Skip to main content

Monday, March 18, 1889

Monday, March 18, 1889

7.45 P.M. W. reading the papers. Stopped in at Dooner's today. Bucke not there. W. at once acquainted me with Bucke's departure. "The blow has fallen: the Doctor has gone. He was here a long time today: he came about two—stayed about an hour and a half or more. From what I could make out of his explanation, the meter—the practical financial side of it—has totally collapsed. Is that the interpretation you put on it? Ah! And what was the point of the disagreement? the question of control?" Then he asked me: "Do you think Doctor mismanaged? had his personality anything to do with it? There's a vehemence in Maurice that is often taken for dogmatism, though that's the last thing it could be: did that enter as a factor at all in the negotiations? I am in the dark: Maurice was much cut up: he didn't seem to want to discuss the subject." I said: "I have expected this result for a week." W. asked: "Did you? I didn't: Doctor hypnotized me into the opposite belief." I asked: "And now that it's over do you say you're sorry?" W. smiled. "I say nothing: I am sorry for Maurice: that's where I stop." Then he said: "Doctor had brought Gurd along: Gurd went up to Tom's to get something in connection with the meter: then he came here. I suppose they were very busy. Doctor goes home direct, Gurd to New York—the meters with him. Probably Doctor took a hack: finished up in the city the many things he told me he had to do." Looking at his watch. "I think he must be starting, now—it is eight, a few minutes after: his train was eight, at Ninth & Green."

Had he heard anything from O'Connor? W.: "Yes; a postal." Started to look it up. Then: "Oh! I guess Doctor took it along." Took off his glasses. "It is brighter than usual: she says O'Connor is still in bed—is better than he was though not wholly back to his former condition. No one knows Nelly's proclivities as I do: this from her is therefore very significant, very hopeful." Then he advised me: "I think you should write William—when you have five minutes and the spirit moves you to: he is mentally very bright—his mind is always active: this excites no great expenditure of physical energy: he enjoys it. I sent him a postal just a few minutes ago—Ed took it: sent it with a copy of the Transcript for Mrs. O'Connor." As to O'C.'s maintaining his mentality: "I take little stock in that: the doctors, the professionals are not to be entirely—even mainly—accepted: I always remember the advice of Epictetus: 'Do not let yourself be wrapt by phantasms.' Do you read Epictetus much? No? Oh! I must give you a copy then: I must have several here: he is one of my old—as also new—enthusiasms. Epictetus says: 'Do not let yourself be wrapt by phantasms'—and we must not: that is very profound: it often comes back to me." We should bear this in mind in considering O'Connor. "The doctors say this or that of him, but the question follows: Do they know? does he not know himself better than all or any others know him? I insist on my cheap little figure"—here he raised his right foot into view and pointed to it with his right hand: "Only the fellow that wears the shoe can tell in fact how it pinches." He indicated his own case. "Look at me here: the last three or four days everybody has been saying: 'How well you look! and you have calm! and you have voice! Oh! your voice is magnificent!'—and yet I have felt like the devil right along, though eased a little today. Even the doctors—alert, bright, active fellows—come in, see me, but do not realize its truth." When we left W. Saturday, Bucke had argued: "I do not understand Walt's complaints of feeling bad. He talks well, his color is good, his pulse (for him) is strong. I cannot understand it, cannot believe it" W. laughed when I told him this. "That is very likely: I thought as much." Looking for something else he came upon Nelly's postal anyhow. "Why—here is Nelly's note after all!" Then: "That sentence about his expecting to get on his feet again—that knocks me out: Oh! William!"

I asked McKay today to what papers he would advise us to send review copies of the big book. Among other papers he mentioned the Herald. "Oh!" W. exclaimed: "The Herald wants me to write for them: just today I got a letter from Walsh asking for a contribution. Did you know he had left Lippincott's? had gone to the Herald? It seems he has chosen to edit some supplementary issue—a Sunday sheet: he writes me for an article—a hundred words or so, he says: it is for a symposium: something about fiction." Here W. leaned forward, found what he wanted: "It's Walsh's note," he explained. Handed it to me: "This is the note—and with it—the slip: the print is the Herald's, don't you think?" Walsh's letter:

New York, March 17, 1889. Dear Sir:

Would you care to give us one hundred words or so on subject discussed on enclosed slip?

Yours respectfully, James Gordon Bennett W. S. Walsh.

[Adding Below]

Best wishes and kindest regards from your friend

W. S. Walsh.

The slip was about five inches of solid Herald print. The True Need of Fiction was the subject. Asked in effect: "Shall we sound the alarm or ring the jubilee" over the prevailing tendencies of fiction? W. said: "It is a request which I shall not, of course, answer—which I have no answer for, in fact." Adding to this after a pause: "Frank Williams was here today—came in with your friend Harrison Morris: we had quite a talk. I showed them Walsh's letter. They told me that the bottom of Walsh's difference with the Lippincotts—the publishing interest—was this: that he went too far in that business—the Amélie Rives business. They thought Walsh had written me with an idea of having me back him up in the erotic tendency." I said: "I should doubt that very much—he must know you better." And W. said at once: "So do I: I don't think there is even a distant chance of it: Walsh knows me too well for that: besides, Walsh is my friend: I have always counted him a true friend—a friend personally and literarily, both. He too well understands the mostly misunderstood portions of Leaves of Grass—what they signify, what not: year ago—oh! more than a year ago—I spoke to him of Mrs. Chanler—of her story The Lass of"—here he stopped—could not recall the title: "Well—something or other: have you read it? I read it, liked it, advised him to cultivate that talent: then, at that time, I knew nothing about her, except what I caught from that one story: it was before she had made her strike." Here W. interluded an expression of pleasure at having "the brief glimpse of Williams and Morris." "They brought nothing new—but, then, who always insists on having something new?" Then I asked, still on the fiction matter: "Did you ever make a reply to Rice? Is Walsh trying to steal a march on him?" W. laughed. "Who knows? I never sent Rice a word—not a word. There are various reasons why not: in the first place, I cannot be said to have any such thing as opinions on that topic: then I am no good in an argument: then, beyond all that, I should say this is anyhow not a question to be argued: after my own somewhat vulgar simile, I should say—it is like going to get a piece of cloth: if you demand to know what I want, I cannot tell you: but produce me all you have in that direction—bring your stock down on the counter here: when the right thing turns up, then will I quickly enough tell you. But that would furnish very little substance for an argument or for a place in a symposium."

