Skip to main content

Friday, October 5th, 1888.

Friday, October 5th, 1888.

8 p.m. W. reading Symonds' Greek Poets. Laid book face down, open, on a basket of old paper. Seemed a trifle depressed. He had a letter from Bucke this evening. Bucke has heard from Osler, direct. "He says he finds you 'decidedly better,' 'brighter mentally and physically holding your own,' 'the pain, he says, points to nothing serious.'" W. said: "I confess I do not wholly like or credit what he says—I do not fancy the jaunty way in which he seems inclined to dismiss the troubles. Still, that may all be a part of his settled policy—I do not object to cheer. I don't know whether it's from getting down to hard pan or is a theory, but, whatever, Osler pursues it, and it is right—it is inspiring. Still, I know my own condition—don't need him to tell me about that—can't be fooled." I protested: "But, after all, allowing for exaggerations, hasn't he said enough to encourage us?" "Yes." "Then why ain't you encouraged? During your worst days last June you always kept on saying, 'We won't fight the battle with the worst end in view.' Why don't you say that now?" W's face broke out into a smile. "I must have said something like that—it sounds like me: it is well for a fellow to be reminded of himself now and then." He still insisted: "I know my condition better than any doctor."

I stooped to the floor and picked up a copy of November Boughs. He noticed what I was doing. "Do you find water on it?" he asked. I said "Yes." "Ah! I fell to-night—had a cup of water in my hand." He must have seen some alarm expressed in my face for he went on instantly: "It did not damage—it was not serious. It happened this way: I was at the stove there, turned, caught my foot in this shawl on the floor: as I am not steady anyhow I just bowled over. I wasn't hurt: the worst was I spilled water over one volume of Emerson—the handsome Emerson. I had considerable difficulty getting up on my feet, and to the chair, again, but called no one—preferred managing alone." (Musgrove down stairs heard the fall but it did not sound heavy enough to be W. W. had not said a word to him about the accident). W. gave me a letter from Buxton Forman. "Take it—forward it to Doctor Bucke. There are things in the letter you will like to see, hear. Forman is on our side: is friendly, appreciative: is a man obviously of talent and power."

46 Marlborough Hill, St. John's Wood, London N. W.., 26 Sept. 1888. Dear Walt Whitman:

I have had it in my mind, concerning Leaves of Grass, to tell you a tale which will perhaps afford you a quiet moment's amusement now while you are preparing Autumn Boughs for us.

Many years ago, probably about 1871, when the first enthusiasm for your wonderful book was on me,—the first and last enthusiasm, I should say, for it has endured uninterruptedly,—I was at the house of George Hy. Lewes and "George Eliot," and was enjoying one of those short earnest tête-a-têtes that she found means to accord somehow to each of her room full of visitors.

I asked her what she thought of L. of G.: and Lewes, coming up at the moment, remarked in his flippant way, "Let me see, the author wrote Heel-taps, didn't he?" Letting this poor jest pass, I pursued the serious talk with G. E.—found she knew hardly anything of L. of G., and urged her to read it. She said she had glanced at it but was impressed that it had "no great message for her soul." I ventured a respectful demurrer and made way for the next tête-a-tête-ist. A few weeks afterwards, she sent me by young Lewes, who was then an official colleague of mine, a handsome and characteristic message. She had been reading Leaves of Grass: had found that the book had a "message for her soul" and thanked me for the part I had taken in pressing on her attention its scope, meaning, and original force. I do not pretend to quote her words except those in inverted commas. The rest were only reported to me by a tolerably inaccurate young man; but the drift was certainly as given above.

Now I have often thought she must have had made some such acknowledgment to you direct—seldom as she wrote to any one in those "Priory" days. Did she or did she not?

Always, dear Walt Whitman, most sincerely yours, H. Buxton Forman.

Forman put on the margin above head of letter: "Excuse the unreadableness of a scrawl written in the only available quarter hour of the day, on the underground railway, with that most hateful of modern inventions—a stylographic pen."

"Well," I asked, "did you ever hear from her direct?" "No—that was the last of it." Then he added, after a moment's thought: "I had similar intimations given me by other people who knew her in London. But while I might have some message for her soul, as she said, I do not think that as a whole I would ingratiate myself in her affections. We stood for the same things up to a certain point but there parted company, she to look back and around, I to look ahead." I said: "Her idea seemed to be that we should do all we can to make this sad world less sad, yours that we should do all we can to make this joyful world more joyful." He repeated the sentence after me and seemed to be turning it over in his mind: "That's probably the whole story in a nutshell, except"—I put in:"What is the 'except'?" He answered: "I don't want people to think my joy does not contain sorrow—does not allow for it and realize its rejuvenating force. With that admission made I stand by your statement. They speak of George Eliot as a 'meliorist'. That would be no sort of a word to express my attitude towards the universe: that word contains an apology—an apology: and an apology is an impertinence. George Eliot is a great, gentle soul, lacking sunlight."

