Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Sidney H. Morse to Walt Whitman, 8 February 1890

Date: February 8, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: loc.03203

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, "Sidney Morse | 374 E Division St | Chicago.," is in the hand of Walt Whitman.

Contributors to digital file: Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Ian Faith, Alex Ashland, Zainab Saleh, and Stephanie Blalock

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Saturday, night, Feb. 8-90.
374 E. Division. St.

Dear Walt,—

The old war refrain—"All's quiet on the Potomac"2—seems to have a new rendering in my thought as I go about my daily work: "All silent in Camden." I hear nothing & see nothing in the public prints. But I dare say if I could cross the old ferry & stop at "328"—I suppose you still insist on your own number—I should find life enough vocal & contented.

I frequently chance upon your friends here in this city. One such wrote a 2 column article for the Evening Journal of May 31. He allows me to send it to you on condition that I will charge you to return it, as it is the only copy he owns, & wishes it for his scrap book. He is an Englishman—knows George Elliot,3 Tennyson,4 Carpenter,5 I believe & others. Prof Dowden6 of Somersham—one of your English friends, is his friend. He detests Swinburn,7 & will have an article in Tribune Sunday on Gladstone's8 saying that .S would be next poet-laureate. He asked how you took Swinburn's "apostacy." I answered,—"Serenely." But he is a bit mad, & says he has long been so knowing the "sham" that Swinburn is.

This man's name is Henry Latchford.9 He was sent to me the other day by Mr Dalton, the Ethical preacher here.10 He seems a man of ideas & good sympathies—is a journalist—independent; that is, not attached to one journal, but writing for several on topics of his own selection. He came and chatted with me an hour or so, and, on departing, asked permission to write a paragraph for the journal about my work. I enclose the "paragraph." He got some things mixed & not as I would have had it stand, had I seen the proof—or knowing he was going to "report" at such length. One thing, I would not have spoken of your Georgia friend11 as a "nuisance." Nor did I [imply?]. I recall just what I said. "He stayed some time & almost came to be a nuisance, but made up for it in part at least, by the bright things he would say, & then told "old varmint" story.12 I have always kept green a kind feeling for the old man, for there was something rather poetic in his leaving his home & journeying so far to see the man whose poems had so much interested him. Peace be to him, any way, & may he not see this half-unkind printed word of mine.

Nor did I quite say that you get "tired & sleepy." I think I said something about your sitting silently museing—or something like that. I don't remember that he asked me the question he puts in print at all. But it fitted in for him to report that ["property" recital?].

But he made the worst mess about the Holmes13 talk, & my contempt for facts. I was only arguing as to what the fact is, in any portraiture, & against reliance on the merely critical faculty—the conscious criticism—or fault-finding, tinkering criticism. That was where "brains" got in the way. Holmes never cried, "Hold on!" &c, but told the little story accidentally one day.

But—its all in a life time. All sores heal now-a-days inside a week.

I mean to send some George Elliot plaques to Camden when I get them out—The original is done—& waits only for duplicates.

Latchford likes the Whitman bust as represented in front of Horace's14 book.15 He laughed out—"Its more like Walt than anything I've ever seen."

Well, I am here yet in the toils—trying to sing cheerily—"Blessed be poverty." I have many friends—more friends than money, & I suppose that is as it should be. If they could not forever be taking me for a millionaire! Its awkward when your pennies are few to have it expected that thus you will easily enough spend time & dollars for their good pleasure. I manage after a fashion to either conquer or disgust them. I calculate that H. is busy, busy. I see his articles now & then in "New Ideal."

Chicago is after the World's Fair16 with a vengence on all contesters. Its so like Chicago. I never was in so partizan an atmosphere, as I encounter here by Lake Michigan. You must be "d___d sure" of Everything, or you are nobody. You don't count. You're like the democrats in Speaker Reed's17 house; present, yet absent.

I've made a little painting of you which is by far the best painting I have ever done. I expect to sell it to a lady here in C. I'd like you Camden folk to see it, but dont see how you can.

I find myself drawing toward a renewal of the little statue first began in your parlor. I can reproduce that from memory, & go on with it; but incline to some change in posture.

