Title: Ellen M. O'Connor to Walt Whitman, 18 August 1864
Date: August 18, 1864
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.
Notes for this letter were derived from Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller, 6 vols. (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977).
Location: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Whitman Archive ID: loc.00946
Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Janel Cayer, Kathryn Kruger, and Nicole Gray
Little Compton R. I.
August 18. 1864. Thursday.
My dear Walt,—
Your letter to Wm. of July 24. he forwarded to me in a letter that I got last evening.1 How glad I was to get it, and to know that you are so much better. I hope you still continue to gain, I hope you are well, but I do not really expect you to be wholly well until the cool autumn days come, that I so dread, & shrink from.
I am very glad to get this letter, dear Walt, for I had really begun to wonder why you had so wholly forgotten me. Not one line to me have you written since leaving Washington, and now that I am away from there I have to wait for news of you in this long, roundabout way. After seeing you every day, & so much of you those last days when you were sick, it seems doubly strange not to have had a word from you. You will not think me foolish if I tell you that it hurt me a little, will you? You know what a foolish, absurd person I am, where I love anyone as I do you, and knowing this, and now I having confessed, you will pardon.
Did you like my picture? You told William you got my letter, so you must have got the picture enclosed. It was in my first letter—I have sent you three, this is my fourth to you, have you got them all? It was too bad that we could not have a good quiet chat on the boat, for I spent the long afternoon there, & it was a very good place for a nice talk.
I am so glad that there is some hope of your book coming out soon. I long to see it.
Just think, Walt, of my being a lion down here on your account, because it is known that I have the honor of your acquaintance. Such is the fact, & I was made to talk two entire evenings about you, —it is so funny, some time I will tell you all about it.
The bathing here is good, & the ocean—oh! so good. I board at a farm house, & keep as you do early hours,—up at 6 or earlier & to bed at 9. I have been here two weeks, & am so brown that I could easily pass for a good "contraband," I nearly live out doors. The rocks tempt me, & there I sit & see the waves & foam dash up over them, & it breaks into fine spray, & is so beautiful. I never loved the sea so much, & I though before I loved it more than any thing. How I wish you were here! It would cure you Walt, & how much I should like it. Little Jeannie enjoys it much, for she has hens, chickens, ducks & the horse to feed. She says tell Walt "I hope he has got all over the sickness, entirely." She sends love too.
So it seems that Burnside is Court-martialed—events seem to prove that Irvinton was right in what he said of Burnside. Charlie says that the Officers say any Commander but Burnside would have taken Petersburg at the last attack.2
Mr. Howells tells me he has seen your mother, & he is enthusiastic about her.3 Thinks her such a grand old lady as one sees only once in a lifetime.
It is breakfast time, for you must know I have written this before breakfast,—so good morning, & good bye. How I wish you were here!
With love always—
Have you seen a pretty little poem by Juliette H. Beach called Claire— It was published in the Leader I judge, & I saw it copied;—from it, I infer that she has a new baby, a girl too.4 Good bye.
1. For a time Whitman lived with William D. and Ellen M. O'Connor, who, with Charles W. Eldridge and later John Burroughs, were to be his close associates during the early Washington years. William Douglas O'Connor (1832–1889) was the author of Harrington, an abolition novel published by Thayer & Eldridge in 1860. He had been an assistant editor of the Saturday Evening Post before he went to Washington. O'Connor was an intelligent man who deserved something better than the various governmental clerical posts he was to hold until his death. The humdrum of clerkship, however, was relieved by the presence of Whitman whom he was to love and venerate—and defend with a single-minded fanaticism and an outpouring of vituperation and eulogy that have seldom been equaled, most notably in his pamphlet, "The Good Gray Poet." He was the first, and in many ways the most important, of the adulators who divided people arbitrarily into two categories: those who were for and those who were against Walt Whitman. The poet praised O'Connor in the preface to a posthumous collection of his tales: "He was a born sample here in the 19th century of the flower and symbol of olden time first-class knighthood. Thrice blessed be his memory!" (Complete Prose Works [New York, D. Appleton, 1910] pp. 513). For more on Whitman's relationship with the O'Connors see O'Connor, William Douglas [1832–1889]. [back]
2. In December 1862, on his way to visit George at Fredericksburg, Virginia, Whitman stopped in Washington and encountered Charles W. Eldridge, who was now a clerk in the office of the army paymaster. After he had seen for himself that George had not been severely wounded, he returned to Washington, which was to be his home until 1873. Eldridge obtained a desk for Whitman in the office of Major Lyman Hapgood, the army paymaster. [back]
3. Charles Joseph Howells, according to entries in New York Directories, must have been versatile (and perhaps eccentric): in 1864–1865 he was an "inventor," in 1865–1866 an inspector in the Custom House, in 1866–1867 simply an "inspector," and in 1867–1868 a seller of hairpins. [back]
4. Juliette H. Beach was one of those enigmatic women associated with Whitman about whom imaginative biographers have spun ingenious theories. Beach was to have reviewed the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass for the Saturday Press, but when her husband's unfavorable review was published instead, the journal had to take public note of matrimonial discord in order to correct the error (Gay Wilson Allen, The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman [New York: Macmillan, 1955; rev. ed., New York University Press], 260-262). Ellen O'Connor contributed her bit to the theory that Beach and Whitman had a love affair when she asserted that "Out of the Rolling Ocean, the Crowd," published in Drum-Taps, was composed for "a certain lady" who had angered her husband because of her correspondence with the poet (Emory Holloway, ed., The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman [Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page, 1921], 1:lviii). "Mrs. Beach's notes" may be the letters to Whitman, which later Burroughs vainly asked Mrs. Beach to print; see Clara Barrus, The Life and Letters of John Burroughs (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1925), 1:120. If these were love letters, Whitman hardly treated Mrs. Beach's heart-stirrings discreetly. See also Allen, The Solitary Singer, 340–342. [back]