Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: William D. O'Connor to Walt Whitman, 9 October 1868

Date: October 9, 1868

Whitman Archive ID: loc.01822

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.

Contributors to digital file: Alex Kinnaman, Elizabeth Lorang, Beverley Rilett, Eder Jaramillo, John Schwaninger, Caterina Bernardini, Marie Ernster, Erel Michaelis, Amanda J. Axley, Jeff Hill, and Stephanie Blalock



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Jamestown. R. I.
October 9. 1868

Dear Walt:

I did not get your letter of September 27th1 till I was leaving for New England, and today I have yours of October 4th,2 which Nelly3 sends me.

I felt so miserably unwell that I decided to try a vacation, and left Washington on the 30th of September for Providence, intending to come down at once here to the island of Conauient, opposite Newport, where I now am. But a severe cold, and a week of unsettled and stormy weather delayed me in Providence till the 6th, when I arrived here. I intended to stay at the Light House on the end of the island (Beaver Tail L.H.) but the Keeper could not accommodate me, so I am boarding with a private family.

My purpose was to kill two birds with one stone—get well and fix up the "Carpenter",4 but I fear neither are likely to be effected. I feel wretchedly unwell, and can't think of composition. I never was so tired in my life, and am so sleepy that I drop off in slumber if I sit a few minutes in a chair—a new experience for me. I slept twelve hours last night, and after dinner today (one o'clock) fell asleep in a rocking chair and slept till six! I never felt such lethargy. I expect some day I shall fall asleep like Rip Van Winkle or (more appropriately) the Sleeping Beauty, and my beard grow down all over the rocks like sea-weed, and cover the sea, and my hair spread backward over the island, and smother the inhabitants. Selah.

I shall probably leave here by the first of next week. I intended to stay longer, but it is dull and lonely to me, not feeling able to occupy myself with writing, and the beauty of the sea is half-lost and indifferent to my sick eyes. My only pleasure is a daily delicious swim in the ocean—all too-brief, for the water is too cold to stay in long—but oh, how good it is! It electrifies and braces me for a few minutes, but then I get dull and sleepy again.

So far, thanks to not feeling well, I haven't had a good time at all.

Dear Walt, I hope you will come to Providence. Dr. Channing5 and Jeannie6 quite count upon it, and will be much gratified. I hope you will be there while I am, and then we can go around. I shall return there about the 12th or 13th, and if you fulfil your original intention, that will about bring us together at that time.

I am glad you are going to send to Freiligrath.7 I will do my part, eagerly, though I think I had better wait a few days now, hoping to feel better, and therefore in a better mood. Perhaps, I had better wait till I see you in Providence, if you decide to come on there, and then we can talk it over, and arrange just what is best to say.

Swinton's8 discovery of the resemblance in form between Leaves of Grass and Blake's9 poetry, is in my humble opinion, a mare's nest of the first water. (Irish!!) The resemblance is extremely superficial—about as much as between the Gregorian chant, bellowed by bull-necked priests with donkey lips, and a first-class, infinitely varied, complex-melodied Italian opera, sung by voices half-human, half-divine. Such assertions as Swinton's exasperate me. All that resides in the matter is just this: Bishop South10 had translated the Hebrew prophets into verse of unequal length, following the original, whose metres are interior, the accords being of sense and not sound, and this, as regards mere external form, Blake imitated undoubtedly. The verse of Leaves of Grass has just so much superficial resemblance to Bishop South's translations, and the imitations of Blake, as results from their all being unequal in length, and no more. For my part, I should as soon think of the form of Leaves of Grass in connexion with that of Southey's11 Thalaba, as with anything of the South-Blake pattern. It differs radically and palpably to the eye, to the ear, and above all to the mind, from anything before it.

Swinton's item in the Times was good. Nelly sends it to me copied into the Star. By the way, I put the item into the Star about the price paid for "Whispers of Heavenly Death":12 It made a great sensation in Washington, and your stock went up enormously. The Chronicle copied it next day, or rather transmographied it into an item of its own, making the amount twenty five guineas a page, or two hundred and fifty dollars, in which pleasing form it is going the rounds, to your great honor, and glory, nothing appealing to the esthetic American mind so much as a success in dollars.

