Skip to main content

Friday, December 21, 1888.

Friday, December 21, 1888.

8 P. M. W. sitting reading a letter he had just received from Bucke. Stopped reading: took it up by and by again —finished—gave to me. He signed a Gutekunst portrait for me. Picture belonged to Miss W., Germantown. She sent it to me several weeks ago. I had to hold it. I went to the mint to-day and got him his three three-dollar gold pieces. He said: "Oh! then you got them! Well—I am glad: I wanted them—only them: I have a fancy for them. These are the most beautiful of all our coins—the only ones that satisfy me on that score." Preferred "the big silver dollar to the little gold dollar. I forgot about the money and wondered what you were up to with your pocket book in your hand." He had a letter from Nelly O'Connor to-day. Was O'Connor better? "I suppose he is not able to write: conclude so from the fact Nelly wrote." Here he paused. "Poor O'Connor! he 's in a bad way: he is as all-suffering as Job. He cannot be better—not materially better: I got the letter about nine: hurried if off to the Doctor—sent it by ten: I know how anxious he is to hear every word." He said of himself: "I seem to be getting better: I experience a growig feeling of rest and painlessness, though I am still without any ambition to set to and wrestle anybody. The Doctor was not in to-day: said yesterday he would be in to-morrow. The other time he missed two days. I don't like it to go so long." Was asked again: "Will you sell any of the big books?" "Yes—if anybody is fool enough to buy them!"

Corning in to-day. Upstairs. Stayed only long enough for a greeting. W. reading the Annex copy of L. and G. to-day: found Dave used old sheets for the other folds: W. was a little disappointed. "I hoped he would at once use the plates as corrected." I asked W.: "Is he mean?" W.: "I should not say that: no: he 's canny." "You don't call being canny being mean?" He was amused. "Well, I don't know. They used to say up our way when I was a boy that a Scotchman can save two cents out of every one cent and still be generous!" Gave me a copy of the Woman's Gazette and Weekly News (Manchester): "Take it away: let Aggie read it. It came from Mrs. Costelloe yes- terday or the day before. It is more likely to be matter to interest Aggie than me." He had not read it. It contains a paper read by Mrs. Costelloe at a woman's conference. Jubilant over "a good bath" he had to-day. "I went over to the bathroom. Ed helped me: he is so gentle, so strong!" He said again: "The water was cold." Ed says: "Not so: only for him." "I had my swear out about it: I hope there was no risk run: so far I feel all the better for it—have felt the need of it for five or six days." Ed had rubbed his back afterwards. He can't stand general rubbing. I asked if he enjoyed the Turkish bath? "I never took one, though they urged me often in New York: did so even the last time I was there—last year: but I have always bathed much—habitually—always at least three or four times a week, hot or cold—besides having the rubbing daily, which I never missed." Was the rubbing not a new idea, since his sickness in '73? "Oh, no! I cannot remember when I did not do it: reaches far, far back: it was indispensible: the currying, as I call it, came later on—the doctors recommended it. In bathing I have to be very careful lest the water is too hot. Whether it is a function or an organ—I guess an organ—that is affected, hot bathing has two or three times since my paralysis nearly finished me."

I found W. had sent the books to Kennedy: "You will be surprised: I have a surprise for you: I made up five of the books to-day: sent them off to Boston—expressed them: one for Garland, one for Baxter, one for Frank Sanborn, one for Mrs. Fairchild—and one for Kennedy himself. Kennedy sent me a little note: said—send the package 'to be called for' main office Adams Express Company Boston. He will slip in to-morrow afternoon late: if they are not there then Monday morning. I hurried them off this evening—wanted him to get them for Christmas. When they report I 'll let you know: I suppose they 'll not be anything before Wednesday." His anti-tariff feeling crops out on all occasions. He had been reading the actors' appeal for protection. W. thought that "surely the greatest farce they had ever played in." He did not like the Gutekunst picture he signed. "That portrait you brought me: how weak! how sizzled out! I like it, passably: but it is not one of the best. Perhaps it is as you say—there is enough of me to survive even the worst ordeal: I hope so: yes I do."

