Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: William Sloane Kennedy to Walt Whitman, 5 February 1886

Date: February 5, 1886

Whitman Archive ID: loc.02893

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.

Editorial note: The annotation, "Kennedy's letter | Feb. 5 '86," is in the hand of Walt Whitman.

Contributors to digital file: Alex Kinnaman, Stefan Schöberlein, Ian Faith, Kyle Barton, and Nicole Gray

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Feb 5 '861

Dear Mr Whitman,

Good news! The book on you wh. I had been contemplating for some years is coming bravely to the birth.2 It has burst from me as from a ripe pomegranate its seeds, come from me with throes. I have been 2 weeks in a fever of parturition & have gone over all the notes writings, & literature of my past life in relentless search for material to enrich the book on my hero. (It ought to be studded with jewels & written on gold & silver in yr honor.) The longer I live the more I understand & grow up to yr incomparable poems. I have made a 25 p. bibliography of you. Be sure to hunt around now,—that's a good boy—& send me articles or references to articles &c wh. you think will help to make any bibliog complete. I have already I shd think nearly a hundred entries.

Please don't tell anyone of my project yet—wd you?

I have spent two days unearthing the Oliver Stevens matter.3 I find Oliver to be a capital Pfaafian fellow, generous & free & entirely innocent—a mere cat's paw for others. I have discovered the real instigator, & it forms a very pretty piece of business. I am going to put him in the stocks for all time.

I am working out the grouping & laws of yr poetry.

But my chief object is to propagandize. I am going to address the American People (not the damned & twice damned literary & clerical rascals). It's my firm belief that if these scoundrels could be passed—their scowling ranks—you cd reach the people—your true audience. I have constructed a chain of proofs of yr rank in the Valhalla of great men, which I am going to present in a temperate, calm & persuasive way. Then in Part II, I make an analysis of the poems & all their vast implications & ancillary topics: this Part will of course be for the Whitman fellows throughout the world.

Knortz4 has been at me twice to make this book, & I hope you will not be displeased, & also hope my time will not be taken up but that I can finish it soon. But I am going to read widely and deeply for it. Dr. Bucke's5 book's is invaluable, but it lacks profundity6 & literary knack in its treatment of the work (analysis) & estimate of the problems involved. In fact I find it quite inadequate in these respects.

What wd you say to having the book, when completed, brought out simultaneously in Glasgow & New York? I shd thus get copyright in both countries. Do you think I will have much trouble in getting publisher? If Wilson & McCormick wd co-operate the expense cd be halved, I suppose.

aff. yrs
W. S. Kennedy

I am about to pub. a Ruskin anthology.

Notice of Poet as Craftsman rec'd. Thank you.

I have I believe come to complete agreement with you on the Children of Adam question—reached yr attitude & absolute point of view. My Puritan training as a Calvinistic ministers son hindered it for a long time.

I have already added one third more to my essay on Poet as Craftsman.


¶ I shd like extremely to get the names of noble women-friends of you & yr poems. I only have now Mrs Gilchrist (noble heart, hail & farewell)7 Nora Perry,8 May Cole Baker, Mrs Ritter,9 Helen Price,10 Mrs Bigelow,11 [S. A(?)]


¶ I did not see, & do not know where appeared yr "As One by One The Lofty Actors," & poem on Washington Monument. I believe otherwise I have yr poems as pub. 12


¶ Do you expect to get out soon the volume you are preparing?13


William Sloane Kennedy (1850–1929) was on the staff of the Philadelphia American and the Boston Transcript; he also published biographies of Longfellow, Holmes, and Whittier (Dictionary of American Biography [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933], 336–337). Apparently Kennedy called on the poet for the first time on November 21, 1880 (William Sloane Kennedy, Reminiscences of Walt Whitman [London: Alexander Gardener, 1896], 1). Though Kennedy was to become a fierce defender of Whitman, in his first published article he admitted reservations about the "coarse indecencies of language" and protested that Whitman's ideal of democracy was "too coarse and crude"; see The Californian, 3 (February 1881), 149–158. For more about Kennedy, see Katherine Reagan, "Kennedy, William Sloane (1850–1929)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


