Commentary

Disciples

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Saturday, September 8th, 1888.

     8 p.m. W. reading Life in London, going through it with for him wonderful avidity, but was very willing to put it down and hear what I had to say. "My health has only been so-so, neither much good nor much bad." I had been in to see both the binder and the printer today—brought over specimen book of colors for cover of November Boughs—samples of cloth: also saw Brown and got from him the sheet containing the Hicks head. W. in high humor. "Things are progressing: progress is what I am after—I want to get along—get the work done: then I will be ready to take in sail for the last harbor." I got from Myrick proofs of Annex page, with changed pagings for duplicate plates. The instant W. looked at the former he exclaimed: "That will do: I can say so because I trust first impressions and this first impression is a good one." Chose a dark wine linen for the cover of the book. Regarded the Hicks picture intently. "I can see defects; this forehead, for instance, is not quite as it should be; but my general notion of the portrait is a good one: as I often say, I congratulate myself that it's not so damned bad as it might be." As so often before he commented upon "the superiority of English presswork." Has decided for good on a dollar and a quarter for November Boughs. "Do you think the world will stand it?" Oldach asked me today if W. was of German stock. W. said of that: Not German: no: Dutch: a good lot of the Dutch is in me: I owe some of my characteristics indubitably to the Dutch. My mother was a Van Velsor: I favor her: 'favor' they call it up on Long Island—a curious word so used, yet a word of great suggestiveness. Often people would say—men, women, children, would say—'You are a Whitman: I know you.' When I asked how they knew they would up with a finger at me: 'By your features, your gait, your voice: they are your mother's.' I think all that was, is, true: I could see it in myself."

     I quoted three references to W. made in The Critic this week. The Critic speaks of Old Age's Lambent Peaks as in W.'s "best

 
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manner": it quotes James Ward Davidson's book, The Poetry of the Future, and says that "poetry will, while discarding measured verse and terminal rhyme, retain the rhythmical foot": it says of C. Sadakichi Hartmann that he some years ago attempted t"to launch a Walt Whitman Society on an unprepared world." W. had nothing much to say on the first two points, but was quick to take up the last. "A world unprepared! Yes, indeed! But I was the fellow who put his foot down on that little plan—who forbade the launching of the enterprise. So Baxter and the fellows there squelched Hartmann. It had always been my contention that I should avoid proselytism—avoid all gospel work that looked like force—do nothing to compel attention: trust all to freedom, growth: then what came would belong to us. For ten years and more there was a suspicion lurking within me—dim, undefined, for a long time, but finally grown clear, convincing—that our whole Whitman business was ticklish, uncertain—hung in the balance, with perhaps only a hair needed to shift the fine measure either way. In all I have written, said, I have exercised the greatest care, lest I go too far, or say too much, or write things damaging to our cause: indeed, I might almost put it, nervous, almost nervous, lest I forget the metes and bounds of our worth: trembling, nervous, nearly, if I could be that (as thank God I never could be!). But since November Boughs has been under way I have had a revulsion of feeling—have gained a sense of security—become convinced that things are all right, the current strong our way, the end beyond a doubt. Though this experience has gone largely, if not wholly, unconfessed, it was being lived through by me in all those years. You can easily imagine, then, how a Walt Whitman Club, a concerted movement, an attempt to beat down the opposition, should be everhow repugnant to me. But Hartmann is more than the organizer of a Whitman club. I wish you could meet him: his views on things Occidental, as they say, are rare, novel—should be heard. They come from one who has his roots in the other side of the planet—was raised under surprising differences of perspective. Take his ideas of Holland, France, Germany,
 
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England (he has been in all those countries) and you will find them very often just the things we need to have told us. Hartmann has written astonishingly good studies. His observations on America are bright—surprisingly searching—some of them."

