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Monday, February 11, 1889

Monday, February 11, 1889

7.20 P.M. W. reading an old copy of the Atlantic. Sat in his usual place under the light. Fire lively. Odor of wood in the room. "I am a prisoner," he said, smilingly, "but you are not my jailer." Then after a pause: "Indeed, far from that: you are in fact my deliverer." He said right off: "I've got a couple of old soldiers for you: I put them aside: here they are. In William's letter you will find premonitory allusions to the trouble that is killing him today." He handed me what proved to be two notes pinned (without envelopes) together—one from O'Connor and one from Burroughs. He settled in his chair and said: "Would you mind reading them to me?" Of course I didn't mind, so I unpinned the sheets and got to work. He interrupted me every now and then with some exclamation or remark.

Washington, D. C., Dec. 10, 1886. Dear Walt:

It has been a great trouble to me not to be able to write to you. The difficulty of managing pen and ink is indescribable, and only equalled by the difficulty of putting even the simplest expressions together. I begin to fear that paralysis is not far off. [W. broke in: "Oh, William, William! it wasn't, it wasn't! God help us!"] I move about with slowness and difficulty. But worst of all is the horrible deadness of the mind. I put in an appearance every day at the office, but it is a long time since I have been able to do anything.

I got two postal cards from you in August, and recently yours of the 19th ultimo. It saddens me to know of your condition, and I wish it could be otherwise. ["Oh William! and it saddens me today to know of your condition and I wish it could be otherwise!"]

You mention having got a German paper (in August) with a long notice of L. of G. Did you see a pamphlet by Karl Knortz—a lecture about you delivered in New York to a large audience, I heard with great applause? He sent me a copy, and I undertook to get it translated, but the young lady I trust hung fire when just near the close, and I have not got the translation quite yet! I hope to have it before long. A German friend who glanced over the article, told me the language was very powerful.

You remember the article from the Nation in review of the New Zealand professor's book about you? Since then Charley Eldridge has sent me the book, which I will forward to you, if you would like to see it. It is remarkable and good, though I don't always see as he does, and wish he were more comprehensive. But it is most significant, and he is flat-footed for you, and from a background of theory which compels respect, and must make the Apaches of criticism pause to think.

What is most significant, however, is the article called American Poets in the October number of the British Quarterly Review. C.W.E. has just sent it to me, and I want to run it over once more, when I will send it to you. It is disfigured by a few lines, but as a whole it is a glorious tribute, and full of splendid and wholehearted ardor. He reviews all our poets—Lowell, Whittier, Bryant, Longfellow, etc.,—and then puts you far above them all ["Above them all? does he say that?"] giving you the larger part of the reviewing space besides. ["Sometimes it looks as if we should be more successful than we are."] Now when you reflect that the London Quarterly is the great High Tory and aristocratic organ in Great Britain—the very essence of patrician respectability—you will realise where we are ["Well—where are we?"], and the advance we have made! the article is a bad blow for the enemy! This is evident by the silence of the Tribune, the Nation, &c., in regard to it. They are mum! ["They were mum then but God knows they've said enough since!"]

I have your article on Burns and am going to read it carefully when I am a little better. The scan I have given it, made me feel that it was admirable. I look with interest for all the others.

If you are writing again to Dr. Bucke tell him how badly off I am, and that I will answer his letters as soon as I can. At present my brain is just mud—I have a heap of letters unanswered. ["I know what that muddy, marshy, sticky, gummy, tarry feeling is myself: didn't I go through hell with it last year?"]

No matter what the venal press may say, there is no doubt that Julian Hawthorne told the truth about his interview with Lowell, and that Lowell lied. ["Lied? William? that's a fighting word!" laughing.] Julian got him into an awful scrape, no doubt, by the publication. 'Tis joy to see a bird like Lowell come to grief with his foreign friends, to whom he toadied so basely. ["He did toady, Horace: there seems to be no mistake about that: but that goes along with being very literary, very scholarly: toadying: whether to traditions or people—what's the difference?"]

I hope to write you a better letter next time ["No one ever writes me as good letters!"], and that your locomotion and general health may improve. I am always deeply glad to hear from you. ["And I to hear from you, William! Yet see how cruelly separated and inadequate we both are today!"]

