Title: Richard Maurice Bucke to Walt Whitman, 19 January 1880
Date: January 19, 1880
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.07194
Contributors to digital file: Jeannette Schollaert and Nicole Gray
Asylum for the Insane,
London, Ontario, Canada,
Jan 19th 1880
I am at present writing a book upon WALT WHITMAN and his works—"Leaves of Grass." I am myself fully satisfied that WALT WHITMAN is one of the greatest men, if not the very greatest man, that the world has so far produced, and I am anxious to do what I can, while those who know him are still living, to assist in preserving as accurate a record of his life as possible. I am informed that you are, or have been, personally acquainted with WALT WHITMAN, and that is the reason I address you at present on the above subject. I want you to write out for me your impression of the man himself, and to tell me, as nearly as you can, what impression he has made generally upon the people with whom he has come in contact; also to tell me any incidents of his life of which you have had knowledge, any conversations of his that you recollect, and anything that you can call to mind of his tastes, opinions, or habits, his usual occupations at the time you knew him, &c., &c., &c., giving the date of each occurrence or incident as nearly as possible. In fact I should like you to relate to me his life as far as it is known to you, and as fully as you can. One great object in using this circular is to get as many accounts as possible of the same facts. It will be my duty to so blend these diverse views that a true picture may result from them. In all that you state please carefully distinguish what you relate of your own knowledge from what you have learned from others. I do not wish you to simply tell what good you know or have heard of WALT WHITMAN, but if you know of, or have been credibly informed of, any evil, tell it too. And please do not write as if you were praising or blaming him, but set down, in the simplest and most straightforward language that you can command, the plain truth. State, in your reply, when you knew WALT WHITMAN first, and how intimately you have known him.
Should you comply with my request, and give me what information you can, I am satisfied that you will be doing a service to humanity; and if you would like to have it I shall preserve your name and address and shall send you a copy of my book, as some return for your trouble, when it comes out.
I hope you will write to me with entire unreserve, trusting to me to make no improper use whatever of any information you may give me. I may say that it is not my intention to incorporate literally in my book any reply that I may receive to this circular, but to gather from these a general impression, which will be expressed in the work referred to. I may say also that it is probable that many things will be communicated to me which it may not be proper to publish now; but all the answers to this circular will be preserved, and will be available for more complete use in the future if thought advisable. It is not my present intention to mention the names of any persons who supply me with information; if I do mention any names it will be simply to thank the owners of them for the assistance they will have rendered me.
N. B.—As soon as you receive this communication, before you answer the body of it, which may take you some little time, please send me the names and addresses of any persons you know of who knew WALT WHITMAN, that I may send them copies of this circular.
I am, faithfully yours,
To Walt Whitman
431 Stevens St
R. M. BUCKE,
Medical Superintendent Asylum for the Insane,
Richard Maurice Bucke (1837–1902) was a Canadian physician and psychiatrist who grew close to Whitman after reading Leaves of Grass in 1867 (and later memorizing it) and meeting the poet in Camden a decade later. Even before meeting Whitman, Bucke claimed in 1872 that a reading of Leaves of Grass led him to experience "cosmic consciousness" and an overwhelming sense of epiphany. Bucke became the poet's first biographer with Walt Whitman (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883), and he later served as one of his medical advisors and literary executors. For more on the relationship of Bucke and Whitman, see Howard Nelson, "Bucke, Richard Maurice," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).