Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: William D. O'Connor to Walt Whitman, 23 March 1886

Date: March 23, 1886

Editorial note: The annotation, "see notes March 24 1889," 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: Walt Whitman Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Library, Syracuse, N.Y.

Whitman Archive ID: syr.00023

Contributors to digital file: Alex Kinnaman, Stefan Schöberlein, Ian Faith, Kyle Barton, and Nicole Gray



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Washington, D.C.
Life Saving Service
March 23, 1886.

Dear Walt:

It is a perfect shame I have not written you for so long, but I have been wofully lame and ill, and with a mind so weak and wandering that most of the time I have been actually unable to write.1 I now begin to feel a little better as the spring advances, though still greatly crippled.

I got your letter of last January (22d) and your card of Feb. 3rd from Elkton,2 telling of your lecturing, at which proof of your activity I greatly rejoiced. I saw in the Tribune today that you are to give your Lincoln lecture in Philadelphia.3

I wonder if Dr. Bucke4 got off. I had a letter from him some time ago telling me he expected to go, but have not since heard from him.

C.W.E.5 and I were intensely amused at your "amiable clerk with a pen behind his ear," as applied to Stedman's book.6 The hit is palpable, like Hamlet's lunge.

I am glad I sent you Nencioni's article.7 We are after it, hot foot, for I judge that it must be fine. I made an effort to get it here, but could not find, however, where in Italy the Nuova Antologia is published, though probably it is Florence or Milan. Kennedy8 promises to help find the locale.

It pleases me greatly to hear that your eyes are all right, or nearly so. Do take care of them, and beware of draughts—so grateful, but so pernicious. Dr. Bigelow, our greatest physician in Boston of old time,9 used to say that the back of the neck was more vulnerable than the heel of Achilles, when exposed to a draught, and he always put up his coat collar when he got into an omnibus or horse-car.

I heard yesterday that John Burroughs10 is coming down here. I shall be glad to see him, though I owe him a grudge for his late proposition to murder all the sparrows. This gives points to Herod, and is worse than the slaughter of the innocents, because they were Jew babies and had objectionable little hook noses.

The winter has been infernal here since January, and March is not much better. I hope the Spring, just beginning to open, may put new life into you.

Glad to hear of the English "offering," which I wish was much more.11 I wish we could get up a boom on your books. That McKay is a poor publisher.

Wonders will never cease, and after all Houghton consented to publish my little work "Hamlet's Note-Book," a copy of which I hope to send you in a few days.12 Everyone else refused it. The prejudice against the Baconians is amazing. The last publisher to whom I offered it (Coombes, of New York) although I proposed to pay the cost of manufacture, wrote in reply that he would undertake it, push it with energy, and do everything for it in his power, if I would only consent that his imprint should not appear on the title page!!! I never answered his letter.

Write when you feel like it, and let me know if anything happens.13

Always faithfully
W.D. O'Connor.


Correspondent:
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).

Notes:

1. O'Connor's last letter apparently reached Whitman on January 21, 1886[back]

2. See Whitman's messages from January 22, 1886 and February 3, 1886[back]

3. Whitman read his "Death of Abraham Lincoln" in Philadelphia on April 22, 1886. [back]

4. 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]

5. Charles W. Eldridge (1837–1903) was, with William Wilde Thayer, the Boston publisher of Whitman's 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. He moved to Washington, D.C. during the Civil War and became a good friend of O'Connor. For more on Whitman's relationship with Thayer and Eldridge, see David Breckenridge Donlon, "Thayer, William Wilde (1829–1896) and Charles W. Eldridge (1837–1903)." [back]

6. O'Connor is quoting Whitman's letter of January 22. Edmund Clarence Stedman (1833–1908) was an editor, poet, and broker. O'Connor had sent Whitman Stedman's 1885 book Poets of America[back]

7. Enrico Nencioni (1837–1896) was a poet, critic and translator from Italy. He had published a number of essays on Whitman in Fanfulla della Domenica in the late 1870s and early 1880s; his "Walt Whitman" appeared in Nuova Antologia in August 1885. See also Roger Asselineau, "Whitman in Italy," in Walt Whitman and the World, ed. Gay Wilson Allen, Ed Folsom (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1990), 268–281. [back]

8. 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]

9. Perhaps a reference to Henry Jacob Bigelow (1818–1890), an American surgeon, professor at Harvard and one of the leading physicians in Boston (his home town).  [back]

10. 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]

11. See Whitman's letter of August 1, 1885. Herbert Gilchrist and William Michael Rossetti had been collecting funds in England for the financial support of the aged poet. A paragraph in the Athenaeum of July 11, 1885, read: "A subscription list is being formed in England with a view to presenting a free-will offering to the American poet Walt Whitman. The poet is in his sixty-seventh year, and has since his enforced retirement some years ago from official work in Washington, owing to an attack of paralysis, maintained himself precariously by the sale of his works in poetry and prose, and by occasional contributions to magazines."  [back]

12. O'Connor understood this book as a "Baconian reply to R. G. White," a literary critic and scholar, who argued that Shakespeare was not a pseudonym of Francis Bacon but indeed a distinct historic figure and author. After numerous publishers had declined O'Connor's manuscript, it was finally published in 1886 by Houghton, Mifflin and Company (Boston and New York). See also O'Connor's letter to Whitman of January 21, 1886[back]

13. Horace Traubel quotes Whitman's paragraph-by-paragraph responses to his re-reading of this letter in With Walt Whitman in Camden, Sunday, March 24, 1889.  [back]


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