Skip to main content

Wednesday, March 20, 1889

Wednesday, March 20, 1889

10.20 A.M. Breakfast over. W. working with the fire. Late getting up. Asked me about the weather: "felt it in his bones," &c. Northeast wind. Raining hard: cold. Asked me how the meeting had passed off last night. "Who spoke? did anybody really say anything? At most meetings of that kind inanity contends with inanity and that's all there is to it." Gave W. a message from Talcott Williams. Williams had said that he expected to be in Algiers by this time. W. asked: "Did you know Talcott was born down in that country? His father was a missionary—an American: it was at some place with a queer name in Asia or Africa, I don't know which." I gave Williams a Sarrazin sheet. He said he might use some of it in the Press. W. said: "It could do no harm—but will he do it? I have my doubts." Showed me Poet Lore for March. It contained a quotation from November Boughs. "Yes," said W., "and a notice of the book beyond." Who had written it? It had come marked. "I do not know: who indeed?" Adding: "It was written in good spirit: is meant well: is brief: it sounds a little as if saying: 'Well, come up to the table, if you choose, now you are here, but—'" W. laughed and continued after a pause—"had I not been here!" "The streak of intentional verse" phrase describing Sands at Seventy hit W. humorously. He asked me about the portraits. "Where are they? will they be ready today?" I was to inquire. "I am still persuaded I should get the big picture reproduced somehow—facsimiled—size, all, unchanged. I should have a number of copies—for my friends, for my family. I'd like to know what some skilled specialist in such curios would say of it." I said: "Doctor Bucke finds it hard to believe the picture anterior to 1850." W.: "There may be a good many things that are hard for Doctor Bucke to believe." I asked: "Do you think your family would know about it?" W. shook his head: "My family know nothing at all: not one of them: I would know best of all—I would know if anybody was to know: the only way for me to solve the problem would be for me to keep the picture near, fix it in my mind, browse on it: then it might come. Just now the picture is as great a mystery to me as to the rest of you." W. wondered if the picture "might not be an enlargement of some other picture—some daguerreotype." But it would "take a skilled man, a specialist, to fix its origin." Whitelaw Reid has been appointed Minister to France. "Yes," said W.: "Whitelaw has at last got his whack in." Then: "I suppose Charles Emory Smith comes next—and he's poor enough stuff, God knows!"

7.30 P.M. W. had a severe headache all day: looked it: said: "I'm rather droopy: the pain has taken a good deal out of me." But as I had brought him the pictures he seemed to be shaken from his lethargy: his talk all the time I stayed was animated. Returned me Current Literature. "It is a perfect mine—storehouse," he said: "I enjoyed it greatly—its print, its intelligence, its plenty, its cheapness: they are all quite marvellous." Mailed Saturday Review to O'Connor today. Said W.: "I have sent my usual postal—told him you had forwarded the paper." W. sent a package to Nelly. Also several packages to others. "But I have not yet written anything to Bucke: shall do so tomorow." I referred to a meeting today with Lum and our talk re W. I said: "These are always the snags new men strike—what they take to be your lack of distinction between good and evil and your freedom in sexual matters." W. said: "I see: not only new people—some of the old ones, too: they seem to be afraid I'll let go of something I should hold on to: they do not just see what I am after: look at this for instance." He put on his glasses and started rooting on the table. "What are you after?" I asked. "This," he said, suddenly, having found what he wanted. "It came yesterday or day before: it's from Williams: he wrote it that day he was here with Morris: he seems to have gone home worrying for fear I'd kick over the milk pail." I took the letter from W. and started to read it. W. said: "Read it for me as well as for yourself." This I did.

Philadelphia, March 18, 1889. My dear Friend:

Since our conversation this morning it seems to me that there is a desire to get the weight of your authority to back up certain late works of fiction, which are simply nasty, without being in any sense true.

Inasmuch as your friends have all along been contending that the so-called "nude" passages in Leaves of Grass are simply expressions of eternal truth, and that their purpose is in the direction of a better comprehension of man and of the democratic idea, it would (I think) be a misfortune if you were drawn into a seeming endorsement of a sort of literature with which Leaves of Grass has nothing in common.

I feel the matter so deeply that I have put my thoughts on paper, and now enclose them.

I am sure you will not think me impertinent in so doing. If I did not so venerate the great truth of Leaves of Grass and so love the author, I should not have dared to write this.

