Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: William D. O'Connor to Walt Whitman, 16 May 1888

Date: May 16, 1888

Source: The transcription presented here is derived from Walt Whitman, With Walt Whitman in Camden, ed. Sculley Bradley (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953), 4:244–247. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Location: The location of this manuscript is unknown.

Whitman Archive ID: med.00827

Contributors to digital file: Alex Ashland, Ian Faith, Stefan Schöberlein, and Stephanie Blalock

Washington, D.C.
May 16, 1888

Dear Walt:

I have hoped daily to write in reply to your letters of April 8th and 23d, and the postal card of May 7th, but between office business and illness I have been prevented. Last night I got another of May 14th, covering the one from Herbert Gilrchrist,1 which I send today to Doctor Bucke,2 as you desire. I am grieved to learn by these last advices that you are ill lately. Your trouble all through seems twin to mine—semi-paralysis, indigestion, constipation, etc. But who can be well, or who being sick can help being sicker, in such weather as we have had this spring? The last five days have been simply horrible—cold, wet, raw, diabolical, and we are all the worse for it. I think we will have to do like the Greenlanders—when the weather is bad, they boil the thermometer!

I saw your little piece in the Herald of the 14th.3 No fear of your distempers getting into your compositions! Your temperament is indomitable. One would think you had the sun for a solar plexus. I basked in the mellowness of your last letters as in the gold and azure October weather of which I am so fond. I often feel deep regret that you should have become ill. It simply proves the existence of the devil, whom Starr King4 called the fourth person of the Trinity! (Certainly he's powerful enough to be so styled.) But for him, or what he stands for, you might have reached a hundred, hale, sturdy, impregnable, and like the best druid of the grove. So may it be yet!

I read with a jovial heart of your trencher work at the planked shad and champagne up at the old tavern on the Delaware,5 and, later, with your friends, where champagne and oysters ruled the board. Didn't I wish to be along! Didn't my lower stomach shout to my upper stomach with loud halloos! O there's fun in this sad world yet! I hope you'll have lots of it.

Apropos of the Devil, I once had a conception of him, which I worked out in an unpublished romance thirty years ago, as a type of intellectual ignorance—that is, of word-knowledge as against the knowledge of things. Lately, I had another and more grotesque conception of such a being, supernatural and immortal, but, simply having all the diseases! Wouldn't be a bad idea, would it? How very diabolic such a devil would naturally be, wouldn't he?

Herbert Gilchrist's letter was very interesting. His reference to your bust would have been very enigmatical, but for a card I had from Kennedy6 which helped me to infer that it was Morse's7 bust that was alluded to.

In a couple of days the weather will change for the better, and you will feel revived. I hope you will ride out all you can in the Spring air.

You speak of Mrs. Louise Chandler Moulton8 having been to see you. It is many years since I saw her. She used to be very pretty: I hope she is yet. Her fault was in being too Araminta-Seraphina-Matilda, and this, life has made her outgrow.

I had a letter from Ben Tucker9 about you and your Herald threnody on the Emperor10 (which I have never seen). He seemed much troubled and cast down. Undoubtedly, he has a great regard and veneration for you, and feels hurt.

I am delighted at your returns from the Herald, and hope they will continue. Bennett11 is certainly the most generous of all the blackguards.

You speak of having the bust of Elias Hicks,12 which must be a grateful possession.13 I hope your article on him is growing.14 You ought to make it good, and as elaborate as possible.

Miserable Cosmopolitan!—to refuse the Lilt of Songs,15 which has a real and deep thought! Such are these demons.

I had your Critic Thought on Shakespeare,16 and read it many times lately again. It is certainly very satisfactory, though I could wish it had certain explanations and expansions.

Donnelly's17 book is out, and I have gone through it, though hurriedly and in illness. He has done something I don't like—withheld a part of the explanation of the cipher, and moreover expounded it so bewilderingly as to leave the matter still in debate. Still, the effect is rather tremendous, and although the chief journals denounce and lampoon it with all their armory of lying, misrepresentation and persiflage, I don't think any fair mind can doubt the validity of the cryptograph. The general abuse and ridicule are consoled, so far, by Professor Colbert of Chicago vouching for the reality of the figures, and by Mr. Bidder, one of the best mathematicians in England, declaring that the cipher is surely in the test. But that my illness makes me unfit for composition, I would like to review Donnelly's reviewers so far, and would engage to make them skip. Such ignorance and such impudence I have rarely seen. The fragments of the cipher story in the book are quite amazing and have wonderful vraisemblance. He has a notice of me, with other Baconians, and briefly pays good tribute to you.

You speak truly of the beautiful hue of the young wheat. I have sometimes thought that "wheat-color" would be a justified and telling epithet. The tint is so peculiar, so living.

By the way, in looking over Stedman's18 book (the Poets of America) I saw how thoroughly and even radically he had modified the article on you. It is by no means what it was in the magazine. My talk with him must have sunk in.