W. said: "Horace, I 've got a job for you: I want you to read me these letters." He handed me sheets of papers pinned together. They were old and soiled. No envelope. I just scanned them. An O'Connor letter first. Then a Burroughs letter. Then another letter from O'Connor. He settled comfortably in a chair. I read.

Washington, D. C., June 24, 1882. Dear Walt:

I have your postal of the 22d, together with The Press notice. Beautiful! Who is the lady?

After much cogitation I have judged it prudent to withhold my reply to "Sigma," at any rate until next week. We will see whether the Sunday Tribune has anything from anybody.

My aim is to attack Marston terribly, and I don't want to be led off into a side show by an anonymunculus, like "Sigma," if I can help it. I am trying to accumulate the materials for the next assault, and have written in several directions, among others to George Chainey. Do you see what the scoundrel postmaster at Boston, Tobey, has done to him—stopped his lecture on you and your book! After stopping the book, they will stop discussion! Here is a text. It will go hard if I cannot make such a cloud belch thunder.

I have written to Chainey for full particulars.

Don't forget to tell me the price of your book when you write next. Did you send one to Prof. Loomis? Good-bye.

Faithfully, W. D. O'Connor.
West Park, N. Y., May 1, 1882. Dear Walt:

With your letter came one from O'Connor bursting with wrath; I think I will enclose it to you. No doubt he will be a host there in W. and will reach that miserable Dist. Atty yet. 'T is a pity Osgood has not got some pluck and so make a fight. No doubt we could beat them to tatters and make a big strike for the book. Write and ask him if he will fight if he is well backed up. It is the last thing I ever dreamed of. If this is the wish of Boston then I pary for her purification by a fire ten times bigger than the fire of a few years ago.

I enclose my check for the amount you ask for, $100. [This was money in my possession belonging to Walt. J. B. 1912.]

What a blank there in New England! To me Emerson filled nearly the whole horizon in that direction. But I suppose it is better so, though the very sunlight seemed darkened. I should have gone to his funeral had I not had so much to do before sailing for England. I wrote a page or two for The Critic yesterday, though I may be too late.

If our passage was not paid to England, I should not go. I am ashamed to go off at such a time. I have had no heart for the trip from the first, and now the death of Emerson (how these few words penetrate me!) and your troubles make me want to stay at home more than ever.

If you have Mrs. Gilchrist's address send it to me; also that of Mr. Carpenter.

I have written an essay on Carlyle which I think goes to the meaning of him more than anything I have ever seen. I spoke to your North America Review man about it on Friday, but he did not bite; said it was not in his line, &c. I shall probably offer it in London.

If you do not hear from me again anything addressed to me care Henderson Brothers, Glasgow, 49 and 51 Union street, will be forwarded to me. We land at Glasgow and shall stay there a few days.

Ever your friend, John Burroughs.
Life Saving Service, Washington, D. C., April, 28, '82. Dear John:

I have just been thunderstruck by a letter from Bucke telling me that Osgood, under a threat from the District Attorney at Boston, Sanger, has stopped the publication of Walt's book. I don't let the grass grow under my feet when an outrage of this kind is committed—one which makes Harlan's insignificant—and I am going to make the District Attorney regret that he was ever born, if I can compass it. As soon as I read Bucke's letter I flew down stairs with Leaves of Grass to the Solicitor of the Treasury, Kenneth Raynor, and for two hours to him and Robinson (the Assistant Solicitor) and Barton (the Law Clerk) I gave the District Attorney unlimited volcano. They all agree with me, especially after hearing me read and expound the accused poem, that it is the greatest outrage of the century. I am next going straight to Brewster, the Attorney General, who of course controls the District Attorneys, and will see if I can't get him to crush Sanger and annul his action. I have only been stopped by Brewster's absence at Newport. He returns on Monday, and then I will see him, taking, if possible, Bob Ingersoll along with me—Ingersoll being a warm admirer of Walt's book. If we don't raise the biggest row Sanger ever dreamed of, I 'm mistaken. He doesn't know the kind of man on his track when I start after him.

