Title: William D. O'Connor to Walt Whitman, 17 April 1883
Date: April 17, 1883
Source: The transcription presented here is derived from Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, ed. Sculley Bradley (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953), 4:90–92. 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.00031
Contributors to digital file: Stefan Schöberlein, Alex Kinnaman, Natalie O'Neal, and Nicole Gray
April 17, 1883.
I got your letter of the 14th yesterday.
I had the misfortune to catch a heavy cold on the chilly Sound boat in returning from Providence, which increased seriously after my return, and developed into a bad attack of erysipelas, with which my head and face were well covered. Being very ill, and a sorry object to behold with the eruption, I have been forced to absent myself from the office for several days, and keep in bed as much as possible. I am better now, and hope to get out tomorrow, when I will at once attend to the copyright business.
I need not say how grieved I am at Dr. Bucke's withdrawal of the lines of Lucretius from the title page. He was so pleased with the epigraph, and so particularly pleased, as it seemed, with my enthusiastic enjoyment of it, that his change of mind is unaccountable to me. The withdrawal is an error, which I believe he will yet be sorry for. There are words, Luther says, which are half battles, and these of Lucretius are among them. They appealed directly to educated men, and gave the title page dignity, winning the reader thus from the start, and reinforced by all the following contents of the book, they gave it a powerful hold upon the respect of thinking and enquiring people. Their omission loses us an advantage—one more considerable than may at first sight appear.
Ill as I was when I got your letter, and with but a sort of dying interest in anything, this bit of news startled me, and I felt dashed, I assure you.
However, it can't be helped now, and I will at once proceed to get copyright for the despoiled title page.
I am obliged to Mr. McKay for his offer, and will let him know in due time how many copies I desire. There are several persons with whom I wish to place copies, with a view to doing the book good.
The news of Comstock's disaster came to me in a letter from Dr. Channing at a time when I was illest, and I wanted to write to you at once, but was not able. It gave me the greatest relief and exultation, and did me positive good. When I get out, I will search the papers for the details. It is manifestly a crushing defeat for Comstock, and shows that he is on the descending plane, down which I hope, and indeed heard, that my Tribune letter materially contributed to send him. He took my dare beautifully meek, I must say. The only newspaper item I have seen on the Heywood matter, was a little editorial in last Friday's Star, from which it appears that the Judge's ruling—I mean, charge—to the jury was terribly against Comstock on the ground of his treacherous methods in working up his cases. His "decoy" business is what damns him, and this has thoroughly got into the public mind. He never again can make head against it. When you bear in mind that Heywood had really in the syringe matter, flatly broken a statute, his acquittal by the jury in the very face of the evidence against him, shows the prejudice against Comstock, and makes the victory remarkable.
Something ought to be written now to fix the triumph, and as a keynote for press comment. If I were well, I would certainly attempt it, but so far as I am concerned, the opportunity must be lost, for I am hors de combat for the present. Nothing is more dangerous than the operations of an official wretch like Comstock, backed as he is by eminent clergymen like Chancellor Crosby, Dr. Hall, Newman, &c., of whose displeasure great journals even, like the Tribune, are afraid, and whose tool they either support or will not censure. The instance is, the peril—the terrible peril—in which he placed your book, when he got Oliver Stevens to move against it, for I have found that he, through his man Friday, Brittain, was at the bottom of that matter. He ought to be crushed, signally, publicly, in the interest of free letters and the rights of thought; he ought to be nailed up, like a skunk to a barn-door, as an example to deter. Above all things, he ought to be snaked out of his position as a special agent of the United States Post Office Department, which would be irretrievable disgrace for him, and irremediable overthrow. This the press ought to demand. It is nothing less than a public—national—infamy, that an infamous dog like this, convicted of such practices—a decoy duck, a dirty stool pigeon—should be in the employ of the United States, and derive his power for mischief from the status his official rank gives him.
I hear that the North American is getting up an article about you. Do you know anything about it?
I am glad you are off for the spring woods.
Wish I could go too!"For only those who in sad cities dwell,
Goodbye for this time. Faithfully
W. D. O'Connor