Title: William Sloane Kennedy to Walt Whitman, 16 February 1884
Date: February 16, 1884
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: Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Whitman Archive ID: yal.00295
Contributors to digital file: Alex Ashland, Stefan Schöberlein, and Nicole Gray
Feb 16 ! 84
My Dear Mr. Whitman:
The sea ought to be grateful to you; for its shifting mounds & boundless heave have been dumb from Eternity until you voiced them in deep human music. Is there such a thing as a makrophone, to render in vocal facsimile & miniature the thunders & voices of great sounds? It seems to me you do this in yr sea-chants. When something new of yrs comes I am as Herder when he rec'd a new book of Richter;1 I am unfitted for anything else—for some hours. I am glad you sound a sea-trumpet at the barbican of yr book, for I think you greatest in yr sea-interpretations.
I noticed last yr at Marshfield, as we drove along that marvellous beach with the green waves curling over on the polished mirror of the sand, how deftly the wind took each wave and tossed back from it a helmet-crest of white spray. I feel terribly presumptuous in making a suggestion to you, for there is not a word, a collection of words in yr work that is not deeply studied & profoundly implicated in the general tissue of the whole,—but what wd you say to omitting the fourth line—white-maned racers?2 The usage I know is irresistibly suggested to one looking at the waves; but then it has been ridden to death by so many poetasters that—well, it is no blemish of course in yr magnificent strain of elemental music, But you might consider my suggestion, if you think best.
We have a Liberal Union Club here & we dine at Young's once a month. Prof Sumner3 of Yale & other "eminent" men address the club & we have long reports in the Bost. Sunday Herald. Geo. W. Curtis4 is one of the Vice Presidents. Maybe we can get you to come on & give us a talk on Hegel or religion: wd you? Say next May, close of May.
Howells—the women's pet—doesn't live here in Belmont any longer,5 & I am not sorry. Why is it that when you think of Howells you always think of women's underclothing, soft limbs & languid bosoms & millinery in general? Bah!
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 , 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).
1. Kennedy is referring to the Romantic novelist Johann Paul Friedrich Richter (1763–1825) and the Weimar philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803), who became intimate friends in the last years of Richter's life. [back]
2. Kennedy is discussing Whitman's poem "With Husky-Haughty Lips, O Sea." The poem—including the line Kennedy objected to—was published in Harper's Monthly in March, 1884. [back]
3. William Graham Sumner (1840–1910) was a professor of social sciences at Yale who also authored books on American history and political theory. [back]
4. George William Curtis (1824–1892) was a New England writer and orator, who had been a neighbor of Emerson for some time in the 1840s. [back]
5. William Dean Howells (1837–1920), novelist and "Dean of American Letters" who wrote The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) among others, described his first meeting with Whitman at Pfaff's in Literary Friends and Acquaintances (New York: Harper & Bros., 1900), 73–76. Howells lived in Belmont, Massachusetts, from 1878 until the early 1880s, where he wrote The Lady of Aroostook (1879) and began A Woman's Reason (1883). [back]