Commentary

Disciples

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Monday, February 4, 1889

     7.45 P.M. W. reading Century. "It's a strong weak diet," he said. "How do you make that out?""I mean that it is strong of its kind but a damn weak kind." He laughed. "It belongs in the category of the non-virile beautiful." Said he had "spent one of" his "common uninteresting days." Then he said half amusedly, half grave: "I spend all my life now trying to dawdle life away—to kill time, to have the days pass: and they do pass, somehow, one after another." Just then Ed came in with a big armload of wood. W. said: "Thank God we won't freeze to death tonight: Ed there will save my body whatever becomes of my soul." Then he jokingly added: "Ed, they tell me it's always summer in that Canada country you came from." Ed turned a laughing face to W. "Always summer? they ought to try it: this weather you have here ain't a circumstance to it." W. said: "You mean to say it's colder there?" Ed in a fiery way: "Mean to say? I know: our zero days would scare the life out of the tender-feet down here." W. enjoyed this hugely. "Ed says they have better winters, better summers, better all seasons, up there than we do in New Jersey, for instance: poor New Jersey." Ed banged the door of the stove shut and stood up. "I didn't quite say that," he protested, "though I do say the weather up home has its points." W. exclaimed: "That's delicious, Ed: so it has: I say as one having a right to: I've been there."

     No visitors today. Letter from Bucke? "No—not a word, not a word." But he thought B. was "about ready to start south.""I expect him certainly within ten days.""Had no idea" how long Bucke intended to stay. "But while down here he may take a run to Washington: I want him to do it: indeed, Nellie herself desires it. He should see William: see what he makes of it all: report to us. We may come to know many things then that it's impossible for us to

 
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know now. William's in a bad way: Bucke could examine him candidly: in medicine Doctor is a wonderful diagnoser: not a drug giver—rather doubts, denies, the efficacy of drugs: and he is more than that: he is frank, wholesale, unostentatious, without the slightest tinge, taint, of professionalism, as doctors rarely are. Most doctors—though it may seem harsh to adopt the word, it stands to me as a fact—most doctors appear to reason that it belongs with the necessary ethics of their business to be more or less jesuitical—to obscure facts, the why of medicines, the wherefores of applications. Bucke has nothing of that in his composition: not an atom of it: he'll tell anybody anything: he has no reserves, mysteries.

     I said: "The priest in medicine is just as objectionable as the priest in religion." W. said. "Exactly: that's the case in a nutshell: there's nothing of the priest in Maurice." Then W. after a pause said: "But we must be cautious in our criticisms: we should not be too general—too all-inclusive. There are doctors and doctors." I said: "There are doctors who are only doctors and doctors who are not only doctors: is that what you mean?" At once: "Yes: doctors after all seem of all professional men to be the most in accord with the givings-out of science: more in line with the new truths, new spirit: less given to professional dead-headery, foppery: more interested in fundamentals. In all the other professions men lag behind. The doctor is certainly better than the lawyer—oh! far better: the lawyer is buried deep in red-taperies, dead phraseologies, antique precedents: not in what is right now but in what has been done before: a species of stagnation overcomes him. The doctors are way ahead—far beyond all that." I said: "Walt, shouldn't you rather say some lawyers and some doctors?""What do you mean?""Don't you think it true that doctors too—probably most doctors—live in the past, in their antecedents, in what has been rather than in what is to be done?""You think I mistake the exception for the rule?""I don't exactly say that: only you yourself are constantly drawing lines between doctors and doctors: you have said a case like Bucke's is rare." W. laughed. "As an arguer I can't keep up with you: you are almost getting the habit of making me appear foolish to myself. I go on thinking my assumptions indisputably true till you ask me a few of your questions: then I'm at the end of my tether." I protested: "I think what

 
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you say is in the main correct: I have only wondered if you didn't make your statement too rigidly."

     I then asked: "You've said nothing about the parsons: where do you put them?" He put on a mock air of gravity. "I wish it was different: I have to say it: I think they come in at the tail of the procession: they bring up the rear." And he didn't stop there. "And the ministers are practically done for," he said: "the stars in their courses are against them: however they struggle, whatever front they maintain, the universe is against their impossible explications: their methods have passed out for good." Here he laughed gaily. "I have a couple of friends, old men, who don't think so, don't think them harmless—who argue that we are all in danger of being gobbled up by Catholicism—that the Catholic church is the great menace against our civilization." W. couldn't "stomach this bosh." "I remember one of them: it was a year ago and more, while I was still down stairs: he asked me if I was not afraid, if I didn't see the danger—shrink from it. I replied: 'No, not in the least: I am not in the least afraid of it.' But he still believes it: he says I'm criminally optimistic—that the time is near at hand when our neglect to appreciate this crisis may destroy us. Don't think he's a fool: he's not: he's gone on this subject but sane enough on the whole. W. added: "For the church as an institution, I have the profoundest contempt: I know what the church as an institution, Catholic or Protestant, would do with us if it possessed the power: my point is that it hasn't, will never again have, the power."

