class and mass, would have meant not only a loss of factors vital to the life of the great poem, but equally a shock and draft upon its prevailing spirit. If you speak to him about these potent contributions, he will speak to you of the importance of things which history ignores or forgets.

Whitman's immediate touch with our democracy in the making must be remembered, if any picture of the man is to be gained.

When Whitman was born (1819), Walter Scott was at the meridian of his fame; "Ivanhoe" was just out, and not long after "Quentin Durward" appeared—"both of them masterpieces of historic and literary emotional narrative," as Whitman expresses it in a note just put in my hands. Scott has been throughout a great and attractive character to Walt Whitman, especially in his personality and in his "Border Minstrelsy" ballads. Whitman has been fed, as Dr. Bucke has remarked, first on Long Island scenery and the real seashore, then on New York and Brooklyn city life, superadding the southern journeys, the secession war, and western travel. But books have had not a little to do with his initiative as well as with the growths of later years; curiously, those "Border Minstrelsy" ballads were the first start of all, pointing definite ways which became the common order and safety of his future.

He has said to me that "the special designs, either of the artist to make a fine work from aesthetic or poetic or imaginative or intellectual points of view, or of the moralist or religioso from his, sinks into quite a subordinate position," in the scheme of "Leaves of Grass."

Walt Whitman is often spoken of as a man of details; but, after all, "Leaves of Grass" is a spirit, not a statistical rehearsal, as nature is a spirit and not a count of the leaves of her forests. It certifies to heaven and earth, as having roots in each.

Out of a so expansive life—a life which, while careless of sub-

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tleties, has turned unfailing reverence upon the play of sympathy in man —came the giant figure known in Camden these sixteen years past, and with which my own fortunes have been so tenderly entwined.

My earliest memory of Whitman leads me back to boyhood, when, sitting together on his doorsteps, we spent many a late afternoon or evening in review of books we had read. I am quite clear about the dread I experienced in the face of his subtle questions. Once I took him my copy of Castelar's "Lord Byron and Other Sketches," which he read with joy and warmly applauded. He had already imbibed a genuine love and admiration for the great Spaniard, and to this sentiment he is still faithful. These were my first years with Emerson, and the questions provoked by my confession of this fact would startle me by their directness. At this time he lived with his brother, Colonel George Whitman. The house they occupied was capacious—of plain brick, finely shadowed at the front with trees. It was Whitman's habit in milder weather to spend the early evening out of doors. I often happened upon him as he sat there in the shade enjoying his story front, which faced south. But I was apt to meet him strolling along the street, or on the boat, as at his home. On cold days he wore his long gray coat; in very hot weather he might be observed on his way without coat, vest, or suspenders, distinguished from afar by the glimpse of a spotless white shirt, open always at the throat. I recall many such approaches. My nebulous impression then was of a large man, of generous nature, magnetic beyond speech. All my earlier views tended to recognize him as man rather than as prophet—as a summing-up of singular personal power. Although I was not ignorant of his books, or inclined to underestimate their gravity, what he had written seemed dwarfed by the eminent quality of this human attractiveness. He rarely spoke to me of his work. Copious in narrative, frank and clear in comment upon current affairs, especially lingering upon the details of the lore of the streets, Whitman's spoken word or speechless presence was to

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me a high and incessant resource. He lifted my common experience into biblical sanctity, and impelled my whole life to expanding issues. I can recall how vividly he would touch upon the then more recent hospital experience. He had not the least arrogance of speech: his attention when I spoke, his curiosity to grasp the pith of what I said, was unfailing. "There's a something—oh! so deep, deep!—in every man, worth travelling to, waiting for—to be seen, absorbed, respected,—yes, reverenced."

