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Friday, March 1, 1889

Friday, March 1, 1889

8 P.M. W. reading Century which he laid down on my entrance. Reported his health "rather on the improve." Pain in the side "gradually lessening" which is "probably the way it is to be shaken off." Said he had written Burroughs. "Not long: but I did not send him the book: I'm still uncertain where he is—whether he has yet got back to West Park or not: I addressed my letter to West Park." I asked: "Did the Doctor get here today?" I left him in Philadelphia on the way to Camden. "Oh yes!" said W.: "he was here two hours ago: we had quite a talk together." On the table a pile of Sarrazin sheets, Bucke's version. W. gave me one. "I laid aside a packet of them for Doctor: he took them away with him." I was to take some to give out in Germantown Sunday. I asked W. about O'Connor. Had he any news? He looked towards his table. "See here," he said. He sorted among papers there for some minutes. "Oh, where the devil is it!" he cried. "Is what?" I asked. He replied: "It's a letter of William's I'm after: a letter for you: I had it in my fingers an hour ago." Suddenly he cried: "Ah! here it is: I want you to have it: read it to me while I listen." Just as I was about to start he added: "It's a melancholy pleasure going over William's old letters: they are brilliant, loving, loyal, profound: there will be no more of them: I can't hide the dismal conclusion from myself." He was much affected. He wiped his eyes with his right hand. "I know it's a witless thing to comfort yourself so desperately: but what is there left to us? William is under sentence of death: there's nothing yet to be done but to wait for the sentence to be executed." I asked: "Shall I read?" "Yes: do."

Washington, D.C. May 16, 1888. Dear Walt:

I have hoped daily to write in reply to your letters of April 8th and 23d, and the postal card of May 7th, but between office business and illness I have been prevented. Last night I got another of May 14th, covering the one from Herbert Gilchrist, which I send today to Doctor Bucke, as you desire. I am grieved to learn by these last advices that you are ill lately. Your trouble all through seems twin to mine—semi-paralysis, indigestion, constipation, etc. But who can be well, or who being sick can help being sicker, in such weather as we have had this spring? The last five days have been simply horrible—cold, wet, raw, diabolical, and we are all the worse for it. I think we will have to do like the Greenlanders—when the weather is bad, they boil the thermometer!

I saw your little piece in the Herald of the 14th. No fear of your distempers getting into your compositions! Your temperament is indomitable. One would think you had the sun for a solar plexus. I basked in the mellowness of your last letters as in the gold and azure October weather of which I am so fond. ["How wonderful that is! how wonderful!" exclaimed W.: "Who can say such things like William? he is a master juggler of words—yes, of hearts, too!"] I often feel deep regret that you should have become ill. It simply proves the existence of the devil, whom Starr King called the fourth person of the Trinity! (Certainly he's powerful enough to be so styled.) But for him, or what he stands for, you might have reached a hundred, hale, sturdy, impregnable, and like the best druid of the grove. So may it be yet!

I read with a jovial heart of your trencher work at the planked shad and champagne up at the old tavern on the Delaware, and, later, with your friends, where champagne and oysters ruled the board. Didn't I wish to be along! Didn't my lower stomach shout to my upper stomach with loud halloos! O there's fun in this sad world yet! I hope you'll have lots of it.

Apropos of the Devil, I once had a conception of him, which I worked out in an unpublished romance thirty years ago, as a type of intellectual ignorance—that is, of word-knowledge as against the knowledge of things. Lately, I had another and more grotesque conception of such a being, supernatural and immortal, but, simply having all the diseases! Wouldn't be a bad idea, would it? How very diabolic such a devil would naturally be, wouldn't he? [W. cried: "That last sort of devil gets loose in my room here now and then and I am the victim! and poor William today knows better than ever how plausible his singular phantasm was!"]

Herbert Gilchrist's letter was very interesting. His reference to your bust would have been very enigmatical, but for a card I had from Kennedy which helped me to infer that it was Morse's bust that was alluded to.

In a couple of days the weather will change for the better, and you will feel revived. I hope you will ride out all you can in the Spring air. ["The spring air: yes: I love it too: but what about the winter air—the summer, fall, air—any air? I love it all! but here I am shut off impartially, irrevocably, from all seasons!"]