Now, pending the arrival of Monday and Brewster's return, I want to know all the facts. Tell me everything you know, and speedily. To be posted is to be armed.

Of course, if we annul the District Attorney's action by a fulmin from headquarters, perhaps we can next shore up that cowardly fool, Osgood, and get him to go on with the publication. The infernal idiot should have defied the District Attorney, published his official warning as an advertisement, stood a suit, defended it with Evarts or Charles O'Connor, won it, and sold a million copies of Walt's book on the strength of it. The jackass!

Let me hear from you. Excuse the scrawl. I am trembling with fury, and with the fervor of my oration down stairs in the Department of Justice.

Good bye. I sent you my last report.

Faithfull, W. D. O'Connor. —Emerson gone! The world grows darker. W. D. O'C.

W. was enthusiastic by the time I got through. He had interrupted me throughout with exclamations and comments. He had me read some passages a second time. Broke right in and said: "Go back a bit—read that again." When I was through he said: "William says there: 'It will go hard if I cannot make such a cloud belch thunder.' He made it belch many thunders: William had unlimited capacity for raising hell: I don't mean that he was a gratuitous fighter: far from it: I mean that when aroused, where there was occasion for it, he could do the job—he was a human avalanche: nothing could defy him: stand up before him: nothing. Stedman said to me once: 'O'Connor is the finest fighter of us all with the noblest sense of right and justice.' John Hay was a great admirer of William—way back there: he said about the same thing Stedman did—said it to me: said, 'You are lucky, Whitman, in the adhesion of a man like O'Connor: he is a giant influence: he is the sort of man who lasts out the battle—who don't give in with a job half done.' I think Stedman was a bit afraid of William—was timid—just a bit, befor his vehemence: just as Gilder always has been: William gets on Watson's nerves—William is so virile, Watson so feminine (I don't mean any disrespect by that word—I don't mean what people mean when they say sissy): some of the fellows were built for the more orderly performances: William was not: he was virile: he was well hung: he was no trifler or half trifler but a man who had the arm to sling an axe and the soul to sling it justly: that was William. Well—he did belch ten thousand thunders on this occasion: you notice, how even John was mad and said so beautifully: but how tame John's anger (which was not tame) seems when coming up against the intenser vehemence of William! I don't make comparisons—I think John had as he has his own way of getting mad: a sort of Quaker anger: whereas William storms and blows and rains and snows and freezes and roasts you all at once: goes for you tooth and nail, hammer and tongs—leaves nothing of you for the dogs—not a bone"—W. laughed: "O how divine that passion in William has always seemed to me! His uncompromising love of justice! His eagerness to court any danger, to accept any peril, to go to any trouble, endure anything—starve, go wounded—shed his blood—for a cause which he considered sufficiently lofty."