Is Mrs Davis18 still with you—Give her my best regards. I remember the old kitchen, & all things well. And Aunt Mary.

If you can, send me a line. If not, tell Horace to send it & one for himself

With much love—
Sidney Morse

Sidney H. Morse was a self-taught sculptor as well as a Unitarian minister and, from 1866 to 1872, editor of The Radical. He visited Whitman in Camden many times and made various busts of him. Whitman had commented on an early bust by Morse that it was "wretchedly bad." For more on this, see Ruth L. Bohan, Looking into Walt Whitman: American Art, 1850–1920 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), 57–84.


1. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | Camden | Mickel St | N.J. It is postmarked: Peoria, ILL | Feb 3 | 6 PM | 90; Camden, N.J. | Feb | 10 | 10 AM | 1890 | Rec'd. [back]

2. Morse is referring to the song "All Quiet along the Potomac Tonight." The lyrics come from a poem titled "The Picket Guard" by Ethel Lynn Beers, which was first published in Harper's Weekly on November 30, 1861. The poem was set to music two years later by the newspaperman and musician John Hill Hewitt. [back]

3. "George Eliot" was the pen name of Mary Ann Evans (1819–1880), one of the most influential British writers of the nineteenth century. Her works include The Mill on the Floss (1860), Middlemarch (1871–1872), and Daniel Deronda (1876). Whitman was especially enamored by Eliot's essay writing: "She is profound, masterful: her analysis is perfect: she chases her game without tremor to the very limit of its endurance" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, October 31, 1888). [back]

4. Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892) succeeded William Wordsworth as poet laureate of Great Britain in 1850. The intense male friendship described in In Memoriam, which Tennyson wrote after the death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, possibly influenced Whitman's poetry. Tennyson began a correspondence with Whitman on July 12, 1871. Although Tennyson extended an invitation for Whitman to visit England, Whitman never acted on the offer. [back]

5. Edward Carpenter (1844–1929) was an English writer and Whitman disciple. Like many other young disillusioned Englishmen, he deemed Whitman a prophetic spokesman of an ideal state cemented in the bonds of brotherhood. Carpenter—a socialist philosopher who in his book Civilisation, Its Cause and Cure posited civilization as a "disease" with a lifespan of approximately one thousand years before human society cured itself—became an advocate for same-sex love and a contributing early founder of Britain's Labour Party. On July 12, 1874, he wrote for the first time to Whitman: "Because you have, as it were, given me a ground for the love of men I thank you continually in my heart. . . . For you have made men to be not ashamed of the noblest instinct of their nature." For further discussion of Carpenter, see Arnie Kantrowitz, "Carpenter, Edward [1844–1929]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

6. Edward Dowden (1843–1913), professor of English literature at the University of Dublin, was one of the first to critically appreciate Whitman's poetry, particularly abroad, and was primarily responsible for Whitman's popularity among students in Dublin. In July 1871, Dowden penned a glowing review of Whitman's work in the Westminster Review entitled "The Poetry of Democracy: Walt Whitman," in which Dowden described Whitman as "a man unlike any of his predecessors . . . Bard of America, and Bard of democracy." In 1888 Whitman observed to Traubel: "Dowden is a book-man: but he is also and more particularly a man-man: I guess that is where we connect" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Sunday, June 10, 1888). For more, see Philip W. Leon, "Dowden, Edward (1843–1913)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

7. Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909) was a British poet, critic, playwright, and novelist. He was also one of Whitman's earliest English admirers. At the conclusion of William Blake: A Critical Essay (1868), 300–303, Swinburne pointed out similarities between Whitman and Blake, and praised "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," which he termed "the most sweet and sonorous nocturn ever chanted in the church of the world." His famous lyric "To Walt Whitman in America" is included in Songs before Sunrise (1871). For the story of Swinburne's veneration of Whitman and his later recantation, see two essays by Terry L. Meyers, "Swinburne and Whitman: Further Evidence," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 14 (Summer 1996), 1–11 and "A Note on Swinburne and Whitman," WWQR 21 (Summer 2003), 38–39. [back]

