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Wednesday, March 13, 1889

Wednesday, March 13, 1889

10.15 A.M. Reading Press. Didn't look well. Yet talked cheerfully. Called my attention at once to the following postal from Mrs. O'C.:

Washington, March 12, 1889.

William has recovered his mental balance, and is once more rational; as he says, the "hallucinations" are gone; but he is very weak, and tires very soon. I hope some time to be able to write you, but no one can realize how often I have to run from one thing to another, nor how much care I have of William. I try to keep up.

Nelly O'C.

This had cheered W. considerably. He said I should take the postal over and let Bucke see it. I called his attention to this from the Press in a column called Echoes of the Streets:

"Walt Whitman is not without a keen sense of the humorous. An ambitious young poet called on him the other day to show him a MS. tragedy entitled Columbus. 'Mr. Whitman,' said he, 'I should like to read you my drama and get your opinion of its merits.' 'No, I thank you,' said Walt. 'I've been paralyzed once.'"

W. laughed. "This is the first I ever heard of it: it is quite epigrammatic: but it's made up out of the whole cloth." Herald yesterday had quoted lines from W.—The First Dandelion—printed in the same paper a year ago, and had spoken of it as a "gem" from "the Herald's poet." It amused W. He said: "It is like saying, as is often said, 'the Camden poet, Walt Whitman': that makes me laugh." Talked of pocket edition. W.: "I would not send to England for paper: I am quite satisfied if need be with the paper of the big book there." He said: "I want to say something to you about the big book: don't you think we should reduce the standard of the cover? I refer to the leather book: I get very little out of the book as it stands—very little: Dave wants the leather—but Dave's word is not law: I don't believe he's going to set the world on fire with them anyway: I have no faith in the market: there is really no Walt Whitman market." I asked: "Have you grown pessimistic?" "No," he said: "I am only facing the facts: there's no use fooling myself with illusions." I said: "Dave says he can't sell the plain covered books at all." W. then rather sharply: "All right: then he can't: I'm not going to sit here and cry over that." I don't care so much for the leather book myself. Told him so. But Dave? W. said: "I have been spending considerable money—must pull in stakes a little: nothing is coming in: I am getting short: I do not so much object to the cover as to the price: I don't like the price: there should be a cover costing from fifty to sixty cents: that is what I aimed for at the start." I packed up five copies for McKay. Ed went to the city with me. W. gave me an old Schmidt letter. It was very striking. After I had read it aloud to W., as he asked me to, I left for Philadelphia.

Copenhagen, August 18, 1875. My dear Walt Whitman.

I have indeed been extremely sorry to hear firstly from the transmitted paper of July 23 and then from your kind letter of July 31, that your prospects of recovering your health seem to have darkened forever. You are no old man, and I had always hoped that your giant frame at last should supersede the lurking enemy. Even yet I won't give up hope. That you don't give up your literary activity is to me a good token!

From Kristian Elster I have not heard myself in a very long time, and I don't wonder that he has not written to you. He is a true virginal nature with the shyness of a virgin. As he was nearly suffocated by the dullness and coarse materialism of the Norwegian Society, I pressed him for two years ago (when he had previously sent me some very fine articles for my periodical) to come for some months to Copenhagen. I introduced [him] to some of the leading literary men and in some rich families, but he did not come to them and I myself must fetch him in his lodging, when I would see him. It seemed to him to be an intrusion to pay a visit, when not expressly asked to come! This is the fruit of a lonely education in stern and harsh national surroundings The Norsemen can be described in the shy ones and the impudent ones. Björnson and Ole Bull are of the last sort, Elster of the first. The meanest sort—as usual—has first produced its gifted men: when the better sort in its time has sprung into flowers, they shall all be forgotten. Then as truly as Denmark is at this moment doing the principal part of the intellectual work of the Scandinavian race, its accomplishment is kept back for Norway.

