Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: William Sloane Kennedy to Walt Whitman, February 1891

Date: February, 1891

Whitman Archive ID: loc.03123

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.

Editorial note: The annotation, "Feb. 1891," is in the hand of Horace Traubel.

Contributors to digital file: Cristin Noonan, Amanda J. Axley, Paige Wilkinson, and Stephanie Blalock

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Dear W W:

J. E. Chamberlain (of Transcript—The "Listener")1 tells me Rhys2 is married!3 Rhys sent him a paper abt it. If I can get it will send to you. If Rhys sent you one be sure to send it to me, please. So glad Dr B4 is around again.5 I met Chamberlain in street carrying on his arm a lovely little blossom of a girl 2 or 3 yrs old. He introduced me to his wife & another five-year-old girl (pretty little) was across the street.6 I think he is just now moving fr. Medford over to the Wellesley Hills Region. He has bought or rented there. Am real sad for that depression & lassitude. Bear up against it all you can.

I am feasting on Shakespeare7 (pocket Edn) this winter,—by scraps, read on cars. I have terrible depressing colds—throat trouble, all this winter. Steam heat & reading aloud so much are the causes.


Wonderful things going on in medicine & science these days aint there?

Am still on the search for the Booths' ancestry.8 Have climbed to top of Athenaeum9 twice for a Galaxy10 which was out.

I might have added to my list of great Holland–born men Beethoven.11 He was Van Beethoven. But not much is known of his Dutchness. And what a galaxy of eminent scientists in Holland!

Love from wife12 to you always,
she says.
Billy K.13

Liked Traubel's14 elaborate article15 very much.16 'Twas very good of him to do so studiedly well on it. His diction is surprisingly good "times." Beats any of mine. But—his thought is often clouded by a strained originality of expression. I think when he forgets to try to write greatly he writes best.

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. Joseph Edgar Chamberlin (1851–1935) was an American journalist for the Boston Transcript and the Youth's Companion. He wrote "The Listener" column for the Boston Transcript for many years. He wrote about Whitman for this column, and the piece was republished in Nomads and Listeners of Joseph Edgar Chamberlin (Books for Libraries Press, 1937), 128–134. [back]

2. Ernest Percival Rhys (1859–1946) was a British author and editor; he founded the Everyman's Library series of inexpensive reprintings of popular works. He included a volume of Whitman's poems in the Canterbury Poets series and two volumes of Whitman's prose in the Camelot series for Walter Scott publishers. For more information about Rhys, see Joel Myerson, "Rhys, Ernest Percival (1859–1946)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

3. Ernest Rhys (1859–1946) married Grace Little (1865–1929) in 1891. Grace was born and grew up in Ireland. As an adult, she moved to London, where she met Rhys at a garden party hosted by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865–1939). Grace went on to work with Rhys at the British Museum and to publish several books, including the novel Mary Dominic (1898) and books of poetry for children. [back]

4. 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]

5. Kennedy is referring here to a letter received from Bucke's daughter, Jessie Clare Bucke (1870–1943), which Whitman had enclosed in his recent letter to Kennedy of February 3, 1891. See the poet's February 2, 1891 letter to Bucke, which begins with an expression of concern about Jessie Clare's letter. [back]

6. As yet we have no information about these people. [back]

7. William Shakespeare (1564–1616) was an English poet and playwright and is widely considered the world's greatest dramatist. He was the author of numerous plays, sonnets, and narrative poems. [back]

8. The Booths were an illustrious nineteenth-century English American acting family. Among the best-known Booths were actor Junius Brutus Booth (1796–1852) and his actor-sons Edwin Thomas Booth (1833–1893), Junius Brutus Booth, Jr. (1821–1883), and John Wilkes Booth (1838–1865), Abraham Lincoln's assassin. In addition to acting, the Booths also managed and owned theaters, including Booth's Theatre in New York City. [back]

9. Kennedy is likely referring to the Boston Athenaeum library. [back]

10. The Galaxy was edited by W. C. and F. P. Church; see the letter from Whitman to W. C. Church of August 7, 1867 (Edwin Haviland Miller, ed., The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77] 1:335–336). When W. C. Church wrote on June 13 to O'Connor (Charles E. Feinberg Collection), requesting an article, he suggested that the magazine publish Burroughs's "Walt Whitman and His 'Drum-Taps,'" which appeared in The Galaxy, 2 (December 1, 1866), 606–615. [back]

11. The German composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven (1779–1827) composed numerous symphonies and concertos, including his well known Third and Fifth Symphonies and his Violin Concerto. He was almost completely deaf by 1814, after which he ceased to perform or appear in public. He died in 1827, after an illness that lasted several months. His works remain among the most performed pieces of classical music. [back]

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

13. "Billy K." was Kennedy's nickname. According to Kennedy's letter to Whitman of February 25, 1889, "that's the way they called me out West." [back]

14. Horace L. Traubel (1858–1919) was an American essayist, poet, and magazine publisher. He is best remembered as the literary executor, biographer, and self-fashioned "spirit child" of Walt Whitman. During the late 1880s and until Whitman's death in 1892, Traubel visited the poet virtually every day and took thorough notes of their conversations, which he later transcribed and published in three large volumes entitled With Walt Whitman in Camden (1906, 1908, & 1914). After his death, Traubel left behind enough manuscripts for six more volumes of the series, the final two of which were published in 1996. For more on Traubel, see Ed Folsom, "Traubel, Horace L. [1858–1919]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

15. Horace Traubel's "Walt Whitman: Poet and Philosopher and Man" appeared in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine in March 1891. [back]

16. In Whitman's letter to Traubel of January 24, 1891, he reports warmly on the piece: "—have been deliberately reading this piece through. Thank you, Horace, dear boy. I like it all & well." [back]


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