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Tuesday, February 5, 1889

Tuesday, February 5, 1889

7.15 P.M. W. reading the papers. Sat in his usual place. "I am like a sentinel on the watch," he said: "nailed to a spot, tethered to an obligation." Says he "naps it" every evening before I come. "I want to be ready for you: you are the oasis in my desert." I asked him: "Do you really feel that way about my coming? I never flattered myself that I am vital to you. I have felt that maybe I was rather the desert in your oasis." He laughed. "That's witty but there's not a damn bit of truth in it." Then he added: "Let us not talk of that: we must not quibble over such a thing: we must take each other for granted." Later he also said: "I was in dead earnest when I said I prepared for your coming: I do: I would not like to miss our talks: they are the one thing I look forward to all day."

W.'s ways are regular. He says: "I keep myself down: I don't worry the strength out of my body: my one word is conservation." After I go in the evening, after our talk, he reads some: "often an hour": then he is helped to bed. Through the day he simply, as he says himself, "dawdles" the time away: "but I am mostly up, except when I am under the weather." He adds: "I have to subject all my rebellious moods to the necessities of my corporeal self." When I asked him a question concerning his cold he said: "I am as I was: I have not so far suffered as I had apprehended by the cold in the head I caught a day or two ago. Still, I can't tell. These things, all things, go so slow with me: as I told you long ago, everything in me proceeds by degrees—a sort of calm steady undeviating procrastination: things which come to a head in some people at once require time in me. So I am not certain about the cold." I said: "You're not courting it, are you?" "God knows, I don't want it: I keep cheerful—was born with it: I am sure I've got stock enough of it to last to the finish." He spoke calmly of "kicking the bucket"—a most frequent phrase. He discusses his death without despair. "Death is like being invited out to a good dinner," he said.

"I had a letter from Bucke today," W. said, swinging his arm towards the table: "he says there are so many things to do he has had to set his date further off again—now to the 18th: he seems to be confident about the 18th." W. said he was "disappointed." Yet he laughed. "The good Doctor has been coming every week since September," he said. W. held Bucke's letter in his hand. "Doctor speaks of sleighing: sleighing is one of his fads—one of his few fads (he only has a few): he likes to get off in a sleigh, daily, if possible. His gauge of the weather is like this: is it cold? has it snowed? does the snow lay? are the roads hard? is the sleighing first class? If all that is so, then the weather's good: if it's not so, then the weather's bad. Doctor takes to sleighing like some men take to rum: he gets drunk with it—he goes on sleighing orgies."

W. picked up a dust-stained letter from the table in front of him. "See this," he said. I took it from him. "It's O'Connor almost at his best," he added. "Do you mean it for me?" I asked. He said "yes" at once. But he also said: "Read it before you take it away: I'd like to hear it once again." I spoke up: "Stedman said to me in a letter that William was the most brilliant letterwriter in the English language today." W. was pleased. "I do not see how he could know that but I am willing to believe it to be true." I asked him: "And ain't you more than willing?" He wasn't slow in saying: "I suppose I am: William is certainly the brilliantest man who ever came within my horizon: he staggers me with his vehement magnificence." Then W. said "Read."

Washington, D.C., April 17, 1883. Dear Walt:

I got your letter of the 14th yesterday.

I had the misfortune to catch a heavy cold on the chilly Sound boat in returning from Providence, which increased seriously after my return, and developed into a bad attack of erysipelas, with which my head and face were well covered. Being very ill, and a sorry object to behold with the eruption, I have been forced to absent myself from the office for several days, and keep in bed as much as possible. I am better now, and hope to get out tomorrow, when I will at once attend to the copyright business.

I need not say how grieved I am at Dr. Bucke's withdrawal of the lines of Lucretius from the title page. He was so pleased with the epigraph and so particularly pleased, as it seemed, with my enthusiastic enjoyment of it, that his change of mind is unaccountable to me. The withdrawal is an error, which I believe he will yet be sorry for. There are words, Luther says, which are half battles, and these of Lucretius are among them. They appealed directly to educated men, and gave the title page dignity, winning the reader thus from the start, and reinforced by all the following contents of the book, they gave it a powerful hold upon the respect of thinking and enquiring people. Their omission loses us an advantage—one more considerable than may at first sight appear.

Ill as I was when I got your letter, and with but a sort of dying interest in anything, this bit of news startled me, and I felt dashed, I assure you.

However, it can't be helped now, and I will at once proceed to get copyright for the despoiled title page.

I am obliged to Mr. McKay for his offer, and will let him know in due time how many copies I desire. There are several persons with whom I wish to place copies, with a view to doing the book good.

The news of Comstock's disaster came to me in a letter from Dr. Channing at a time when I was illest, and I wanted to write to you at once, but was not able. It gave me the greatest relief and exultation, and did me positive good. When I get out, I will search the papers for details. It is manifestly a crushing defeat for Comstock, and shows that he is on the descending plane, down which I hope, and indeed heard, that my Tribune letter materially contributed to send him. He took my dare beautifully meek, I must say. The only newspaper item I have seen on the Heywood matter, was a little editorial in last Friday's Star, from which it appears that the Judge's ruling—I mean, charge—to the jury was terribly against Comstock on the ground of his treacherous methods in working up his cases. His "decoy" business is what damns him, and this has thoroughly got into the public mind. He never again can make head against it. When you bear in mind that Heywood had really in the syringe matter, flatly broken a statute, his acquittal by the jury in the very face of the evidence against him, shows the prejudice against Comstock, and makes the victory remarkable.