Yours always, F.H. Williams.

W. at once: "Not impertinent, dear Frank, but almost!" I asked: "What do you suppose egged him on to write you such a letter?" W.: "Our talk that day, probably: my indisposition then or any time to be subjected to catechism or to make promises. I do not recall exactly the turn the talk took: he evidently went off imagining that I might lend myself to some propaganda he suspected Walsh of furthering. My God! will my friends never know me for what I am? Of course if I chose—then I would choose! No one ever was born with less tendency than Frank would have to whip people into line: I'd be the last to suspect him of such a design on me: yet this letter has a puritan sting, too, which I do not like, much as I love the man who wrote it." I asked him: "Do you still acquit Walsh of trying to trap you?" "Wholly: the idea is laughable to me." Again: "No one would more rigidly keep in mind the difference between the simply erotic, the merely lascivious, and what is frank, free, modern, in sexual behaviour, than I would: no one: and yet I should be indisposed to drawing lines in the matter—executing legal judgments, issuing moral mandates, against those who disagree with me or apply their art to issues that I would refuse." I said: "More snags: even your friends hit the snags!" W.: "It is natural that such should be the case: had I Leaves of Grass to write over again, knowing what I know now, I do not think I should in any way touch or abate the sexual portions, as you call them: but in the other matter, in the good and evil business, I should be more definite, more emphatic, than ever. All moralism, metaphysicalism, theologicality—pulpits, teachers, all of them—seem to go down on that snag: that seems the fatal point in the course. Yet I do not know: perhaps it is good I am not to write the book again: no doubt all is best just as it is: Leaves of Grass, anyhow, does not teach anything absolutely: teaches more by edging up, hinting, coming near, than by definite statement, appeal."

Then W. asked me: "Did you read Edward Carpenter's study of the criminals in To-day? did you see the first part of it? I think I must have it here: I had it—should have it still: it seems to me Edward got the philosophy of that from me." I remarked: "And would be willing to acknowledge it, no doubt?" "Yes, indeed—that is beyond question: he is a fine fellow—has no false pride." Then continued: "I had a couple of friends who often went to hear Beecher in the early Brooklyn days: sometimes I would meet them of a Tuesday, and they would tell me of Sunday's sermon, saying: 'Walt, Beecher got off some more of your philosophy the other day!'" "I at first doubted" if this could be so, "but finally had to acknowledge to myself that it was perhaps the case!" "Beecher was a great absorber: though he could not create, he could use, react." W. spoke of his debt to Emerson. "While I am not ashamed, am perfectly free, to acknowledge Emerson—all I gained from him—I am not willing to admit much of it previous to that time"—meaning the period of his first edition.

I asked him if he had the MS of Passage to India? He responded: "I think I have: I am certain I have it somewhere about here: if you want it you can have it: I am afraid, however, that it will be little satisfactory—probably is written on odds and ends of paper in odds and ends of time, on the cars, at Coney Island, on the Brooklyn ferry boats, a growth out of many thinkings, weighings."

He inspected the pictures I had brought him with a critical eye. At first he was a little doubtful of both. After further examination, he endorsed the figure. "That is far better than I expected it would be," he declared: "thoroughly characteristic—dress, face, all." Ed came in for the mail. W. handed him the picture: "What do you think of that?" and to Ed's question, "Where did it come from?" W. replied: "When, where, how, by whom, I don't know any better than you do: but it's the critter—the critter out and out: that is the only thing to me certain about it!" With the other picture he was more cautious. "I am not impressed, either for a negative or an affirmative, in that: I must wait till it has more fully soaked in—wait for daylight." Then of the figure again: "But of this I can say I am more than pleased—and this was the particular thing anyhow: this fold of the dress, the ease of the figure, the hair, beard—all seem preserved." He discussed size, press-work, &c.: "I guess our man can bring it out more emphatically than he has done it here!"

