Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: William D. O'Connor to Walt Whitman, 25 May 1886

Date: May 25, 1886

Editorial notes: The annotations, "see notes March 5 1889," and "see note Mar 5 1889," are 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.00024

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



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Washington, D.C.1
Life Saving Service.
May 25, 1886.

Dear Walt:

I got your letter of April 12, and since, your postal cards of April 19 and 26 respectively.2 Also the envelope containing Kennedy's3 admirable review of the Longfellow memoir. I have been proposing to write to you every day, but it is not easy, I am so poorly. My lameness is very bad, and I am very exhausted before many hours pass each day. I have piles of unanswered letters. My special trouble now is what they call schlerosis—an induration of the lower part of the spinal cord, a bequest of the inflammation caused by the nervous prostration. This it is which makes me so lame and strengthless, and unless the doctor can break it up (he is using electricity) the result, he tells me, will be paralysis. However, this is some way off, and I'm not dead yet!

John Burroughs4 has been here, and gives me an account of your health, which makes me feel very badly.5 He told me especially of the trouble I share with you—constipation; and this you must not, Walt, allow to continue. The very worst aperient you could use will do you less harm than constipation. But there are aperients which are harmless, or almost nearly so, and I send you a packet of one which answers this description. It is known as Liquorice Powder, and is excellent. The dose is one teaspoonful in, say, a half goblet of water, when going to bed, to be taken when necessary. You will find it easy and excellent. It is composed only of powdered liquorice and sulpher, and is really without bad effect. Please try it. I have never been troubled with costiveness in all my life, but now, like yourself, I have a partial paralysis of the bowels, and must, under medical orders, resort to artificial means, and this is my remedy. Anything is better than constipation. The physical feelings it induces are dreadful, to say nothing of the constant danger to life.

I was delighted beyond measure at the success of your lecture. I wish I could have been there. The account in the Press was splendid. Great are Talcott Williams6 and Thomas Donaldson,7 and blessed be their names.

I had a letter from Dr. Bucke at London. He seems to be having a good time.

I am glad you liked the little book. If I could only have written it over, I would have made it fuller and better. But when the time came for publishing, I was too ill to write.—I am obliged to you for the notice in the North American (G.E.M.). It lets out the delicious fact that White had seen the article—probably some magazine that had it, broke faith, and showed it to him—and so he got a full excoriation before crossing Styx, for after he died, I took out the severest parts from the MS. Big rascal! He well knew the baseness of his attack on the Promus book8. I have the best of reasons for believing that he was secretly a Baconian, but with his editions of Shakespeare, etc., at stake, the balance was on the other side of the ledger for him.

I am much grieved to learn that Mrs. Pott9 is seriously ill. Nervous prostration. Between her tremendous labors on the Bacon subject, her large household duties, and her ministrations among the London poor, she has broken down. I feel very anxious about her.

Donnelly's10 boom increases. There is an article in the 19th Century Magazine on his cipher, which will make an excitement and greatly raise his credit. He writes me that he expects to be ready to publish by June.

We have had strange weather here. Cold and hot by turns, and rain without stint. Did you see the electric storm on Saturday night? I never witnessed such magnificent lightning.

I hope this will find you in good time.

Always Affectionately
WDO'Connor.

Walt Whitman.


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].

Notes:

1. This letter is addressed: Mr. Walt Whitman | 328 Mickle Street, | Camden, | New Jersey. It is postmarked: Washington | [illegible] | [8PM?] | D. C. [back]

2. See Whitman's letters to O'Connor of April 16, 1886 and April 18, 1886. The card from April 26 appears to be lost. [back]

3. 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]

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. Burroughs describes the visit in his letter to Whitman of June 28, 1886[back]

6. Talcott Williams (1849–1928), a journalist, worked for the New York Sun and World, and became an editorial writer on the Springfield Republican in 1879. He joined the staff of the Philadelphia Press in 1881. In 1912 he became director of the School of Journalism at Columbia University. See also Elizabeth Dunbar's Talcott Williams: Gentleman of the Fourth Estate (1936) and Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden (Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906), 1:202. The Philadelphia Press vigorously supported the poet against the Boston censorship both in its news columns and in its editorials. A front-page story on July 15 quoted at length the defense of Leaves of Grass offered by the Reverend James Morrow, "a prominent Methodist."For more information on Talcott Williams, see Philip W. Leon, "Williams, Talcott (1849–1928)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

7. Thomas Donaldson (1843–1898) was a lawyer from Philadelphia and a friend of Whitman. He introduced Whitman to Bram Stoker and later accompanied Stoker when he visited the poet; he also organized a fund-raising drive to buy Whitman a horse and carriage. He authored a biography of Whitman titled Walt Whitman, the Man (1896). For more information about Donaldson, see Steven Schroeder, "Donaldson, Thomas (1843–1898)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

8. Francis Bacon's notebook, the Promus of Formularies and Elegancies, was the text that was often cited by Baconians as evidence that Bacon was the author of the plays attributed to Shakespeare. [back]

9. Constance Mary Fearon Pott (1833–1914) started the Francis Bacon Society and, after comparing figures of speech in Bacon to Shakespeare, argued for Bacon as the author behind Shakespeare's famous plays. O'Connor would later publish Hamlet's Note-Book, subtitled "A defense of Mrs. Henry Pott" (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin [1886]). [back]

10. 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, published in 1888.  [back]


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