Skip to main content

Saturday, September 1, 1888.

Saturday, September 1, 1888.

W. sat reading when I entered (7.45 evening), sitting by a dim light, awake, reflecting. "Ah!"—his accustomed ejaculation—"and what is the good word to-night?" "Your good word?" I returned: "What is that?" He grew serious. "My good word is a bad word: I am not changed for the better: I am still down flat on the ground." I looked doubtfully at him. "Walt—you are getting pessimistic: shake it off! shake it off!" He replied gravely: "You are right: I should make the most of the light as long as there is any left." Next he said: "I had a letter from Kennedy to-day—yes, and letters from others: one from Bucke, one from O'Connor: I have laid them all aside for you to take, along with an old O'Connor letter, which I know you will find some use for. I wrote back to Kennedy, who complains that you do not keep him well enough informed in details regarding my condition. He does not know that you are writing hundreds of letters for me right and left these days—he doesn't know: if he knew he would see how impossible it is for you to write any one letter of great length." He had tied the four letters together with a red string. I asked him: "Why do you feel so blue about yourself to-night?" "I don't know—except that I am facing the truth." "What truth?" "Horace, I have about reached the end of my rope—the last strand has almost given out. I realize that I am at last on the verge of dissolution: my vim has departed, my strength is gone, life is getting to be impossible on any desirable terms."

Williamson writes asking anxiously about W. W. says: "Horace, tell them the truth when they ask you—hold nothing back: don't make better worse but don't put on an air of assurance when you feel none. You might express it this way: Walt Whitman says the first alarming symptoms of his trouble no longer possess him, but says further that though succeeding in his fight to shake off that one phase of his disorder it has been but as though to deposit him on a desert island, with far-stretching seas about and no succor possible." Old Age's Lambent Peaks is in The Century out today. W. said as to the idea of putting it into November Boughs: "I shall think it over to to-morrow: give me a day for it: I'm a slow duffer but that's the way I'm built." Gave him ten dollars from Coates for Centennial edition. Also handed him a sheet of paper sent by Mrs. Coates for him to write a copy of Twilight on. He resisted a little. "I have it here in large plain type—The Century printed it: perhaps she would like that"—but after a few words from me: "Well, I'll do it: she's such a cheery body and you ask it," laying the paper and clipping on the table. Handed over the books to me.

W. had gone over a lot of our work. Had Contents proof ready and L. of G. and S. D. volumes containing an order on Sherman for the Leaves plates and corrections to be made by Ferguson in both volumes—about twenty in Specimen Days and about twenty-five or more in Leaves of Grass: spelling, bad type, punctuation—none in any way vital. He likes things well done. "I am sensitive to technical slips, errors—am as ready as anyone to have everything shipshape, or as nearly so as I can make them. I abhor slouchy workmen—always admonish them in offices doing my work: Don't put on a slouchy printer." W. is always saying to me such things as these: "Look out that the binders don't get slouchy," "avoid the slouchy mechanic whatever you do." Yet he is not squeamish: writes, for instance, to the Ferguson shop: To corrector and printer—I know you have not the exact font of type &c: but you must do the best you can with what you have."

W. paid his respects to Gail Hamilton for her maltreatment of the domestic problem of the Carlyles. "Her presumed exposé is all gammon: I have no patience with it. And besides I feel that I know all about that story, and on good authority, too: from no less a person than Mrs. Gilchrist, who associated with both the Carlyles intimately and was in no sense a woman to be fooled. I attach oh! so great an importance to all she said to me on that subject: facts, pertinent facts, weighty: things she saw, again and again—goings on—enough to turn topsy-turvy the alleged truths of newspaper gossip, the indecent generalizations of scribblers. That Carlyle was high-strung is true, but Mrs. Carlyle, too, had a temper—one, you may be bound, that was not always reined in. Jane Carlyle was the wife of a great man—of one of the greatest men of his time, of any time: a man of ways peculiar to himself, odd fancies, strange whims and humors. That these things were not always fixed in their right relations by a couple both of whom were extremely mettlesome does not surprise me. It is not with the Carlyles alone that there may be said to have been hours, acts, speculations, frictions, upon which the blinds should be dropped. I am confident that after all else—after all the trials, heart-burns, domestic mysteries of the Carlyle history—is dropped, this much will remain to be said for both Jane and Thomas—this much if not more: this much, surely this much, and then silence, silence, upon the whole matter." W. was very much moved by O'Connor's letter. Before I quote what he said I will insert the letter:

Washington, D. C. August 31, 1888. My dear Walt:

I got your letter of the 6th, a postal card of the 4th, divers newspapers, and day before yesterday the handsome magazine with the pen-and-ink portrait—a beautiful piece of work, but a bad likeness—in fact, a caricature, which I hope as Voltaire said of the Letter to Posterity, is a letter that will never reach its address. He has given you a wad for a mouth and made you squint like one of George Borrows' gypsies. Drat his imperence!

