Skip to main content

Thursday, February 7, 1889

Thursday, February 7, 1889

7.25 P.M. W. reading papers. He had half a dozen of the day's papers on the table near which he sat. Very cold still. I ask him if he had suffered any from it. "No—not at all: I have been snuggled up all day: kept the fire going—the fire within as well as the fire without." Pointed to the stove. "All the prospect's sweet and fair—only man is vile." He seemed to enjoy his own fun. Talked brightly though deliberately. He never talks in a hurry.

W. again spoke of the telegraph boys in the War. "There were clusters of them—clusters of clusters of them: every general with some, every high officer with many: they did most valiant service: yet no one has ever raised a voice for them: oh! if I had but the power to do it! I wasted many of my own opportunities." Then he said: "That fiction article with its two thousand words don't inspire me at all, but this—ah!"

W. is after all getting anxious to see the bound book. Annoyed with Oldach. I defended him. W. then said: "No, no: I do not accept his excuses: I am not inclined to smile on Oldach's dilly-dallying: I am not to be imposed upon by it: I know what it means: I don't cotton to the delayers, the postponers: had I the use of my legs, my feet, today, I have no doubt I could hustle about town and in an hour, in a little time, get the leather we want—if not the exact shade, then a shade just as well adapted to our purposes. I have no doubt you could do it in half an hour, active as you are. I have great faith in Dave for such emergencies: he is the fellow who beats up the bush till the game is found." I was surprised to find him so moved for such a reason. He would not permit my defense of Oldach. "No—no: I am all broken up, sitting in my room here—helpless: I am dependent upon the good faith of others." Paused: "I met much that instructed me profoundly on that point during the War—among the soldiers, the generals. When something of a major character was to be done—something prompt, decisive, resolute—it was Sheridan they summoned, the Sheridans, the man who sort of recreated circumstances—not McClellan, the McClellans, the inert." I said: "And an awful exposure of McClellan it is in that last issue of The Century." He said instantly: "Indeed it is awful: but every word of it is true—not a word of it is unjust: I have long felt what is said, proven, there: felt it at the time: it seems more and more confirmed. In all our history, in all the history of these times, indeed of any time, I never knew a man intrusted with as great responsibilities, opportunities, who was as inert—dead, dead, with inertia." Then he cried: "Oh! I think there is no more important, valuable, necessary, class of men than the men who are under all conditions, all shifts of weather, all play of incident, unbaffled, undeviating, irrevocable." Poor Oldach. This would wither him. But after the books are here and W. is relieved W. will say: "I kind o'like that Oldach: he's a gem." W. is never harsh. He gets tantrums now and then which immediately dissipate. His wrath has no venom in it.

I returned W. the Magazine of Poetry. Said I liked Bucke's little note on W. W. himself said: "It is very strong, compact, solid: it reads like a bit of pure Greek work: not a sentence out of place, superfluous." I said: "It's as good as anything Bucke ever wrote." W. agreed. "It is! it is! I know of nothing better from him: I doubt if he could do better." He had said, shortly after my arrival: "No word at all from Bucke today." But while I sat there Ed came in with such a letter, which W. opened and read aloud, B. speaking of Sarrazin's essay, of B.'s own W. W. lecture, of the weather, &c. W. interested. Handed me then a package containing Chronicle (of which he didn't say a word), Slang, Bobs and Pinches, and finally a Curtz printed sheet of Kennedy's English abstract of the Sarrazin piece. This was the "pleasant" thing he promised me from last week and has not since alluded to. As to Sarrazin he said: "I've nothing to say yet: I want to wait and see what you have to say." Gave me another stained dusty O'Connor letter. "It should go with the letter I gave you the other day: they are related." Then he added: "What a difference there is between William's and Maurice's letters! Maurice is literal, concrete, styleless, though vigorous: William, not less vigorous, indeed more vigorous, is lambent, startling, fervent, magnificent. Maurice has no distinct talent that way: William seems to have every talent." I was putting the letter in my pocket. W. said: "No, let me hear it first. You will see it was not written to me but to Maurice. Read it to me."

Washington D.C., April 17, 1883. Dear R.M.:

I have two letters from you, which I will soon read again, and answer. I caught a bad cold returning from Providence, the Sound boats being badly warmed and the staterooms so many refrigerators, and this ended in an attack of erysipelas, which made my head and face look like a cranberry pudding for the devil's dinner table. So I was forced to leave the office and take to bed, letting all things, including letters, go by for the nonce. You see why I have not written.

I hope to be out by tomorrow, and will at once get your copyright, a letter from Walt, received yesterday, asking me to do so.

I was taken allaback and grieved at your dropping the Lucretian lines from the title page. Of course you are the judge. But I am sure this is a serious error. There are words, Luther said, which are half battles, and these words on your title page were armory of the invincible knights of old for the forefront of the struggle on which the book enters. Nowhere else in the volume could they have such a force, and they won for you from the start. You'll be sorry yet that you gave up this advantage. Good bye. More anon when I get well. Affectionately,

W. D. O'Connor.

W. said: "William's imagination is copious: he can make heavy of the lightest thing—yes, and light of the heaviest. That erysipelas face is immortal. He took the Lucretian matter sorely to heart: you remember his allusions to it in the other letter. It was the sort of fight I didn't want to, had no business to, get mixed up in. William is rather cuter in all that than Maurice: his great talents all lay in that direction: but as William himself says there, it was a thing for Maurice to finally decide for himself." W. had laid aside another letter for me. Was I to keep it? "Yes: poke it into your pigeon hole." Then he laughed. "I'm commencing to think that pigeon hole is bulging all round, Horace." I'll not doctor Schmidt's English.

Copenhagen, January 5, 1872. Walt Whitman, Esq., Dear Sir!

