Skip to main content

Monday, September 24th, 1888.

Monday, September 24th, 1888.

8 p. m. W. reading Ibsen's Pillars of Society. "Some one in the Walter Scott Company sent it over to me." Laid it down. Shook hands with me. "Perhaps it was Rhys. I am not greatly impressed. It seems to me to have been too prettily done though it is no doubt much more powerful in the Norwegian—hardly seems apposite when rendered in English. I doubt whether I would ever care for the play." Better today. "I'm not feeling like a whole mob but I do feel a bit sassy." Also said: "I have great faith in my power of endurance. I have no doubt now but I shall hold out my time—that is, I shall not hasten my death by anything I do." Gave me a couple of letters from Bucke. "They are so bright, cheerful, elastic: and he is so faithful—writes again and again and again. Bucke is my only constant correspondent left: William writes very rarely—is not able to write." I took him a proof of advertisement to go in November Boughs. He at once proceeded to revise it.

Referred to Boyle O'Reilly. "He is staunch with the staunchest: he is a man of whom we can be sure: his whole life has been a life of loyalty—to persons, to causes, nobly most of all to his own principles. There seems to be quite a cluster of Boston folks who mean me well—are eligible to accept, acknowledge, my cause—make my cause theirs: quite a cluster. There was a man who borrowed from my Old Ireland poem, or happened nearby when it was around and got unconsciously infected—anyhow, was tainted with it. O'Reilly brought the question up in The Pilot. I was not inclined to make anything of it—but there is a right and a right and it may be well to have it understood. You remember the charge that Longfellow stole Hiawatha from the Finnish. What does that come to? Little. I can scarcely say I have read Hiawatha with attention and knowledge—read it from start to end. I knew Selma Borg: she used to say Hiawatha was a most brazen theft—absolutely stolen—shamelessly. I confess the idea never excited me, one way or the other. I always felt that Longfellow had his reasons and reasons and that they were sufficient whatever they were."

We talked of November Boughs. Who should get the first copies? "I will let you attend to that mostly, Horace. I must send copies to my sisters, niece, O'Connor, Mary Costelloe, John Burroughs"—here he stopped an instant: "also the Doctor, Kennedy, Morse"—pausing again: "I suppose there will be others, too, but I wish to send these first and particularly. I shall let Dave send to the rest—the papers—except that, perhaps, I shall personally send a copy to Julius Chambers, of the Herald, to whom I have taken a special shine." How close did the Critic Gilders stand to him? He said: "Not very: I never considered them warm: theirs is rather a hectic flush of admiration. You know, Horace, there are some who in the natural order couldn't accept Walt Whitman—couldn't appreciate the inmost purpose of his art: it is the absence of affinities. Lowell, with his almost steel-like beauty, and Higginson, with his strict, straight, notions of literary propriety—I could call them enemies, creatures natively antipathetic." How was it with Richard Watson Gilder? "Burroughs, when he was here, spoke of Stedman and Gilder as 'coming over'—says Gilder has grown into a very warm appreciation—confesses that nowadays some of my lines haunt him. I don't think John quite takes it all in. I should say Stedman—yes: Stedman is affectionate, warm-blooded, but Gilder—well, Watson is a bit too much impressed with the importance of parlors, literatures, singing. I have no doubt about Gilder—about his genuineness. He is rich on the emotional side—approaches me that way. Gilder is essentially a troubador singer, realizing grace, music, prettiness: he lays his emphasis upon that. As for me, that is just the thing in which I seem to take no particular interest. If there is anything whatever in Leaves of Grass—anything that sets it apart as a fact of any importance—that thing must be its totality—its massings. I respond to no other explanation: no other explanation comes up to my purpose—tallies the long steady pull of my many years of adhesion to a first purpose. I chose the fundamentals for Leaves of Grass—heart, spirit: the initiating passions of character: chose that it should stand for, be, a human being, with all the impulses, desires, aspirations, gropings, triumphs, that go with human life: comprehended at no time by its parts, at all times by its unity." He was very earnest. Then he went on: "Leaves of Grass is not intellectual alone (I do not despise the intellectual—far from it: it is not to be despised—has its uses) nor sympathetic alone (though sympathetic enough, too) nor yet vaguely emotional—least of all this. I have always stood in Leaves of Grass for something higher than qualities, particulars. It is atmosphere, unity: it is never to be set down in traits but as a symphony: is no more to be stated by superficial criticism than life itself is to be so stated: is not to be caught by a smart definition or all given up to any one extreme statement." The Cyril Flower letter was addressed to W. at Washington:

Furze Down, Surrey, S. W., July 16, '71. Dear Mr. Whitman.

Tennyson writes to you by this mail. He lays upon me the blame of not having written to you sooner and I am willing to bear it. The fact is the books went to his London address and were not forwarded.

