Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: William D. O'Connor to Walt Whitman, 13 August 1864

Date: August 13, 1864

Whitman Archive ID: loc.01816

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

Editorial notes: The annotation, "W D. O'Connor | Washington Aug 13 1864," is in the hand of Walt Whitman. The annotation, "see notes Dec 17th 1888," is in the hand of Horace Traubel.

Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Janel Cayer, Kathryn Kruger, Vanessa Steinroetter, Nicole Gray, Alex Kinnaman, Kenneth M. Price, and Stefan Schöberlein

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Washington, D.C.
August 13, 1864.

My dear Walt:

I am enraged and ashamed with myself to have never sent you a word responsive to your letters of July 5th & 24th. Believe that I have thought of you much, however, and for the last fortnight I have talked of you incredibly, saying superb things all the time, to Mr. Channing1 whom you know, and to Miss Griffith whom perhaps you have not heard of. She is a handsome and heroic Kentucky girl, who several years ago impoverished herself by liberating her slaves, (seven of them, I think,) and then came North to live, the South being hateful to her on account of slavery. She lives in New York, but has come on here for a time and is staying with her sister in Georgetown. She had heard much of you and was anxious to hear about you from me, whom she likes (of course!!!). So I told her much, painting you as the gigantesque angel of valor, compassion, and poetry that you are, and reciting moreover all the splendid passages from your book that I could remember, besides numerous excerpts from your forthcoming volume! This, you see, involved considerable conversation about you and you must admit that I have kept you well in mind.

I am indeed glad to know from your letter and from a recent report from Howells that you are getting better. I have felt very anxious about you. At times I had dreads that I did not like to own to myself. But the sky now seems clearing if not all clear and I can trust to see you well again and strong.

The heat of the last fortnight has been fearful, but tonight, thank goodness, there has been a rattling thunder storm, flash and crash, with a deluge of rain and the moon now shines through broken clouds on an earth drenched and cool. It was such rain as we have often seen here from my windows, only this time I saw it all alone.

I drill every day between three and four in the afternoon. It is fine exercise and good for me, though what with the torrid sun (for we drill out of doors) and the weight of a sixteen pound rifle with accoutrements, it is pretty severe.

Glad you got the Report on Armored Vessels. I thought it might yield hints for poems. At all events, it gives one a good idea of what the Monitors are and can do. They are, as I once said to you, an upheld finger of warning to all despotocracy. The Dictators will prove a clenched hand of menace to the same. Soon America can defy all outward foes.

I want very much to hear that "Drum Taps" are printing. I have many misgivings about your plan of getting out the book yourself. I want it to have a large sale, as I think it well might, and I am afraid that this sort of private publication will keep it from being known or accessible to any considerable number of people. Such a volume ought to make your fame secure and with a good publisher I think it would. How I wish Eldridge was in the field!

Are you going to get it done by subscription? I want to know because I want to help as much as I can. The rascally Congress taxes me in September fifty dollars in a lump, besides my usual income tax, so that I shall not be able to do as well as I intended, but if subscription is the order of the day, I mean to give as much as I can. So let me know.

Eldridge2 is down at Petersburgh paying troops. Alas, Walt! There is no hope of Richmond. The campaign has proved a failure. Every thing shows that Grant is coming back and the next fighting will probably be in the Shenandoah Valley if not in Ohio or Pennsylvania. It is sad to think of the eighty thousand men, veterans, lost so fruitlessly.—I think Mr Lincoln's chances for the next presidency are very small. Victory at Atlanta is possible, and may save him, but the signs are that the party will withdraw him and run some other man.—I see New York had one of her oceanic meetings for McClellan lately. I fear he will be our next President.

I am glad your brother continues unscathed. I think of him whenever there is fighting.

Howells3 gave me splendid accounts of your mother.4 I hope I shall yet know her.

Ashton5 is away at Schooley's Mountain, New York, vacationizing. I am quite alone here, save for the society of Miss Griffith, whom I go to see pretty often. The house is awfully lonely with Nelly6 away, and I don't like to stay in it.

