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Friday, May 31, 1889

Friday, May 31, 1889

This the memorable day for which so much has been prepared. I stopped in a few minutes with W. after eight, and found him breakfasting. Said he was very well, had "got up well," and thought the day would be a success. No mail of consequence—"But a note here form the West, which might interest you but wouldn't do to publish." The writer, Henry Latchford, writing in a wittily-facetious vein, which I could well understand would not appeal to him. He started it "My dear comrade," and signed himself as having "the ardor of a regular—or irregular—dyed-in-the wool, born Irishman" and "attached friend." Enclosed were clips from the Chicago Journal, discussing Whitman, Dowden, and O'Connor as espousing Whitman &c. W. advised: "Take it along—see what you can make of it." I had received letters from Morse and Burroughs, but did not pause now to read them to W. Then to town.

Clifford came in at the bank at four, and together we came to Camden, stopping in at W.'s before going to the hall. W. sat there in a black coat, looking nobly well, a touch of unaccustomed color brought out by this same coat. He urged me to read Burroughs' letter to him, which I did. It had been to me a rarely beautiful consecration of the day. I had read, re-read: then read it to Clifford, who had been deeply touched. Now it was for W. Several times my voice almost betrayed me, and W.'s usually so-calm face now was free to the emotion beneath—the eloquent tears not hidden or confessing a shame. I shall never forget this brief glimpse of him—the few minutes so full of heart-thought. When I had done, W. called the letter "the noblest thing John has done in years—perhaps has ever done"—and "it is all heart-throb—the throwing-off of himself, his being, into the moment." And there was the letter, evidently just as it had come, interlineations, excisions and all. W.: "How could anything be finer, stronger, nobler? It is not to be conceived." Surely this is the highest word so far drawn out by the occasion.

As if to break the force of his emotion (it is his way: I have often noted it) he suddenly reached to the table and picked up a covered stone mug, holding it triumphantly and boyishly towards Clifford: "See," he said—"this is one of my presents—this is from Warrie, the sailor boy," &c. We did not linger except for such half words. "I have a telegram from Aldrich," he said, "but it contains nothing significant—not as significant as your letter: and a whole host of telegrams, in fact—from girls, most of them,"—one of which he kept face down: "This is from a St. Louis lady—and there is one from brother Jeff."

At the Hall there was already quite an assembly. One by one the strangers came in—among them the handsome Julian Hawthorne, and Gilder, whose refined good face was apt to strike into one's affection.

