Skip to main content

Sunday, August 19, 1888.

Sunday, August 19, 1888.

Much cooler today. W. more comfortable though still weak. Sat up and read and wrote some, but "irregularly, in snatches." Towards evening started reading the plate proofs. Debated with himself the merits of wet and dry proofs—"I am inclined to the wet." Said: "It is a moot subject among printers: ask the best fellers when you see 'em—ask the Century people some day." Says sometimes his physical body threatens to break him down. But: "If we keep pegging away slowly but persistently, the book must in the end come out—if I should last, and I guess I will. But we mustn't crow until we've left the last limit of the woods behind us—till we're clean out into the open. The vicissitudes are many—the certainties few. I have got beyond the point where I make the least calculation for the morrow—for any morrow. Yet it is our chief business to plod ahead, not disturbed, frittered away, with thoughts of things that might be."

"Aunt Mary" died this morning. W. said: "Poverty, old age, trouble, the severe heat—and then the finish! The extreme poor suffer extra burdens of life—carry an unfair load. Some day we will get all that fixed right in the world—some day after many days." W. talked like a tired man—very clear, however. "I always tell you, Horace—don't you notice?—that my mind is bound to last me out whatever becomes of my body." Spoke of the Harneds. "I suppose Tom and Frank are at Atlantic City today? And the children? Ah! The dear dear children! Horace, the Harneds are true as truth itself—they are the best thing in the midst of worst things." W. asked: "Where have you been today?—who seen?—what doing?" I said: "I have met no literary people." "Thank God!" I knew he would take it that way. He always does. But when I added: "I had a long talk with Ed Lindell at the ferry," he was at once animated and said: "Tell me about it—what had Ed to say about things in general?" "He didn't speak about things in general—he spoke mostly of you." Laughed. "That was good in Ed: but things in general would be more interesting." W. said; "When you come in I asked you, howdydo? Ain't that a good word?—howdydo. It has a phonetic significance—has pith, is straight-to. I am told that in some places west the salutation is still further abbreviated. You meet a man: you ask, How?"

No letters today from anyone—"not a wisp." Read the Press. "The Press editorially is an empty barrel: I reach clean to the bottom and find nothing." Spoke of O'Connor: "He is a withering fire to his enemies and a sustaining fire to his friends. William has more right words for right places in him than any man I know of in America." Was delighted that I had established such friendly personal relations with the printers. "You seem to be very free there—free with the workmen themselves. That is good—good. The workman always comes before the boss—though you tell me that Ferguson himself is a fine feller and I believe you. If I could get about I would like to go there myself, to shake hands all around." W. asked me: "You seem to read a lot. Where do you do your reading?" "Most of it as I go about in the boats and cars—often even in walking." "That is right—in the open air—in the midst of things: that is where life meets you in the flush. If there is anything peculiar in my work it lies just in that—in jottings of the moment, made for truth, not made for effect." My father spoke of the Twenty Years' drawings in the Magazine of Art as being "so Scotch." W. assented: "They struck me the same way: God bless the Scotch!" He mentioned the New York Herald as "exceptional among newspapers in that it now and then prints an editorial which a man can read with a clear conscience." I laughed. "I mean it: they are sometimes so good I am impelled to write to the Herald in recognition of its singular virtue." W. asked me: "You took the Gilder letter with you last night: you have said nothing about it: have you nothing to say?" "I was waiting for you to say—" This is the letter.

Editorial Department of the Century Magazine, Union Square, New York, June 7, '83. My dear Mr. Whitman:

I do not know whether you saw a little paragraph in a recent number of the Critic—in the Lounger's Department. I have not seen Dr. Bucke's book, but I was told that he had done me the honor of quoting some verses of mine. I was asked whether those verses were written for the book, or about yourself, and I said "no—they were published in the magazine some time ago and were suggested by another writer." I am very sorry that paragraph appeared as it did, or at all, as it might look as if I were not a friend and admirer of the subject of the book.

Are you coming north this summer? I wish you would come and see me at Marion, on Buzzard's Bay in Mass. If you will give me the slightest encouragement I will try to get Burroughs there to meet you. Splendid pine woods, good fishing and boating—a quiet little whaling village. Think well of it and let me know by return mail.

Very sincerely yours R. W. Gilder.

W. said this: "Doctor was quite set in the notion that Gilder originally meant that for me but I said no—no—it didn't seem quite likely. When Gilder himself said no Maurice was furious: he wrote me: 'Your friend has not the courage of his convictions.' I said to Maurice: 'Not so fast, not so fast: you have no right to charge up your accusing inference against Gilder.' It seems the same to me today. Gilder has always been my friend—very good friend—indeed, I may say my 'dear' friend, speaking for myself, for my own affections: but I never felt that he put me quite up where placed 'the true poet.' He may have meant his poem for somebody in particular—I don't know why, but somebody: or he may have written it at large, to apply to a situation—or maybe it was only prophetic: anyway, I do not see that it fits itself to me, necessarily. I think Maurice finally conceded that I was more right than he was—that his angry reaction of the moment was not quite the mood in which to meet the incident." I asked W.: "Did you go to Marion?" "No—it was out of the question at the time, though tempting in the extreme. With Burroughs along, and the Mrs. Gilder as well as Watson himself, I'd had one of the times of my life. The Gilders have always received me without ifs and buts—I am not dead sure I have always shown them that my appreciation, my love for them, has no ifs and buts either."

[1905. I referred the 1883 letter to Gilder—asked him if he remembered it. Here is his answer: Editorial Department of the Century Magazine Union Square New York, November 29, 1905. My dear Traubel: This letter from me I only vaguely remember, but I think it explains itself quite clearly. They (the verses) refer evidently to my poem entitled When the True Poet Comes, which was supposed by some to have been suggested by Walt Whitman, and, when asked, I had to say it was not so suggested, as, indeed, should be evident to anyone who reads the poem carefully, because in it it says: "Manners like other men, an unstrange gear." This means that the particular poet I spoke of was conventional in his dress and bearing, which Whitman was not. I may tell you that I referred to the lack of popular appreciation of Charles DeKay's poetry—a lack which Whitman himself, strangely, as it seems, exemplifies. DeKay is surely one of our most virile and imaginative poets, as well as a great admirer of Whitman, and yet, as you know, Whitman spoke contemptuously of him. Of course I did not know that until I read your manuscript. I do not remember the paragraph in the Critic. If you can strike the date it would not be impossible, perhaps to find it. But you see that I say as follows: "I am very sorry that paragraph appeared as it did, or at all, as it might look as if I were not a friend and admirer of the subject of the book." The letter shows that I was such a friend and admirer way back in '83. I wish I could have got Whitman to Marion, as I tried to do. It would have been a delightful memory. Sincerely yours, R. W. Gilder.]

W. said to me tonight: "Beware of the literary cliques—keep well in the general crowd: beware of book sympathies, caste sympathies. Some one said here the other day—who was it?—'Mr. Whitman you seem to have sympathy for manhood but not for authorship?' It seems to me that all real authorship is manhood—that my sympathy for manhood includes authorship even if it don't make authorship a preferred object of worship. What is authorship in itself if you cart it away from the main stream of life? It is starved, starved: it is a dead limb off the tree—it is the unquickened seed in the ground."

Back to top