I meant to have sent you the item, but forgot. I have saved it for you to see.

That indescribable serpent, George Alfred Townsend,13 has published an abominably flippant and insulting article about you, which I brought with me, in case we met, for you to see. My indignation was intense when I read it, and I don't understand how a man can write such things at all, much less about a person with whom he pretends to be on friendly terms. I think you must spear him with a look when you next meet him, as you did Tilton.14 He needs reducing to his lowest denomination.

I left in such a hurry of preparation, that I did not see John Burroughs,15 so must keep your messages for him till I return.

I am glad your dear mamma16 is in better quarters than before. It is a great thing, though many might not think so, to be comfortably housed. Especially must it be so to one advanced in years, as she is. Give her my best love.

It was so long before I heard from you, after I had written, that I thought you must be out of town, and thought of commencing another letter to you with "My dear Romeo"!!! If you wonder "why Romeo?," I can only answer, demurely, because you may have been roaming.

This is most beautiful!

—Ashton17 was running the office when I left. I had a long and free talk with him about that Pleasants18 and Evarts,19 in connexion with you, which I must tell you about when we meet. It made me feel quite anxious, but I guess all's right, while Ashton is there. Pleasants is a miserable devil. I wish I had power in that office for a little while. I'd put a spoke in the wheel of his vendetta, which would carry it and him to a safe distance.

Your letters were sent by young Rowland.20 I attempted to attend to it, but found that you had left him full directions, (so he said) which I guess you forgot. Nevertheless, I supervised him as long as I was there.

Charley21 thought his letter to you must have miscarried. He waited for you an hour at the Fifth Avenue Hotel.

I feel awfully sleepy, and am going to bed, a prospect which renders me disconsolate, but nature will have her way.

I hope to see you in Providence.

I heard that Higginson22 did not like my "Good Gray Poet."23 This is sad. He also had over the story about his reading Leaves of Grass when he was sea-sick, &c. A good thing, which he evidently thinks bears repeating. O ass of hell! I thank thee, Gurowski,24 for teaching me that word!

Good bye
Your affectionate
W.D.O'C.

If you should write, direct to me at Dr. Channing's, 67 Congdon Street, Providence, R. I.


Correspondent:
William Douglas O'Connor (1832–1889) was the author of the grand and grandiloquent Whitman pamphlet The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication, published in 1866. For more on Whitman's relationship with O'Connor, see Deshae E. Lott, "O'Connor, William Douglas (1832–1889)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).

Notes:

1. See Whitman's letter to O'Connor of September 27, 1868[back]

2. See Whitman's letter to O'Connor of October 4, 1868[back]

3. Ellen M. "Nelly" O'Connor (1830–1913) was the wife of William D. O'Connor (1832–1889), one of Whitman's staunchest defenders. Before marrying William, Ellen Tarr was active in the antislavery and women's rights movements as a contributor to the Liberator and to a women's rights newspaper Una. Whitman dined with the O'Connors frequently during his Washington years. Though Whitman and William O'Connor would temporarily break off their friendship in late 1872 over Reconstruction policies with regard to emancipated African Americans, Ellen would remain friendly with Whitman. The correspondence between Whitman and Ellen is almost as voluminous as the poet's correspondence with William. Three years after William O'Connor's death, Ellen married the Providence businessman Albert Calder. For more on Whitman's relationship with the O'Connors, see Dashae E. Lott, "O'Connor, William Douglas [1832–1889]" and Lott's "O'Connor (Calder), Ellen ('Nelly') M. Tarr (1830–1913)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

4. "The Carpenter" is a story about a Christ-like character based on Whitman, written by Whitman's friend and disciple William Douglas O'Connor; it was originally published in Putnam's Monthly Magazine in January 1868, and was included in O'Connor's posthumous Three Tales (1891), for which Whitman wrote a preface. [back]