I have had it on my mind for a month to write but have had a bad time. I thought of you anxiously during the abominable swelter of August, and felt rejoiced when the cool spell came, hoping it would do you good, though I got a cold out of it, by ill luck, which pulled me back considerably.

Your letter was very comforting. I shall hope to hear good news of you. I sent your messages to Dr. Channing, Grace, and Stedman. No news has reached me about the calendar, but I hope it is all right. Grace is expected here in a few days.

Who is it writes of you so friendlily in the editorial notes of Lippincott?

I shall hope for all good things for November Boughs. I wish it were farther along.

I have been using the spare hours when I have felt less weak and woe-begone, than I usually do, and less weighted down with office work, to scratch off in pencil a defense of Donnelly's book for the N. A. Review, if I can only get it in. It has been a bad task, but a duty, for the reviewers have been outrageous.

My hope and heart are high for you. If the weather will only let up!

Good bye. I find that I can't write much, as I hoped to when I began. As the Indian said to Roger Williams when they landed at Seekonk, "What cheer, brother, what cheer!"—meaning all cheer!

Affectionately, William D. O'Connor.

Here is what W. said of O'Connor: "William is the last of his race—no one is left but William. I know no other scholar here in America so well based, rock-based, in lines important to the history of literature, to humanity. They are all the rest of them dabblers, talkers, triflers—he drives home to the heart of things. His knowledge of the literature of the Elizabethan period was marvellous, and is: sure, serious, vital: always penetrating the spinal mysteries, powers—never losing hold on the substance of a thing once understood and grasped. There were a couple of years in O'Connor's life when he had nothing to do—was looking for work (that was before he got into his Washington job): it was then he devoted himself exclusively to this one study—and it was an experience profitable to him beyond words. William often says of himself—did say it when we were together: 'I can read him through to the back coat button!' and he could: no one could confuse his vision. How he touches off the Elizabethan fellows (he always calls that 'the age of Bacon') few can realize who have not known him personally—met him, listened to his talk, heard his voice, looked the man in the face. Burroughs thinks William too strenuous—keyed up monotonously too high—but I do not. To me William is self-justified in the truest sense of the word. He is intense, overwhelming—when he wrote the Good Gray Poet, when he wrote the letter for Bucke's book, he was excited and indignant to a degree: but we must remember what it was that called forth his wrath—the consciousness of a great wrong: an inexcusable offense which demanded a corresponding emphasis of resentment. William's onslaught is terrifying—it always means business." "He never charges the enemy with an apology of his lance." "That is the idea—he is fiercely in earnest: nothing can stand against him: when he comes along God help you if you don't get out of his road. He used to handle my skepticism about Poe without gloves: Edgar Poe: he would not have my qualifications: Poe was great this or that, great so and so, or he was nothing, and Walt Whitman be damned. O'Connor's constitutional melancholy, his Irish bardic nature, put extreme color into his thought and speech. See how he accepts Bacon: bribe or no bribe—with all his sins on his head: the master intellect of the modern human world towering above all the measuring-sticks of the historians and the schools. And there was Rabelais, too: Rabelais was William's man: in whatever literary reactions or moralistic humors, he includes, stands for, glorifies, Rabelais. He admits all the superficial charges made against such men and then celebrates them—almost celebrates their sins, as though they constituted an exposé of the black pruderies of a humbug social order." W. added: "I imagine that Ben Tucker has some qualities more or less akin to the militant and shining chivalric qualities in William. I often feel as though I would like to see Tucker and have a long, long, long, confab with him, just for the sake of squaring up some old scores (gratitude on my part, gratitude to him): he is remarkable for outright pluck—grit of the real sort: for loyalty, steadfastness. Some day you will meet Tucker and when you do I want you to say these things to him for me."