The public prints go full into the externals of this celebration. I have no heart for that myself. All for me was read in meanings of the spirit and such a glory as seemed reflected this day upon us all! A poet honored! and our poet: and dear to me beyond all, a man into whose friendliness I had unaccountably been intimately admitted and for which I had labored and pledged my sacrifice. How joyful then the scene! How my heart leaped into every action of others that went to the finer significance of the occasion. After the moderate meal—the happy encounter of unsuspected friends—the great heart-glee, with which W.'s near fellows witnessed the concrete success of the hour. Came, bye and bye, the whispered intelligence: "Whitman is coming." The entrance—Ed faithfully wheeling the chair—the whole audience rising in murmur of pleasure and sympathy—W.'s waving his grey hat, first this way and that. Then the progress forward to the head of the hall, the center of the short table, facing us all! It was a graphic touch, W.'s simplicity deeply impressive. He looked a little weary on first arriving. He sat there with Gilder at his right—Sam Grey (who presided) at his left. Next to Gilder was Gilchrist—next Grey, in order, Hamlin Garland, Julian Hawthorne, Judge Garrison and Clifford. Before W. had been long present, Gilder motioned to me, and on my coming, asked if there was not something in the way of drink accessible for W., upon which I sent Ed up to Harned's for a bottle of champagne, which was duly brought and all in time disposed of and enjoyed by W. At another time in the midst of things W. himself motioned to me across the hall and put into my hands copies of his own speech "for the boys—the reporter boys," as he said. And he suggested: "You'd better take charge of these boys, there's no one here knows so well what to tell 'em as you do." The speeches came in order mostly as announced—Grey, Harned, Gilchrist, Williams, Clifford, Garrison, Armstrong substituted for Abbott, Gilder, Hawthorne. Gilchrist appeared to be terribly agitated, which detracted sadly from his naturalness and force. Harned spoke ringingly and to the point, with excellent simple directness. Grey's introductions were commonplace. He knew nothing of Whitman's history or work—confessed afterwards to Harned that he had never read a line of Whitman—and therefore was dull, if not stupid, in his attempted felicity. Frank Williams was plain, straightforward, unostentatious; Gilder delicate, happy, with a touch of sweet humor which was inevitably enticing; Hawthorne pungent, compact, wise, discreet, in value with the occasion. Out of all this, how deliberate the process of my content! In Garrison I found no proper touch with the hour or the man celebrated—a discussion badly composed of natural and other law—while Armstrong was simply clap-trappy, telling in a style laboring to be pathetic and personal, things of W. of a very dubious authenticity; one of them, of his denominating it somebody's "misfortune" that he could not comprehend L. of G. [W. afterwards doubted this in a very decided manner.] The orphic word of the day—the word that of its own merit would preserve a place—was Clifford's—and this he had not only finely proportioned and shaded but rendered with exquisite feeling and spirit. Having the most portentious theme: "Prophet and Bard"—he had of necessity to avoid the curious and persiflage—any shred of which would belittle the appointment. I best measured the importance of his contribution by trying to picture the celebration with it left out or the theme treated by another and a slighter hand. I had Frank Williams at one side at the table, a Press reporter on the other. This Press man informed me confidentially that he was here, not to get details, but to report the spirit of the occasion. W. was taken with this when I repeated it. His own bearing was throughout of its wonted exquisite simplicity. Frequently he called me to him by a look or a gesture, with some gently-suggested commission. Through the speeches he was greatly interested. At one moment he arose—it got too warm for him—and Gilder helped him off with his big blue gown. At the mention of Carpenter in Gilchrist's speech, W. murmured: 'Good! good!'—I knew for what, since Carpenter, as will be seen the other day in these notes, was not at first included though urged by W. But the public knew nothing of this. When his big coat was off, the short black jacket gave him to others, as to me, the aspect of change. Frank Williams said he had never seen W. in such a guise before. A number of times he vociferously applauded by beating his champagne bottle on the table. Ingersoll's telegram was brought to me in the hall and subsequently read aloud by Clifford. W. remarked with a laugh that when the Colonel was as old as he, he would not be so vehement; also that "that was not written by a reader of L. of G.,"—which was too severe, since I have record of many things as severe from W. himself. But the air of the moment was of good nature and that he wished to see preserved. "Though I guess I was always that old," he said, playfully after making his first trial at Ingersoll. But the meeting enjoyed Ingersoll's telegram. I also received a telegram from Julius Chambers while in the room. W.'s interruption of Gilder—"Do you think so?" and "I am a New Yorker":—of Clifford's reference to Edward Emerson with a "That is so—good!":—and at the great applause to Hawthorne: "That is for your father, Julian"—were naive and exquisite. How many saw the negro cook there in the hallway rush up to him to embrace and shake hands? He had nursed her husband in the hospital at Washington. So the whole evening was in full spirit for him—everything entered into. By and by there came for me the final summons from him. He wanted Ed, whom I signalled—soon was on his feet, Gilder, with me, adjusting the blue gown to him again. "Auld Lang Syne" was proposed and sung, W. joining in it as he stood and we fixed his coat. W. said as he was leaving: "Do not fear; I shall keep everything—letters, all—for you." Then the departure—the rush to shake hands with him—the difficulty of steering his chair through the crowd: he took the flower on his lap, Ed took his gift of brush and comb from Johnston. He said to me quietly: "Come—we will never get out of this," and he was urged gently but persistently along. Out now into the hallway, again into the good strength of brawny policemen, down the stairs, out to the exit—kissing me then goodbye. "And now how do you feel?" He smiled at me: Oh! gloriously well and sassy!" And was off for the night. After his going there was no use trying to detain the meeting. When I got back in the room, three quarters of the people had gone, and Buckwalter was trying ineffectually to read the letters. Once more a great event had come and gone. Whose so solemn as mine the thought and emotion of the moment?

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