I have been fortunate to hear Whitman describe with multifarious detail the circumstance of his sickness and certain consequences of it which led to his settlement in Camden. It appears that while in Washington, from 1864 to 1870, he suffered several partial paralytic attacks, the influence of which he succeeded in temporarily throwing off, partly medical counsel, but mainly by drafts upon that private reserve of wisdom which in all later perils has secured him. He thus stayed what afterwards was proved to be an inevitable, if impeded tide. But finally, after 1870, a culminating severe spell, in the form of the rupture of a small blood vessel at the back of the head, prostrated him. The trouble was complicated by the death of his mother and a sister. He had seemed to be recovering, but the sad conflux of sorrows produced a relapse. Furthermore, the hot weather was approaching. His doctor, W.B. Drinkard, of whose wisdom and noble manhood Whitman frequently speaks, peremptorily order a change of locale. Starting for the New Jersey seacoast, he broke down badly in Philadelphia. He was taken to Camden. His friends and family, hardly less than Whitman himself, anticipated an early and fatal termination. Nevertheless, in a few months he again rallied, going off into the country as soon as able, staying there under plain conditions, having no conference with doctors nor welcome for medicine, making love with open-air influences, and healing himself by intuitions that superbly suited method to man. Thence back to Camden and permanent settlement. The years since have been marked by acute physical trials. "I have closely grazed death more than once," he says. Back of repeated recoveries stands the fact of his great rock-ribbed heredity and constitution. He had planted

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his birthright in eternal seasons. Drinkard wrote from Washington to a Philadelphia doctor, in detailing Whitman's case, that here was a man with "the most natural habits, bases, and organization" he had "ever met with or ever seen." Dr. Bucke, whose authority is grounded both in friendship and professional insight, lays stress upon Whitman's exceptional physical qualities—his stature, his build, the nobility of his form and features, his splendid constitution, the remarkable acuteness of his senses—as well as upon the depth of his moral intuition, and the subtlety and truth of his instincts.

Whitman at times describes the subtler phases of his trouble with a master's trick—with more than the surgeon's candor and the artist's grace. His prostration arose from a poisoned wound in the right hand, received while assisting at the amputation of the gangrened limb of a Virginia Union soldier, to whom he was much attached. Hand and arm inflamed and swelled, the vessels under the skin showing like red snakes running up to the shoulder. Though seemingly bettered or cured, the excessive labors and worriments of that period, with the saturation of hospital malaria, through those hot summers, no doubt in a measure sapped even his almost perfect organization. Some people ask after his sacrifice. Why should he have deemed it his part to submit to the axe? "Nothing overmuch" had in earlier times been his self-counsel. But in the presence of a great necessity, such barriers must be thrown to the winds. He once said to me: "Perhaps only one who has seen the fearful suffering and wholesale deaths of those days, for men's lack of care and aid, can understand or sympathize with my impulses and acts." He ministered to fully a hundred thousand persons, cheering all, making no distinction of North or South, alleviating where he could the red overflow of discord and dismay. All his speech upon this topic is subdued. He never vaunts his choice and participation. He never sets up for sainthood. He rather protests his evil with his good. This chapter, as any other that goes to portray him, must be read in the light of the necessity that inspired his faith. It is to be neither welcomed nor rejected in any spirit of lusterless display or vulgar modesty.

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I will not linger upon this earlier history. The transition through the first years of our acquaintance to the later intimacy was gradual and never broken. Since it has become known that I enjoyed this connection, the questions put to me vocally and by letter have been multitudinous. What I say here is largely in response to such items of this curiosity as now recur to me.

Walt Whitman is a large man, six feet in height, broad of build, symmetrical, with an ineffable freedom evident even in these days of his broken physical fortunes. In years of health he weighed fully two hundred pounds. His head and face betray power and fortitude in high degree. I have a picture before me as I write, a rare one, taken in Washington in 1863, which reveals phases discoverable in no later portraits. The beard, cropped rather close, and the head, with its elevation and unshadowed energy, express immense virility, mingled with the most delicate evidences of emotion and sympathy. His complexion, while still fine, is nowadays somewhat paled; and yet it showed its unpolluted origin. The rosy pink tint of the skin, of body as of face, and the skin's peculiar softness and richness of texture, are unlike similar features of any man I have known. His eye is dull—one realizes how dull when he is seen sitting face to face with his friend Dr. Bucke, who has an eagle's orb. Twenty years, with their history of physical disaster, have dimmed and troubled his sight and not infrequently, through painful symptoms, aroused a suspicion of impending eclipse.

