Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: William Sloane Kennedy to Walt Whitman, 11–12 May 1889

Date: May 11–12, 1889

Whitman Archive ID: loc.03009

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: Kirby Little, Caterina Bernardini, Ian Faith, and Stephanie Blalock

page image
image 1
page image
image 2
page image
image 3
page image
image 4
page image
image 5
page image
image 6

May 11 89 10 a. m.

I have been holding yr card1 announcing the death of Wm D. O'C2 in my hand at arm's length for several minutes trying to realize its import. Death always comes as a shock & surprise. But a man with so intense a hold on life—so alive in every atom of him—well—I draw a long sigh, and like you I suppose, gather what is left of me together in resignation—reluctant acquiesence in the order of the universe.

My regret is keen that I did not meet our noble & brilliant friend.

I hope that you will not succumb to this blow, but feel that the rest of yr friends are at yr side. How can we really believe in death? It is in yr writings, & there alone that I have found the deepest glimpses into death-realm. You have made it life-realm to me—given me an idea of it grand in mystic possibilities.

W. S. Kennedy.

So glad to hear of the out-door chair. I mark an item in Transcript abt O'Connor's death, your card preceded it by 5 minutes. I suppose Burroughs3 may attend the funeral? Dear, dear, can it be?—O'C. dead!! The dreaded moment come at last? God help us all.

Please write me abt O'C when you are able—any items.

Sunday Morn. May 12.

What I wrote last night perhaps had better not have been written. In yr deep grief silence wd have been better. I wish you know the depth of my own feeling the tumultuous emotional depths—sort of despair—stirred up always by death. And I wish I cd. make you feel how all day I have grieved & meditated.

As you cannot go out, let me try to give you a picture as setting for this day's solemn (Sunday) meditation (with me) on the sacred theme of comrades life & death. My days are passed in the harrowing uproar of a great printing estab. & it is hard for me to find a soul-hour.

I rose early, went down into the little parlor—neat as wax—& looked over our dead friend's "Hamlet's Note-Book,"4 and especially a long six page brilliant letter fr. him to me anent the Shaksp. controversy, the Elizabethan Age &c. How I prize that letter now!

The dew had formed thick as rain in the night, & I went out (the sweetest apple-blossom day of the year,—day) & absorbed the scene, the freshness, the idyllic quiet—not a sound anywhere—soft warm mist hanging over [Boston?] & Strawberry Hill, the latter covered with apple trees in bloom. Three or four golden robins were clipping about thro' the air, singing & chirping. Presently over in the pines a brown thrush struck up. Nature—the apparition—seemed so strong & fair: was not W.m D. O'C dead—if one rightly regarded it—just as much in harmony with the scene as my part of the life-throbbing whole? "What is good for the whole of nature is good also for a part"

Then I went down thro' the fresh woods & fields, fairly sheeted with blue violets & yellow-gleaming butter-cups, with here & there a fragile columbine pouring out its [horns?] of perfume into the air. I usually refrain fr. picking wild-flowers; but in pensive mood I this time plucked a large handful of the largest & deepest-colored—as for the hearse of our dear friend—to waft their incense to his soul now merged in the dark Unconscious, resolved back into silence and dream.

I am glad he is at rest fr. his suffering, if it was to be.

Can I be of any service here to Mrs O'C.5?

I feel well that I know but a small fraction of the friendship & long years of devotion bet. you & him.

Let me therefore be silent.
W. S. Kennedy.

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. Kennedy is referring to Whitman's postal card of May 10, 1889[back]

2. 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). [back]

3. 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]

4. O'Connor published Hamlet's Note-Book, subtitled "A defense of Mrs. Henry Pott" (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin [1886]). O'Connor here refers to Constance Mary Fearon Pott (1833–1914), who started the Francis Bacon Society and, after comparing figures of speech in Bacon to Shakespeare, argued for Bacon as the author behind Shakespeare's famous plays. [back]

5. 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]


Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Matt Cohen, Ed Folsom, & Kenneth M. Price, editors.