Yours affectionately, Cyril Flower.

"I think it was then that Tennyson invited me to visit him in England. It was a tempting offer—it pulled at my heart-strings: my friends over there all said, come, you will have an ovation—the time has arrived for you to come: I was almost on the point of taking passage—then something inside me said very plainly, stay where you are Walt Whitman: said it in ways, in words, in warnings, I had no right to, could not, misunderstand. Even some of my friends here said, go: and some were angry when I decided not to: but my own heart never was in doubt about it—never said anything else than stay, stay, stay. The incident has no other history than that." I said to W.: "That O'Connor letter you gave me yesterday was of a most extraordinary character both for beauty and power." He answered: "It's wonderful, don't you think, Horace? The very handwriting is a stroke of genius, to speak of nothing else. Can you name any man in the literature of England or America capable of writing such a letter—any man? When William gets on his real high horse—his high horse of high horses—he completely fills the stage: there is no use for any other performer. This amazing effect is not secured by arrogance but by sheer force and vehemence of self-expression. I confess that it staggers me—leaves me without a word." I said to W.: "I want to study that letter some more before I put it away." "It will bear study: William never loses caste at close quarters: he always more than holds his own."

Bucke writes this: "I do not doubt you often feel bad enough and I know you are very sick—worse luck. Still, it is grand to see you keep up as you do—never giving up to the last—I think it is immense—something for us all to be proud of and to take to heart—and the world will take all this to heart one day and will be the better for it." I said to W.: "It's worth dying for, Walt—to live that way." He said: "If you'll remember that I'm only living to sign the six hundred books, you won't feel so proud of my courage." Gently laughed. I asked W.: "Walt, do I come too much?" He reached out his hand and took mine. "Does the fresh air come too much? Thank God for fresh air!"

When I mentioned the Clapp letter W. said: "Henry was my friend: he had abilities way out of the common: he seems to be forgotten except for the few men and women who were his associates. I can see how Henry in another environment might have loomed up as a central influence. He was always in trouble—always behind in his finances: had to put up the most heroic fight right along to keep the Press alive. Somebody some day will tell that story to our literary historians, who will thenceforth see that Henry cannot be skipped, for the Press cut a significant figure in the periodical literature of its time. I have often said to you that my own history could not be written with Henry left out: I mean it—that is not an extravagant statement." W. had written on the envelope: "Henry Clapp to me in Boston."

N.Y. Monday May 14, '60. My dear Walt:

I spent much time yesterday reading your poems, and am more charmed with them than ever. I think you would have done well to follow Mr. Emerson's advice, but you may have done better as it is. At any rate, the book is bound to sell, if money enough is spent circulating the Reprints and advertising it generally. It is a fundamental principle in political economy that everything succeeds if money enough is spent on it. If I could spend five hundred dollars in one week on the Saturday Press I would make five thousand dollars by the operation. Ditto you with the L. of G.

You should send copies at once to Vanity Fair, Momus, The Albion, The Day Book, The Journal of Commerce, Crayon—also to Mrs. Juliette H. Beach, Albion, N.Y., who will do you great justice in the S. P. (for we shall have a series of articles)—to Charles D. Gardette Esq, No 910 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, and also some dozen copies to me to be distributed at discretion. Do not hereafter ask the editors to notice at any particular time or at all: for the effect is bad.

I want to do great things for you with the book, and as soon as I get over my immediate troubles will do so. But just now I am in a state of despair even in respect to getting out another issue of the S. P. and all for the want of a paltry two or three hundred dollars which would take the thing to a paying point, and make it worth ten thousand dollars as a transferable piece of property.

Yours in haste, Henry Clapp, Jr.

W. wants a stove—a wood stove. Asked me to look about for it. "That little stove is burned out: it was put here once, years ago, by my sister, when I was sick: brought in a hurry. I am likely to be tied right here in this room the whole winter if I live at all. Some days I get doubtful about myself but I have a notion now that I may drag on several years on my present low level of life. It is a conservative level—conservative to the last degree—but suffices for some purposes, of which we will make the most we can." Asked me what sort of a service Clifford conducted in his church. Smiled, pleased, when told of Clifford's informalities. "He makes pretty free and easy with religion, then—don't he? Why shouldn't we? Religion ceases to be religion if we have to do anything else with it. My wonder is, that Clifford can do so much as he pleases and still please the people: I would be surprised if I heard he could go on with this policy successfully for any length of time. Clifford has an Emerson way about him—or maybe it's the other way about: Emerson had a Clifford way about him: anyhow, Clifford, in his immense catholicity, in his pith—in his big sympathies, (even in his occasional overdone phrases), suggests the Emersonian flavor—though I admit that Clifford takes liberties—decided liberties—where Emerson would not."

Back to top