Skip to main content

Friday, May 11, 1888.

Friday, May 11, 1888.

Took Whitman lilacs. W. said: "Tom has been in today. He brought Donnelly's book along—The Cryptogram: I told him I wanted to look it over. [See indexical note p135.3] It is a formidable book: I do not feel strong enough to say I will read it all through: that would be almost a dare-devil thing to promise: but I'm going to tackle it. [See indexical note p135.4] The subject is attractive to me—I do not deny it—although I have only got along as far as its preliminaries. In one particular I disagree with the critics both sides—I think both sides exaggerate the genius of Shakespeare—set it up too high, count it for too much (far, very far, too much). [See indexical note p135.5] Do you suppose I accept the almost luny worship of Shakespeare—the cult worship, the college-chair worship? Not a bit of it—not a bit of it. I do not think Shakespeare was the all in all of literature. I think there were twenty thousand things coming before him and at his time and since—things, men, illuminati—and everything has to be counted. Shakespeare was the greatest of his kind—but how about his kind? I do not know that I really care who made the plays—who wrote them. [See indexical note p136.1] No—I do not think it a supreme human question though it is without a doubt a great literary question. I am not as much interested in the question direct as in what it drags along with it—the great store of curious information that it turns up—information forgotten or near lost. I never met Donnelly, but he has written me. [See indexical note p136.2] William O'Connor was a storm-blast for Bacon. I never saw anybody stand up against William when he really got going: he was like a flood: he was loaded with knowledge—yes, with knowledge: and knowledge with William was never useless—he knew what to do with it—how to put it to some use—he knew the law of knowledge, which is wisdom. I am firm against Shaksper—I mean the Avon man, the actor: but as to Bacon, well, I don't know. [See indexical note p136.3] If the theory be true as Donnelly puts it, it will not be one of the fortunate or savory exposures in literature: it will rather injure Bacon—for here it is shown—I mean here in Donnelly's book—that slanders, flings, hatreds, jealousies, constitute the staple of his motive in making the plays. I may be reading the story the wrong way about but that's the way it looks to me. [See indexical note p136.4] But after all Shakespeare, the author Shakespeare, whoever he was, was a great man: much was summed up in him—much—yes, a whole age and more: he gave reflection to a certain social estate quite important enough to be studied: he was a master artist, in a way—not in all ways, for he often fell down in his own wreckage: but taking him for all in all he is one of the fixed figures—will always have to be reckoned with. [See indexical note p136.5] It is remarkable how little is known of Shaksper the actor as a person and how much less is known of the person Shakespeare of the plays. The record is almost a blank—it has no substance whatsoever: scarcely anything that is said of him is authorized. Did you ever notice—how much the law is involved with the plays? Long before I heard of any cryptogram I had myself been conscious of the phrases, any characteristic turns, the sure touch, the invisible potent hand, of the lawyer—of a lawyer, yes: not a mere attorney-at-law but a mind capable of taking the law in its largest scope, penetrating even its origins: not a pettifogger, perhaps even technically in its detail defective—but a big intellect of great grasp. [See indexical note p137.1] Now, I have talked a good bit about a thing I know nothing about. I go with you fellows when you say no to Shaksper: that's about as far as I have got. As to Bacon—well, we'll see, we'll see."

Had W. yet written to Viele-Griffin? [See indexical note p137.2] "No: but I intended doing so today. I am not much of a correspondent—never was—always wrote when I had something definite to say but never for the sake of writing—never for the sake of keeping up what is called a correspondence. Such correspondence as that of Carlyle and Emerson would be impossible to me, though I see it is all right in itself and for them. [See indexical note p137.3] It is a matter of taste—of temperament. I don't believe I ever wrote a purely literary letter—ever got discussing books or literary men or writers or artists of any sort in letters: the very idea of it makes me sick. [See indexical note p137.4] I like letters to be personal—very personal—and then stop."

Something got us talking of Beecher. "Lots of people think it their business to damn Beecher: I say if that is their business let them damn Beecher: it won't hurt Beecher any and may help the damners some. I am not in the damning business." "Or the saving business either." [See indexical note p137.5] "That's so—or the saving business, either: I'm just alive and interested in life. I met Beecher a number of times—half a dozen at least: once right here, in Camden, at the ferry. He was to lecture one night at Freehold (it was two or three years before he died)—had an hour of waiting at the West Jersey station. I met him there in that casual way—we had a good talk: we were at it probably half an hour. [See indexical note p138.1] He was more than commonly cordial, and I hope I was, too, for I felt more than commonly drawn toward Beecher. I have heard it said of him as it has been said of Tennyson—that he would not go out of his way for a king—which means that if he pays you any attention he means it. Beecher was a friend of the Leaves from the first—even applied himself to it, I am told. He said to me this day that his first feeling about the Leaves had not vanished—had been rather accentuated." W. stopped a minute or so. I said nothing. [See indexical note p138.2] Then he added: "Ministers are rarely friendly to me—perhaps are a little more tolerant than they were at the start, though damned little. There have been some exceptions—a few orthodox preachers who were far more revolutionary than they supposed themselves to be. It is only fair to say of Beecher that he was not a minister. You wrote a good line on that point yourself once." "What was that?" "You spoke of some minister—I don't know who he was—and you said: 'There was so much of him man there was very little of him left to be minister.' That was very good. It perfectly describes Beecher." [See indexical note p138.3] Alluding to Lyman Abbott, Beecher's successor in Plymouth church, W. said: "I know nothing against Abbott and nothing in his favor: I do not regard him as a positive force however he is looked at. After Beecher he is feeble enough—like a theatre-storm after a real storm out of doors."

[See indexical note p138.4] W. discussed Stedman's American Poets again. "The book is too deliberate—holds back too much: is like a conservative charge to a jury. There are touches in Stedman that seem like genius—but just as you are about to accept him as a luminary he snuffs the light out himself. Have you got so far as the Poe yet? [See indexical note p138.5] Do I like Poe? At the start, for many years, not: but three or four years ago I got to reading him again, reading and liking, until at last—yes, now—I feel almost convinced that he is a star of con- siderable magnitude, if not a sun, in the literary firmament. Poe was morbid, shadowy, lugubrious—he seemed to suggest dark nights, horrors, spectralities—I could not originally stomach him at all. [See indexical note p139.1] But today I see more of him than that—much more. If that was all there was to him he would have died long ago. I was a young man of about thirty, living in New York, when The Raven appeared—created its stir: everybody was excited about it—every reading body: somehow it did not enthuse me. Oh—I was talking of Stedman. I wanted to say I do not think Stedman did full justice to Bryant or Longfellow or Whittier—not even to Poe. [See indexical note p139.2] I think that if Stedman had let himself go a little he would have made a book calculated for a long life. I have such personal respect, love, for Stedman, I wish his book made a stronger appeal to me. Now, if we could get Stedman himself into a book we would all bow down to it."

W. had called on a rather testy Camden scholar, Dr. Reynell Coates, and had not met with a kind reception. W. said: "I may sum Coates up by saying that he invited me to a set dinner and had nothing on his table when I got there but pickles." [See indexical note p139.3] W. described the Duyckinck brothers, whose Cyclopedia of American Literature was at one time rather authoritative. "I was left out. Why not? It was not surprising: I am not even today accepted in New York by the great bogums—much less then. [See indexical note p139.4] I met these brothers: they were both 'gentlemanly men'—and by the way I don't know any description that it would have pleased them better to hear: both very clerical looking—thin—wanting in body: mean of truly proper style, God help 'em!"

Back to top