Reference was made to Gilder's letter to O'C. Said W.: "I have been very glad to hear of that: I had not known of it before: glad for William's sake, glad for Gilder's. It is rather significant too, I should say, in Gilder, he is usually so reserved—almost stately, you may say—like Tennyson." I contended for Gilder's good disposition towards W. The talk got upon the nurse fund. W. questioned me in such a way that I could not avoid it: so that I was out with the whole matter. He was greatly touched: the tears came into his eyes: "Ah!" he said: "it reminds me of the story—was it Dickens'?—where somebody says: 'hit takes 'old of me!—hit sets me hup!' to hear that." And to the method I had pursued in it: "I like it more than well." Then: "And who are they?" adding: "I am greatly taken with all you say—particularly with what you say of Gilder and Stedman: the good Stedman!" He said: "I don't want to be told more of the details of this than you find it pleasant to tell me: the whole affair is wonderful to me." Again he said: "We must sometime talk this over more fully: I want to know all about it." He said it warmed him up "to be shown how this beautiful act had come about." He hoped "no one who is too poor is being taxed." He spoke of Gilder as "always more reserved" but said "Stedman is eligible to all generosities, affections." He never had known these details—the names of the participants. He was "clean knocked out." Again he asked: "Can this thing be done without injustice to anyone?" I said: "You stopped the pension: you can't stop this." He said of Mark Twain: "I have always regarded him as friendly, but not warm: not exactly against me: not for me either." He spoke of Ingersoll, George Childs, Furness. "God bless you, them! God bless you! you have quite taken the wind out of my sails: I feel helpless." Again he said: "I may have the worst enemies, but I also have the best friends."

W. gave me another old Carpenter letter. "No," he said, "there are not plenty of them—there are some." He added: "Edward has never been a voluminous correspondent: he has always written more or less: the fact is, I am myself too indifferent a letter-writer to encourage letter-writing in others." I read the C. letter to W.

Edinburgh, May 13, 1878. Dear Walt,

I am sorry to hear of your being kept in with rheumatism. I am afraid you have been suffering a great deal. And just at this spring time it is such a pleasure to be out and about. I hope by the time this reaches you you may be well again. You will miss the Gilchrists a good deal. I had a letter from Grace about a fortnight ago telling me of their move. She seems to be wanting to get back to England. Herbert, I suppose, is travelling about a bit. I feel sorry that the household in North 22 street is broken up. I so often look back to those few days I spent there. I wonder whether we shall all meet again in England. Is there still a chance of your coming?

My winter's work of lecturing is over now: I have had a very pleasant time of it—though leading a rather solitary life. I was lecturing in three towns—York, Sheffield and Chesterfield. I made the last my headquarters, and then went once a week to York, twice to Sheffield and gave a lecture every week in Chesterfield. The people write answers to the questions in the lecture and then send up papers which I look over and return to them. It is interesting work because one has all sorts of people—men and women, young and old, of all conditions of life—except the poorest. And one gets to know a good many of them. We had a jolly excursion the other day into the country near Sheffield—a sort of geological ramble—open air science. About seventy people came, old and young, respectables and non-respectables, and it was very friendly and pleasant.

I am staying here now with my friend Cotterill who has just returned from African explorations. And in a few days I am going home to Brighton. I met a brother of Edward Dowden's here a day or two ago—a parson—a pleasant sort of fellow. Just thank Harry Stafford for me please for his letter. If he gets a photograph of himself done any time, I should like one. With love dear friend yours

Edward Carpenter.

W. said: "Respectables and non-respectables provide for us, too: non-respectables—that's where we come in. Edward lectures: that should have been my business, too: if I'd gone direct to the people, read my poems, faced the crowds, got into immediate touch with Tom, Dick, and Harry instead of writing to be interpreted, I'd had my audience at once." I asked W.:"You feel as if your audience was sure? as if you are bound to have an audience?" "Yes," said he: "I do: I think I can say that without egotism: I am destined to have an audience: there is very little sign of it now—my friends are only a few at best scattered here and there across the globe: that does not disprove me, does not make me doubtful: I still see the audience beyond: maybe in the tomorrow or the tomorrow of tomorrow." I asked W.:"Your audience will be . . . ." "Harlots and sinners—discredited persons, criminals: they should be my audience: women, doctors, nurses: those who know the physiological man—the physiologic spiritual man." I said: "You say you have got only a foothold and may never get more." W. answered: "Sometimes I feel that: I am in some moods doubtful whether there's to be anything beyond: then another mood supervenes: I get life at another angle: there's more light in the picture." "And there are people in the picture?" W. dreamily: "Yes—crowds of them, though I do say it myself: stretching out over continents." He paused. "I have that vision: it's real: nothing could be more vivid: then—then—I wake up!" Laughed quietly.

Back to top