His voice has been strong and resonant. Full of music—a rich tenor—it charms ear and heart. It has high tones not so sweet. In ordinary talk it many reflect the faults, with the virtues, of monotone. But for depiction of event or repetition of poetic line or prophetic utterance it is equal to curious and exquisite modulations. Its range is simple, like the simplicity of the language

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itself. He would say, nature has her few elements and works these into infinite combinations. This is the text-thought of his art, whether manifested in tone, word or song. I have heard him raise his speech in argument till it was as shrill and imperative as a bugle, and talk to babes in tones that cooed like a cradle song. His gestures are few and effective. He has an extraordinarily large ear, set at an unusual line. His hand is the hand of laborer and scribe, large in bone and sinew and shape for strength and beauty. In all the years of my knowledge of him he has been lamed below the hips, so that I have never seen him in halcyon vigor. His paralysis from the first deprived him of effective locomotive power, and the sad strokes of 1888 almost utterly removed the old certainty of support. The severest loss has been on the left side. Apart from the right arm, which still maintains some actual vigor, his physical energies have declined and departed.

It is almost superfluous to add that "the good gray poet" is no misnomer; the silvered hair and beard, the customary suit of gray, the wide-brimmed gray wool hat, combining to preserve the integrity of the term.

Whitman does not, either at first glance or finally, suggest the intellectual type. He never overwhelms by a show of the knowledge which the schools propound. He suggests power, mass, repose—carrying a train of qualities which might be called Greek. I went to him once with William M. Salter. On our exit the visitor exclaimed: "What a beautiful face! and his voice, too, how grand! I have never before realized such a presence." And here is in fact the word which better than any other compasses Whitman—presence. To read him in print, to observe him by his familiar fireside, is all one. Everybody I take there is first of all moved by the mere port and odor—the magnetic mystery—of his person. They seem effected as by new airs—breezes from uplands unknown. I never heard any one remark initially his brains, smartness, erudition, as they infallibly do of others, though these qualities, too, are unmistakably present. Group him with the happiest selection of men, and he easily looms above them, however in special ways any

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one might be regarded as his superior. I have been present under such circumstances, in his bedroom and elsewhere, when he was conversationally and pictorially the central figure by right which no one could dispute.

In his parlor, one cold night, I said: "You are an open-air god—this does not seem your place! It is as if we plumped an oak down in-doors, and said, 'there—get life!'" he laughed and said: "However I ought to be, here I am—here is the oak!" But the oak keeps it grandeur, outspreading threshold and roof-tree to the latest day.

Whitman's first years in Camden were spent boarding with his brother and sister-in-law in Steven's street. The Boston persecution (the threatened lawsuit against the Osgood edition) for a year or two excited the usual curiosity-sale of his books. The resultant income, combined with certain generous and accepted tender of George W. Childs, enabled him to purchase the little wooden house in which he is now for eight years dispensed a modest hospitality. It is a plain, box-like building, with two simple stories and a slanting loft, divided into six rooms and a bathroom. Up to June, 1888, the parlor was both work-room and reception-room, though it may have occurred at times that he wrote or read in the room above. Of late the latter has received all the honors of occupancy. It is but rarely that he goes down-stairs during the day. All his meals are eaten in his "workshop." Special visitors are received in the parlor. In the evening he will in some seasons sit at one of the lower windows, often after his trip in the wheeled chair, often if not going out at all. He will wave his hands to friends as they pass. With hat and coat at careless ease, and hair stirred by gentle breezes, he haloes the spot. Not infrequently will he remain an hour or more in his chair out on the sidewalk. Strangers will stop and talk. Children will approach him and make their playful feints. There is no chance that any chapter in the shifting tale of the street will escape him. "This is a good enough throne for any man: I bring all things to my door."