Affectionately, W.D. O'Connor.

As I paused between the two letters W. said: "If that is William at his worst what is he at his best? He's like the Mississippi pilot: if William can do such wonders asleep what couldn't he do awake?" He laughed in a gentle way. Then he added gravely: "But the fact remains that there we find the first intimations of William's deathstroke." I picked up Burroughs' letter and read.

West Park, N. Y., Dec. 21, 1886. Dear Walt:

I received your card yesterday and also the English paper. This morning Doctor Bucke sends me William's letter. It makes me groan in spirit to think of William's condition. ["Yes! and now he's near the end!"] But he evidently exaggerates it somewhat, for this letter shows streaks of the old fire. ["It certainly does that: but then William will die aflame not frozen."] 'Tis a pity he sits down and lets this thing creep over him. He could do much to fight it off or keep it at bay, if he would make the effort you have made, or if he would take a sea voyage. I think I must go to W. this winter and see him. I have some notion of going south to get a glimpse of the tropics. ["John is not all wrong about that: William is not of the despondent but of the hypochondriac turn: he hasn't made the fight just as I have: John is correct in that: but we are temperamentally so different: the natural thing for me is not the natural thing for him: I do have great faith in what a man's will can do for a man: but this is no time for going back to all that: what is done can't be undone." I said: "Nor can what is undone be done!" W. said: "That's too sorrowfully true. Poor William! poor all of us!" I said again: "Rich all of us, too! Rich William! rich Walt!"]

I like your Lippincott paper; it is very dignified and impressive, and contains many very effective sentences. [W. exclaimed: "I hate effective sentences, brilliants, such like baubles! Yet—God bless John! I know what he means."] I am so glad you are writing again. My own health is pretty good. I think I have been much benefited the past fall by drinking vichy water. It has reduced my weight about ten per cent. My belly has gone away as if I had been confined. It might be good for you. It is good for those who make too much blood and fat. It reduces and thins the blood, and, with me, it corrects the too much uric acid. I am eating but two meals a day, the last at two-thirty p.m. I sleep much better for it.

The Quarterly Review article to which O'Connor refers I have read. It is very fine. Many strong and penetrating things are said about you. I should like to know who wrote it. It is in the same number that poor Gosse gets such a terrible cutting up. The New Zealander's book I had not heard of. ["It's queer about Gosse: William never mentions him but to say 'poor Gosse': and I find myself always thinking of 'poor Gosse': and here John says 'poor Gosse.' A man as poor as that must be in a mighty bad way!"]

Your book will doubtless have a checkered career in the future as it has had in the past, but I have no more doubt that it is one of the few immortal books than I have of my own existence. The world can never long pass it by. If it suffers centuries of eclipse and neglect it is bound to come up again. ["Don't you think you are very brazen, John, to go so far? to claim so much? Be bold, be bold, be not too damned bold, John!"]

Study into the causes of your bad spells and I believe you may master them or mitigate them. The bowels are the seat of the difficulty with you, I believe. Doctor Bucke says he is well and lecturing on insanity to medical students. I enclose O'C.'s letter. With much love

John Burroughs.

I asked W.: "Was it Frederick the Great who said: 'Keep your bowels open and keep your powder dry'?" W. laughed. "I don't know: it's just as good if he didn't say it." Then he added: "John was then, is now, about right in saying the bowels are the seat of the difficulty, but he was, he is wrong, if he says the bowels are the origin of the difficulty. There's something back of all that in my history, physiology, accounting for the hole I've got myself into. I have lived along pretty conservative lines now for years, but in spite of that I'm slowly slipping to the foot of the hill: it seems as though nothing would stay, however some things might or do delay, my descent."

I returned W. the pictures. Then he talked of Symonds again. "That photograph is the very top, culmination, crest of the art: it is the crowning product of the camera: I have never seen anything to equal it." He held the picture up before him. "What does this face most suggest?" He answered his own question: "Symonds is no joker: no notion of the jolly dog could be suggested by anything in his physiognomy: to me he expresses the scholastic—the profound, the fervent, not the ephemeral, scholastic: he is a bookish man—lives with books, in books—yet I don't know but that he goes for the meat, the philosophy, the principle, in literature, regarding these, with lesser factors, as of prime importance: but bookish he is: it's in every line of his face as well as in every line that he writes." Yet he had every reason for believing that Symonds "is of that higher type of the man of culture to whom literarishness is not an obstruction to life."

