Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to William Sloane Kennedy, 4 August 1890

Date: August 4, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: duk.00953

Source: The Trent Collection of Walt Whitman Manuscripts, Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. The transcription presented here is derived from The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977), 5:68. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Ryan Furlong, Amanda J. Axley, and Stephanie Blalock

P M Aug: 4 '90

Hot weather here but I am getting fairly along through it—bathe often & live on bread & honey—get out in wheel chair1 at sunset & after—get to the Delaware shore as before—the last two evenings have enjoy'd steady damp cool S W breezes very refreshing—have rec'd from Addington Symonds2 his two new vols: "Essays Speculative & Suggestive"3—one of the essays "Democratic Art, with reference to W W"—of course the whole thing is scholarly & interesting & more—I have scribbled a brief piece anent of the Dem: Art essay & sent it to the Critic4—so if they print it you will see, but for a good while now all my pieces come back rejected (the Century,5 Harpers,6 the Eng: Nineteenth Century,7 the Cosmopolitan8 &c: &c: all send my pieces back9)—Horace T[raubel]10 is well—comes in every evn'g—is invaluable to me—I enclose Dr Bucke's11 last, just rec'd12—also other things—I am sitting here in my den in the big old rattan chair writing this—if you see Baxter13 tell him I have rec'd his note & entirely repudiate Hartmann's14 WW opinions, they are utterly fraudulent15

Walt Whitman

William Sloane Kennedy (1850–1929) was on the staff of the Philadelphia American and the Boston Transcript; he also published biographies of Longfellow, Holmes, 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 [London: Alexander Gardener, 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).


1. Horace Traubel and Ed Wilkins, Whitman's nurse, went to Philadelphia to purchase a wheeled chair for the poet that would allow him to be "pull'd or push'd" outdoors. See Whitman's letter to William Sloane Kennedy of May 8, 1889[back]

2. John Addington Symonds (1840–1893), a prominent biographer, literary critic, and poet in Victorian England, was author of the seven-volume history Renaissance in Italy, as well as Walt Whitman—A Study (1893), and a translator of Michelangelo's sonnets. But in the smaller circles of the emerging upper-class English homosexual community, he was also well known as a writer of homoerotic poetry and a pioneer in the study of homosexuality, or sexual inversion as it was then known. See Andrew Higgins, "Symonds, John Addington [1840–1893]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

3. Whitman is referring to John Addington Symonds's Essays Speculative and Suggestive (London: Chapman and Hall, 1890). The chapter on "Democratic Art" (pp. 237–268) is mainly inspired by Whitman. Whitman commented on Symonds' chapter in "An Old Man's Rejoinder," which appeared in The Critic 17 (August 16, 1890), 85–86. Whitman's "Rejoinder" was also reprinted in Good-Bye My Fancy (Prose Works 1892, Volume 2: Collect and Other Prose, ed. Floyd Stovall [New York: New York University Press, 1964], 655–658). In his August 20–22 letter, the Canadian physician Richard Maurice Bucke remarked: "The whole article is 'flat, stale and unprofitable'—a saw dust chewing business—dealing with the hull, the shell, the superfices, never for one line, one flash of insight penetrating to the heart of the business." On August 24, Whitman observed: "you are a little more severe on Symonds than I sh'd be." [back]

4. The Critic (1881–1906) was a literary magazine co-edited by Joseph Benson Gilder (1858–1936), with his sister Jeannette Leonard Gilder (1849–1916). Whitman's poems "The Pallid Wreath" (January 10, 1891) and "To The Year 1889" (January 5, 1889) were first published in The Critic, as was his essay, "An Old Man's Rejoinder" (August 16, 1890), responding to John Addington Symonds's chapter about Whitman in his Essays Speculative and Suggestive (1890). [back]

5. The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, the successor of Scribner's Monthly Magazine was first published in 1881 by the Century Company of New York City. Richard Watson Gilder served as the magazine's editor until his death in 1909. Five of Whitman's poems were first published in the magazine: "Twilight" (December 1887), "Old Age's Lamben Peaks" (September 1888), "My 71st Year," (November 1889), "Old Age's Ship and Crafty Death's" (February 1890), and "A Twilight Song"(May 1890). [back]