There have been long periods since June, 1888, during which he has not left his room except for the bath. Self-helpful, gently

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forbidding even minor attentions, he is yet infallibly cautious. The trips he takes about the house are possibly more painful and toilsome to those who watch than to him. The wheeled chair was one outcome of the dinner fund in 1889, in addition to a surplus in cash. It has been a great boon. The horse and buggy—the historic gift of a group of loving friends—were sold in 1888, in the conviction that they would never be needed again. They had been a lease of larger life. Daily the drives, daily the refreshment, daily the new earth and new sky. Sometimes he was willing to be attended, sometimes he would prefer to be alone. He would cover good stretches of the surrounding flat but fertile country, and delight in every evidence of thrift and prosperity. Though often in Philadelphia, his main driving scape, the farms, the crops were a never-failing exhilaration. I have lounged by his carriage on the boat, and had his greeting as he passed me on the road, the head erect and beard floating on the wind. His salute on a crowded street liberated my heart from its commercial shadows. I remember how one summer's day, years ago—the contrast of his serenity with the impatience of everything about him. But he says: "I like best to brush up against all this bustle and noise—then run away from it... I respect its necessity—all that it does and means... but my head grows dizzy in its midst."

Whitman's birthday in 1888, May 31, was marked by a reception tendered him at Thomas B. Harned's residence. It was a simple, domestic occasion, which he much enjoyed. A supper, the dropping-in of a few friends, informal talk, a little music, congratulations, filled up the festive hour. That night I took him the first proofs of "November Boughs." Thenceforward, our daily intercourse, for work or friendly enterprise, was unbroken. Within the few days that followed, June 2d and 3d, occurred those several slight paralytic shocks which left such serious results. He was with us at Harned's for dinner on Sunday, June 2d. In the afternoon, Dr. Bucke surprised us. We had supposed him in Canada, but he had come unannounced into the

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States with a sanitary delegation. Later, when Whitman's carriage drove up, he apologized to Clifford, "I had intended giving you this trip," and went off with Dr. Bucke, who had but a brief space to remain. After driving about miscellaneously he left Bucke at the ferry and hastened off, now alone, into the county, northward, to what is called Pea Shore. Here his horse was urged into the water, and Whitman—the haughty Delaware at his feet, a speckles sky overhead—spent what he described as an unspeakable hour in contemplation of the sunset. Whether this may have been incautious, or because of some slumbering, now aroused, tendency, he suffered a chill, attended with signs of paralysis, in the evening. Stricken thus in his room when alone, and in the midst of his sponging off, he stubbornly refrained from calling assistance. But for what followed we should never have known that here, in his privacy, he had met with a critical experience. He told us subsequently that he had determined to fight the battle out single-handed. The next forenoon early he sustained another shock, and toward noon a third. I had come over that day with proofs, to find him upon the lounge in the parlor, Harned and Mrs. Davis present, at his side, and he endeavoring in vain to recover his impaired speech. Though he had suffered many similar blows in years gone, heretofore articulation had been in no way affected. I suppose twenty minutes elapsed before he regained self-control. To Mrs. Davis' inquiries he responded that he would soon be better, but if he were not it would be all right. Yet his resilience was so prompt that before I left he looked cursorily at all the proofs, and answered all my questions. The ensuing week was a bad one, but he was down stairs every day and would duly talk proof with me in the evening. On Saturday night, when Bucke went with Harned and with me to Mickle street, Whitman appeared to be swept to the border line of collapse, and there were hours on Sunday when we all felt that he had come near his end. At this juncture Dr. Osler, of Philadelphia, was called in for consultation. It was readily seen that Whitman was in no condition to live. But the application of drastic measures produced a marked change in the night. Monday,

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therefore, brought us nearer an unclouded hope. Bucke had to go home without further tarrying. I shall never forget his departure—the solemn conviction, on my side as on his, that some near recall was inevitable. Recovery from this attack was tedious and never absolute. Whitman always attributed his release to Dr. Bucke's presence and "affectionate exercise of experience and skill." He called it "pulling safely from a close call."

