Title: William Sloane Kennedy to Walt Whitman, August 1885
Date: August 1885
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.02604
Contributors to digital file: Alex Kinnaman, Stefan Schöberlein, Ian Faith, Kyle Barton, and Nicole Gray
My Dear Friend:
You are very kind to remember Kennedy—yr son by adoption & affinity—Nothing in the world makes me prouder than to merit in only a slight degree yr esteem. My indebtedness to you—estimating values by all that makes life high & noble—is simply boundless. Your confidential item abt royalties also makes me glad & wrings my heart at the same time. I cannot but think that the publisher has at least been negligent of yr interests.1 Walt will you let me pay you now $5. on that $13 I owe? The $13. is a pure business debt. $5000. represents my soul indebtedness to Walt Whitman, who is the only god I at present worship apart from the Universe as a whole
I can sympathize as to copyrights; I have not rec'd a cent yet for my railroad book2—a year's sales—not having sold much over a 1000 copies.
I have passed civil service examinations (State, & U S.) & have a good prospect of soon getting position in the Custom House. May the gods be propitious!
I saw "The Voice of the Rain" quoted in newspapers here. I hear that it is considered by many one of the most exquisite things you have done. Popular & sweet & plain it is. Compare Tennyson's3 latest grind with it for an idea of sophistication vs grand simplicity.
Editor Baxter4 of Outing tells me that you think of visiting Boston soon, my most noble poet, & I implore thee (as Whittier5 wd say) to come & see me for a week & drink in our sublime prospect & be soothed by our matchless rural quiet (flowers, birds, & trees).
I see by the Critic, with some consternation, that the members of the esoteric Whitman Comradeship in London are making up a good-will offering to send to Walt W. Let 'em do it Walt. But I shd suggest that the old way of yrs be hinted to 'em i.e. to let yr books go over there. Let 'em send their tribute if it will please them, but let them take a cargo of books from McKay in return. That is the way to do the square thing.
Here is a poet whose books are the delight of the finest minds in the world. He has earned & deserves a far greater competence than such an elegant peculator as Longfellow.6 Let us all then, exert our energy in the attempt to spread a knowledge of yr "new gladness & roughness" wider & wider. That is the business-like & right way. You are defrauded of the wage of yr life-labor otherwise. Damn it, what a mistaken blind, good bonhomme monster the people are!
W. S. Kennedy
I shall be grieved to the heart if you dont come out & see me, if you shd come to Boston. This is yr home, & I am your lover & friend remember now!
William Sloane Kennedy (1850–1929) was on the staff of the Philadelphia American and later published biographies of Longfellow and Whittier (Dictionary of American Biography). Apparently Kennedy had called on the poet for the first time on November 21, 1880 (William Sloane Kennedy, Reminiscences of Walt Whitman , 1). Though Kennedy was to become a fierce defender of Whitman, in his first published article he admitted reservations about the "coarse indecencies of language" and protested that Whitman's ideal of democracy was "too coarse and crude"; see The Californian, 3 (February 1881), 149–158. For more about Kennedy, see Katherine Reagan, "Kennedy, William Sloane (1850–1929)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).
2. Wonders and Curiosities of the Railway; or, Stories of the Locomotive in Every Land, published in Chicago in 1884. [back]
3. Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892) succeeded William Wordsworth as poet laureate of Great Britain in 1850. The intense male friendship described in In Memoriam, which Tennyson wrote after the death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, possibly influenced Whitman's poetry. Tennyson began a correspondence with Whitman on July 12, 1871. Although Tennyson extended an invitation for Whitman to visit England, Whitman never acted on the offer. [back]
4. Sylvester Baxter (1850–1927) was a newspaperman and urban planner from Boston. Besides writing for Outing, he also published in the Boston Herald. [back]
5. John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892) earned fame as a staunch advocate for the abolition of slavery. As a poet, he employed traditional forms and meters, and, not surprisingly, he was not an admirer of Whitman's unconventional prosody. For Whitman's view of Whittier, see various comments throughout the nine volumes of With Walt Whitman in Camden (various publishers: 1906–1996) and Whitman's "My Tribute to Four Poets" in Specimen Days. [back]
6. In his time, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882) was both a highly popular and highly respected American poet. His The Song of Hiawatha, published the same year as Leaves of Grass, enjoyed sales never reached by Whitman's poetry. When Whitman met Longfellow in June 1876, he was unimpressed: "His manners were stately, conventional—all right but all careful . . . he did not branch out or attract" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden [Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906], 1:129–130). [back]