6. Harper's Monthly Magazine (sometimes Harper's New Monthly Magazine or simply Harper's) was established in 1850 by Henry J. Raymond and Fletcher Harper. The magazine published several of Walt Whitman's poems, including "Song of the Redwood-Tree" and "Prayer of Columbus." In 1857, Fletcher Harper founded Harper's Weekly (subtitled "A Journal of Civilization"), which gained its fame for its coverage of the Civil War and its publication of cartoonist Thomas Nast's (1840–1902) work. For Whitman's relationship with these two publications, see Susan Belasco's "Harper's Monthly Magazine" and "Harper's Weekly Magazine." [back]

7. The Nineteenth Century Review was a British monthly literary magazine founded in 1877. [back]

8. The Cosmopolitan magazine was first published in 1886 by publishers Schlicht & Field of New York; it was billed as a "family magazine." Paul Schlicht acted as the magazine's initial editor. Whitman published one poem in the magazine, "Shakespeare Bacon's Cipher," in October 1887. [back]

9. For more about Whitman's series of rejections, see his June 5, 1890, letter to Dr. Bucke, in which he describes his rejection by the Century as "a sort of douche of very cold water right in the face, wh' somehow I don't get over"; Whitman's October 26–27, 1889, letter to Dr. Bucke, in which he notes that Harper's Monthly rejected his poem for being "too much an improvasition"; and his query to the editor of the Cosmopolitan of April 9, 1888, in which he submitted "To Get the Real Lilt of Songs" for publication. Though the Cosmopolitan returned the piece, it was published shortly after in the New York Herald as "The Final Lilt of Songs" and eventually appeared in November Boughs as "To Get the Final Lilt of Songs." [back]

10. Horace L. Traubel (1858–1919) was an American essayist, poet, and magazine publisher. He is best remembered as the literary executor, biographer, and self-fashioned "spirit child" of Walt Whitman. During the mid-1880s and until Whitman's death in 1892, Traubel visited the poet virtually every day and took thorough notes of their conversations, which he later transcribed and published in three large volumes entitled With Walt Whitman in Camden (1906, 1908, & 1914). After his death, Traubel left behind enough manuscripts for six more volumes of the series, the final two of which were published in 1996. For more on Traubel, see Ed Folsom, "Traubel, Horace L. [1858–1919]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

11. 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]

12. It is uncertain which letter Whitman is referring to here. [back]

13. Sylvester Baxter (1850–1927) was on the staff of the Boston Herald. Apparently he met Whitman for the first time when the poet delivered his Lincoln address in Boston in April, 1881; see Rufus A. Coleman, "Whitman and Trowbridge," PMLA 63 (1948), 268. Baxter wrote many newspaper columns in praise of Whitman's writings, and in 1886 attempted to obtain a pension for the poet. For more, see Christopher O. Griffin, "Baxter, Sylvester [1850–1927]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

14. Carl Sadakichi Hartmann (ca. 1867–1944) was an art historian and early critic of photography as an art form. He visited Whitman in Camden in the 1880s and published his conversations with the poet in 1895. Generally unpopular with other supporters of the poet, he was known during his years in Greenwich Village as the "King of Bohemia." For more information about Hartmann, see John F. Roche, "Hartmann, C. Sadakichi (ca. 1867–1944)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

15. In his July 30, 1890, letter, Baxter informed Whitman that Hartmann "has sent me a MS. for [Boston] Herald called 'A Lunch with Walt Whitman,' worse than the N. Y. Herald yarn of two years ago, or so, in its mischief–making potency. It consists of cheap tattle, with malicious and ill–natured flings at prominent men." Baxter is comparing Hartmann's new piece with his article "Walt Whitman. Notes of a Conversation with the Good Gray Poet by a German Poet and Traveller," which had been published in the New York Herald on April 14, 1889. Whitman expressed his disapproval of Hartmann's 1889 article in his letter to William Sloane Kennedy of May 4, 1889[back]


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