With Walt Whitman in Camden, by Horace Traubel
Copyright 1996 by Fellowship of Friends. All Rights Reserved.

On Immortality

Friday, November 20, 1891

Turning to me again, "You said you were writing last night. What were you busy on?" "An article in reply to a recent sermon from Long. What do you think Long says?" "What?" "He says that take God and immortality from man, for Long, what impulse has he to do right--why should he keep morally straight?" W. in a tone of astonishment, "Did Long dare to say that?" "Yes, he did!" "Shame! Shame! And he preaches down at the church! Shame for him!" Then after a slight pause, "Yes, shame for him! Schiller's idea is the only one for modern science--that if it is right, immortality will come; if not right, not. No other idea can answer for science--satisfy it--be its inner voice. And that is 'Leaves of Grass,' too! That idea, too, is the basis of all the old philosophies--it is in Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius--it is the backbone of every brave thinker--our own heroes. Yes, it's the Colonel's note, too. He has sounded it with a deep call!" I said, "Frothingham set it down that Ingersoll is no bigot--that he will not deny evidence, what to him is evidence." "Nor is he--nor will he! But we can hardly expect the priests to take us at our intention. Poor Long! Why should I not pick his pocket and he mine? Sure enough!" I put in, "If there is no law why should I not rob my brother's house?" W. fervently, "That's the whole case--the much in a nutshell!"

Sunday, November 22, 1891

I said to W., "'Leaves of Grass' does a good deal to make one feel as Schiller felt about immortality." "Indeed? Makes you to feel not too sure of it--yet not to doubt it, either?" "Exactly." "Well, I don't know a better lesson than that--don't know what I could wish of 'Leaves of Grass' that could be superior. It is the best out of science--that spirit of rest, of a sure something-or-other breathing through the universe." Then, "Do you really mean, Horace, that 'Leaves of Grass' has been a positive help to you? That it has any way lifted you?" And to my fervent, "Yes! It has become a part of me, bone and marrow, and has been the sun of many dark days, making me sure of light anyhow and where," he cried out, "Oh! That is grand! It is its immortality--its future!"

Wednesday, December 2, 1891

Returned me Wallace's manuscript, or the copy of it Bucke had sent me. "It is a curious document, to be read as such."
H.L.T.: "I think Bucke regards it as conclusive."
W.: "Conclusive of what?"
H.L.T.: "Of immortality."
W.: "It is conclusive of nothing: conclusive only of Wallace himself. It passes us some things about Wallace--then is silent. I didn't see it the way Doctor seems to. Nature keeps the secret well-enveloped--hides every glimpse. Wallace undoes his own envelope--lets himself out. As for Nature, immortality--not a word! And somehow it is a silence we must respect."
H.L.T.: "Do you think much searching after it will avail?"
W.: "Not a bit: there is background and background."
H.L.T.: "And what is hid there--well, what is it?"
W.: "True--what is it? Can Dr. Bucke tell? Can anyone tell?"
H.L.T.: "Nature seems to keep her palm closed."
W.: "She does. As I have said, her envelope is sealed--no soul, no human (no divine) can open it."
H.L.T.: "Then Wallace is only conclusive for himself?"
W.: "Only conclusive in so far as he is conclusive--that is, in self-revelation--in telling us what his eyes see--in personal experience. But after that, as to general conclusions--this, yes; that, no--he, like all the rest of us, leaves everything in mystery, silence, cipher!"
H.L.T.: "I have not yet read the piece. I have only heard of it, from Bucke, enthusiastically, and from Wallace, deprecatingly."
W.: "Well, read it. It is worth while. It is well-written, clear, decipherable (being written by a machine), and more than interesting to know, for Wallace's sake. But if you look in it for proof of anything--no, no: I would say, you will find it a blank page!"
H.L.T.: "I shall read it, of course; and probably find it marrowed. But I say, Walt, in spite of what you say about evidences and uncertainties, you believe in immortality?"
W.: "Do I? Anyway, that is another thing."
H.L.T.: "And do you hold to it that worry about it either way is a disease? As introspecting for a fellow's sins is disease?"
W.: "The two are parallel. I rest in this: Nature holds her secret well-enveloped--as you put it, her palm is closed--probability, belief, guess, is not evidence. So far, the Colonel is right--I go with him--he has made a brave fight for that. Now, is there something more? After all, let us keep close to this: affairs are right, and if immortality is right, we will have it--indeed, have it not alone but along with many other things undreamed of in our fighting philosophies; if not right, then no immortality."
H.L.T.: "A sort of agnosticism, in spite."
W.: "I don't know about that. But, whatever, to go named or unnamed, there's the nut."
H.L.T.: "Not so hard to crack, either."
W. (laughing): "We won't debate that; but there it is!"