Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe to Walt Whitman, 1 October 1888

Date: October 1, 1888

Whitman Archive ID: loc.01374

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: Jeannette Schollaert, Ian Faith, Caterina Bernardini, and Stephanie Blalock

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Llwynbarried, Rhayder, Wales.
October 1. 1888.

Dear Mr. Whitman,

Thy welcome card came just as we were leaving London last week,1 after a very sad week with my cousin Saidee,2 whom thee may remember. She has been living for the last year & a half in Berlin, her husband being correspondent for the N.Y. Herald,3 & a few weeks ago the summons came for him to go back to New York. So they planned to stop in London for a couple of weeks on their way home, do their necessary shopping & say their goodbyes to all of us. Frank4 & I were in Scotland when we first heard of this plan, & we hastened to come down & meet them, full of all kinds of joyful anticipations. Saidee & I were most eager to compare, the great rivals, her little boy a year & a half old, & Ray5 almost the same age. Besides little Charley,6 Saidee had another baby to show me, a dear little creature only a month old. Mother & father lent their house—No. 44—to them for their London stay, so that we were close together. When we arrived from Scotland, however, we found everything in confusion. The journey had been too much for them all: Saidee was ill in bed, both babies were ailing, & the youngest one dangerously ill. Mr. Nordhoff, Saidee's husband, had not crossed with her, but was travelling in Germany with a changing address, so that he could not be telegraphed to, & soon after we came the doctor, contrary to all professional ettiquette gave up the baby's case, & they did not know to whom to apply. So all our week which we had been looking forward to as a happy reunion, was given over to anxiety & telegrams to doctors and nurses who all seemed to be out of town. At the end of the time, on Saturday, the baby died in his mother's arms. The next day Mr. Nordhoff arrived & then we came away, as I was quite worn out with the responsibility & anxiety. We have been resting here for a week now, & we have news that Saidee & the other child are better, & that they expect to sail on the same day that this letter begins its voyage to cross to thee.

I had a welcome letter from Dr. Bucke7 giving good news about thy health, & from thy pen this morning in the Century are the army reminiscences which we have all enjoyed exceedingly. So I do not feel, somehow as if we were all the world apart. I can imagine myself tomorrow crossing the Camden ferry & coming to find thee in thy den ready to talk as if I had not ever been away at all. I only wish it could come true! I wonder if Mr. Gilchrist8 is with thee now, & whether he has got his professorship in the Art Academy. He promised to write & tell me, but I have never heard from him.

We are at work upon our belated philosophy, grinding out the first few chapters which we have long had in the shape of scrappy notes. I dont know whether I ever told thee our ambitions. We want to write a philosophy in terms simple enough for anyone to understand, explaining what Kant has done in the investigation of knowledge, & then going on to make use of the same critical method to find out what presuppositions lie at the basis of action. So that we hope to establish a method of studying ethics on the same secure basis which philosophers now have for the examination of knowledge. But it is incredibly hard to open the results of close thinking to people who do not care enough to take the trouble to think out for themselves, & every time we try our MS. on one of the uninitiated we are profoundly discouraged. I am using these days of leisure to mature a scheme of education for Ray, & enlarge my list of books for her. I want to begin her on the folklore of all the different nations for her fairy tales, & lead her on from that to an interest in the history & geography & government of those nations. Logan9 & Frank & I are also reading a little Greek together, & our spare time we give to play—

Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe (1864–1945) was a political activist, art historian, and critic, whom Whitman once called his "staunchest living woman friend." A scholar of Italian Renaissance art and a daughter of Robert Pearsall Smith, she would in 1885 marry B. F. C. "Frank" Costelloe. She had been in contact with many of Whitman's English friends and would travel to Britain in 1885 to visit many of them, including Anne Gilchrist shortly before her death. For more, see Christina Davey, "Costelloe, Mary Whitall Smith (1864–1945)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


1. Whitman had written to Costello on September 2, 1888[back]

2. Sarah Cope Whitall Nordhoff (1862–1951) was born in Pennsylvania and was Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe's cousin. [back]

3. Walter Nordhoff (1855–1937) was a European correspondent for the New York Herald before returning to the U.S. to manage 50,000 acres of his father's land in Baja California, an experience that led to his writing of the novel The Journey of the Flame (1933). [back]

4. Benjamin Francis Conn Costelloe (1854–1899), Mary's first husband, was an English barrister and Liberal Party politician. [back]

5. At this point in the typed letter, there is a script insertion—"her baby girl"—in an unknown hand (perhaps Whitman's), identifying Ray as Mary's daughter. Ray Strachey (1887–1940; born Rachel Pearsall Conn Costelloe) became a prominent British suffragist, writer, and painter. [back]

6. Charles Bernard Nordhoff (1887–1947) became a novelist and was co-author (with James Norman Hall) of the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy. [back]

7. 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]

8. 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]

9. Logan Pearsall Smith (1865–1946) was Mary Costelloe's brother. For more information on Smith, see Christina Davey "Smith, Logan Pearsall (1865–1946)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]


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