5. William F. Channing (1820–1901), son of William Ellery Channing, and also Ellen O'Connor's brother-in-law, was by training a doctor, but devoted most of his life to scientific experiments. With Moses G. Farmer, he perfected the first fire-alarm system. He was the author of Notes on the Medical Applications of Electricity (Boston: Daniel Davis, Jr., and Joseph M. Wightman, 1849). Ellen O'Connor visited him frequently in Providence, Rhode Island, and Whitman stayed at his home in October, 1868. [back]

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

7. Ferdinand Freiligrath (1810–1876) was a German poet and translator and friend of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In his January 16, 1872 letter to Rudolf Schmidt, Whitman wrote that Freiligrath "translates & commends my poems." Freiligrath's review in the Augsburg Allgemeinen Zeitung on April 24, 1868 (reprinted in his Gesammelte Dichtungen [Stuttgart: G. J. Göschen, 1871], 4:86–89), was among the first notices of Whitman's poetry on the continent. A translation of the article appeared in the New Eclectic Magazine, 2 (July 1868), 325–329; see also Gay Wilson Allen, Walt Whitman Abroad (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1955), 3–7. A digital version is available in Walter Grünzweig's "Whitman in the German-Speaking Countries," which collects numerous examples of German reception of Whitman's poetry. Freiligrath had promised his readers "some translated specimens of the poet's productions," not a complete translation. A sympathetic article on Whitman in the New York Sonntagsblatt of November 1, 1868, mentioned Freiligrath's admiration for the American poet. A translation of this article, which Whitman had a Washington friend prepare, is now in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection. [back]

8. John Swinton (1829–1901) was the managing editor of the New York Times and a strong supporter of Whitman and Leaves of Grass. As a candidate of the Industrial Political party, Swinton ran for mayor of New York in 1874. After leaving the Times, he worked for the New York Sun from 1875 to 1883 and for the following four years edited John Swinton's Paper, a weekly labor journal. For more on Whitman and Swinton, see Donald Yannella, "Swinton, John (1829–1901)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

9. William Blake (1757–1827), the English painter, printer, and Romantic-era poet, is known for his illuminated books, including his collection of poems Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789). He also illustrated numerous books, including works by the English writers Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Gray, and John Milton. [back]

10. As yet we have no information about this person. [back]

11. Robert Southey (1774–1843) was a Romantic poet, essay writer and biographer. [back]

12. Whitman's poem "Whispers of Heavenly Death" was first published in 1868. After printing two sympathetic accounts of Whitman in their Broadway Annual (London), Routledge & Sons requested "one or two papers or poems" from him on December 28, 1867 (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Monday, June 4, 1888, 263). Whitman sent "Whispers of Heavenly Death," which appeared in the October 1868 edition of the Broadway. For this periodical printing, see "Whispers of Heavenly Death." [back]

13. George Alfred Townsend (1841–1914) was a writer and journalist who contributed to the New York Herald and the Chicago Tribune. In 1862, Townsend became a war-correspondent for the New York Herald and later served in the same capacity for the New York World. It may have been because of Townsend's affiliation that Whitman sent "Song of the Exposition" to the Chicago Tribune on May 5, 1876 (Whitman's Commonplace Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., 11). On May 10, 1876, the newspaper returned the manuscript because it arrived too late for publication. [back]

14. As yet we have no information about this person. [back]

15. The naturalist John Burroughs (1837–1921) met Whitman on the streets of Washington, D.C., in 1864. After returning to Brooklyn in 1864, Whitman commenced what was to become a decades-long correspondence with Burroughs. Burroughs was magnetically drawn to Whitman. However, the correspondence between the two men is, as Burroughs acknowledged, curiously "matter-of-fact." Burroughs would write several books involving or devoted to Whitman's work: Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person (1867), Birds and Poets (1877), Whitman, A Study (1896), and Accepting the Universe (1924). For more on Whitman's relationship with Burroughs, see Carmine Sarracino, "Burroughs, John [1837–1921] and Ursula [1836–1917]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