     Moulton's Magazine of Poetry has turned up at last. While W. was looking for it I found it. "Oh!" he said: "you have it." Two Whitman cuts. The first, Frank Fowler's—the second, the November Boughs frontispiece. I dissented from the Fowler picture. W. said: "Never mind: if it isn't a likeness it is a good picture: it was that he was after: the magazines always go for that." How was Bucke's biographical summary? "Oh! very good indeed: very good—even fine: I liked it very much." The magazine contained a number of portraits. W. said: "They are not celebrities: it's a great mixture, to be sure: he gives me a whole string of selections." I pointed out a portrait of Boyle O'Reilly. Said W.: "That is very poor of Boyle: it gives no sort of suggestion as to what he looked like." I remarked the "bullet bead." W. assented: "Yes—that part of it is accurate

 
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enough: but the rest of it is way below par." He said he knew O'Reilly. "He is a handsome man: have you ever seen, pictured to yourself, one of the great Spanish noblemen—duke, gentleman, fine figure, dignified, lofty in port, autocratic, dark, closecropped hair? That would be Boyle O'Reilly. It is a style, a character, that often fits to the high type of the Irishman. The Irish blood is of course mixed with the Spanish: there was a sort of Spanish invasion at one time: the two strains seem to commingle amiably: but I do not attach final importance to this phenomenon: it seems to me a good deal like the case of the Bible in the hands of the preachers: nearly anything can be proved from it: there's no assumption so preposterous but that it can be bolstered by some text, some chapter, from somewhere in the book. When the verbalism does not seem to fit they force it without scruple this way or that till it looks to be right in shape and size. I would rather account for Boyle by some more natural appeal."

     He asked me if I had gone much into Irish history? "Years ago I fell in with early Irish poetry: Ferguson collected, brought it out: did you ever read him? Dead now, I think." Pausing. "No—I won't be sure about the death: I can't say surely that he's dead." I said: "Well." He started again. "The poetry was deeply fascinating: there was something even wild, even barbaric, in it: it attracted me, fascinated me, like the border minstrelsy—Scott's—seeming to contain the same elements of virile emotionalism. You will find traces of this influence everywhere in the Irish character—especially in the strong fellows like Boyle." Why do we revert and get such joy out of the archaic poetry of a race? Was it because that poetry was closest to nature? "I do not explain it in that way. Take this border minstrelsy we have been talking about—or any other." Had I read in any life of Jefferson about his collection of aboriginal poetry? "It may have been neglected in the emphasis put on other things but to me it is rarely significant. Jefferson was capacious: he had many inlets, outlets: this was one of them. Get a Jefferson: maybe you can hit one at Dave's: it'll cost you fifteen or twenty cents: look that up. In that poetry, as in the Irish poetry, you'll find the snack of something—the flavor, odor, tone, vision of something—not perhaps to be stated, elusive, yet undeniably magnetizing you."

     Here W. suddenly got back to an earlier track. "Oh! I talked

 
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awhile ago of my old man who was afraid of Catholicism. I remembered I told him again: 'I am not afraid of conservatism, not afraid of going too slow, of being held back: rather, I often wonder if we are not going ahead too swiftly—whether it's not good to have the radicalities, progresses, reforms, restrained.'" I broke in: "What nonsense, Walt: you don't believe anything of the kind except when you have the bellyache!" He put a question to me: "Don't you think it possible for us to go too fast?" I answered: "Yes, possible but not likely." And I added: "Don't you see, Walt, that there are a hundred dragging back for every one pulling forward?""That may be said, too: yet the fact remains that we've got to hold our horses—that we must not rush aimlessly ahead." Which was true enough. But I had not said aimlessly. I said: "When I said going ahead I of course meant going ahead by design not by accident." W. only said: "I can't discuss the matter: I seem to be right, you seem to be right: do you regard that as being impossible?"

     I saw McKay today. Said I should say to W. for him that he was strongly in favor of having the edition strictly limited. But W. is inexorable. "I want to please Dave, but I say to hell with all strictly limited editions: my final decision must be against making any such pledge. I do not regard anything in the universe as more morally certain than that I shall not add to the edition we now have out: but to make the kind of promise Dave wants to exact—that is impossible." He did "wish to sell the books." Said: "I would close out the edition today if I could find a purchaser." But still, "while desiring to make" himself "whole" he was "willing not to sell a book" if "conditions hampering" his "freedom" were "laid down to" him. Then he asked me: "You tired of this everlasting subject?""No: go on.""Very well: I was only going to say the book is there, has its shape, is autographed, is illustrated with four engravings, is for sale: that is the whole story." He spoke of the price of the book. "I am wondering if it's not too dear: Bucke says it should be dearer." Said yes as to numbering book.

     W. said: "What about Weir Mitchell? He seems to be home again: he gives a swell dinner tonight to Lowell: I did not know he was back: his son came here a number of times in the summer." I asked: "Were you invited to that dinner?" He laughed outright. "What! to a dinner to James Russell? I guess not. My presence would spoil

 
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the soup." W. also said: "Weir puts on some of the lingo of authorship: does more or less in a small way: stands for refinements, proprieties, the code, all that: he seems to be more ambitious for fame as a writer than as a doctor, but I have my doubts whether he'll acquire an immortality in either direction." I asked: "He is your friend?""Yes, I think so: I like him: he is cordial, easy-going, demonstrative: I realize emotions for him as a man that I do not realize for him as an author." I said: "I suspect Mitchell might repeat the sentence back to you. I doubt if he ranks you high as an artist." W. said without any hesitation: "I doubt it myself: indeed, I know it: know it, not because of what he has but because of what he has not said."

     W. was saying something to me about "the days when you may have to write about me." He said: "Whatever you do don't make a saint out of me." I replied: "No danger, Walt: I don't like saints well enough." This made him laugh. "You know," he said, "that I always want you to remember what people say against me even if you must forget the things they say for me. If you write about me observe that rule." I said: "I swear!" He smiled: "Yes, swear! swear!" I said my good night and left.

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