You speak of Mrs. Louise Chandler Moulton having been to see you. It is many years since I saw her. She used to be very pretty: I hope she is yet. Her fault was in being too Araminta-Seraphina-Matilda, and this, life has made her outgrow. ["She's still good looking enough, Horace," W. said laughing: "but she hasn't outgrown the Araminta business at all: it's still there running over: I can't endure her effusiveness: I like, respect her: but her dear this and dear that and dear the other thing make me shudder!"]

I had a letter from Ben Tucker about you and your Herald threnody on the Emperor (which I have never seen). He seemed much troubled and cast down. Undoubtedly, he has a great regard and veneration for you, and feels hurt. ["When William saw that threnody, as he calls it, he got mad too." "They do not shake your faith?" "Not a bit: I wrote what I wrote there because it goes logically along with all the rest."]

I am delighted at your returns from the Herald, and hope they will continue. Bennett is certainly the most generous of all the blackguards. ["Blackguards? yes: William must have his fling!"]

You speak of having the bust of Elias Hicks, which must be a grateful possession. I hope your article on him is growing. You ought to make it good, and as elaborate as possible.

Miserable Cosmopolitan!—to refuse the Lilt of Songs, which has a real and deep thought! Such are these demons.

I had your Critic Thought on Shakespeare, and read it many times lately again. It is certainly very satisfactory, though I could wish it had certain explanations and expansions.

Donnelly's book is out, and I have gone through it, though hurriedly and in illness. He has done something I don't like—withheld a part of the explanation of the cipher, and moreover expounded it so bewilderingly as to leave the matter still in debate. Still, the effect is rather tremendous, and although the chief journals denounce and lampoon it with all their armory of lying, misrepresentation and persiflage, I don't think any fair mind can doubt the validity of the cryptograph. ["Like the Irishman," said W.: "I'm wid you, William! but damn if I'm capable of knowing its validity: I seem to be stone blind in the sight of such intricate problems!"] The general abuse and ridicule are consoled, so far, by Professor Colbert of Chicago vouching for the reality of the figures, and by Mr. Bidder, one of the best mathematicians in England, declaring that the cipher is surely in the test. But that my illness makes me unfit for composition, I would like to review Donnelly's reviewers so far, and would engage to make them skip. Such ignorance and such impudence I have rarely seen. The fragments of the cipher story in the book are quite amazing and have wonderful vraisemblance. He has a notice of me, with other Baconians, and briefly pays good tribute to you. ["William is by all odds the ablest man in the batch of the Baconians; he is not only learned, profound, but just: the trouble has been that all his literary, scholastic, work has had to be desultory, fragmentary, done in the margins of his leisure."]

You speak truly of the beautiful hue of the young wheat. I have sometimes thought that "wheat-color" would be a justified and telling epithet. The tint is so peculiar, so living. ["The beautiful hue of the young wheat: yet: the beautiful hue of the young child: the beautiful hue of the old mother: yes, yes!"]

By the way, in looking over Stedman's book (the Poets of America) I saw how thoroughly and even radically he had modified the article on you. It is by no means what it was in the magazine. My talk with him must have sunk in. [W. said: "Yes: something must have sunk in: Doctor has been comparing them, too: Tom, also: they're like a kennel of watch dogs." I said: "Walt, they won't like the comparison with dogs!" He dissented. "They won't mind the kind of dog I mean!"]

Goodbye. Nelly sends you her love. So do I. Always affectionately

W.D. O'Connor.

Picked up a portrait from the table—a photo—on which he had pasted an oval frame in paper. He said: "That is one of the Washington portraits, taken about '64." It was signed "Walt Whitman 1868." "Do you think it good?" he asked: "I am sure O'Connor has one: he likes it, too: what do you think about having it processed? how would it come up? When you take the other picture you can take this, too: I have not yet absolutely fixed either in my mind, but we must go prospecting around a little before we make a break." And after a slight pause: "How would this do to go into the new book—the pocket edition?" But that again was "only in the air." "It is one of Gardner's portraits—one I rather like myself." W. smiled. I remember what poor William says: he says I always like my idiot pictures best!"