16. 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 Sherry Ceniza, "Whitman, Louisa Van Velsor (1795–1873)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

17. J. Hubley Ashton, the assistant Attorney General, actively interested himself in Whitman's affairs, and obtained a position for the poet in his office after Whitman lost his job in the Department of the Interior. James Harlan (1820–1899), Secretary of the Interior from 1865 to 1866, dismissed Whitman from his second-class clerkship on June 30, 1865. Harlan apparently took offense at the copy of the 1860 Leaves of Grass which Whitman was revising and which he kept at his desk. With the help of William Douglas O'Connor and Ashton, Whitman secured a position in the Attorney General's office. The Harlan episode led directly to O'Connor's pamphlet, "The Good Gray Poet." for more on Whitman and Ashton, see Amy M. Bawcom, "Ashton, J. Hubley (1836–1907)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

18. Matthew F. Pleasants was chief clerk in Walt Whitman's office (mentioned in Walt Whitman's August 25, 1866 letter to Andrew Kerr). Pleasants resigned as chief clerk in the Pardons Office in 1871; Whitman named him as "late Chief Clerk" in his January 9, 1871 letter to Amos Tappan Akerman. According to Charles W. Eldridge's letter to John Burroughs on June 26, 1902, Pleasants was "now, as he has been for many years," clerk of the United States Circuit Court at Richmond, Virginia (Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature). [back]

19. William Maxwell Evarts (1818–1901) was chief counsel for Andrew Johnson during the impeachment trial of 1868. As a reward for his services, Johnson appointed Evarts Attorney General later in the year. Evarts was Secretary of State from 1877 to 1881 and U. S. Senator from New York from 1885 to 1891. [back]

20. John A. Rowland was a clerk in the Attorney General's office who substituted for Walt Whitman while he was on leave. On September 24, 1870, Rowland received $50 through A. J. Falls, "on account, for service as substitute for Walt Whitman." A later receipt, dated October 18, 1870, and prepared by Whitman himself after his return to Washington, read: "Received from W. W. seventy dollars additional, making One hundred & twenty dollars—in full of all demands" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). [back]

21. Charley Towner was a clerk in the Treasury Department. Walt Whitman had received a letter from Towner, who reported on a conversation with Peter Doyle, some time before Whitman's September 12, 1873, letter to Doyle. At one time Walt Whitman wanted to lodge with the Towners. [back]

22. Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823–1911) was a Unitarian minister, a prolific author, a militant abolitionist, a women's rights advocate, and, in the Civil War, the officer in charge of the first federally authorized black regiment. In 1862, he published a "Letter to a Young Contributor" in the Atlantic Monthly that inspired Emily Dickinson to write to him and ask for his opinion of her poems, leading to a decades-long correspondence; he helped edit the first book of her poems. For more information on Higginson and Whitman, see Edward W. Harris, "Higginson, Thomas Wentworth (1823–1911)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

23. William Douglas O'Connor's The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication was published by Bunce & Huntington, 459 Broome Street, New York, in 1866 and was reprinted by Richard Maurice Bucke in his 1883 biography of Walt Whitman. The 46-page pamphlet opposed Whitman's critics while praising those who held the poet in high regard. The nickname "Good Gray Poet" originated here and remained with Whitman throughout his life. The correspondence between the publishers and O'Connor is in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection (Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). [back]

24. Count Adam Gurowski (1805–1866) was a Polish author who helped organize the Polish November uprising of 1830. He immigrated to the United States in 1849. From 1862 to 1866, while living in Washington, D.C., he published an eccentric three-volume Diary, a day-by-day account of the American Civil 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, Sunday, November 11, 1888, 79, and Wednesday, November 14, 1888, 96). William D. O'Connor, who apparently translated Gurowski's manuscripts into English (see the letter from Gurowski to O'Connor in The Charles E. Feinberg Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.), reported to Whitman on August 13, 1864, that "he is a madman with lucid intervals." Whitman maintained to Traubel in 1888 that "he was truly a remarkable, almost phenomenal, man" (Sunday, November 11, 1888, 79). [back]


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