Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Robert G. Ingersoll to Walt Whitman, 20 October 1890

Date: October 20, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: loc.02351

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: Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Ian Faith, Breanna Himschoot, and Stephanie Blalock

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45. Wall Street1
Oct 20, 90

My dear Whitman,

I recd the printed speech, proposed—think it too short. Better leave it all to your feeling at the time.2

I do hope that we shall have a good time. Have some fear that Philadelphia is a little slow3—but hope for the best.

In any event, I want the whole thing to suit you. It is something to be appreciated. "Not to be understood strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room"4

You must take good care of yourself—get in good trim physically, so that my speech will do you no bodily harm.—

"May the Lord take a liking to you—but not too soon"

Yours always
R.G. Ingersoll

Robert "Bob" Green Ingersoll (1833–1899) was a Civil War veteran and an orator of the post-Civil War era, known for his support of agnosticism. Ingersoll was a friend of Whitman, who considered Ingersoll the greatest orator of his time. Whitman said to Horace Traubel, "It should not be surprising that I am drawn to Ingersoll, for he is Leaves of Grass. He lives, embodies, the individuality I preach. I see in Bob the noblest specimen—American-flavored—pure out of the soil, spreading, giving, demanding light" (Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, March 25, 1891). The feeling was mutual. Upon Whitman's death in 1892, Ingersoll delivered the eulogy at the poet's funeral. The eulogy was published to great acclaim and is considered a classic panegyric (see Phyllis Theroux, The Book of Eulogies [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997], 30).


1. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | Camden | New Jersey. It is postmarked: New York | Oct 20 | 430 PM | 90; Camden, [illegible] | Oct | [illegible] | 6AM | [illegible] | Rec'd. [back]

2. Whitman was concerned about what remarks he would make before or after Ingersoll's Philadelphia speech honoring the poet. He eventually followed Ingersoll's advice to "leave it all to your feeling at the time": he later recorded in his Commonplace Book that he, "at the last spoke a very few words—A splendid success for Ingersoll, (— me too.)" (Whitman's Commonplace Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). [back]

3. John H. Johnston (of New York) and Richard Maurice Bucke planned a lecture event in Whitman's honor, which took place October 21 at Philadelphia's Horticultural Hall. Robert Ingersoll delivered the lecture. See Ingersoll's October 12, 1890 and October 20, 1890, letters to Whitman. Planning for the event had been underway for about a month. In his letter to Whitman of September 17, 1890, Bucke quoted a letter from Johnston: "This morning an hour talk with Ingersoll and I got his promise and authority to proceed and get up a lecture entertainment by him for Walt's benefit—in Phila I guess—Shall I put you on committee?" [back]

4. Ingersoll is alluding to William Shakespeare's As You Like It, Act 3, Scene 3: "When a man's verses cannot be understood, nor a man's good wit seconded with the forward child Understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room." The line is spoken by Touchstone, a fool. [back]


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