Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Edward Carpenter to Walt Whitman, 20 May 1891

Date: May 20, 1891

Whitman Archive ID: loc.01246

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.

Contributors to digital file: Cristin Noonan, Andrew David King, Marie Ernster, Stephanie Blalock, and Amanda J. Axley

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nr Chesterfield
20 May '91

Dear Walt

After a splendid time in Ceylon & India I have got back here again. Saw much of the interior life of the people, religious customs, &c—spent one night, or a good part of one, in a Hindu Temple during a festival—saw a little of the peasantry & their ways, and made several friends among the natives. Altogether it is very interesting—the old occult knowledge (some of a very remarkable character) lingering on among certain sections; then the tremendous Westernising movement among other sections, towards education science, & commercialism, and away from caste & religion; caste itself, such an intricate & stupendous affair, impossible to get to know more than the fringe of it; the evident rapprochement between The East & The West, and yet the deep & vital differences between them, in temperament & almost everything—altogether it has given me a lot to think about!

I got a pamphlet from Dr Johnston1 of Bolton about his visit to you2—wh. I enjoyed—also a capital photograph. His account in the pamphlet and in a recent letter about your health, dear Walt, is not very good—this long confinement to the house, together with gastric troubles, must weary you at times—It does make such a difference when one can get out—and yet there doesn't seem much difference in you, exc: quite outwardly.

Some of us (Bessie & Isabella Ford;3 R.D. Roberts4 of Cambridge; William, Arthur & Ethel Thompson;5 and myself) are sending on to you our usual birthday remembrance—with our love and unchanged affection (I think I may say). The letter of credit, enclosed, is for £40. I don't quite know what "identification" they require; but I don't think you will have any difficulty about the matter.

William Thompson is lately married & is working a little at bookbinding for a trade. Arthur & Ethel are his brother & sister, whom I know next to nothing of. The two Miss Fords have been down with influenza, but are mending again I believe. Herbert Gilchrist6 I hear is on Long Island.7 Affte rememberances to him & Harry Stafford8 when you see them. I send you a bit of sweet briar wh. grows by the door of this little house. Our garden goes on much the same, and all seems homelike & pleasant after my long absence—the bees humming in the sun as if the world had only just begun! I hope you will have a pleasant birthday gathering, dear Walt—

With much love
Edward Carpenter

I heard from Traubel9—to whom greetings.

Edward Carpenter (1844–1929) was an English writer and Whitman disciple. Like many other young disillusioned Englishmen, he deemed Whitman a prophetic spokesman of an ideal state cemented in the bonds of brotherhood. Carpenter—a socialist philosopher who in his book Civilisation, Its Cause and Cure posited civilization as a "disease" with a lifespan of approximately one thousand years before human society cured itself—became an advocate for same-sex love and a contributing early founder of Britain's Labour Party. On July 12, 1874, he wrote for the first time to Whitman: "Because you have, as it were, given me a ground for the love of men I thank you continually in my heart . . . . For you have made men to be not ashamed of the noblest instinct of their nature." For further discussion of Carpenter, see Arnie Kantrowitz, "Carpenter, Edward [1844–1929]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


1. Dr. John Johnston (1852–1927) of Annan, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, was a physician, photographer, and avid cyclist. Johnston was trained in Edinburgh and served as a hospital surgeon in West Bromwich for two years before moving to Bolton, England, in 1876. Johnston worked as a general practitioner in Bolton and as an instructor of ambulance classes for the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railways. He served at Whalley Military Hospital during World War I and became Medical Superintendent of Townley's Hospital in 1917 (John Anson, "Bolton's Illustrious Doctor Johnston—a man of many talents," Bolton News [March 28, 2021]; Paul Salveson, Moorlands, Memories, and Reflections: A Centenary Celebration of Allen Clarke's Moorlands and Memories [Lancashire Loominary, 2020]). Johnston, along with the architect James W. Wallace, founded the "Bolton College" of English admirers of the poet. Johnston and Wallace corresponded with Whitman and with Horace Traubel and other members of the Whitman circle in the United States, and they separately visited the poet and published memoirs of their trips in John Johnston and James William Wallace, Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–1891 by Two Lancashire Friends (London: Allen and Unwin, 1917). For more information on Johnston, see Larry D. Griffin, "Johnston, Dr. John (1852–1927)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

2. Johnston visited Whitman in Camden in the summer of 1890. He published (for private circulation) his account of the visit, titled Notes of Visit to Walt Whitman, etc., in July, 1890. (Bolton: T. Brimelow & co., printers, &c.) in 1890. His notes were also published, along with a series of original photographs, as Diary Notes of A Visit to Walt Whitman and Some of His Friends, in 1890 (Manchester: The Labour Press Limited; London: The "Clarion" Office, 1898). Johnston's work was later published with James W. Wallace's accounts of Fall 1891 visits with Whitman and the Canadian physician Richard Maurice Bucke in Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–91 (London, England: G. Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1917). [back]

3. Isabella Ford (1855–1924) was an English feminist, socialist, and writer. Elizabeth (Bessie) Ford was her sister. Both were introduced to Whitman's writings by Edward Carpenter and they quickly became admirers of Whitman. [back]

4. Robert Davis Roberts (1851–1911) studied geology at University College, London, and later served as a lecturer in chemistry at University College, Aberystwyth before being appointed a lecturer in geology at Cambridge. He wanted to extend higher education to a wider public, and he took up university extension work, serving as the secretary to the London Society for the Extension of University Teaching, and he went on to become a registrar of the Extension Board at the University of London. [back]

5. On May 10, 1883, Whitman sent three copies of Leaves of Grass and Specimen Days to William Thompson in Nottingham, England (Whitman's Commonplace Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). As yet we have no information on Arthur or Ethel Thompson. [back]

6. Herbert Harlakenden Gilchrist (1857–1914), son of Alexander and Anne Gilchrist, was an English painter and editor of Anne Gilchrist: Her Life and Writings (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1887). For more information, see Marion Walker Alcaro, "Gilchrist, Herbert Harlakenden (1857–1914)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

7. Herbert Gilchrist would relocate and settle along the shore of Centrepoint Cove on Long Island. There he attempted unsuccessfully to support himself as an artist. As Harrison Smith Morris observes, "[H]is life was really a veiled tragedy. . . . In the end he snuffed out his career, like a comedian who hides his grief under a courageous smile" (Walt Whitman: A Brief Biography with Reminiscences [Cambridge, Massachussets: Harvard University Press, 1929], 83–84). [back]

8. Walt Whitman met the 18-year-old Harry Lamb Stafford (1858–1918) in 1876, beginning a relationship which was almost entirely overlooked by early Whitman scholarship, in part because Stafford's name appears nowhere in the first six volumes of Horace Traubel's With Walt Whitman in Camden—though it does appear frequently in the last three volumes, which were published only in the 1990s. Whitman occasionally referred to Stafford as "My (adopted) son" (as in a December 13, 1876, letter to John H. Johnston), but the relationship between the two also had a romantic, erotic charge to it. In 1883, Harry married Eva Westcott. For further discussion of Stafford, see Arnie Kantrowitz, "Stafford, Harry L. (b.1858)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

9. 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 late 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]


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