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Monday, November 26, 1888

Monday, November 26, 1888

7.50 P. M. W. relieved at last. Better. Very cheerful. Change indicated in tone, gesture, generally. Reading when I entered—Boswell. Book close to his eyes—chair drawn up to the light. Quickly attentive to me—to what I brought. Asked about the weather: urged me to throw my coat off: altogether most cordial. The reporter who had called last evening while I was there (talked with Ed at the door: none of them see W.) had inserted this in the Ledger to-day:

"Condition of Camden's Good Gray Poet

"Walt Whitman, the 'good gray poet' of Camden, was reported last week to be suffering from a severe cold, necessitating his confinement to his room. This report was denied at his home, 328 Mickle street, last night, and it was stated that his health has remained about the same for several weeks past, and that he has not left his room, except at intervals for a short time, since the recurrence of his old illness, several months ago. It was also stated that no serious danger is at all apprehended by his present condition."

W. read, commenting: "That tells about the truth: that is about the way things stand." He added: "Mary was trying to tell me of someone who called: I could not altogether make out who it was: probably this fellow." I handed Sims' piece to W. Referred to before. He read it carefully.

"Zola as a moral writer. The author of Lights of London on the writer of Nana. G. R. Sims in the London Referee.

"That Zola is obscene goes without saying. He is recklessly and wantonly dirty. He seeks out the mudheaps that are gathered together along the roadway of life, and, jumping into the middle of them, commences to kick that filth about with both his feet at once. But to say that Zola is an immoral writer is an absurdity. He is perhaps the most moral writer that the present century has witnessed. There is not one page in Zola that makes vice seductive. The one steady and absorbing purpose of the man is to paint vice in hideous and repellant forms. He is obscene, dirty, coarse, disgusting and brutal in his method, but there is far less real harm in all the books that Zola has written than in one page of the modern society novel written by ladies for gentlemen and clothed in the choicest language of the drawing-room.

Zola has been called the apostle of realism (realism with a big sneer). As a matter of fact, he is the apostle of of truth. The misfortune to art is that he is foul-mouthed, and that his sermons, which are worth miles upon miles of the conventional twaddle talked in the bulk of our pulpits, are full of dirty allusions and disgusting descriptions. For this there is no defence which will hold water. Meat is a good thing for us (vegetarians need not reply), but no one will argue that because meat is useful and helps to build up ourstrength and make hardworking citizens of us, it should be thrust down our throats raw by a man who has not washed his hands for a fortnight."

"Obscene? dirty? who but Sims is obscene, dirty? Nonsense! What right has Sims to call him obscene? I do not see that he is—do not see how." Then as he read along further: "It is the usual plea: the average criticism: in England they have to do this—in fact here, too: do it in deference to conventional opinion, society, Sunday schools, the parsons—I don't know but the parsons chiefly." He stopped reading in the middle of the second paragraph and handed the slip to me. "Cheap! Cheap! I hate it!"

Had he any news? First he said "No—nothing." Then half in doubt reached forward, raised the papers on the corner of the chair where he often puts the letters he has for me: then shook his head, saying again: "Nothing." I drew from my pocket the Blauvelt letter I received to-day. As I did so his face lighted up. "Yes there is news, to be sure: some one sent me a box of pheasants—some unknown friend or friends: I have his card here." With that searching his table. But I opened B.'s letter and read it to W. He exclaimed: "That 's the man! that sounds handsome! that is handsome! Of course we are grateful: I was intending to write him a line to-night about it: I 'm going to take half a one to-morrow for breakfast." I brought him his stitched copy of the complete W. W. His pleasure extreme. No cover but a bit of thick brown-red paper. "Why!" exclaimed W., "it 's good enough to go this way." Pointed to the title page. "That looks handsome: I don't know but it 's the best thing in the book." He hit upon the November Boughs frontispiece. "It tickles me," he said, "that that that appears to be justifying itself: nobody seemed at first to like it: I stood alone: now they appear to be coming around." Then: "I hope it will be so with Leaves of Grass—believe it will." I asked: "With the world?" and he answered: "Yes, the world."

Talked considerably about the dummy, he handling it, opening and shutting it, all the time. We were not to try any false economies. "I am as well aware as anyone could be that this volume requires serious attention—work and, above all, good binding—cover: something characteristic—strong." What should that be? I consulted Dave to-day, he giving me ideas, proposing a green vellum. I brought over a volume of McKay's Brown for W. to examine. W. spoke of Brown's reputation. "It is all gone: he is weak—has no virility: no staying power." W. tapped this book—Wieland. "This is a sort of Udolpho business watered—twice watered—thinned out. A ghost story, a phantasy, must be interesting: it is a bad sign when it is not: Brown is one of the fellows you can lay down any time—go from him, enjoy a meal, not the least excited—not the least anxious to take up the book again: which is a bad sign for a story." The general reader certainly no longer reads Brown "if ever." Why was he reprinted? "For the libraries: the schedulistic books—there are many of them now: books like Richardson's, Stedman's, call attention to them: then no library is complete without them. There are now so many libraries in the United States it takes a good pile of books to go round." McKay told me his edition is going pretty well but that while guaranteeing that there were buyers he would not guarantee that there were readers. W. said: "Of course not: he could not: Brown has no constituency."