I inquired: "Have you had many visitors today—or any?" He put in a rueful face at once: "Yes, hosts of 'em"—adding, the next minute: "None, however, who concern our fortunes." Yet Hunter was one of them and when he got talking of Hunter he warmed right up. "He came in, was chatty: I enjoyed him. He told me of some New York edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica for which he had been chosen to write various articles. I thought the American edition was made in Philadelphia? However, Hunter is to do it—just what I say: is to write War articles—three or four of them anyway." Here he stopped and fingered his penknife a little: then removed his glasses and laughed quietly: "It struck me while he was here—I smiled to myself about it: can't help smiling now to recall it—struck me as odd, to say the least, that he was selected for that service—to do that precise job of work. He is to write up Sherman, Thomas—McClellan, too, I think. I guess you know, Hunter was a Rebel—hot, hot: what they call dyed-in-the-wool: sees everything through that one glass, colored by it, nothing at all coming to him from any other source. That question of the War is the only one over which we threatened to come to words. I know I have roused up once or twice when we got on that subject: I have tried to keep shy of it: but Hunter himself is a challenge—he won't let you avoid it."

I told W. that Hunter resented his reference to Lincoln's death as a "murder." H. had heard W. read the lecture at Unity Church. W. now exclaimed: "Well—I'm glad I did not hear him do that—I hope it will never come up while he is here: I am afraid it would irritate, provoke, me. That is a delicate, almost a forbidden field: I am easily stirred there—my nerve for that is very near the surface: you don't need to step on my corns—it's enough to be near them—to arouse me. Yes, it is a trifle absurd to give Hunter such commissions. Yet I do like him so much I can forget the things in him I don't like. Hunter is cheery, canny, buoyant—helps a fellow up steep places: possesses the best traits of the Scottish character—which are the best of the best anywhere, all nations, to say the least of them. What interests me in him is the point of view, which he entertains no matter who howls or who praises. The Scotch point of view differs from all others—has its own way of arriving at results: it is subtle, cool, discriminating. The Scotch are wholly unlike the Germans: Hunter, for instance, shows none of the German traits—is neither ideal nor sentimental. The German will probably never comprehend the Scotch—could never take to Robert Burns." I said: "Schiller did." "Oh!" he replied: "He was a poet: of course, all poets would. But take the German intellect—German scholarship, learning: the average student among the Germans: I do not imagine that Burns or any other characteristic Scotchman could make himself any too welcome to German culture. For that matter, I am not sure that Burns can anyway ever be internationally recognized. Of course, I acknowledge him: I doubt if anybody includes more than I do: I have room for them all: I am a great acceptor." "But will the democratic masses speaking other tongues ever put him among their classics?" "I should say no. But how I love him myself! He is as dear to me as my old clothes!"

Getting back to Hunter again W. said: "I did not finish: the Brittanica folks want him to write me up, too—Walt Whitman. Now, what do you think of that?" W. waited for my reply. I said some things. Then he went on: "He asked for help—wanted to know authorities: I referred him to Bucke's book—told him I should be glad to give him a lift over rough places: advised him to consult with you on doubtful points from time to time." I asked W.: "Has he what you call a spinal appreciation of Leaves of Grass?" W. replying: "I don't know about that—could not say: but I know for myself that I catch his criticisms, opinions, as they fly, and have cause to value them—they often seem to go deeper than the opinions of some avowed Whitmanites."

I detailed to him the results of my talk today with McKay. McKay liked the book—not the binding. Said of the latter: "That's a hell of a mess!" Had, however, consented to take over one thousand—nine hundred and fifty at forty-three cents, fifty free—amount to be paid January 10th. W. said: "I don't insist upon keeping the cover that way forever. We meant to do something different and have done so. My own taste in books is for very narrow margins and as small a page as possible—making all books books for the pocket so people would get into the habit of carrying books about with them and reading books when they read at all in the open air." How did he wish to settle with McKay. "I don't know: by our old contracts there were settlements to be made every six months—May first, November first—but they have not been made so, probably because I have not insisted upon it." He then asked: "Did you say January 10th? I would rather have the money now than then." I suggested that we might ask for McKay's note. W. could get that cashed. He said: "I leave that to you—do as you think best—I want the money and am confident that you know just how to go about getting it." W. advised me to insure the sheets of the books. McKay thinks our plates would be safer in the Sherman vaults. Broadbent today said he went forty dollars for six hundred butterfly prints. W. cried: "Broadbent may crack his knuckles for his forty dollars: I could not think of it: the book is already costing more than I calculated for." That set us off again discussing pictures. I have convinced W. that he should autograph the six hundred first signatures of the books before they are bound.

Osler said to me when I spoke of this: "I am not an alarmist—on the contrary, I expect your old man to last for years— but I would advise you to provide for contingencies by having this matter pushed through at once." W. signed my name in the two volumes 1876 edition which he gave me Sunday week back. I sent off Bucke's N.B. today. W. thought Spear had done him up on the stove. "I've half a mind to send him eight dollars and let him whistle awhile for the rest.' Laughed. "But what's the use? I guess I'm getting mean—that's all!" He then said: "If you have the sheets sent to Camden address them plainly to Walt Whitman as well as to the street number. That catamount next door—down—has made his number 328—built some little house on six or seven feet of his lot and given it a full number, so throwing me out!" He said "things sent to" him "simply by number had gone wrong—many of them." "I wrote to the City Surveyor about it a year ago, and he said he would have it set right—but has not done so. '328' belongs to me, by every right of precedent recent and remote."

Back to top