The whole of that year had its shadows and doubts—fresh assaults, fresh recoveries. Whitman assured me: "We may go down any day. The old ship cannot last for many more voyages at the best. But the flag it still up—I am still at the wheel!"

In the mean time we proceeded with our schemes, producing "November Boughs" and the thousand-page autograph edition of his complete works. In 1889 we printed an edition of "Leaves of Grass," in celebration of his birthday. "November Boughs" was slow in the making. Spells of illness made continuous work impossible; but he heroically persevered. I left proof with him each evening on my return from Philadelphia, and he would examine it the following day. He thoroughly respected my autonomy, never once crossing my transactions with printer or binder. He had a keen eye for mistakes in the types, his corrections were always clear, and his determination to have things his own way was absolute.

"November boughs" contained both prose and verse, the latter grouped as "Sands at Seventy" and so arranged as to be incorporated with all later editions of "Leaves of Grass." I remember our discussion of this headline at Harned's table, one Sunday previous to Whitman's illness. Whitman had an alternate, and then an alternate for the alternate—and we voted for the words he adopted. There was plan and plan until the last touch was secured. I never found him reaching out at random or throwing his work together. Neither did he build in any formal sense. He set his streams free and let them find their natural union. Stedman classes Whitman's Lincoln poem with Lowell's ode—but there is every difference between them, as between a cloud or a brook that floats or flows in the humor of freedom, and a stately arch that is deliberately built.

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Whitman likes a handsome page. He hates to have a chapter close at the end of a page; would rather cut off a precious paragraph, as he did in "A Backward Glance," than leave the eye offended. So, too, would he accommodate poem to circumstance. A line too much or too little did not worry him. He never quarreled with necessity—made it, rather, his agent, supplicating his approval. His insertions were circumspect and left no jar on the ear. His blue-pencilled excisions were made without compunction. The little poem, "Memories," was written on the margin of a proof sheet, to fill up a page. He always had a noble line ready. His verbal ear was exact and exacting. Two or three of the poems were written in this time of his great illness, to run in on page 403.

"I always know what I want before I get through," he laughingly assures me, "but I do not always see all the details clear at the beginning... I feel about for the lay of the ground." And yet he is quick to flash out approval on occasion. He says he is "discovered" by intuitive people—that he finds he really has no secret plan or thought which somebody does not detect.

To remember "Now Precedent Songs, Farewell," and "An Evening Lull," with a footnote they trail in their wake, is imposed upon any student of Whitman who realizes how profoundly man and work run one into the other: as Ingersoll would put it, how all points to the book, or the person, called "Leaves of Grass."

Whitman was most patient with the printers. None beyond the first and always fleeting shades of irritation appeared at any time. When anything pleased him, he always wished to send some book or coin or portrait, in recognition—for instance, to the boy who took his proofs, the foreman who anticipated his desires and realized his taste, to the binder who forecast or confirmed his design. "How much I owe to that man Mirick, who bosses the composing-room, and Downs—you say his name is Downs?—the proof-reader, I could not tell... They anticipate, they more than fulfill me, my wishes... I have been mainly fortunate in my bookmakers—but I never fell

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into better hands than these... So you must treat them well—give them my love—in nothing hide our feelings... I always have a suspicion that these print-fellows anyhow crown all the rest."

His caution is a quality to be duly understood and remembered. I never knew him to do anything in a hurry. The printer could not get a snap "yes" or "no" on any question. He would insist on full time to weigh every problem. He never let go his task. Whatever the difficulties or delays, he held fast to the native call. "Better me for mine than any other for me," he would answer when expostulated with. Some of his friends thought he ought to give the books into other hands. He would not do it. He liked c