I will postpone no longer to thank you for your kind letter of 7 Dec. It was in my hands two days before the beginning of the new year. Your Leaves of Grass Clausen had already sent me; but the other papers—especially your Democratic Vistas—shall be very welcome. I wonder that they have not arrived yet, and hope that they have not miscarried on the way. This unexpected delay makes me very sorry; my mind is full of your poems, but naturally I won't begin to write before having in my hands as complete materials as possibly.

Hans Christian Andersen would perhaps not make you very great joy, if you did know him personally. Björnson would be your man, he is a dear friend of mine and coeditor of the periodical. At present he is living in Christiania.

The enclosed portrait is no bad photography, but a photographical portrait is never truly a good one.

Most truly yours, Rudolf Schmidt.

Schmidt addded a marginal note. "In this moment the papers received. All right. Heartfully thanks!" W. said: "Later—indeed, from this time on—Schmidt became more and more intimately associated: I have always felt peculiarly appealed to by him: his Danish renderings are, I am told, done with rare genius. Schmidt has had a checkered career: domestically he's gone through the most agonizing experiences."

W. had read Lang's article. "Read it all through. It did not impress me as being profound—even competent: it's rather good natured, though it seems to say all the way through—we are nebulous, still, and only nebulous: only preparing—not yet started: that seems to be the prevailing spirit: no doubt it's in some measure exact: but Lang fishes with a short line: it's the best he has but it'll never do any formidable execution."

W. quickly said as if it had just come to him: "I want you to do something when you are in town: something for me." What? "This: some day, when you are in the neighborhood of the Academy, go in and take a look at Herbert's picture." I interrupted him. "I intended doing so—intended going Sunday." His face lighted up. "Well—Sunday: that's better still: if I could move around, could go at all, I should go Sunday: Sunday is the democratic day." I suggested: "And to see the people as much as the pictures." "Yes—that too: you are right there: to see the people, who beat all the pictures ever painted—indeed, who paint all the pictures. But go anyhow: and take the girls with you: tell Aggie: tell Anne: tell any of them: I place a very high value upon the impressions of women: they are cute, instant, unequivocal: even when they seem to go wrong (seem so to us—to men) they are lightning-like—crowd you with opulent emotional verities." Finally he said: "Now don't forget: I caution you: go yourself—but have the girls go, too: if not with you, then sometime anyway, so we may get the benefit of their report."

Something brought up the Eakins portrait. I yesterday saw another fine Eakins canvas—the portrait of a bank president. W. said: "I never get over wondering that no one except two or three of us seem to like or even tolerate the Eakins picture of me. For myself I always say I am not only contented but gratified." As to Eakins' work in general: "I should suppose it to be high-tide product: his best canvas, his crowning canvas, so far seems to have been the Gross picture in Jefferson College." Had he seen the original? He has a reproduction of it downstairs given him by Eakins. "No: I have not seen it—have never been there: but I realize its manifold adequacies—its severe face: the counterfeit, much as it necessarily must have lost, is convincing." He quizzed me. Wanted to know about other pictures. "You make a good interpreter," he said: "I know by your nouns and adjectives that you've got your finger on the nerve."

I quoted a newspaper which said: "Leaves of Grass is dead already." W. ejaculated: "He may be right—who knows?" I put in: "Stop where you are: I know." He asked: "How in hell could you know?" I put my hand over my heart. "From in here." He wanted to know: "Have you a safe guide in there?" I replied: "I wish I was as sure of my future as I am of the future of Leaves of Grass." W. looked surprised. "I thought you always felt sure of your future." I explained: "I don't mean my future beyond this life but my future here." W.'s face lighted up. "Oh! you mean what is called worldly success? getting along? Yes, I see!" Then he added quietly: "Well, the only thing I can say as to that is, that it does not do any good to worry in either case. It is the glory of Emersonism—the Emersonian spirit—that it seems to say, 'Let come what will, what comes is right: accept today, tomorrow, just as they come, with just what they bring: all is as it should be: courage, peace!'" I interjected: "And certainly Leaves of Grass more than reinforces that same glorious trumpet call"—he crying back to me: "I hope it does! I hope it does!"

W. used the word "shenanigan" with reference to someone's style: "That's argot: that's the word direct." W. again quoted Bucke's Magazine of Poetry piece as "a good example of a more virile embodiment of the new principles of composition." He said W. "is always admirably alive" even when "not preserving his literary impeccability." W. said: "I want simple narrative: no furbelows: no frills: just as in Tom's portraits, which the formalists, the academic people, won't have at any price: not show, not dressiness, not a remaking of nature, but life, its manifests, just as it is, as they are." He was very ready. "I knew an artist, a painter, who had portraitized N.P. Willis: can you imagine what that meant? It was fix this, fix that: it was a curl wrong here, a curl wrong there: now a wrinkle out of place—or one too many: and so on, so on, through a whole catalogue of should-be's: and so finally the artist was sick of his job. This method is an abandonment of fact, a surrender to ceremony, a treacherous appeal to the false, to the meretricious, which no circumstances can excuse." W. poked his thumb up before my eyes. He said: "'It's as if I said I don't like the way God made my thumb: I think thumbs should be different: besides, thumbs and forefingers would be better off if they changed places: presto! I'll do what God neglected to do. That's no sort of sense at all. We must have the cares, the diseases, the dyspepticisms, all expressed along with the joy, the health, the wholesome inertia, that round out every representative personality." "Walt," I said: "you've talked better than a book tonight." He asked: "Why shouldn't I?" I said: "That's so, why shouldn't you? A man's always a man whatever happens, but a book's not always a book whatever happens." W. exclaimed: "A thousand amens to that!"

Back to top