Goodbye. Nelly19 sends you her love. So do I. Always affectionately

W.D. O'Connor20

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)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


1. Herbert Harlakenden Gilchrist (1857–1914), son of Alexander and Anne Gilchrist, was an English painter and editor of Anne Gilchrist: Her Life and Writings (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1887). For more information, see Marion Walker Alcaro, "Gilchrist, Herbert Harlakenden (1857–1914)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

2. 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). [back]

3. Whitman's short poem "As I Sit Writing Here" appeared in the New York Herald on April 14, 1888. [back]

4. Thomas Starr King (1824–1864) was an American Unitarian minister, Freemason, and orator based in California. During the Civil War, he advocated fervently for the Union and Abraham Lincoln. For more on King, see Charles W. Wendte, Thomas Starr King: Patriot and Preacher (Boston: The Beacon Press, 1921).  [back]

5. William J. "Billy" Thompson (1848–1911), known as "The Duke of Gloucester" and "The Statesman," was a friend of Whitman's who operated a hotel, race track, and amusement park on the beach overlooking the Delaware River at Gloucester, New Jersey. His chad and champagne dinners for Whitman were something of a tradition. See William Sloane Kennedy, Reminiscences of Walt Whitman (1896), 15–16. [back]

6. 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 [1896], 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). [back]

7. Sidney H. Morse (1832–1903) was a self-taught sculptor as well as a Unitarian minister and, from 1866 to 1872, editor of The Radical. He visited Whitman in Camden many times and made various busts of him. Whitman had commented on an earlier bust by Morse that it was "wretchedly bad." For more on this, see Ruth L. Bohan, Looking into Walt Whitman: American Art, 1850–1920 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), 105–109. [back]

8. Louise Chandler Moulton (1835–1908) was an American poet and critic who published several collections of verse and prose, as well as regular contributions to the New York Tribune and Boston Herald.  [back]

9. Benjamin Ricketson Tucker (1854–1939) was an American activist and editor of the anarchist periodical Liberty, which ran from 1881 to 1908.  [back]

10. O'Connor is referring to Whitman's poem "The Dead Emperor," which was published in the New York Herald on March 10, 1888. [back]

11. James Gordon Bennett (1841–1918) was the editor and publisher of the New York Herald, founded by his father. For more on the paper and the many poems by Whitman that were published in it, see "The New York Herald." [back]

12. Elias Hicks (1748–1830) was a traveling Quaker preacher and anti-slavery activist from Long Island, New York. For more on Hicks, see Henry Watson Wilbur, The Life and Labors of Elias Hicks (Philadelphia: Friends' General Conference Advancement Committee, 1910). [back]

13. The bust of Hicks was sculpted by Sidney Morse. [back]

14. Whitman was writing an essay, "Notes (such as they are) founded on Elias Hicks," which he would publish in November Boughs(1888). [back]

15. This poem was published as "The Final Lilt of Songs" in the New York Herald on April 16, 1888, after being rejected by the Cosmopolitan[back]

16. Whitman's "Thought on Shakespeare" was published in The Critic on August 14, 1886. [back]

17. Ignatius Loyola Donnelly (1831–1901) was a politician and writer, well known for his notions of Atlantis as an antediluvian civilization and for his belief that Shakespeare's plays had been written by Francis Bacon, an idea he argued in his book The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon's Cipher in Shakespeare's Plays, published in 1888.  [back]

18. Edmund Clarence Stedman (1833–1908) was a man of diverse talents. He edited for a year the Mountain County Herald at Winsted, Connecticut, wrote "Honest Abe of the West," presumably Lincoln's first campaign song, and served as correspondent of the New York World from 1860 to 1862. In 1862 and 1863 he was a private secretary in the Attorney General's office until he entered the firm of Samuel Hallett and Company in September, 1863. The next year he opened his own brokerage office. He published many volumes of poems and was an indefatigable compiler of anthologies, among which were Poets of America, 2 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885) and A Library of American Literature from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, 11 vols. (New York: C. L. Webster, 1889–90). For more, see Donald Yannella, "Stedman, Edmund Clarence (1833–1908)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

19. Ellen M. "Nelly" O'Connor was the wife of William D. O'Connor. Walt may have mentioned a potential visit by Nelly and her daughter during his May visit to Brooklyn, though whether a visit came near this time is not known from his or Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's letters. Walt Whitman dined with the O'Connors frequently during his Washington years, and he spoke often in his letters of their daughter Jean (called "Jenny" or "Jeannie"). Though Whitman and William O'Connor would temporarily break off their friendship in late 1872 over a disagreement about Reconstruction policies and the role of emancipated slaves, Nelly would remain friendly with Whitman. [back]

20. For Whitman's spirited response to this letter, see Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Friday, March 1, 1889[back]


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