Title: William D. O'Connor to Walt Whitman, 19 October 1865
Date: October 19, 1865
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.01819
Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Janel Cayer, Vanessa Steinroetter, Eric Conrad, Alex Kinnaman, Nicole Gray, Kenneth M. Price, and Stefan Schöberlein
October 19, 1865.
My dear Walt:
The article you sent Nelly1 from the London Leader is in my possession. Good! I shall incorporate it. Part of it is very fine.
I wonder if young William Allingham wrote it.2 The Leader is the paper he is on. He is a poet, you remember—one of the most promising of the young British choir. He is an Irishman and a reverent lover of Emerson's genius. I shouldn't wonder if he wrote this critique.
Anyhow it's good and I shall put a great deal of it in.
If, ever since I have been here, I had not had the worst cold I ever had in my life—a cold which has made me really sick and spoiled the pleasure of my visit—I should doubtless have ere this sent off the MS to Curtis.3 It will probably go soon. It is just as well and even better that I have delayed it, for in the first place it will be enriched with this quotation and besides you will like it better by the excision of nearly all the personality, new light having come to me on this point as time has passed and the sweet country air and relief from labor cleared and refreshed my poor boiled brains.
On my way through New York I enquired at Harpers for Curtis and found he was out of town. So I brought the MS with me up here. Then came Curtis' answer; of which I send you a copy that you may see how true the reply this splendid gentleman and noble heart sends back to my call.
I really did not expect so much from Curtis. I relied on his literary chivalry, but did not look for the rest. As George would say, he has "elements."
I have written to him saying that I want him to endeavor to find me a publisher and mentioning Hurd & Houghton: also saying that in a few days I shall send him the MS.
I wish you could come up here. The landscape is exquisite. Fields, farms, the quiet rustic town, the gorgeous foliage, the Temple and Peterboro' hills enclosing all. And then, drive out a few miles and lo! Monadnoc! O Walt, what a sight! A purple breadth of mountain, spreading calm in sleepy light and filling the landscape with grandeur. It is the finest mountain I have seen. Its characteristic is breadth.
I am staying here at the house of Miss Jenny Bullard, a friend of whom I believe I have spoken to you.4 I wish you knew her. You would like her. She is handsome, bountiful, generous, cordial, strong, careless, laughing, large, regardless of dress or personal appearance, and appreciates or likes Leaves of Grass. The first thing she read in the book was Enfans d'Adam, which she cordially liked and wondered how anyone could mistake its atmosphere and purport. She is a very particular friend of mine. I wish you knew her. She told me today that she wanted me to invite you to come up here for a few days before I go, but I said I wouldn't because I knew you wouldn't come.
I shall probably leave here about the twenty fifth and go to Boston. Then, home.
Spite of dear friends and respite from the treadmill and the superb October scenery, I have had considerably of a bad time, chiefly owing to the horrible cold I have had and the weary state I have been in. But I am better now and the world looks brighter.
Now I hope to be able to announce to you that the MS has a publisher. But oh, Walt, the literary shortcomings of it oppress me. It is not the thing that should be said of your book—not the thing that it is in even me to say,—as I feel.—However.
Good bye. I will write you again.
W. D. O'Connor.
30 Sept. 1865.
My dear O'Connor:
Here, up among the Autumn hills, I get your interesting letter of the 20th and you may be very sure that I will do all I can to redress the wrong of which you speak.
The task you undertake is not easy, as you know. The public sympathy will be with the Secretary for removing a man who will be considered an obscene author and a free lover. But your hearty vindication of free letters will not be the less welcome to all liberal men.
Personally I do not know Whitman; and while his "Leaves of Grass" impressed me less than it impressed many better men than I, I have never heard anything of him but what was noble nor believed anything of him but what was honorable. That a man should be expelled from Office and held up to public contumely, because of an honest book which no candid mind can truly regard as hurtful to public morality, is an offence which demands exposure and censure.
I know Carleton but he has several times asked of me favors which I could not grant and I do not believe your offer would be strengthened if made through me.5 If you think otherwise, I shall most cheerfully go to him,—but would it not be better for you to write to him and refer him to me, saying, if you choose, that you had asked me to call upon him? Think of it and let me know.
It was very pleasant to see your comely chirography again, altho' I wish I could think of you as having had some vacation. We have been here for two months, far from railroads, telegraphs and gossip and are just going home. My wife returns your friendly remembrance and yours, I hope, has not forgotten me. I should be glad, too, if I thought you felt as cheerfully as I feel at the real gain in the Good Fight made by the war. Andy may Tylerize, but the country will not. The wave may be lower, but the tide is rising.
Good bye. Let me hear as soon as you will. You know how gladly I shall serve you and how truly I am
G. W. Curtis.
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 often complained about the various governmental clerical posts he was to hold until his death. However, his government work 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], 513). For more on Whitman's relationship with the O'Connors see Deshae E. Lott, O'Connor, William Douglas [1832–1889].
2. The poet William Allingham was author of Poems (London: Chapman and Hall, 1850), Day and Night Songs (London: George Routledge & Co., 1854), and Lawrence Bloomfield in Ireland (London: Macmillan and Co., 1864). [back]
3. George William Curtis was editor of Harper's New Monthly Magazine. O'Connor had requested Curtis's advice in seeking a publisher for The Good Gray Poet. [back]
4. Whitman mentions the "Case of Jenny Bullard" in a notebook entry alongside a warning to himself to "Remember Fred Vaughn." Meditating on his relationship with Peter Doyle, Whitman laments "this diseased, feverish disproportionate adhesiveness" (Edward F. Grier, ed., Notes and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts [New York: New York University Press, 1961–84], 2:890). Aside from O'Connor's letter, Whitman's notebook entry is the only other reference to Bullard in the poet's papers. Bullard's full name was Sarah Jane Wollstonecraft Bullard. She was born in Boston September 11, 1828 and died in New Ipwich October 13, 1904. Bullard never married and is said to have lived with two women. [back]
5. Curtis refers to New York publisher George Carleton. In 1867 Carleton would pass on an opportunity to publish a new edition of Leaves of Grass. Within about a month, Carleton "had the distinction of turning down both Leaves of Grass and Mark Twain's first book"; Carleton later dubbed himself "the prize ass of the nineteenth century" (Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: A Life [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980], 320). [back]