Naturally turned to O'Connor. "I am greatly disappointed," he said: "I have been looking for some word all day: waiting, remembering, hoping. I wrote today: I write every day—something: but Nellie is silent. It has been four or five days since I have heard: by and by something will come: I am praying that it may be favorable—a break in the clouds—though I suppose really ameliorating news is not to be expected." He said: "Nellie must be having a bad time of it: they live alone: she has nobody to help her. William is not entirely stranded: he has a position—a good one, I imagine: I don't know what his salary is—not less than two hundred dollars a month: they continue to pay him that: they are very decent in that sort of thing in Washington." He wound up saying: "After all, there's nothing makes up for the body: when the body gives out a man's about ready to pass in his checks: whatever's to happen hereafter, a man minus a body is of no use here." Then again: "That's why the art preservative of all the arts of living is the conservation of the body."

W. said: "I got nothing from Bucke today: did you?" But he had had letters: "One was from my German friend, Knortz—Karl Knortz: he says the book is out—that he has not yet had or seen a copy but has come across advertisements of it in the German newspapers." I asked W. what Knortz was: had he a profession? "I hardly know what you would call his occupation: I think he makes his living by hacking for the newspapers—writing, doing odds and ends: seeing good stories—making the most of them: all that. He started out with being a Presbyterian preacher: when he came from Germany had a church—I think here in South Jersey. By and by he gave that up—he saw it would not do: that he was not built for it: then he went to jobbing it on the newspapers. He is a cute wide-awake man. You have never met him? I think Doctor has seen him, talked with him—I don't know but liked him very well."

Talked of young Emperor William. "I find I can't think of him patiently: he rubs my fur the wrong way: I had great hopes of his father: they may have been based on nothing, but I had them: but this boy only excites my distrust. I never cease wondering how a people so enlightened as the Germans can tolerate the king, emperor, business anyway. The Hohenzollerns are a diseased mess, taking them all in all: there seems to be a corrupt physical strain in the family: what does it come from? can it be syphilis?" He was silent for awhile. Resumed: "I am aware that that is often said of Frederick: it is the pet theory of doctors—their staple explanation: but the question is, is it true? how much of it can be true? I am not easily convinced in such matters: I call for absolute testimony—and that no one outside has got in this case. Doctors put all the iniquities of courts, palaces, high society, down at this one door—but do they belong there? I listen to the stories—yet am not convinced: I am not willing to contradict them or ready to acquiesce. Victoria, in England, comes in for the same muck. I know Englishmen—young, radical, republican Englishmen—(the great point being that they are very cute, intelligent, cultured, noble)—who can never allude to the Queen but with foul epithets: the Queen, who, if I accepted the estimate of these boys, I would have to set down as a low, dirty, sneaking, stingy drab—a sluttish drab!" But his idea of it all was wholly contrary. "Even Mrs. Gilchrist, splendid as she always was—fair, discriminating—could never speak of the Queen but with contempt—the heartiest disdain." I asked: "Weren't these scornful negations rather for the queen than for the woman?" He did not answer directly. I waited. Finally he said: "You may be right but they didn't sound as impersonal as that: as negations of the queen I would have assented to them." Had Bucke ever said anything on the subject of Frederick?—anything pathological? "I hardly think so: not to me: I have no doubt he has opinions: Bucke is slow to commit himself on professional problems. It's easy to put on an air of mystery before cases you don't understand and say 'syphilis' in a hushed voice and impress listeners with the idea that you're a big gun: but causes, effects, what was before, what comes after, heredity, such elements, are not to be so readily put together, taken apart, brushed aside in a generalization."

W. spoke of the complete W.W. "It is valuable if at all not for extraneous qualities but for something interior: something personal, having to do with me, with my past, with what is to come—if that is worth while. I would hardly expect Dave to compass that: it goes rather with the psychological, even the metaphysical, than with book-selling: we must not demand too much of people: if we demand enough—that's sufficient!"

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