     I talked to W. of my Japanese friend Tatui Baba. Baba says his first strong impression received in America is of the fearful gap between its rich and poor. "Ah!" exclaimed W.: "Did he say that? Then I am convinced that he put his finger on the sore spot at once. I always come back to the same idea myself; there is the itch—the trouble: there is no mistake: the fact of the matter is the situation is growing worse and worse. And yet," he continues, "we must not forget that the disease is one which may be cured: the cure of it is in our own hands. It is seen at its damnedest in the big cities—New York, Philadelphia, Chicago: but it is bad no matter where. America has got to clean house some day!" I asked him: "Will she do it with a broom or a gun?" He reflected for a minute. "That depends: I am not prepared to say the gun is impossible. I don't like to think about the gun—it is not a pleasant prospect to dream about—but history sometimes has a way of jumping difficulties in a somewhat violent style. I say, if, if, if, it is not the one thing, then it must be, must be, the other. I like the broom best myself."

     Oldach says of the cover on the Epictetus: "It is buckram." W. said; "I don't believe it but I am outvoted. But then it's Honest John Davis over again." I looked puzzled. "Don't you know the story? It was one of Wendell Phillips'—one of his best." I still looked blank. "Well—I don't remember its details. Honest John Davis was a senator (many years ago) and Phillips hated him like the devil. 'Honest John Davis' was a nickname—deserved, I believe: he was so cold, austere, stern, strict, clean, hard. Davis was somewhere—it was night: heard an old darky woman call out 'Hot cakes!'—bought one. But the cake was not hot. John turned back. 'See here, my woman, this ain't hot!''Law sakes, honey—dey says dey is!' So he was outvoted—Honest John Davis: Honest Walt Whitman. Phillips

 
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told the story beautifully; indeed, I think the best part of Phillips was in the asides, the digressions; they were always fresh, free, powerful."

     By some turn in the talk W. got on the subject of the quadroons and octoroons in the South. Did he believe in amalgamation? "I know many who already have it done—critics, reviewers, historians—done, proved: proves as they prove most things, which is not to prove them at all. I don't believe in it—it is not possible. The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races, history, what-not: always so far inexorable—always to be. Someone proves that a superior grade of rats comes and then all the minor rats are cleared out." I said: "That sounds like Darwin.""Does it? It sounds like me, too." W. then proceeded: "I have been in New Orleans—known, seen, all its peculiar phases of life. Of course my report would be forty years old or so. The octoroon was not a whore, a prostitute, as we call a certain class of women here—and yet was, too: a hard class to comprehend: women with splendid bodies—no bustles, no corsets, no enormities of any sort: large, luminous, rich eyes: face a rich olive: habits indolent, yet not lazy as we define laziness North: fascinating, magnetic, sexual, ignorant, illiterate: always more than pretty—'pretty' is too weak a word to apply to them. Do you tell me that amalgamation is likely? I do not see it. The American white and the Southern black will mix but not ally. I have considered the problem from all sides. It is wonderful the readiness with which French and Negro, or Spanish and Negro, will marry—interlock—and the results are always good. It is the same with the Injun and Nigger—they too will ask no questions: they, too, achieve equally fine reproductivities. New Orleans, in my day, was divided into three municipalities, arrondissements. In one of these were the French and here were those great women—a full acceptance of them. Now, the Southern white does not encourage such intermixtures: there are psychological, physiological, reasons for it—back of all psychologies, physiologies, some deeper fact. They are a study, too—the poor whites South: lank, sallow coughing, spitting,

 
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with no bellies (and bellies seem a sine qua non): hang on and on into the sixties and seventies: seem to defy all auguries, theories, which attempt to set them aside or limit their future. For all that is said to discountenance them they maintain their independence, stand aloof, are not familiar, run affairs, govern, domineer."

     Gave me a letter from Bucke. "Keep it—there's nothing particular in it—but I know you like to keep the run of these things." I asked W. a question or two about Conway's old letter. First he had me read the letter aloud.


14 Millborne Grove, Brompton,

London, England, Feb. 1, '68.