W. liked what Burroughs said of Emerson: "To me Emerson filled nearly the whole horizon in that direction." W. said: "I guess I enjoy that: I guess I do." He had had me read the line over again. "John was right: Emerson was the whole horizon: Ralph Waldo: Emerson: the gentle, noble, perfect, radiant, consolatory, Emerson. I think of something Emerson said in one of our talks: he said: 'I agree with you, Mr. Whitman, that a man who does not live according to his lights—who trims his sails to the current breeze—is already dead—is as many times dead as he is untrue.' Emerson lived according to his lights—not according to libraries, books, literature, the traditions: he was unostentatiously loyal: no collegian, overdone with culture: so gifted, so peculiarly tremendous, that, if I may say so, knowing too much did not as it so often does with the scholar hurt him." "Did n't you tell me that he expressed regrets to you face to face one day—saying some sort of apologetic thing about his book learning?" W. nodded. "Yes—more than once: said he felt like athletes—some athletes: overtrained: that a scholar, like an athelete, overtrained, is apt to go stale. He said he felt that culture had done all it could for him—then it had done something for him which had better been left undone." "Did he seem very serious in that self analysis or did he say it all quizzically?" W. answered: "Oh! he was serious enough in it: he said to me (speaking of Thoreau) that, 'strange as it may seem, Henry being an outdoor man (he called him Henry)—he shrinks from some formidable things in you—in your book, in your personality—over which I rejoice!' And he said this too: 'I don't say it by way of flattery at all—I would as readily say it to any man like you who had not written a book—but I say that meeting you is a peculiar refreshment to me—puts something needed into my tissue which I do not seem to get in my own established environment.' Yes Horace: he was dead in earnest about it all: not plantive at all: no, nothing of that sort: but soberly free." I asked: "Did some of this happen in that Boston Common walk?" "Yes—some of it: but I recall that some of it occurred that Astor House day in New York." Considerable talk followed my return to him of Bucke's letter spoken of yesterday. "Oh!" he said at the start, "I had forgotten about it: you shall have it back again when I am done with it: I want to read it again—have an idea of having it printed—to get a few copies for my friends." Then he looked at me inquisitively: "You read the letter carefully?" I answered: "Yes—and I think it at least among his best." W. nodded his head: "Remarkable, is n't it? The question is, is it true? It will take more than a moment's thought to settle that—careful weighing, elaboration, the judgment of many: I shall seek out a few—see what can be made of them. The idea of the autobiographicality of the book—that is what hits me: yes, the Doctor's letter is striking: more and more so as its contents is realized: Can it be true?" "Can it be that the Doctor's theory is true? that the book is autobiography pure and simple—in its elemental form?" It was this feature "alone" of the Doctor's commentary which "hit" him. "That the work all centres upon one point—that its origins, beginnings, inspirations, have emanated, vitalized, all, centrally, from one source: that comes more and more to me. The last two weeks especially I have questioned the whole case, turned it over, seen it on every side—and I have come to recognize a more marked centrality than I had ever observed before—a centrality actual, while not designed: but whether as autobiography—even in the high, the uncommon sense (the sense in which Doctor means it)—it excels the great, I may almost say, literatures of the past—that puts a severe and serious if not impossible strain upon our faith. Think of Rosseau, of Goethe—then consider what Doctor has undertaken to determine and declare."

Had I read Rosseau's Confessions? "You should do so: there is a good English translation: I have had it: it is a singular mixture—plenty of the petty, the minor, the mean, the dirty—then surprising streaks of genius—often and often." I suggested: "Taking autobiography in its finer form, the best autobiography is not that which a man starts deliberately out to write"—("of malice prepense" echoed W.)—"but that which flows spontaneously from his own personality. By such a test Leaves of Grass is certainly one of the exclusive books in the group of the great autobiographies." W.: "That is well and profoundly put: even if not true as applied to Leaves of Grass is true in general: that the best autobiography is not built but grows." I suggested Heine's name. "Yes, Heine—pre-eminently, above all others—and Burns: take Burns—the heart of him: drops of his blood on every page: if I may say it (is there such a word?) the ear-marks of the one human fact in every line." I spoke of Shakespeare as objective. W. then: "Yes, that states the difference." I quoted my frequently repeated judgment of the summer— that November Boughs was consistent with all that had gone before W.'s work: Sands at Seventy as honestly and normally a part of Leaves of Grass as Childen of Adam itself. W. exclaimed: "Yes—that gives an illustration to your point: I understand you now as I did not then: if true it is a precious fact." W. said: "John hardly agrees with you about these later poems—thinks they are inconsequent: might just as well have been thrown out or left unwritten." "But they are such a part of your scheme." "Yes—as you just said, as much so as Children of Adam." "Walt, my idea of your idea is this—that you are to write on and write on to the end, even if in senility, so as to make the Leaves a complete record of a life. Is that it?" "That 's it: that is all and final: there 's no more to be said: I don't say a man's old age is as important as his youth or less important than his youth: or his work—that it 's as strong: that does not come in: I only say that in the larger view, in the scheme originally laid down for the Leaves, the last old age even if an old age of the dotard is as essential (if I live to old age) as the record of my first youth." W. vigorously like his full self again all the evening.

Back to top