Title: William Wilde Thayer to Walt Whitman, 31 August 1862
Date: August 31, 1862
Source: Transcribed from digital images or a microfilm reproduction of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.
Location: Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Whitman Archive ID: loc.00590
Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Eric Conrad, Kathryn Kruger, and Nick Krauter
Sunday Night Aug 31/62
My Dear Walt,
I1 feel just like writing to you. In fact I have often & often yearned to write you, Even if I could not visit you. But I have gone through every thing since last I saw your glorious self in bodily form. I together with my dear wife have had lots of hard experiences—ill health, sickness of children and my own hard labor to keep soul and body together. Then the "what might have been" cling to me and like a premature old man I dwell with bitterness upon the past. "Leaves of Grass" why oh! why had we to leave thee to the tender mercies of the ignorant, the unfeeling, the unpoetic, the vulgar2! When I look at the copy of the "Leaves" on our parlor table I internally cry Oh Walt. Then I swear I'll write You, and there—I am called away to do some other thing—of labor & leave pleasure, ~ Since the failure of T&E, I was out of business five months & then obtained a clerkship in the Boston Post Office where I have worked very hard, and suffered much mentally incapacitating me for writing reading or thinking. So I have lived only to work, eat, sleep, &c. — I now work all night 11 to 7 & sleep daytimes. I have been enjoying a vacation which only the want of money prevented my spending in York, as tonight is my last night at home. I improve the chance to write you, for who knows when I may get another to talk, to you or with you? ~ You doubtless have wondered why I have not written you but I have thought enough about you. How I do wish I could meet you, and feel your big magnetism by touching your grasping hand.
We moved from Forest Hill to Boston where we occupied a big brick house till we had to leave because of the children's health. We now have a cozy house in Cambridgeport with yard room and plenty of fine air.
T&E affairs remain at a stand. The assignees have eaten up all the assets as near as I can learn. They sold all the stock to Wentworth taking his notes which are not paid. He fiddles along so I hear3. As I am much confined at the post office or at home asleep or exhausted, I find but little opportunity to know all that transpires. I heard that some friend of yours tried to buy "Leaves of Grass" plates for $200 & Wentworth refused to sell. Since which I have heard that he regretted his refusal and was anxious to sell. Wentworth has been at the bottom of all our troubles since failure by embittering the creditors against us so that they would not settle with us or allow us to compromise & continue in business. But that is now passed. T&E sign boards at still kept at the old stand to tell me of "what might have been." But even if we had you on we would have had a severe struggle through this bloody war to sustain our business4. ~ Eldridge is in Washington as clerk to an army Paymaster. He does not want to return to Boston to live. I wish I could get out of it. I lead a miserable life now I assure you, save that which I enjoy in my home. I have uncongenial companions to work with in the office, who though externally good, are internally nobodies, with minds that have fed on husks, they present but poor incentives to one who would enjoy true refinement of soul, or purity of thought, or thought downright earnest sturdy thought of any kind. Poor fellows! They have hard work & disagreeable & I must not blame them, for I believe it is the nature of the employment that stultifies. For I think that I myself have got "slunk," and have not very exalted ambitions now, although please understand, your old "fanatic" of the concern of T&E is by no means crushed. He only wants his time to rise. The Post master is a good friend to me so I must not complain for without my clerkship, God only knows how I could have supported the dear ones at home. My friends told me my chance for a berth in the P.O. was one in a thousand. I told them I would take that chance. I set to work & got the position. "Faint heart never won fair lady" & O. here I am in Government service & not liable to military draft. —But I would volunteer if I had no wife & babies. My heart is in the war & I ache to do something. But I can't. I work hard & have to eat & sleep to recuperate & even then have no brain left for use in social converse with old friends. As this is sort of half of himself letter you won't expect much of a composition. I wanted to write to you. I care not to say much, nor go into the war that prolific theme of blood and blunders nor give you news, nor anything else. I only wanted to tell you I "still live" & hope you do too so that you can write me a return note when you get into the mood. Saturday Sept 6/62 Here now is a sample of my procrastination. To day, Saturday & this letter unfinished. Never mind. If you can please write me. Is there any news. Hows Bohemia and its Queen the charming Ada?5 She talks with us every week in the Leader in articles that vivify and I love to read. By the bye Mrs. Thayer hopes to visit York sometime in October if she can find a good person to take care of the "babies" in her absence. We have a "youngest" a year old who is a nobleman and beauty who must have a good nurse in order that his mother may enjoy her visit free from care. If she goes she will remain in N.Y. probably a fortnight and will certainly call on her friend Ada Clare & certainly will not fail to see Walt Whitman—our old Walt who is very dear to us. —Regards to all friends.—
William W. Thayer
Please direct your letter to me Boston Post Office.
1. William Wilde Thayer of Thayer and Eldridge, the Boston publishing firm responsible for the third edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (1860). For more on Whitman's relationship with Thayer and Eldridge see "Thayer, William Wilde (1829–1896) and Charles W. Eldridge (1837–1903)." [back]
2. Thayer and Eldridge went bankrupt shortly after the publication of Whitman's third edition of Leaves of Grass in 1860. At the time, Thayer and Eldridge were already advertising a new volume of Whitman's poetry entitled The Banner At Day-Break; this new volume was never published as originally planned. [back]
3. Horace Wentworth was Thayer and Eldridge's former boss who later acted as the firm's creditor. Wentworth received the plates to Leaves of Grass as compensation for his financial loss when Thayer and Eldridge went bankrupt in 1861. [back]
4. As Thayer later remembered in his unpublished autobiography, by the winter of 1861, Thayer and Eldridge was "caught with all sails spread, without warning of the storm. Merchants at once began to retrench and reduce liabilities. Capital hid itself. Banks were distrustful. No one knew how the war would end. Books being a luxury, there was no demand. All book firms were 'shaky.' . . . Anti-slavery people were interested in keeping [Thayer and Eldridge] up, but they were forced to call in their funds and most reluctantly let us go down. See William Wilde Thayer, Autobiography of William Wilde Thayer, unpublished manuscript, Feinberg Collection. [back]
5. Ada Clare, known as "The Queen of Bohemia," was an actress, novelist and regular at Pfaff's beer cellar. Clare publicly defended Whitman's poem "A Child's Reminiscence" in the New-York Saturday Press stating that it "could only have been written by a poet" and asserting "I love the poem" ("Thoughts and Things" New-York Saturday Press [January 14, 1860], 2). For further discussion of Clare see "Clare, Ada (Jane McElheney)." [back]