I said: "I have read every word of the Lowell stuff in The Critic: there's not a notable thing said there by anybody." W. was quick in replying: "That describes it: here is one who says ditto to what you say: it was a mess—a mess!" I congratulated him. "I'm glad you didn't get into it." W.: "I should think that would go without saying with anyone who knew me." I said: "Even Burroughs' piece was trivial." W.: "It was indeed: you are right: I was very much surprised that John allowed himself to be drawn into it all: John in the old days was even bitter towards Lowell—could not discuss him without censure: he must have changed a whole lot to have arrived at his present point of view." Here W. turned towards me vehemently: "I would hardly have been more astonished if I had been told, seen, heard, that William himself had become a Lowellite: why, in the old days we used to discuss whether Lowell was worth discussing at all." Referred to The Critic symposium in general: "The fellows think in such a confab as that that they have to bite on the sugar—that that is what it is for, as perhaps it is."

W. said: "Tell me about Barrett, Horace: how did the meeting turn out the other day?" Lawrence Barrett addressed the Contemporary Club at the League Annex on Charlotte Cushman. Booth was present. They are having a season in Philadelphia just now. I replied to W.'s question. "It was a fizzle: Barrett seemed so much out of sorts, talked so feebly, most of the people in the room couldn't hear what he was saying: it was a fiasco." W. "Is it possible? what was the matter? how did that happen?" "Stage fright," I said. W. shook his head. "How could that be? I should not have thought that of Barrett: and yet I know that actors are rarely good speechifiers: I'm sorry: it was a pity for Charlotte: I regret it for her sake: she was a great woman."

I said: "Walt, there's a story goes with all that: do you want to hear it?" "Certainly: why not: have you time to tell it?" "Oh, it's only a few words. When Barrett told Booth he had consented to make the speech Booth told him he was a fool. He said to Barrett: 'Lawrence, don't do it.' Barrett said: 'I've accepted and I'll go there and speak.' Booth said: 'If you do I'll sit there in front of you and make faces at you.' Barrett stuck to it. So did Booth." W. was much interested. He asked: "How was that? what occurred?" I went on: "Barrett knew Booth would keep his word. Barrett came first before much of the audience had collected. He told McAlister at the door what Booth had threatened to do. I stood there with them. McAlister asked: 'Do you really think he'll do it?' Barrett said:'He will.' Barrett then said to McAlister: 'When he comes, usher him to a seat off to the side rather than in front of the stage.' Barrett didn't want to face him. Booth came along by and by. McA. said something about showing him to a seat. Booth was willing. McA. started off ahead, walked past the front of the stage to the other side, thinking B. was following him. When he turned round he found that Booth had dropped into a seat directly facing the speaker's stand." W. laughed, chuckled: "How good! and that did the business, eh?" "Yes: I put that very question up to Barrett after the meeting: he said: 'Yes, that did it: Booth's face was a study: full of a quiet devilish derision that I knew too well.'"

W. highly happy. "Well—that's certainly a good story." W. said he was sorry he missed seeing any report of the meeting in the papers. "I would have been greatly interested in reading over some of the things Barrett said." W. then spoke of Booth. "Is he handsome? I have seen him on the stage often—I think never on the street." I said to W.: "Ben Starr told a story about you at Tom's yesterday." "How's that? what was that?" W. asked. "He says it was long ago, in your early years: you went with several others—Sam Probasco was one of them—to hear Brignoli: it was the first time you had seen Brignoli: the opera was Martha: Brignoli sang an aria which carried you away: you listened to it with your neck craned forward, drinking it in, dead, buried, and resurrected, till the last: then you sank back in your seat exclaiming: 'Lord! the voice of an angel and the manners of a codfish!' That was the story, Walt. Does it sounds right to you?" Laughed heartily. "It does sound plausible." I asked: "Did you know Sam Probasco?" "Oh yes: Sam was a great engineer in Brooklyn." Laughed again and again. "It must have been in the amphitheater." After another laugh. "It seems very probable: has the signmarks of authenticity: it must have been me." I said: "Then you don't think Ben's a liar?" W.: "I know Ben's a liar but I don't think this is a lie."