1. This letter is addressed: Mr Walt Whitman | Camden | New Jersey. It is postmarked: BELMONT | FEB | [illegible]; CAMDEN, N.J. | FEB | [illegible]. [back]

2. As euphoric as Kennedy sounds in this letter, his book-length study of Whitman would not see the light of day until 1896, when it was published as Reminiscences of Walt Whitman[back]

3. Kennedy is likely referring to an incident four years prior, when Oliver Stevens, District Attorney in Boston, wrote to the publisher of Leaves of Grass: "We are of the opinion that this book is such a book as brings it within the provisions of the Public Statutes respecting obscene literature and suggest the propriety of withdrawing the same from circulation and suppressing the editions thereof" and asked Whitman to censor certain passages (The Library of Congress; The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman [1902], 10 vols., 8:290). [back]

4. Karl Knortz (1841–1918) was born in Prussia and came to the U.S. in 1863. He was the author of many books and articles on German-American affairs and was superintendent of German instruction in Evansville, Ind., from 1892 to 1905. See The American-German Review 13 (December 1946), 27–30. His first published criticism of Whitman appeared in the New York Staats-Zeitung Sonntagsblatt on December 17, 1882, and he worked with Thomas W. H. Rolleston on the first book-length translation of Whitman's poetry, published as Grashalme in 1889. For more information about Knortz, see Walter Grünzweig, "Knortz, Karl (1841–1918)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

5. 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]

6. He is referring to Bucke's Walt Whitman (1883), heavily edited by Whitman himself. [back]

7. Anne Burrows Gilchrist (1828–1885) was the author of one of the first significant pieces of criticism on Leaves of Grass, titled "A Woman's Estimate of Walt Whitman (From Late Letters by an English Lady to W. M. Rossetti)," The Radical 7 (May 1870), 345–59. Gilchrist's long correspondence with Whitman indicates that she had fallen in love with the poet after reading his work; when the pair met in 1876 when she moved to Philadelphia, Whitman never fully returned her affection, although their friendship deepened after that meeting. For more information on their relationship, see Marion Walker Alcaro, "Gilchrist, Anne Burrows (1828–1885)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

8. According to the Dictionary of American Biography, Nora Perry (1831–1896) was a poet, journalist, and author of juvenile books. Perry published a qualified defense of Whitman, entitled "A Few Words About Walt Whitman," in Appleton's Journal, 15 (22 April 1876), 531–533. She was a friend of William Douglas O'Connor; see his letter to John Burroughs on May 4, 1876, in which he called her "a perfect pussy-cat" (Estelle Doheny Collection of the Edward Laurence Doheny Memorial Library, St. John's Seminary; Clara Barrus, Whitman and Burroughs—Comrades [1931], 130). [back]

9. Fanny Raymond Ritter (c.1835–1891) was an American musician, writer, historian, and the wife of the German-American composer Frédéric Louis Ritter (1834–1891). The Ritters were friends of William Sloane Kennedy and William D. O'Connor, and they had invited Whitman for a visit in 1876. [back]

10. Helen Price was the daughter of Abby H. Price (1814–1878) and Edmund Price. During the late 1850s and throughout the 1860s, Abby and Helen were friends with Whitman and his mother, and the Price family began to save Walt's letters. Helen's reminiscences of Whitman were included in Richard Maurice Bucke's 1883 biography of Whitman. For more on Helen Price, see Sherry Ceniza "Price, Helen E. (b. 1841)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). For more on Abby Price, see Sherry Ceniza "Price, Abby Hills (1814–1878)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

11. Jane Tunis Poultney Bigelow (1829–1889) was the wife of John Bigelow, former American minister to France (1865–1866) and coeditor, with William Cullen Bryant, of the New York Evening Post[back]

12. "As One by One Withdraw the Lofty Actors" (later retitled "Death of General Grant") was first published in Harper's Weekly on May 16, 1885; "Washington's Monument, February, 1885" was first published in the Philadelphia Press on February 22, 1885, under the title "Ah, Not This Granite Dead and Cold." [back]

13. Whitman's November Boughs was published in 1888 by David McKay. See also James E. Barcus Jr., "November Boughs [1888]." [back]


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