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Monday, September 9, 1889

Monday, September 9, 1889

5.00 P.M. W. eating his dinner. Was very cordial, and talked heartily, keeping right on, however, with his eating. McKay had showed me a letter from Angus, in Glasgow, who sent on a copy of the original edition L. of G. and 2 Burns vols—wishing W. W.'s signature on title pages of all. Told McK. W. would no doubt refuse to write in the Burns, so I did not carry them to Camden. W. was, as I supposed, willing to sign L. of G.—did so while I waited. "But those others," he said, "no—I should have no way to explain it." I said I thought the request absurd. W.: "Yes—rather; I suppose the man had a clearly-defined reason, but whatever the reason, it was a reason for him, not me. I object to signing everything—here, there, everywhere, right and left—anyhow." And he added—as he turned the L. of G. volume over and over and scanned it—"I wonder at its voyage—where it has been all this time—where he got hold of it." I had with me a copy of the Forum containing Gosse's "What is a Great Poet." W. said: "No—I don't think I have read it—entire, anyhow. You did not lend it to me, did you? You may leave this if you choose—I think I should like to take a close look at it. A fellow like to know, if no more! Gosse is a type of the modern man of letters—much-knowing, sharp witted, critical, cold,—bitten with the notion that to be smart is to be deep—able to assume wit. Shakespeare was beginner in that field—but Shakespeare was more—this was in him but a tint, a spice, a subordinate phase entirely."

I returned him Mrs. O'Connor's letter, asking, "Don't you think it genuine and good?" He replying, "Yes indeed," and going on to say—"It is a New England letter—characteristically, dipped in New England air. Mrs. O'Connor is always that. The typical New Englander is always discussing his own affairs—the last trouble, sickness, complaint—all that—lugging it forward at all times, into any company." I asked: "And so you make that criticism on the letter?" He laughing and saying: "I mention no names—I give you an observation—you can make of it what you wish. Now, that was peculiarly absent from William—though of course he was not New Englander alone—rather Irish, English. But I was going to say, he had a remarkable shrinking from any temptation to pose, to discuss, even mention, himself—an abstention in him that I never quite appreciated—expecially in his last days, when that was just what I wanted, to have him talk about himself. But William was first of all cheerful—kept up to the last a devil of an interest, energy, in things at large—in all his letters." Suddenly then, after a pause: "And I want to tell you, I like your piece, oh! very much—very much—more and more! It has a wonderful quality—is itself O'Connorish. And the tact of it!—I like that most of all! That is a quality in which the French excel—finesse it is called—what we name tact: a right disposition of tints, colors,—recognizing fine distinctions. You certainly caught that essence—for you say what you say, pause, go on, just as one would suppose nature herself to divide her action. No doubt the French are masters there—no one sees it, bathes in it—more enjoyably than I do. But then, while we miss that, is there not something to compensate for it? Sarrazin speaks of America—that she give him the barbaric lyrism of the Hebrews—how fine that! And I, for one, am content with that—the rest I am willing to let go! I think a subdued sarcasm lurks in the phrase—or perhaps not, though I think I see it there. An old wharf, the decayed, rotted, soaked, beams, pilings: the debris: the grass-grown—mossy endings, surfaces—oh! they appeal to me most of all. Many, many, many years ago—in New York—up towards Harlem—Mott Haven—there was an old wharf on which I spent some of the happiest hours of my life. An old, dilapidated, ruining, breaking, wharf there, with sea-weed—sea-drift—caught in its sharp corners: and a slight whiff of salt air—just enough for a reminder—and the flowing waters—on and on—and the boats—craft—of all sorts. Oh! it is the surpassing remembrance—barbaric lyrism!" He laughed when I mentioned Zola in connection with French "delicacy, finesse—an exquisite play"—his own phrase objected. "Yes—even Zola: it seems to me, if we could read Zola in the vernacular—as Frenchmen, continentals—we would penetrate to the truth of this charge—would see that Zola is only treating of life as a physician treats disease. To the general it's nothing but a question of guts, stains, blood, wounds, horror, pain, nastiness, smut: but not so to the chemist, the surgeon, the doctor—not so—not so. Rather something far higher, finer. The time will come—is already here for some—when all these things will be treated so—will enter in that way upon our conversation—even in parlors—among the sexes. Not to be lugged in, or made nasty, but so dealt with when necessity introduces. Then, perhaps, we will see that Zola is justified—that he was advanced, not retrograde." Then he continued: "Dave told you about the book salesman—the Porter and Coates man—who spoke of me—asked Dave if he was still sealing the works of that whore-house poet?" And he laughed: "It has been a frequent charge—I have heard it often and often—more often than you know, but this man I guess did not mean it seriously—rather tried it on Dave as a piece of wit." I suggested: "Agnes Repplierish"—and he: "Yes—only she would use politer phrases."

Spoke about article in Press by Melville Phillips—"God and Immortality"—a review of Renan's writing under that head. "Was it good? I felt too stuffy to undertake it yesterday, but laid it aside, to look at later on. There it is on the chair now"—indicating. W. then said: "Tom was in and took one of the big portraits—he liked it—so I let him have it. I intended one of the big ones for him if they turned out well, but they did not, so I dropped the idea of it—thought to let him have one of the smaller—and Buckwalter the same—but now he has made his own choice." I have been reading Burroughs' new book and said: "He thinks highly of Arnold—more highly than I imagined." W. assenting: "Yes—John has changed some: every man is more or less sensitive to his environment, and John's environment has of late years been the New York crowd." And again he referred to Burroughs: "I think Emerson rides his high horse once in a while—and he does—and Carlyle: and no man but may do so to advantage!" Told em that "Tom took the Sarrazin piece along with him," and asked: "Don't the city begin to show new signs of life?" Asked me, too, about Clifford—the sermon yesterday, how he looked, &c. Called my attention to a book in which there was a portrait of Tennyson, with his big hat. I said: "There's something in it like you!" but he shook his head: "Something, perhaps: but something too much of the Yankee for me." Knowing I was to go as secretary of a meeting this evening, he laughed and said first: "God help you!" Then: "Emerson used to say in respect to material things, that we should act just as if they were real—and I would give you the same advice now!" Returned me the Magazine of Art containing DeKay's paper. Commented on Fuller's portrait as that of "a strong man—rather a noble face." Then asked: "Have you ever seen a full-figure picture of Millet? I was going to say I have one here, but I have not, I guess. I have seen one, however—and it represents a rather Germanic type: indeed, Millet seems to have looked much as your father—short, thick, solid,—a thinker."

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