Title: Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe to Walt Whitman, 17 January 1887
Date: January 17, 1887
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: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Whitman Archive ID: loc.01360
Contributors to digital file: Alex Kinnaman, Stefan Schöberlein, Ian Faith, and Stephanie Blalock
40, GROSVENOR ROAD,
January 17th '87
Dear Mr. Whitman,
Many thanks for thy card of the 3rd which came on Saturday, just too late for me to catch the return mail. I am afraid by a curious fatality all thy biographers want to make thee out too good for thy liking! Has thee never thought of expanding the Specimen Days into Autobiographical sketches? Then thee could tell the world thy wickedness to the full, which thy friends are so uncomprehending as not to see! I wonder if thee knows Mr. Norman personally? He is a charming fellow, very clever and full of American pluck. He is always so busy that one seldom gets a chance of seeing him in the seething side of affairs in this great city, but I am going to make my husband look him up again, now that I know he is a friend of thine.
We have had nothing here but a succession of thick fogs, and today when I saw the flush of the real sun in the sky, I thought it was a fire! In pursuance of the course of reading I wrote to thee about, I have begun to take Greek lessons and to read Plato's Republic. In our spare moments (which are alas! none too many) we are working out our idea of the ideal State, as a sort of supplement and corrective to Socialism. But life rushes along too fast here to give one time for many wayside reflections, I am afraid, and too often I find whole days filled up with things—thoughts being crowded out. Perhaps it is good to live an intensely practical life for a while.
I am very grateful for thy little slip anent Tennyson's latest, although I don't agree with it at all. Tennyson struck me as a man great in spots, and the cracks filled in with inferior stuff. I think this latest outburst of cynical pessimism comes from one of the gaps in the greatness of his nature. Perhaps thee will think this the hasty & impulsive judgment of youth. I will begin to reconsider it when I find thee issuing a latest edition of Leaves of Grass with all the optimism and faith and kindliness left out. I should have been glad to die before I had left such a message as my last utterance, the final outcome of a long life of experience and thought. I can't join with thee in thanking him for his "Sixty Years After"!1 I judge people by different standards from those which one uses towards Nature, for I think the gulf between natural evolution & moral responsibility is infinite, and if the present poems of Tennyson are the result of his point of view all along, then I think he is responsible for taking such a point of view [& for?] working it out to this disheartening issue.
But I am disobeying my doctor, who has forbidden long letters for the present. It is always a temptation to chat with thee—I only wish I were near enough to do it really. Thee can't think what a refreshment to soul and body it is to read Leaves of Grass, or even to think of thee, in the midst of this artificial town life. I hope thee is well and cheerful; I am always silently sending thee good wishes across the ocean.
Mary Whitall Costelloe
Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe (1864–1945) was a political activist, art historian, and critic, whom Whitman once called his "staunchest living woman friend." A scholar of Italian Renaissance art and a daughter of Robert Pearsall Smith, she would in 1885 marry B. F. C. "Frank" Costelloe. She had been in contact with many of Whitman's English friends and would travel to Britain in 1885 to visit many of them, including Anne Gilchrist shortly before her death. For more, see Christina Davey, "Costelloe, Mary Whitall Smith (1864–1945)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).
1. Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem, "Locksley Hall Sixty Years After," was published in 1886; it is a sequel to his 1842 "Locksley Hall" and offers a bleak assessment of what England has become. [back]