The Count7 I have not seen for several weeks. The last time I saw him, he abused me frightfully—for the first time! I happened to say, very quietly, that the Rebels would probably repeat their raid into Maryland very soon. (A week afterward they did so and burned Chambersburgh). Whereupon the Count clutched his straw hat down upon his head with both hands, danced like a demon on the pavement, howled out "You are an ass!" and, in a word, behaved like a maniac. Indeed his conduct convinced me that he is a madman with lucid intervals. I seriously mean it. No one could burst into such tempests of rage and abuse on so slight an occasion and be sane. A few nights afterward, he undertook to discipline the firemen with a pistol, during a conflagration, because they did not move quickly enough, for which freak he suffered fine and imprisonment.

I hope you will come back here this Fall, dear Walt, and that our former days and nights may be renewed. For this time, good bye.

Your faithful

I will send your letter to Nelly!

For a time Whitman lived with William D. and Ellen M. O'Connor, who, with Charles W. Eldridge and later John Burroughs, were to be his close associates during the early Washington years. William Douglas O'Connor (1832–1889) was the author of Harrington, an abolition novel published by Thayer & Eldridge in 1860. He had been an assistant editor of the Saturday Evening Post before he went to Washington. O'Connor often complained about the various governmental clerical posts he was to hold until his death. However, his government work was relieved by the presence of Whitman, whom he was to love and venerate—and defend with a single-minded fanaticism and an outpouring of vituperation and eulogy that have seldom been equaled, most notably in his pamphlet, "The Good Gray Poet." He was the first, and in many ways the most important, of the adulators who divided people arbitrarily into two categories: those who were for and those who were against Walt Whitman. The poet praised O'Connor in the preface to a posthumous collection of his tales: "He was a born sample here in the 19th century of the flower and symbol of olden time first-class knighthood. Thrice blessed be his memory!" (Complete Prose Works [New York, D. Appleton, 1910], 513). For more on Whitman's relationship with the O'Connors see Deshae E. Lott, O'Connor, William Douglas [1832–1889].


1. Ellen M. O'Connor's sister, Mary Jane "Jeannie" (Tarr) Channing (1828–1897). Walt Whitman visited often with Mary Jane and her husband Dr. William Ellery Channing during his October 1868 visit to Providence, Rhode Island. [back]

2. Charles W. Eldridge was one half of the Boston-based abolitionist publishing firm Thayer and Eldridge, who put out the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. In December 1862, on his way to find his injured brother George in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Walt Whitman stopped in Washington and encountered Eldridge, who had become a clerk in the office of the army paymaster and eventually obtained a desk for Whitman in the office of Major Lyman Hapgood, the army paymaster. For more on Whitman's relationship with Thayer and Eldridge see "Thayer, William Wilde (1829–1896) and Charles W. Eldridge (1837–1903)." [back]

3. 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]

4. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman (1795–1873) married Walter Whitman, Sr., in 1816; together they had nine children, of whom Walt was the second. The close relationship between Louisa and her son Walt contributed to his liberal view of gender representation and his sense of comradeship. For more information on Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, see "Whitman, Louisa Van Velsor (1795–1873)." [back]

5. J. Hubley Ashton, the assistant Attorney General, actively interested himself in Walt Whitman's affairs, and obtained a position for the poet in his office after the Harlan fracas. [back]

6. Ellen M. "Nelly" O'Connor (1830–1910) was the wife of William D. O'Connor. Nelly O'Connor, whose marital strife with William had led to a separation in 1870 and resulted in divorce, wrote an admiring letter to Walt Whitman from Providence, Rhode Island, shortly before this visit to Brooklyn (see Nelly's November 20, 1870 letter to Walt; and see Florence B. Freedman, William Douglas O'Connor: Walt Whitman's Chosen Knight [Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985], 246). For a time Walt Whitman lived with the O'Connors, who, with Charles Eldridge and later John Burroughs, were to be his close associates during the early Washington years. The correspondence between Walt Whitman and Nelly is almost as voluminous as the poet's correspondence with William. For more on Whitman's relationship with the O'Connors, see "O'Connor, William Douglas (1832–1889)." [back]

7. 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). In this letter, O'Connor, who apparently translated Gurowski's manuscripts into English (see the letter from Gurowski to O'Connor in Feinberg), reported to Whitman that Gurowski "is a madman with lucid intervals"—he had attempted "to discipline the firemen with a pistol." Whitman told Traubel, in 1888, that Gurowski 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 to Whitman in his entry for April 18, 1864, 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 Writers at Work: The "Paris Review" Interviews, ed. Malcolm Cowley (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]


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