My dear friend,

     I have but a moment in which to write to you, if I save the mail. My object is to ask you, in behalf of Hotten, whether it is consistent with your will that the selection from your works made by Rossetti shall be sold in the American market. Hotten has written to me that if so he will give you one shilling on each copy sold in America. He hopes the prefatory essay may attract purchasers there. I have read it and it is excellent. The volume will be out next week; it is very neatly done, and quite as large as your last edition (American). Hotten writes that when expenses are paid, you will have a percentage of each copy sold here. I have assumed to be your financial agent here. I hope you will answer about the sale in America by return mail. Rossetti is much pleased with your letter to him. If you see O'Connor please thank him for sending me The Ghost and The Carpenter—which we (wife and I) think extremely interesting and dramatic. You will see in the February Fortnightly I have (in reviewing Swinburne's Blake) had something more to say of your work—which is to me the more I read it (as I do daily) the Genesis of an American Bible.


Faithfully yours


M. D. Conway.

P. S. I will watch for reviews when your book appears, and send you any that are valuable.
 
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     The letter was addressed to W. in care of the Attorney General's office. W. said: "Conway closed with a striking thought." I asked: "Has he stuck to it?""Sometimes I suspect not: I don't mean that he has gone back on me (he has not): I mean that he don't look upon me with quite the fullest favor of his earlier enthusiasm. Conway has done me good turns which I would be an ingrate not to acknowledge. Conway, you will notice, does not call the Leaves a new Bible but the Genesis of a new Bible. That's more like sense than to make monopolistic claims.""No matter what has come more is yet to come.""That's what I would have said, Horace, if you'd given me time. I don't intend it for cant when I say in my book that my best lesson is the lesson by which I am myself destroyed." The letter from Hotten connects with the Conway letter here and there.


London, 5 February, 1868.


Dear Sir,

     I have taken the liberty to send you by this post a copy of Mr. Swinburne's new book upon William Blake, poet and artist—a great but neglected genius who was counted as a madman by his contemporaries here sixty years ago. As Mr. Swinburne makes mention of yourself in this, his most recent published composition, it is but right that you should see what is said. But irrespective of that I feel assured—from what Mr. M. D. Conway tells me—that the book will interest you.

     Mr. Conway will have told you of our intention to publish an English edition of your "poems"—or rather a "Selection" from them—edited by Mr. W. M. Rossetti, one of our most able critics and himself a poet. In about a week I shall send you a copy by post. It makes a handy volume of about 440 pages, and will I think be a favorite here. Mr. Rossetti's introduction is most admirable and gives great satisfaction to your admirers and his friends.

     Now, we want the privilege of selling copies of the "selection" in the United States—if you will allow us: and I have told Mr. Conway that I would give you, or your agent, a royalty of one

 
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shilling (or twenty-five cents gold) upon every copy sold in your country.

     I imagine the sale of this "selection" in your country would serve as whet, or stimulant, to readers to secure copies of the complete works. I really don't think it would materially interfere with the sale of the latter.

     On this English edition I will ask your acceptance of a share of our profits—after the original outlay in paper, printing, and binding, has been returned to the publisher.

     I was greatly gratified this afternoon in having almost the first copy of Mr. Robert Buchanan's new volume of essays placed in my hands. I was gratified because in the middle of the book his admirable paper upon your poems—the article which recently appeared in the Broadway—is given.

     I think in conclusion that I ought to apologize for sending this familiarly written letter to you, as I am but a trader—a bookseller—and have only an acquaintance with your books of some years' standing to offer as an excuse. True, the first copies imported into this country were at the order of the undersigned; but that, it is feared, will not in any way palliate the liberty now taken.


Yours very obediently:


John Camden Hotten.

     W. said: "Hotten didn't know that I in the main like traders, workers, anyone, better than authors. The author class is a priest class with esoteric doctrines: I do not easily mix with it—I refuse to condone it. This is a part of the so much that went towards producing my English editions: the story is not to be all told offhand—the cat has a very, very long tail." W. said: "I am still holding Wilde back—you shall have it to-morrow." W. also said this evening: "Some day I will tell you the real story of my life: then you will open your eyes." I looked at him, supposing he was smiling. He was dead serious. "What do you mean?""I can't commence now—some day I will explain."

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