Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Ellen M. O'Connor to Walt Whitman, 30 November 1864

Date: November 30, 1864

Whitman Archive ID: loc.00947

Source: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 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.

Notes for this letter were created by Whitman Archive staff and/or were derived from Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller, 6 vols. (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977), and supplemented or updated by Whitman Archive staff.

Editorial note: The annotation, "E M O'Connor Nov 30, 1864 (arrived Dec 4)," is in the hand of Walt Whitman.

Contributors to digital file: Alex Kinnaman, Elizabeth Lorang, Janel Cayer, Kathryn Kruger, Vanessa Steinroetter, and Nicole Gray

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Nov. 30. 64.
400 L Street.

Dear Walt,—

How I wish you were with us this beautiful day! It is so warm that I sit here with three windows wide open. I have a little fire in the stove, and the sun pours in full and strong. It is a perfect day, & seems more like May than November.

How are you? & is there any hope of your coming this way this winter? I have hoped you would, but I begin to despair of it, as you have not come yet, and we have not heard from you. We have been feeling very blue at the prospect of losing Charley Eldridge.1 The Major is to be ordered to Boston, so they hear, tho they have not got their orders yet, and of course Charley goes with him. It is two weeks since they first heard a rumor of it, but I think they will go before Christmas. As soon as he told us, I thought that that lost us one more chance of seeing you, as he had asked you to stay with him at his room. How lonely we shall be with both you & Charley gone! I don't think of it any more than I can help.

Every evening we talk of you, & wish you were here, & almost every evening we read from Leaves of Grass, read & admire. I don't believe, dear Walt, that you have in all the world, two heartier lovers & appreciators than William & Charley.

What news of your brother George? I think of him very often. How is your mother now? & are the babies well?

I presume you have seen Mr. Howells, if so you know that he has moved his family to New York.2 He has a position in the Custom House, & still retains, or was to retain his room where we called on him. Ms. Wood has not come back, & the Dr. talks of leaving, if he does, I shall miss Ms. Wood, for I still hope that she will come.3

John Johnson was wounded the last of Sept. and is at home now. His arm was shot below the elbow. He come in the other day & sat an hour with me. He asked for you. He was seventeen years old yesterday, & has been in service more than a year, he is very impatient to get well & go back to his company.

We had a letter from Mr. & Mrs. Croffut, they both asked for you, you know they live in Rochester now.

Do you remember Mrs. Balch who dined with us once last spring? she & her husband are to live up stairs. We expect them this week from Boston. I was so glad to know that Mrs. Ginnaty was not to be my neighbor.

The Gwynnes live in their own house now, & I guess very much in the old way.4

I don't know any more news to tell you. Just now I am very well, but I was quite sick soon after I got back, & thought I had lost all I had gained, but I am much better again, & find that I am very much better than I was last autumn. Jeannie is well, though she, too, has had an ill turn, she is just learning to read. I teach her every day now. William has a terrible cold just now, & sore throat, but has been very well & vigorous, as hearty as ever.

We got home very well, and had a good journey. I am glad that we had the day with you, it was some satisfaction to see you for even so short a time.

The election passed-off well, didn't it? & I am so glad that we are to have a better Congress next time. The Woods out, & some others like them. This three months will soon go.

We feel very hopeful about Sherman, especially as this fine weather will help him so much. Do you think Grant will do any thing this fall?

The Count asks for you every time that he sees William or Charley.5 He says he wants to see you, & sends love.

We wished for you on Thanksgiving day. We had a quiet day, no one with us but Charley, he dined with us, & we all wished that you were here.

William sees Mr. Swinton sometimes, I have not seen him yet.

What about your poems? are you at work on them now? & what about publishing? have you done any thing since we came on?

Write, won't you? I want to hear from you very much. I have spoken of writing every day since I came back, but have hardly touched a pen at all.

Tell me what you hear from your brother.

I have not yet been in any hospital since I came home, but I mean to go.

Enclosed I send you the little poem that we spoke of by Ms. Beach.6

William says every day that he is going to write you, & he will soon.

How is Ms. Price?7 My love to your mother, & very much to you, always, dear Walt, from

Your friend
Nelly O'Connor.

[From the New York Leader.]


Come, sweet, I will sing you to sleep;
Too tired, little darling, to creep?
Then lift your white hands, and my arms
From harms
And troubles the baby will keep.

You've a musical name, baby Claire,
And the color of gold is your hair,
And your beautiful eyes, when they smile,
The heart of your mother from care.

You are dimpled, and dainty, and sweet,
From your head to your pink and white feet,
And they talk in your curious tongue
The angels you need to meet.

You have been with us—is it a year
Since we welcomed you first, little dear?
A year since the angels have kissed
And missed
The beauty that blesses us here!

Fall, snowy lids, over sweet eyes,
Sweet eyes blue as midsummer skies!
Sink, pretty one, into your nest,
And rest
Dear truant from Paradise!

Albion, N. Y.