I quoted the German who said to me of one of my friends: "He had a very bad reputation of telling the truth." This stirred W. to indescribable laughter. His laugh is usually very quiet. This time it was almost boisterous. "That is awful funny! awful good! too good to keep!"—again and again rippling out hilariously. Then in a more serious vein: "I must have been there: it has the look: but Ben Starr? he hasn't the look!" Here he got off on another strain. "But the fish part is very fishy: I am not inclined to accept it." And more at length: "I was a great lover of Brignoli: knew him, too, personally: I always stood up for him. These things, like that of the fish, were often said of him by others. I doubt if a singer ever lived, a tenor, with a sweeter voice than Brignoli had then—all along." I spoke of Brignoli as I had seen and heard him, chiefly on the concert stage: alluded to his dramatic clumsiness. "He stood as he sang as if something was the matter with his crotch." W. said as he laughed: "I never heard his awkwardness so described—as in the crotch—but now you say it it strikes me there was indeed the seat of the disease." Again: "But I never thought of his manners when I heard him: they were not present: they were easy to forget."

I told W. another one of Starr's stories. Starr was driving from Springfield to Hartford. He picked up Thoreau on the road. Talked along the way of out-of-door things, chiefly of autumnal phenomena. They parted at Hartford—Starr and Thoreau did not exchange names. A few months after, a Thoreau article in the Atlantic contained "a highly seasoned" report of what passed between the two men. W. intensely interested but wholly skeptical. "I doubt 'highly seasoned': it does not sound probable to me: Ben himself is highly seasoned: this story carries with it the pungent odor of his own spices: Ben overaccentuates everything he does: yet in this instance he may be straight." W. then said: "In a social chat the point is not authenticity: if a mot is sharp the truth of it does not matter: the point is the end." He had "nothing against" Starr, "but you know Ben is the most irresponsible beggar." He added: "Whether Walt Whitman and Thoreau are fairly represented by Starr's anecdotes is very doubtful: all along in history all sorts of stories have been fathered, mothered, on the célèbres: they are considered safer when you have given them some individual to nestle in." Then with a laugh: "It makes the circle sparkle—flavors it up." "Lincoln seems to have suffered this fate," I said. "Yes," he replied: "he was indeed a victim: they have tried to put the keenest of their jokes on him: some of them smutty, dirty, lascivious: thousands of 'em: a whole host: the Lincoln myth is tremendous."

I questioned W.: "I suppose when Doctor was here you charged him with messages for O'Connor?" "No indeed, I did not—I gave him nothing, hardly said anything to him about it: but I wrote a postal to O'C. telling him that you proposed coming: I suppose he will get it tomorrow morning." Then he asked me: "Do you think you will go to O.C.'s with Doctor? Ah! if you do, you must tell him for me that I send him deepest love: I want you to give him as favorable a view as possible of my condition: describe me as you find me here tonight—minutely: turn the sunny side out: tell him as you left me I charged you to say, that they have been very profoundly endeared to me—endeared to me perhaps as have no others: not O'Connor alone, but the wife, too—both together: see her, tell her, too. Oh! the sacred serviceableness of those years—those years when they took me in! I was poor: it was a time of need: they were not greatly endowed in the way of money—yet had enough: that enough they shared with me! It was indisputable, beautiful, cherished. Do you know, Horace, I have been very fortunate all along in one respect—fortunate even in the very earliest years: in the men, my friends: in the wives, too—always interested, friendly, inspiriting: they, even more than the husbands, upheld, declared for me." Again: "Yes, fortunate—even rarely fortunate!" I suggested: "And in O'Connor's case, more than that: then the two letters!" At once he repeated fervently: "Yes, the two letters—the literary riches based on the long moral, practical, support, adhesion—a great, great, benefaction indeed. All this you will tell them for me." As I got up to leave: "Let the love not be forgotten." And as a parting charge he said: "Come in—come in—as soon as you can after getting back: tell me. You probably won't have time tomorrow night—but Sunday morning without fail!"

I was in at Oldach's today. Correction book not done yet. Bucke told Harned: "I do what I can to ease the old man's way but he's pretty well tethered out." Bucke can't get over W.'s lack of enthusiasm in connection with the meter. "I took it for granted he'd be keyed up to it but it rather seems as if he didn't care a rap what came of it." I asked Harned what he thought of meter prospects. He said: "I have very little faith but I'm willing to wait." I repeated this to W. this evening. It pleased him. He said: "Tom's damned astute: I stand with him: I'm willing to wait, too: what's more, I predict we've got to wait!"

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