Title: William D. O'Connor to Walt Whitman, 2 October 1884
Date: October 2, 1884
Editorial note: The annotation, "see notes May 19 '88," is in the hand of Horace Traubel.
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.03297
Contributors to digital file: Alex Kinnaman, Stefan Schöberlein, Kyle Barton, and Nicole Gray
October 2, 1884.
I got yours of the 29th ultimo, with the slip from The Critic.1 It is a magnificent compliment, and was inexpressibly comforting. John Burroughs2 told me when he was here, and has since written to the same effect, that what I say on the question does not touch him at all, and although one does not mind such things at first, yet gradually, and especially when they are only part of one concurrent voice, they more than half persuade one that he is a visionary jackass, and have a deeply disheartening effect—all the more, I think, when one's convictions on the matter are clear and deep. There is nothing more evident to me than what Machiavel in The Prince did for tyranny—i.e. sow death for it by simply showing it up without bias and with perfect candor—Bacon (i.e. Shakespeare) did for feudality. It is the old story of the basilisk—if you see him first, he dies. In the plays—the historical plays especially—Bacon sees the basilisk in all his nature and proportions.
I regret I am not free of office life, for I am sure I could make Bacon's part in all this matter so evident that Time would remember it. Criticism on Shakespeare has not yet begun, nor can it ever begin, until the coincidence with the Baconian movement—the divine conspiracy of the Novum Organum against false civilization—is recognized. So far comment on Shakespeare has been merely esthetic. But the relation of that drama to that age—that marvellous "time-bettering age"—that is the main question.
I am extremely gratified at the reinforcement your article brings. In this connection, please read Coriolanus. The impersonation of the feudal military spirit in the hero is perfect, and there are scenes—notably that of the conference between the tribunes when they plan "to darken him forever"—which are revelations.
I have an article before the Manhattan which I now hope more than ever they will publish, for it has some things about Bacon I would like you to read.
There is a noble picture of him, from the painting by Vandyck, in the October Harper. Look at it, and ask yourself whether that face belongs to one who was "the meanest of mankind"! Nothing refutes a slander like a good portrait.
I have been over today to the Surgeon General's Office to see about data for you. I know Dr. Huntington, the Acting Surgeon General, very well. I am afraid that the quest will be fruitless. The only matter they have is the "Medical and Surgical History of the War", now in process of publication. What you want—i.e. hospital matter—will be in the third volume, and this is now being made up, and will not be ready, unfortunately, for a year. I am sorry. However, I will go down tomorrow, to the Medical Museum, and, (as Dr. Huntington suggested to me] talk with Dr. Wild, the librarian, and see if he can give me anything. I fear it is unlikely—the publications being inchoate. You shall hear duly.
I am crushed with work at present. The weather is simply infernal. I wish you were better, and hope the coming coolness of October will revive you. More anon.3
(I hope you got the little Hearn book. The thieves song in the Polynesian story is wonderfully fine.4
William Douglas O'Connor (1832–1889) was the author of the grand and grandiloquent Whitman pamphlet "The Good Gray Poet," published in 1866 (a digital version of the pamphlet is available at "The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication"). For more on Whitman's relationship with O'Connor, see Deshae E. Lott, O'Connor, William Douglas [1832–1889].
2. The naturalist John Burroughs (1837–1921) met Whitman on the streets of Washington, D.C., in 1864. After returning to Brooklyn in 1864, Whitman commenced what was to become a lifelong correspondence with Burroughs. Burroughs was magnetically drawn to Whitman. However, the correspondence between the two men is, as Burroughs acknowledged, curiously "matter-of-fact." Burroughs would write several books involving or devoted to Whitman's work: Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person (1867), Birds and Poets (1877), Whitman, A Study (1896), and Accepting the Universe (1924). For more on Whitman's relationship with Burroughs, see Carmine Sarracino, "Burroughs, John [1837–1921] and Ursula [1836–1917]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
3. Discussing this letter with his disciple Horace Traubel in May 1888, Whitman comments: "William is a master: his art is wonderful to me. He never writes a letter—even a business letter—without giving it that final touch of art which takes it out of the mass of epistolary writing. William is a constant marvel to me—like the sun each morning, like the stars every night: he never grows stale" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Saturday, May 19, 1888). [back]
4. Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904) was an author and journalist, who lived in a number of countries, including the U.S. and, late in his life, Japan. He was well known for his Japanese folk tales and ghost stories. O'Connor had been in contact with the author, who was living in the United States at the time. Their correspondence is housed at Berg Collection at New York's Public Library (William Douglas O'Connor collection of papers). O'Connor might be referencing Hearn's book titled Magic Melodies that is reprinted in Vol. 13 of The Writings of Lafcadio Hearn (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1922). [back]