Something ought to be written now to fix the triumph, and as a keynote for press comment. If I were well, I would certainly attempt it, but so far as I am concerned, the opportunity must be lost, for I am hors de combat for the present. Nothing is more dangerous than the operations of an official wretch like Comstock, backed as he is by eminent clergymen like Chancellor Crosby, Dr. Hall, Newman, &c., of whose displeasure great journals even, like the Tribune, are afraid, and whose tool they either support or will not censure. The instance is, the peril—the terrible peril—in which he placed your book, when he got Oliver Stevens to move against it, for I have found that he, through his man Friday, Brittain, was at the bottom of that matter. He ought to be crushed, signally, publicly, in the interest of free letters and the rights of thought; he ought to be nailed up, like a skunk to a barn-door, as an example to deter. Above all things, he ought to be snaked out of his position as a special agent of the United States Post Office Department, which would be irretrievable disgrace for him, and irremediable overthrow. This the press ought to demand. It is nothing less than a public-national-infamy, that an infamous dog like this, convicted of such practices—a decoy duck, a dirty stool pigeon—should be in the employ of the United States, and derive his power for mischief from the status his official rank gives him.

I hear that the North American is getting up an article about you. Do you know anything about it?

I am glad you are off for the spring woods.

Wish I could go too!

"For only those who in sad cities dwell,

Are of the green fields fully sensible."

Goodbye for this time. Faithfully W.D. O'Connor.

W. said: "I'm glad I don't deserve the lambasting William gives Saint Anthony. The psychology of that man would baffle devils: he haunts the purlieus of heaven with his crude philosophy: he makes the worse the better reason: he never yet has discovered the difference between virtues and vice: he's not so much knave as ass: he goes stumbling about like a bull in a china shop. They say sometimes that he's incompetent for his job: I go farther than that: I say there should be no such job: no one is competent to fill such a job: we want no censors, monitors, inquisitors." "A man has to be pretty mean to take such a job," I said, "and the longer he keeps it the meaner he gets." "That's the state of the case," W. answered: "I'd say that, too. At the same time we must credit Saint Anthony with convictions, damnably as they exhibit themselves." I suggested: "With the courage of his cowardice?" "Yes,"said W., in a rollicking spirit: "with that, if you please." I said, "William calls him skunk, but I don't see why the skunk's one amiable fault should subject him to such a classification." W. laughed till the tears rolled down his cheeks. "That's the best yet: we must repeat that to William."

I read a Cornhill paper today on slang. A writer calls it "the great American language." I took it to W. "I am glad you brought it: it will interest me, I know. Every now and then the doctor alludes in his letters to my piece on Slang: he thinks it great guns." Did W. himself care so much for it? "I can hardly say I do. I did it: I stand by it: that's all. Doctor, however, regards it as having extreme importance. Brinton's the man who should best appreciate it—best realize its ramifications: it's right in his line." Brinton is abroad again. W. asked: "How can he afford to go?" I said: "By having the money: I think Brinton is well fixed." W. said: "Probably if he wasn't he could never go on with that archaeological work, which brings in practically no returns." Gave me the Magazine of Poetry. "You should look it through: then I will send it up to Kennedy—not give it to him, only have him look at it and send it back. Then it can be passed on to Bucke."

W. asked me: "What's the speech about tonight?" I was to speak in Philadelphia. "Idealism," I said. "That's almost too much of a mouthful for one speech," he said: "I tackle big themes myself but I'm always afraid of them." I quoted one of my sentences: "There are linear and atmospheric philosophers." W. said: "There are indeed: that's a fair way to express it. A splendid somebody—who was it? I don't remember—went to see Carlyle, or Carlyle went to see him. Carlyle asked: 'What is your system?' The man replied sharply at once: 'System? I have no systems: I just live.' That always seemed to me very deep—unplummeted. Carlyle was delighted with it. But I think Mrs. Gilchrist would have disagreed with it: she would have said: 'You can have it best by knowing it: in fact you can truly apprehend it in no other way?'" Huxley said he hoped his children would have such good bodies that they would never know they had bodies. I spoke of this. W. said: "That is very good: that is about what the Carlyle man said." I thought so too. But I also felt that H. would have essentially approved of Mrs. G.'s contention. "Yes, that's the other side of the shield: probably that is even implied. Still, Mrs. Gilchrist's statement would seem too severe, too literal, for me." W. went on talking of Mrs. G. "She was always abreast of the times: as to science she would be classified with the extreme radicals if anywhere: indeed, I imagine she'd take the logic of science and follow it out to the full, even beyond the adventurous limits of the savant himself." We talked of women we had known. W. had some things to say about my mother. He spoke of his own mother. "I cleave to the mothers of children—particularly the older mothers." Back to Mrs. G. "She was the mother of a number of children: she had done justice to her children: she had lived a real life with her husband: that was the substratum—a noble substratum, base: then on top of this she built the greatest scientific, intellectual, esthetic superstructure as the sort of crown to all. She was harmonic, orbic: she was a woman—then more than a woman."

I told W. I had been asked to read a W. W. paper. He said in a merrily playful tone: "I don't know: that is a subject not to be tackled lightly: it has to be done in the right mood to be done right: you've got to tap yourself when you're ready to give—when you're in a fecund mood." But when I got up to go he added: "Well—if you must: I wish you success of your speech." W. read the article on Gérôme in the Century. "It did not hit me: Gérôme has not much for me: he's not our man."

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