W. has pinned on page 178 in a copy of Specimen Days in which from time to time he marks changes for future editions—under Carlyle from American Points of View —and marked it in red ink, "Phila. Press June 23, '86," the following printed "study item," as he called it when it was mentioned by me:

"Mr. Larkin, who was for ten years a sort of secretary and intimate associate of Carlyle, says that the open secret of the Scotchman's life was his desire to be a man of affairs rather than a writer. 'Little as some of his critics imagine it,' says Mr. Larkin, 'his heart was sick of perpetually exhorting and admonishing. He longed to be doing something, instead of, as he says, eloquently writing and talking about it: to be a kind of king or leader in the practical activities of life, not a mere prophet, forever and forever prophesying.'"

W. said: "That's not only interesting as applied to Carlyle but interesting to me because it may be applied to my life and may be used as in some byways an explanation of my addiction to the trades and my apprenticeship to the life of the hospitals during the War. It also exemplifies one of my chief doctrines, which is, that we should never become so absorbed in the ornamental occupations as to lose connection with life. Some men lead professional lives—some men just live: I prefer to just live. I never want to be thought to be contending that any amount of isolated esthetic achievement can compensate for the loss of the comrade life of the world: the comrade life, the right life of the one in the crowd, which is of all human ideals the most to be desired, the only one to be finally desired, and perpetuated." Mentioning Bucke's letter again W. said: "It's full of advice—good advice, I admit, but advice—about the big book."

London, Ontario, 30 Aug. 1888.

I feel quite anxious about the "complete" works and would like much to hear from you how you will deal with that book. I think:

1 The book should be first-class in all respects.

2 Price should be ten dollars.

3 It should (every copy of it) be autograph.

4 Should contain a number of pictures.

5 Should be sold entirely by yourself.

6 A full advertisement of it should go in "N. B."

If you would tell Horace to write me your decision on each of these points you would relieve my mind very much.

There is nothing new or special here. All jogging on in the old way.

Your friend, R. M. Bucke.

"You see," said W. "Maurice simply repeats the advice we have been giving ourselves." "You seem to hate advice, no matter who it comes from or when it is given." "I think I do: I have been trained to resentment though thirty years of experience with advisers. Horace, I have had my life through to keep up a constant warfare with advice." Finally W. said: "You might write Maurice and say to him that we have come to conclusions on most of the points he presents and that he will be surprised to find when the book comes out in how much we agree." "That sounds darn formal," I said. "I know it would please Doctor to have me reply in a way that would sound more like concession but I don't feel to do it, Horace—I don't feel to do it." W. said about Kennedy's letter: "The little querulous complaint of you—you mustn't notice that—let it go. What he says of Scott has my entire approval: Scott is my man, too: I go to him sometimes with a real relish. Scott does not stale for me."

Belmont, Mass. August 30, 1888. Dear Walt Whitman:

I long, and have lang syne and every day longed—to know some details of your days now. For some reason Mr. Traubel has never seen fit to tell me anything about your daily doings—whether you sit up or whether you are prone on your back. It is cruel to keep a fellow ignorant. Can't you tell me in a line or two yourself? Thank you for the magazine—Book Maker—with its picture of you. Herbert Gilchrist has sent me a proof of what seems to me the best of the two photogravures of Mrs. Gilchrist. I prize it highly. Any news from the three?—Bucke, O'C. or J.B.?

I am reading with tremendous interest and absorption (by bits as I get time) Scott's best novels again, and looking up all the hard Scotch words in Jamieson's Dictionary. They have made my summer glorious. My love of that man is something strong as fate. Indeed I believe the ties of blood draw me to him and to Scotland—my "forbears" being Scotch-Irish (on one side). I am now reveling in the Antiquary which I opine to be the healthiest and most humorous of all, perhaps.

Yours affectionately as ever, W. S. Kennedy.

W. said: "That querulous note—it is always present in Kennedy: it breaks in upon his best harmonies. Don't you feel it? You would be surprised to find it in Bucke, John, William: you get to expect it as a matter of course in Kennedy. I once felt that he would weed it out of his composition, or that it would weed itself out, but it seems to be keeping fast hold—-will probably never let go its grip. It's a damned shame—it may prevent his real talents from ever fully asserting themselves." When I got up to go W. objected: "Why do you hurry?" and to my answer: "I've bothered you long enough," he protested: "You bother me? you couldn't: you never victimize me—you wake me up. I am far more alert this minute, am feeling better, than I have been at any time during the day." We said nothing about "the old O'Conner letter," which I put in my pocket and took away with me. It was long. The sheets were pinned together. It was 9.45 when I left.

Back to top