Ellen M. "Nelly" O'Connor was the wife of William D. O'Connor (1832–1889), one of Whitman's staunchest defenders. Whitman dined with the O'Connors frequently during his Washington years, and he speaks often in his letters of their daughter Jean, by nickname "Jenny" or "Jeannie." Though Whitman and William O'Connor would break in late 1872 over Reconstruction policies with regard to emancipated black citizens, Ellen would remain friendly with Whitman. The correspondence between Whitman and Ellen is almost as voluminous as the poet's correspondence with William. For more on Whitman's relationship with the O'Connors, see also Dashae E. Lott, "William Douglas O'Connor," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, ed., (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


1. In December 1862, on his way to visit George at Fredericksburg, Virginia, Whitman stopped in Washington and encountered Charles W. Eldridge, who was now a clerk in the office of the army paymaster. After he had seen for himself that George had not been severely wounded, he returned to Washington, which was to be his home until 1873. Eldridge obtained a desk for Whitman in the office of Major Lyman Hapgood, the army paymaster. [back]

2. Charles Joseph Howells, according to entries in New York Directories, must have been versatile (and perhaps eccentric): in 1864–1865 he was an "inventor," in 1865–1866 an inspector in the Custom House, in 1866–1867 simply an "inspector," and in 1867–1868 a seller of hairpins. [back]

3. George Wood (1799–1870) worked as a clerk in the Treasury Department in 1822, and he held various posts in that bureau until his death. He was the author of several satirical works, Peter Schlemihl in America (Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1848) and The Gates Wide Open; or, Scenes in Another World (Boston: Lee and Shepard, 1869); see National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. Undoubtedly he became acquainted with Whitman through Ellen and William O'Connor. Ellen O'Connor mentioned a Mr. Wood in her letter of July 5, 1864. In reply to Whitman's letter, evidently delivered by O'Connor and dated "Thursday"—probably [January 15, 1863]—Wood wrote: "You sometimes find a poor soldier whom a Small Sum would relieve and I beg you will distribute these pieces of paper as you shall see best on your visit to the Hospital." [back]

4. Carey Gwynne was listed in the 1866 Directory as a clerk in the Treasury Department. [back]

5. Count Adam Gurowski (1805–1866), a Polish exile, published an eccentric three-volume Diary (1862–1866), a day-by-day account of the war written with a marked partiality toward extreme abolitionists. The Count was a colorful figure: he covered his lost eye with a "green blinder," and "he had a Roman head...a powerful topknot, in and out: people always stopped to look at him" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden [New York, Rowman and Littlefield, 1961], 3:79, 96). William D. O'Connor, who apparently translated Gurowski's manuscripts into English (see the letter from Gurowski to O'Connor in Feinberg), reported to Whitman on August 13, 1864, that "he is a madman with lucid intervals"—he had attempted "to discipline the firemen with a pistol." Whitman maintained to Traubel in 1888 that "he was truly a remarkable, almost phenomenal, man," and that "he was, no doubt, very crazy, but also very sane" (3:79, 340). Ellen O'Connor related in a letter on November 24, 1863, that the Count had said to her recently: "My Gott, I did not know that [Walt Whitman] was such a poet, tell him so, I have been trying every where to find him to tell him myself." In the last volume of the Diary, Gurowski placed Whitman's name in the first category of his threefold evaluation of persons "mentioned in this volume": "Praise," "Half and Half," and "Blame." The Count referred in his entry for April 18, 1864, to Whitman as among "the most original and genuine American hearts and minds" (187). In a footnote (372–373), appended September 12, 1865, Gurowski abused Harlan, who had "shown himself to be animated by a spirit of narrow-minded persecution that would honor the most fierce Spanish or Roman inquisitor." Gurowski was praised by Robert Penn Warren, in Malcolm Cowley, ed., Writers at Work: The "Paris Review" Interviews, (New York: Viking, 1958), 189. See also LeRoy Fischer, Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 36 (1949–1950): 415–434, and the Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement One (New York: Scribner, 1944). [back]

6. Juliette H. Beach was one of those enigmatic women associated with Whitman about whom imaginative biographers have spun ingenious theories. Beach was to have reviewed the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass for the Saturday Press, but when her husband's unfavorable review was published instead, the journal had to take public note of matrimonial discord in order to correct the error (Gay Wilson Allen, The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman [New York: Macmillan, 1955; rev. ed., New York University Press, 1967], 260–262). Ellen O'Connor contributed her bit to the theory that Beach and Whitman had a love affair when she asserted that "Out of the Rolling Ocean, the Crowd," published in Drum-Taps, was composed for "a certain lady" who had angered her husband because of her correspondence with the poet (Emory Holloway, ed., The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman [Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page, 1921], 1:lviii). "Mrs. Beach's notes" may be the letters to Whitman, which later John Burroughs vainly asked Mrs. Beach to print; see Clara Barrus, Whitman and Burroughs—Comrades (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931), 1:120. If these were love letters, Whitman hardly treated Mrs. Beach's heart-stirrings discreetly. See also Allen, The Solitary Singer, 340–342. [back]

7. The Prices were friends of Mrs. Whitman. The husband, Edmund, operated a pickle factory in Brooklyn; see Allen, The Solitary Singer, 199–200. His wife Abby, as one might expect, was closer to Whitman, who corresponded with her frequently in the 1860s. Whitman always interested himself in the Price children, Helen, Emma, and Arthur (another son, Henry, had died at 2 years of age). Helen's reminiscences were included in Bucke's biography, and she printed for the first time some of Whitman's letters to her mother, in Putnam's Monthly, 5 (1908), 163–169. [back]


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