When Oldach looked at W.'s sheet of instructions to-day he asked: "Did he write this himself?" I answered "yes." He declared: "Why, it 's wonderful: the man who wrote this is good for ten years yet." W. answered. "Well, I 'm sure we hope so—hope that he is a good prophet. But tell him these books—whatever of me—are designed to accomplish certain things, are to last many times ten years, to go down the corridors of time: to be preserved, not to be duplicated, added to, surrendered. Tell him they have a mission: that to insure this we must have his aid: let him work with reference to that. Tell him, if he does well, we 'll let him put the label on the book." Here he picked up the invariable Epictetus from a chair: "See, here is one: and I think it adds to the book." Then, turning the book over: "Now, if we get a book as durable as that, I'll be satisfied"—opened, pulled it: "See: it is made to last: this has stood wear and tear: I have carried it about: used to stick it to my pocket—take it to the privy with me: it was handy." Laughed. Here I interjected Heine's inimitable classification of Von Platen's poetry. W. convulsed: "Oh! that is wonderfully witty—wonderfully Heineish!" Then back to the Epictetus again: "I have given it to at least twenty persons to read and, wonderful to relate, it came back unharmed!" And when I said: "More wonderful still to relate it was returned at all!" W. quizzed: "Sure enough—was n't it?—and out of my usual run of luck, too!" The reference to Heine was followed by W.'s question: "Have you read Arnold's essay on Heine?—Matthew Arnold's?" Adding after some interjected remarks: "It seems to me the best thing Arnold ever wrote: it gives me a vein in which I run companionably with Arnold." W. was surprised that Arnold so "thoroughly appreciated" Heine's"unique genuis." "Arnold does not always stick to his point—like O'Connor, takes excursions—seems to get away from his subject: but that is no detriment: we discover that though it may go under ground—subterranean—or dip into forests, or take unaccountable turns, it is always the same stream."

Sent The American and The Critic to Bucke to-day. Was favorably impressed with what The American writer said of him. Who was the writer? I said: "It 's the best of the lot." W. assented. "I say so too—much the best." As to The Critic's discussion, in which W. took part: "It seems to lead nowhere: is profitless: at the best foggy, indefinite." He added: "My first doubts are my last. I think the little woman (was it Lucy Larcom?) the cutest wisest of us all. She says: 'It 's too soon: these fellows are too near our elbows: we must wait.' That sums up the question: be patient: the rest is a growth. That the most of those who wrote agreed upon Emerson should occasion neither surprise nor disappointment: that seems as it should be: Emerson is great—oh! very great: I have not attempted to decide how great, how vast, how subtle: but very, very: he was a far-fetching force: a star of the first, the very first, magnitude maybe: without a doubt that." I spoke of the wariness of the writers. W. said: "That I noticed too: they are too wary: dropping out Shakespeare, Byron, Shelley, perhaps—some of them of the very topmost rank—I am not afraid to say our fellows, the best of them, deserve an equal rank with the rest: I dare even say Milton." Then further: "I could never go Milton: he is turgid, heavy, over-stately." I said: "Take Paradise Lost: don't its vogue come mainly from a sort of Christian theological self-interest rather than from pure delight in its beauty?" He responded at once: "Oh! an immense lot! Besides, it seems to me that Milton is a copy of a copy—not only Homer but the Eneid: a sort of modern repetition of the same old story: legions of angels, devils: war is declared: waged, moreover, even as a story it enlists little of my attention: he seems to me like a bird—soaring yet overweighted: dragged down, as if burdened—too greatly burdened: a lamb in its beak: its flight not graceful, powerful, beautiful, satisfying, like the gulls we see over the Delaware in midwinter—their simple motion a delight—attracting you when they first break upon your sight: soaring, soaring, irrespective of cold or storm. It is true, Milton soars, but with dull, unwieldly motion." Then after a slight repetition of points accented above: "There 's no use talking, he won't go down with me: I have sometimes questioned myself: have I not been too hasty? have I not rejected unfairly?—was it humor, whim, that stood in the way? Then I would re-examine my premises. Yet each attempt was fruitless." "In this way I have gone back to the book repeatedly. Only the other day the same question returned." He pointed to the floor: a pile of books was at his feet—he pulled out a Milton. "I have a volume here containing Paradise Lost: I have had it about me for twenty years: but it never attracts or exalts me."

W. was pleased with the message sent over by me from Adler last evening. Adler said: "Give W. my love," and so forth. W. asked me: "What was he after last night? What did he prove?" It had been a subject defining the fellowship conditions of the Movement as criticised from Unitarian sources. Here I said: "Unitarians (some of them) seem to argue—morals are not enough, &c." W. said: "I should think the Ethical fellows would say that of themselves: I should not think that would be a Unitarian criticism simply or first of all." After further statement: "All the great teachers—Epictetus, Plato, Aurelius—seem, however, to rest their faith on the ethical laws." It was charged again—the Ethical fellows lacked the spirit of worship: lacked the "up-look." W. however believed in the human duties. "It is true the up-look is needed: but many have it whom we accuse of being without it." Besides, "morality, read as you say by modern science, seen by the Emersonian eye, may after all be the deepest of all readings of the matter." "Duty," he judged—"first for one's folks—then neighbors—then the street—city—country—the world—then to the heavens." Was that not the order? "Each man for all: that is eligible: do not attempt to mark out impossible ways—take the moon out of the skies: all that." In the course of our talk about the book W. said: "I like this impromptu book so much I am tempted to have ten or twelve done up in this way. You shall have one of them: Doctor Bucke, too: then one of the printed books also." Changed his cover design at McKay's and my suggestion. Instead of "Walt Whitman's Complete Prose and Poems" above and specified contents below—author's edition, portraits, 1888-9—all that—he is satisfied to have "Walt Whitman's Complete Works" at the top, "Poetry and Prose" in centre, "Author's Edition 1888-9" below. He said: "I am not in love with the old idea: when I was a young man we had in our debating club a fellow who, when he was pushed very hard, would say: 'Well, I 'm not wedded to this idea!' That 's me now!" W.'s design for the cover was given back to me by Oldach. I keep it among my records.

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