Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to William Sloane Kennedy, 23 December 1890

Date: December 23, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: loc.03112

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: Cristin Noonan, Amanda J. Axley, Marie Ernster, Stephanie Blalock, and Paige Wilkinson



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Camden pm
Dec: 23 '90

Merry Christmas to you—ditto to frau1—y'r card2 rec'd this mn'g—thanks—all is going ab't same—bad grip bad bladder bother, &c: &c:—hear often f'm Dr Bucke3 he is well & busy—made my breakfast of mutton broth toast & tea—am writing a little—will keep you posted & of any thing printed—(ups & downs—most of my things are yet rejected)—rather a gloomy three weeks the last—the death of my dear Brother4 in St Louis—cloudy & dark out—was out yesterday short jaunt in wheel chair,5 but cold & I hurried back—folks dont realize (& I dont care to dwell on or realize) what a wretched physical shack (a western word) I really am—What was that of Epictetus6 ab't "a spark of soul dragging a poor corpse shell around"?7


Walt Whitman


Correspondent:
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). Apparently Kennedy had 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).

Notes:

1. Kennedy had married Adeline Ella Lincoln (d. 1923) of Cambridge, Massachusetts, on June 17, 1883. [back]

2. This communication has not been located. [back]

3. 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]

4. Thomas Jefferson Whitman (1833–1890), known as "Jeff," was Walt Whitman's favorite brother. As a civil engineer, Jeff eventually became Superintendent of Water Works in St. Louis and a nationally recognized figure. For more on Jeff, see Randall Waldron, "Whitman, Thomas Jefferson (1833–1890)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

5. Horace Traubel and Ed Wilkins, Whitman's nurse, went to Philadelphia to purchase a wheeled chair for the poet that would allow him to be "pull'd or push'd" outdoors. See Whitman's letter to William Sloane Kennedy of May 8, 1889[back]

6. Epictetus (c. 55–135 AD) was a Greek stoic philosopher and former slave, whose works had a lasting impact on the politics of Marcus Aurelius (121–180 AD), the Roman Emperor. [back]

7. Whitman is referring to an Epictetus saying. During his final years, the poet often wrote letters on stationery printed with the following notice from the Boston Evening Transcript: "From the Boston Eve'g Transcript, May 7, '91.—The Epictetus saying, as given by Walt Whitman in his own quite utterly dilapidated physical case is, a 'little spark of soul dragging a great lummux of corpse-body clumsily to and fro around.'" [back]


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