Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to William D. O'Connor, 14 January 1888

Date: January 14, 1888

Source: The transcription presented here is derived from The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977), 4:141. 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.00688

Contributors to digital file: Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Ryan Furlong, Ian Faith, and Stephanie Blalock

Jan 14 '88 Evn'g1

Was very glad to get y'r letter—(I return herewith the Nation criticism)—I have rec'd another letter2 from Tennyson3—Rec'd to-day a letter from John Burroughs.4 He is rather blue—the boy Julian5 is his great comfort—the "domestic skies" (as he terms it) are not fair and happy6—I hear from Kennedy7—Rhys8 is there with him & they take to each other muchly—I am invited (by letter from Cortland Palmer,9 rec'd to day) to go to R's lect: before the Century Club, NY Feb 7, & say a word at conclusion—But of course cannot go—I have rec'd a nice letter from Whittier,10 thanking me, &c.11 I hear from Dr Bucke12 regularly & often—he is true as steel—

Has been very bleak & cold here but better & sunny to day—I am quite unwell, but keep up & around & eat my meals in moderation—(an old fellow who comes here said to me as I was eating my supper "No extremes any way—but eternal vigilance in eating & drinking is the only thing for a sick man or an old coon.")

I want to print a little 15 or 20 page Annex to L of G13—Also a sketch of Elias Hicks14—but don't know when—

Walt Whitman

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. This letter is endorsed: "Ans'd Jan. 27/88." It is addressed: Wm D O'Connor | Life Saving Service | Washington | D C. It is postmarked: Camden, N.J. | Jan (?) | 8 PM | 88; Washington, Rec.d | Jan 15 | 7 AM | 1888. [back]

2. See the letter from Alfred, Lord Tennyson to Whitman of November 15, 1887. [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. 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]

5. Julian Burroughs (1878–1954), the only son of John Burroughs, later became a landscape painter, writer, and photographer. [back]

6. On January 13, 1888, Burroughs wrote: "My domestic skies are not pleasant & I seem depressed & restless most of the time. . . . I dislike the winters more & more & shall not try to spend another in this solitude. Indeed I am thinking strongly of selling my place. I am sick of the whole business of housekeeping. If it was not for Julian I should not hesitate a moment. J. goes to school & is a bright happy boy, very eager for knowledge, & with a quick intelligence. He alone makes life tolerable to me." [back]

7. 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]

8. Ernest Percival Rhys (1859–1946) was a British author and editor; he founded the Everyman's Library series of inexpensive reprintings of popular works. He included a volume of Whitman's poems in the Canterbury Poets series and two volumes of Whitman's prose in the Camelot series for Walter Scott publishers. For more information about Rhys, see Joel Myerson, "Rhys, Ernest Percival (1859–1946)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

9. Courtland Palmer was the founder and first president of the Nineteenth Century Club, a group dedicated to discussing significant social and philosophical issues of the time. [back]

10. 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 the poet's numerous comments throughout the nine volumes of Horace Traubel's With Walt Whitman in Camden (various publishers: 1906–1996) and Whitman's "My Tribute to Four Poets," in Specimen Days (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882–'83), 180–181.  [back]

11. In a brief note on January 13, 1888, Whittier wrote: "But for illness I should have thanked thee before this for thy vigorous lines of greeting in Munyon's Illustrated World, combining as they do the cradle and evening song of my life. My brother writers have been very generous to me and I heartily thank them for it" (see also Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Tuesday, July 17, 1888). [back]

12. 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]

13. Whitman published his first "annex" to Leaves of Grass—"Sands at Seventy"—in the 1889 issue of his book. All but one of the poems appeared earlier in November Boughs (1888). [back]

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


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