8. William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898) was a British Liberal politician and Prime Minister of Great Britain for four separate terms. [back]

9. Henry C. Latchford attended Trinity College Dublin and was a member of the Undergraduate Philosophical Society alongside his friend and classmate Bram Stoker, who began corresponding with Walt Whitman in 1876 and later visited the poet at his Camden home (See Gay Wilson Allen The Solitary Singer [New York: Macmillan, 1995], 515–516). In With Walt Whitman in Camden, Horace Traubel describes Latchford's letter as written "in a wittily-facetious vein, which I could well understand would not appeal to [Whitman]" (Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Friday, May 31, 1889). Latchford was the author of one book, The Wit and Wisdom of Parliament (London: Cassell, Peter, Galpin & Co., 1881), and several articles, including "A Meeting with Victor Hugo in 1878" (Time: A Monthly Miscellany of Interesting and Amusing Literature, 2 [December 1880], 292–299) and ("A Social Reformer" The Arena 10.54 [October 1894], 575–589). [back]

10. The Ethical movement is a late nineteenth-century social and educational movement often traced to Felix Adler (1851–1933); it was a humanist movement that developed religious trappings. Chapters of the Society for Ethical Culture were begun in cities across the U.S. in the 1880s, including Chicago, where William Salter (1853–1931), a philosophy lecturer at the University of Chicago and a close associate of Adler, founded the Ethical Culture Society of Chicago and often lectured there. [back]

11. John Newton Johnson (1832–1904) was a colorful and eccentric self-styled philosopher from rural Alabama. There are about thirty letters from Johnson in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919 (Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.), but unfortunately there are no replies extant, although Whitman wrote frequently for a period of approximately fifteen years. When Johnson wrote for the first time on August 13, 1874, he was forty-two, "gray as a rat," as he would say in another letter from September 13, 1874: a former Rebel soldier with an income between $300 and $400 annually, though before the war he had been "a slaveholding youthful 'patriarch.'" He informed Whitman in the August 13, 1874, letter that during the past summer he had bought Leaves of Grass and, after a momentary suspicion that the bookseller should be "hung for swindling," he discovered the mystery of Whitman's verse, and "I assure you I was soon 'cavorting' round and asserting that the $3 book was worth $50 if it could not be replaced, (Now Laugh)." He offered either to sell Whitman's poetry and turn over to him all profits or to lend him money. On October 7, 1874, after describing Guntersville, Alabama, a town near his farm from which he often mailed his letters to Whitman, he commented: "Orthodoxy flourishes with the usual lack of flowers or fruit." See also Charles N. Elliot, Walt Whitman as Man, Poet and Friend (Boston: R. G. Badger, 1915), 125–130. [back]

12. The interview to which Morse refers has not been located, but the passages alluded to, including the "old varmint" story, appear in a similar form in "My Summer with Walt Whitman, 1887," in Horace Traubel, Richard Maurice Bucke, and Thomas B. Harned, eds., In Re Walt Whitman (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1893), 367–392. [back]

13. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–1894) was a poet, physician, and well-known essayist. His son, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1841–1935), was appointed a Supreme Court justice in 1902. [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 mid-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. Morse is referring to Traubel's Camden's Compliment to Walt Whitman (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1889). The volume consisted of the notes and addresses that were delivered at Whitman's seventieth birthday celebration on May 31, 1889 in Camden, which were collected and edited by Traubel. The book also included a photo of Sidney Morse's 1887 clay bust of Whitman as the frontispiece. [back]

16. There was a great deal of competition among major U.S. cities, especially Chicago and New York, for a world's fair to be held in celebration of 400 years since Columbus's "discovery" of the New World. The U.S. Congress was tasked with making the decision and chose Chicago, where the World's Columbian Exposition finally opened a year late, in 1893. [back]

17. Morse is probably referring to Thomas Brackett Reed (1839–1902), who was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1889–1891. [back]

18. Mary Oakes Davis (1837 or 1838–1908) was Whitman's housekeeper. For more, see Carol J. Singley, "Davis, Mary Oakes (1837 or 1838–1908)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]


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