Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to William D. O'Connor, 30 May [1882]

Date: May 30, 1882

Source: The transcription presented here is derived from Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977), 3:286–288. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Location: The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, New York Public Library

Whitman Archive ID: nyp.00444

Contributors to digital file: Stefan Schoeberlein, Nima Najafi Kianfar, Eder Jaramillo, and Nicole Gray

Tuesday Evening
May 30—

The whole hinge of the Chadwick letter2—involving you and yours, with me, & including the question of veracity—seems to me to be essentially What are the relations of Emerson to W W? As permanently left by the sum of the transactions and judgments of twenty-five years—(yours of 29th recd)—(just the same as the Bible means its whole & final spirit, not one or two picked out verses or texts)—confirmed by a most deliberate and emphatic act of the last year of his E's life—seems to me the mood of your reply to the Chadwick letter may well be different from the other (which the more I read it, the more it unfolds—it is such a piece of literary work)3—I see clearly that the question above is more involved than that of veracity you speak of—see the other page I send—

Personal information—perhaps nothing but what you knew already—

☞ I suppose you know that the Life of Emerson—(& a very good one I guess)—published nearly a year ago by Osgood—all with the sanction & revision of the family & of E. himself4—gives in full the letter of 1856 you quote—thus confirming & sanctioning it—See said Life.5

Seems to me would be good to bring in quite verbatim—it is certainly true

Emerson had much more of a personal friendship for W W than has been generally known; making a determined visit to Brooklyn soon after the appearance of Leaves of Grass, twenty five years ago, walking out to the little cottage in the suburbs, several miles from the ferry where Mr W then lived. From that time regularly for years afterwards whenever he came to New York he appointed a meeting, and they two generally dined together and spent some hours.6 When Mr Whitman was in Boston in 1860 Emerson was his frequent & cordial visitor. As time elapsed, though officious persons intervened, and there was a lull of some years, I doubt if it could be said that Ralph Waldo Emerson's affections (and few know how deeply he could love!) ever went out more warmly to any one, and remained more fixed, under the circumstances, than toward Walt Whitman.

Mr Chadwick evidently thinks that if the author of Leaves of Grass had any case to state, that walk on the common in 1860 was his time. But it is well known to his intimate friends that Walt Whitman, who has the most simplicity and good nature of any man alive, is also the haughtiest, the most disdainful at those periods when expected to talk loudest and best, and when he probably could do so, is apt to remain perfectly silent. The main reason certainly was, curious as it may seem, that Emerson's objections, on that famous walk, did not at all touch Whitman's principle of treatment which was a moral one, or rather it involved the verteber of all morals. I have heard the author of Leaves of Grass say that what he sought to do in "Children of Adam" seemed all the more necessary after that [conversation?]. Though Emerson's points were of the highest and keenest order, they sprang exclusively from conventional and what may be called the usual technical literary considerations. I know from what he has told me that Whitman himself had long dwelt on these very points in his own mind—that he was anxious to hear the utmost that could be brought forward in their behalf. And now when he heard what the best critic of the age so brought forward, and his inmost soul and brain remained altogether untouched, his final resolution was taken, and he has never changed from that hour.

Then to clench the whole matter of the relations between these two men, I doubt whether there is any thing more affecting or emphatic in Emersons whole career—a sort of last coruscation in the evening twilight of it—than his driving over to Frank Sanborn's in Concord, Sept 1881, to deliberately pay "respects" for which he had obligated himself twenty five years before.7 Nor was the unusual compliment of the hospitable but formal dinner made the next day for Walt Whitman, by Mr and Mrs Emerson, without marked significance. It was a beautiful autumn Sunday. And if that afternoon, with its occurrences there in his own mansion, surrounded by all his family, wife, son, daughters, son-in-law, nearest relatives, and two or three very near friends—some fourteen or fifteen in all—if that does not mean how Emerson, by this simple yet almost solemn rite, wished, before he departed, to reiterate and finally seal his verdict of 1856, then there is no significance in human life or its emotions or8


1. This letter is endorsed: "Answ'd June 3/82." It is addressed: Wm Douglas O'Connor | Life Saving Service | Bureau | Washington | D C. It is postmarked: Camden | May | 30 | 6 PM | N.J.; Washington, D.C. | May | 31 | 4 AM | 1882 | Recd. [back]

2. Here Whitman continued to assemble facts to refute Chadwick's article. On June 3 O'Connor wrote: "I have freely used the memoranda you sent, and got in as much of it as I could see my way to employ, and as much as I dared" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden [Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906], 1:52). But, fortunately, O'Connor verified some of Whitman's erroneous information (see note 5 below). [back]

3. O'Connor's letter in the New York Tribune on May 25. [back]

4. Whitman deleted: "as far as he did any thing." [back]

5. In his reply on June 3, O'Connor corrected Whitman's misstatements in this paragraph. George W. Cooke reprinted Emerson's famous letter to Whitman of July 21, 1855 in Ralph Waldo Emerson: His Life, Writings, and Philosophy (Boston, 1881), 233–234; but it was obvious that Cooke's remarks about the relations between the two men were speculative, not official. [back]

6. It is not known exactly how many times Emerson visited Whitman in Brooklyn. Probably Whitman overstated. [back]

7. See the two letters written at the time of Whitman's visit to Concord (the letter from Walt Whitman to Louisa Orr Whitman of September 18, 1881, and the letter from Whitman to John Burroughs of September 19, 1881). [back]

8. Herbert Gilchrist did not know that Whitman had contributed to O'Connor's article when he wrote on August 16: "I and mother do not think very highly of O'Connor's blustering defence: we think that he is on the wrong tack when he justifies you by the classics and by what Emerson says as if that made any difference one way or the other" (Traubel, 1:227). See also Anne Gilchrist's letter to Burroughs on July 28 (Clara Barrus, Whitman and Burroughs—Comrades [Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1931], 220–221). [back]


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