The intellectual work of the Scandinavian race! What a humiliating thought to us Danes, that Hans Christian Andersen shall be nearly our only representant to the world. There are men in Denmark of such an intellectual greatness that Andersen was not reaching to their knees. The world did to his last days take the selfish old man for a child; the spirit of the Danish people is no child; it [is] a warrior with the sword in his hand bleeding from combats, when he fought one against seven, with great thoughts of his brow and stern resolution in his eyes! At last Andersen lived only among our rich Jewish families, who endured all his whims and harshness, hoping to be gilt by his fame. He was buried as he had lived. The King and the Crown Prince were in the church, reporters for foreign papers, also from America, swarmed everywhere; but there was no wet eye in the whole assembly.

But our time shall come! Most probably America, in the next century, shall be the vanguard of humanity, its greatest leading power. But your eyes will not be open to see the outlines filled your bold hand has drawn. As representants for mental power and intellectual vigor such people as Bret Harte and Mark Twain are fainting away into ridiculousness. Ours is the next future. You have no idea of the intellectual decay that in Germany is accompanying the political grandeur of the country. In June I met with professors and teachers of the university who in all earnest were Buddhists, believers of nothings, or properly spoken, believing that nothing is the true reality of the existence of world and man. This is the dark and black gulf that Goethe and Schiller decked with the flowers and branches of their genius. At present the flowers and foliage are fading, and the black fathomless abyss of despair opens its giant yawn to the horrified mind. The faith, the youth, the hope, the vigor of spirits, the soaring flight of lofty aspiration, is only to be found in Scandinavia. Martin Luther spoke the prophetic word: in the north is a place of refuge! The day of the fulfillment is near.

I have never doubted that I could make myself understood to you, and a letter of business or concerning the usual affairs of human life I could most probably write without faults at all, when I did take pains with it. But all the striking expressions, all the elaborate work of the thought, is fading away beneath my feather, when treating more difficult matters in English. I am never saying exactly what I would say, and you know, my dear friend, that this is a great pain to anyone who is accustomed to clothe his thoughts in the garment of language. I shall be glad to receive your new books. A Danish philosopher defines a hero as a man who is holding on the possible against probability. Hoping amelioration of your health against probability I am yours

Rudolf Schmidt.

W. was immensely interested. He had me read some of the sentences two or three times. He discussed with me the meaning of some of the clumsy English. But he said: "His general point of view is profoundly impressive: I am not informed—I can't speak of its truth or not truth: I like his word spoken for the little countries." I asked: "Hasn't Schmidt some asperity in his constitution?" W. said: "Quite a bit—but I can forget it: I can see the other things and not see that: I am not inclined to some of his views: I am, however, convinced in general. As to the leadership—why should there be a leadership. Why shouldn't each people contribute its best, not worrying about more or less? Besides, I do not believe any country is ever wholly obscured: there are always the unknown men, as Schmidt sees: they are everywhere—often, too, they are essentially greater, more significant, than the men with boisterous reputations. Schmidt has flung out frequent nasty things about Björnson in his letters: I can't follow him—he goes into no particulars: I have every reason to acknowledge Björnson's stature, value, deserved eminence." I said: "He insists that Denmark must have the first place on the map." W.: "Yes, there's a spice of that national brag: everybody has it here and there, in moods, at times: a note like that coming from Denmark is a little like a meteor challenging Jupiter: still, it's harmless."

7.45 P.M. W. reading Aeschylus. Room fearfully hot. Weather not magnetically springlike. The moon up, the stars clear, the air mild. W. inquisitive. Likes outdoor talk. He said: "I answered an autograph letter the other day—an unprecedented act: it was from the far west: from one of the territories, I think: there was something in it which moved me." Reference to Weir Mitchell. "He is a man of the old school: he is well worth knowing: Doctor should meet him: I'll give him a letter." Further: "Mitchell of late years has been bitten with the desire to compose, compose—that curse of curses: has written volumes: very bad, too—awful in their inadequacy: but personally he is a man to meet, to know." Bucke had been running about all day. Too tired to come over this evening. W. said: "I'm sorry—I'm disappointed." Nothing from Stedman. W. is expecting S. to say something about the big book. "The chief point with Stedman is that he means well—wants to be: there is nothing more happy in any personality than the faculty for that." Had I anything from the O'Connors? W. said: "Every hour of every day William dwells with me here."