I asked W. if he had looked any into the paper sample for the pocket edition. Then told him of a talk I had had with Brown (photo-engraver) today. W. said: "I have the idea—I have so far not said much about it—the idea to produce the pocket edition as a memorial—a memorial of my seventieth birthday: you know that is the last day of May: there's none too much time between for us to lose many days: I should not want it to appear before, but precisely on that day: we must produce it finely, with a good cover, probably morocco—I thought for three dollars: how does that impress you? I had five dollars as an alternative, but rather shied at that. A good deal of time is consumed with details, so we must be on our guard for that." Discussed what portraits to use. The two now in hand, of course, and others—perhaps—"to be conditioned on the success of these." He has a great pile of Linton sheets on hand and admitted "they might be used." I brought over to W. a copy of the Saturday Review, which had been mailed from Paisley care of McKay. W. said he found himself admitting that Current Literature was "much worth while." I found W. indisposed to talk of Bucke's sudden retreat. He only said: "His trip seems to have been a financial, inventorial fiasco." It might have had compensations "but the bankruptcy of meter promises must have been a real grief to the Doctor." W. said again: "I'd like you to look carefully into the Walsh matter: William and Morris took it very much to heart: they seemed to think Walsh designed putting up some sort of a game on me—which to me seems like nonsense. At the same time I'm not likely to write a single word on the subject outlined. By the way, Horace, read that slip now—read it to me: let's see what we make out of it together." I took the slip out of my pocket and did so. It was headed: The True Field of Fiction:


"In his brilliant and epigrammatic manner Hippolyte Taine has said of the English public that its advice to novelists is somewhat as follows: 'Be moral. All your novels must be such as may be read by young girls. We are practical minds, and we would not have literature corrupt practical life. We believe in family life, and we would not have literature paint the passions which attack family life. We are Puritans, and we have preserved something of the severity of our fathers against enjoyment and passion. Among these love is the worst. Beware against resembling in this respect the most illustrious of our neighbors.' But before Taine, one of the greatest of English novelists, Thackeray himself, had recognized and deplored the limitations which the public forced upon the novelist. 'Since the author of Tom Jones was buried no writer of fiction among us has been permitted to depict to his utmost power a man. We must drape him and give him a certain conventional simper. Society will not tolerate the natural in our art.' The same cry has been repeated again and again since Thackeray's time and has now swelled into a chorus. Rider Haggard and Ouida in England, Boyesen, George Parsons Lathrop and even Henry James in America, have made public protest in this, that or the other periodical against the tyranny of the young girl—that bewitching idol which publishers, editors and writers bow down to with more of fear than of love, and whose supposed needs or preferences dictate just how far the novelist shall go in depicting life. These protests from leading spirits showed that a mighty change was in the air. And in fact within the past year we have had an avalanche of books of all degrees of literary merit, whose frank treatment of the passion and of the mental struggles through which thoughtful men are passing would have been unutterably shocking to our grandmothers—the dear old ladies, who thought Jane Eyre and Adam Bede were immoral, and who looked upon The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table as wickedly infidel. That the change has come, therefore, is patent. Is it a revolution or is it a mere fashion of the moment? And if a revolution, should it be deplored or encouraged? Shall we sound the alarum or ring the jubilee? Are we to believe that the false gods are dethroned, that sincerity and truth-speaking have conquered, or are we to stand aghast at the spectacle of the brute and the infidel in man surging to the surface, and discarding the conventions and the proprieties inherited from long ages of civilization? These are questions fraught with the utmost importance, for they touch the vital issues of religion and morality. Women and young people all read novels: women and young people represent the next generation. Religion and morality are learned in youth, and she who rocks the cradle rules the world.

"It has therefore seemed advisable to collect the opinions of leading novelists, clergymen and teachers as to what is the proper sphere of fiction, how far it may go in depicting the seamy side of life or its emotional and intellectual side, and whether the popular novel of the present is in the line of progress or of retrogradation."


I folded the letter and the slip together, put them back in my pocket and looked at W. "Well?" I said. "Well?" he said. We laughed. "Do you see any plot, Walt?" "Horace, do you?" We laughed again. W. then said: "Walsh sent the note to me in a nonchalant, usual, almost impersonal, way: he made no move, said nothing in his note, to indicate that he had any wish to commit me to anything: his letter is almost indifferent—pleasantly indifferent: I think Williams, who seemed to be the most concerned (more so than Morris) went far too far in the assumption that I might possibly be ambushed." I said: "There have been changes in the world's attitude towards such problems, haven't there?" W. at once: "Yes: mighty changes—and more mighty changes are to come." I asked: "Do you mean that sex things will come to be more freely discussed in literature?" He replied: "It is inevitable: they will permeate all literature—didactic, poetic, fictional: they will force themselves upon the consciousness of the world, which has too long vilified the passions." But he added: "In the meantime, as we go along, having the big things done—the large treatment of the theme—we'll be fooled, betrayed, befouled by wolves in sheep's clothing, by pimps, by puritans, what not, against whom we'll always have to be on guard."

Back to top