Skip to main content

Sunday, June 24, 1888.

Sunday, June 24, 1888.

[See indexical note p374.4] Today W. again feeble. Went to his room and saw him a little after two in the afternoon. Sat fanning himself. "I'm burning up," he said: "in a little bit there'll be nothing left of me but cinders." Had written to Dr. Bucke what he called "a quite extended letter." Also a postal to his sister in Vermont. Postal rather shaky and signed "brother Walt." "I am not jubilating much," W. remarked: "the tide—rather, the flame—is against me a day like this. I just sit still and try to make living terms with the weather." W. said to Harned today: "If it was not for Horace I should be like a ship without a rudder." [See indexical note p374.5] Is more willing to have me do things. "I hate like hell to confess that I need you but I am mighty glad, needing you, to find you here to assist me." "An old veteran hates to resign his old tasks to new hands," he said again.

Still arguing over the book. [See indexical note p375.1] The book will make probably one hundred pages. He is still hoping to get the Hicks in. "I am afraid if I don't pay my debt to Hicks now I will never do it at all. And it is a sort of filial debt, too—a debt I owe my father, who loved Hicks." I am having a hard time getting him to straighten up pages 36, 37, 38. He has made one change at my suggestion, substituting "ending" for "hapless" in An Evening Lull. We discussed illustrations. "I leave that mostly in your hands," he said. "I am feeble, inaccurate, unsteady, in my work just now," he explains: "things come to me, all things, but somehow they do not always come in order."

[See indexical note p375.2] The will drawn up by Harned before he went West is still unsigned. H. today said to W.: "It would do no harm Walt to get it into ship-shape and safely put away." "That's so—I am aware of it—it should be done—I shall do it." W. spoke of the Leaves: "It is a book for the criminal classes." Harned asked: "How do you make that out?" "I don't make it out: it is the fact. The other people do not need a poet." "Are you in the criminal class yourself?" "Yes, certainly. Why not?" Harned laughed heartily. "Let me in?"

[See indexical note p375.3] W. somehow talked of American poets who were "hardly of international scope." Had we any great poets living? "Not one—not one." Then he added: "We don't need great poets, though they come. We need great men: and great men we have. I often think how much greater all the fellows are than they allow themselves to be—fellows like Gilder, Stedman—if they would only let themselves go. Some of the fellows seem afraid of their own size—pare themselves down wherever they can." [See indexical note p375.4] "Do you let yourself go?" "In the main, yes—and that has both advantages and disadvantages. I don't see how a fellow can do anything else and be honest with himself." "Most men tie themselves fast and then wonder why they are not free." "Precisely—that's a touch on the nerve. [See indexical note p376.1] You take a man like Gilder: he has an exquisite talent for certain things—exquisite: but Gilder has not been enough free from himself: he has held back too much. The same thing is true of Stedman—noble Stedman: I have always been expecting Stedman to soar out and be his full self—but Stedman, too, has drawn his reins too tight." [See indexical note p376.2] W. paused and added: "I have been reading over an old letter from Pete Doyle: so simple, true, sufficient: without even the knowledge of professional things—yet a rounded man. The real Irish character, the higher samples of it, the real Keltic influences: how noble, tenacious, loyal, they are! It was always the Irish in O'Connor that came up strong. [See indexical note p376.3] You should read—you probably have not read—a book called The Collegians, printed some fifty years ago. I can't think of the author's name—my memory plays me such shabby tricks these days—(though I should know it—it is a familiar name). [See indexical note p376.4] But anyhow, the next time you're near one of them inquire for it in one of the second-hand book stores—near Leary's or Dave McKay's—they are likely to have it: get it, read it: it is every way worth your while. It is a beautiful study of Irish life, Irish character—a little uncanny, but very important for some of the things it discloses. [See indexical note p376.5] I am not a voracious novel reader—never was—but some of the few novels I have read stick to me like gum arabic—won't let go. The Collegians was one of them."

Harned left. We then discussed our work together. W. very slow but clear. Before we got through he gave me an old Kennedy letter, saying of it: "It was along in the period when we were introducing ourselves to each other: Kennedy was still staggering some under the shock of the sex poems. [See indexical note p376.6] Kennedy was clean—clean: he made the inferences—but they were clean inferences. I think he has completely recovered." W. laughed. "I think by this time he is a completely well man." Laughed again. "Sometimes I have won the fellows against themselves—Kennedy is one case, Bucke was another." [See indexical note p377.1] "How did you win me?" "I suppose I didn't win you—we just growed up together!" I kissed W. good bye. He said: "On my bad days I like to kiss you good bye. One of these times when you come back—well, I won't say any more." He grew very quiet, looked very gently into my face, pressed my hand, and turned to the window.

I copy Kennedy's letter right here. W. had written on it in red ink: "from W. S. Kennedy a college-bred man of thirty, southern born but northern educated, an author and magazine writer."

1107 Girard St., Philadelphia, Jan. 20, '81. Dear Mr. W.

[See indexical note p377.2] Thanks for the N. A. Review. I had already read two or three times your admirable, cheerful and spirited paper, and wanted to buy it, but did not feel able. I think (though I am not sure) that an article on it will appear in The American soon by a couple of us. You will be safe in attributing the praise to me, though I "have somewhat against you" for rapping the dii minores among our poets so hard over the coxcombs. Still it will do them good doubtless. They have treated you ungenerously and foppishly—always (most of them). You have no idea how I welcome an utterance of yours. I get so utterly sick of the idiocy and knavery of the mess that it is like a sea-breeze to feel and hear your voice. [See indexical note p377.3] It tickles my diaphragm to see you run your huge subsoil prairie plough so deep down under the feet of the Lilliputians—knocking down their sham structures and leaving them either sprawling on the ground or looking foolishly at one another because exposed in their small trickeries and small literary bookeries.

I heartily congratulate you, dear friend, that at last you are having justice done you (in some degree) by the literary class of this country. [See indexical note p378.1] My heart, at least, swells with gladness and pride on account of your honors this winter. It is a red letter season in your life. The honor is not much; but then one likes to stand well at home, too, as well as abroad;—one likes it a little better, too. But I have never wondered that you were caviare to the general; because, although I see clearly that your object in treating the passions as you do is a noble and pure one, yet I have thought that the world was not ready for such a move yet. [See indexical note p378.2] And besides, I am inclined to think with Stedman that (to such poor limited and petty creatures as we bipeds are) there is something intrinsically disagreeable in the various grosser functions of the body. I hope we shall grow to be such giants sometime that this will not be so. But that it is the case now, I do not see how we can help admitting. I can't for my poor self at any rate. But never mind this. I congratulate you again on this success.

Your friend cordially, W. S. Kennedy.
Back to top