I went into further details of our Washington trip. "Your presence," W. said, "must have exhilarated him: you struck him in one of his easiest, freest periods: it was a happy hit in many ways: the trouble was much more than repaid: I know that what you took there to him, what you brought back from him to me, has given me as well as him a great lift: I am sure William, Nelly, were just as much cheered, gladdened: and as for you, I judge from what you say that you too greatly profited by, enjoyed, what the journey netted you." I quoted O'C.'s description of W. as he first knew him in W. "Yes," said W.: "there is something of that down: he has put it into the letters, somewhere—perhaps in more than one place: done it superbly, too—greatly, opulently: I don't think my friends, most of them, sufficiently realize the status of those letters—very few, if any: you do, I think: yes, I think you do: and, I should say, Clifford—perhaps Clifford does." I said: "William was hungry for details of your life here." "Yes, I can see it: and it was good because of you: I am sure you told the story straight: from what I know of you I am confident you would not turn the light on extravagantly—give too optimistic a twist to your report: that you would not say more of aspects either favorable or unfavorable than was justified: more than was true: truth alone—put that forward: that's what I want: I don't want anybody to lie about me: I'd rather be lied against than for if it comes to that: I am sure of you: I know too from your temperament, faith, that you wouldn't paint the situation too black, either." He said: "I have been thinking of Osler." I asked: "What?" He said: "I know Osler gives me the benefit of every doubt: I know also that he gives me the benefit of all the sympathetic, optimistic, tendencies of his nature."

Bucke referred O'Connor's case to Osler for an opinion. Osler was as dubious as Bucke. W. was impressed. "Poor fellow! poor fellow! poor William!" he cried. Then: "I send him a little word almost every day." He spoke half a dozen times in the evening of the satisfaction he got from our Washington trip. "I am on solid ground again," he said. He thought the pocket edition should have no imprint. "Let it come out just as the big book did—from my hands alone." W. spoke of filth—the streets of cities—of his "extreme sensitiveness to anything like foulness in the atmosphere." He said that "in some places people would throw all the rottenness of their gutters into the middle of the street, letting it simmer there in the sun, which of course inevitably developed disease conditions." Then: "It was incredible: the dung, excrement, slop that constituted the deposit." He added: "I have generally been helpless: could only sit and take it in: by some happy luck was never myself affected." I said: "William says you have never taken proper care of yourself." W.: "I think he is right: at least, that was so several years ago: I did not keep my usual caution about me then." W. added: "William chafes more from casual things, conditions, than I do: he is up in arms under restraint: I take my medicine and make the best of it: God knows which method is best."

McKay told me he had met some Congressional Library official who said W. would forfeit his N. B. copyright if he didn't deposit the customary two copies of the book at Washington. I thought W. had sent them. He had intimated so to me. Tonight he admitted they had never been sent. He added: "There never was a case of such forfeiture: the books are often not sent: people connected with the Library have spoken to me of it." Still, he would comply. "I will send them tomorrow or next day." I regard this again as an instance of the poverty-scare that pursues him at times. Whenever he gets a little flutter of hope that he may live longer (as yesterday from Bucke) he seems to start in at once to husband what money he has so he may not get stranded. His economies last a day or two. Then he lets himself go again. This is the only frailty in him which rubs me. I stand between him and binders and printers and have many matters of the financial sort to smoothe down on both sides. Both Bucke and McKay oppose W.'s new view regarding the cover of the big book. W. said: "I'll do what I'll do though the heavens fall: I understand Dave's vote: Maurice's vote shows that he does not understand me: there's nothing for me but to go my own gait." In at Ferguson's. Left the Bible model with Brown. They think the Oxford paper will be very expensive. We may import or get a similar domestic paper.

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