Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Edmund Mercer to Walt Whitman, 28 November 1890

Date: November 28, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: loc.03263

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, Ian Faith, Breanna Himschoot, and Stephanie Blalock

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373 Oxford Road
Manchester. England.1
Novr 28. 1890.

My Dear Friend

For so you seem to me just like a grandfather whom I once knew years ago, but who lives in my memory as a childish recollection. No, I have never seen you with my physical eyes, but I feel as though I had, and it is my love for your work, and through that for yourself that prompts me to write you and declare it. I long thought of stretching out my hands across the water in greeting to you, but that diffidence I had lest I might be intruding unwarrantably upon your quiet has hitherto prevented me. This has now passed away through the kindness of a new-found friend—Dr Johnston2 of Bolton—who tells me he has sent you a copy of "Great Thoughts"3 containing my small addition to the literature appreciative of your prophetic messages and high-souled songs. May this be my excuse for thrusting my small personality into the path of your Kingly one.

It is now about five years ago, (when I was 21, and looked something like the photograph I enclose) since I first remember reading any of your poems, and that was in a small anthology. From that time I wished to read more of them, and, making discoveries for myself, I at last found "Leaves of Grass"—one of the late editions—and rejoiced as over a discovery of hid treasure. Needless to tell you, I read it through, and lost no time in buying "Specimen Days."4

It does not need an Indian to find my trail through the "Leaves of Grass." It is broad and thick. Thumb marks, ink scratches, pencil notes, and dear old stains—each one has its history, and is looked upon as an old friend. Even my Bible is not so bemarked.

Your volume holds a princely place in my ranks of 600; for to it I owe so much of what is now mine, and a never-ceasing interest in all that appertains to life. My eyes have been opened to a truer view of the Bible, of Shakespeare—yea, of all the great minds that have enriched mankind. And for all this—this that makes life so truly happy I thank you.

I need hardly say how gratified I should be if it pleased you to write to me, if only a line.

We may never meet on this earth, and I would like to be as near to you as possible in the next way—by a personal letter—In the after-days we shall surely meet—somehow, somewhere; and then we shall see, and know, and understand.

To you—of all of the best that ever God has divined here and hereafter—love, honour, glory and power.

Good bye my master and my friend!

Think that I grasp your hand as long as all may or even so little longer.

Goodbye, and again my thanks—as yours, "a soldier's traveller's thanks."5

Au revoir! et à Dieu!
Ever sincerely
Edmund Mercer.

Walt Whitman Esq.

Edmund Mercer (1865–1945) was from Manchester, England, one of five children born to Thomas Mercer (1836–1893)—a silk manufacturer—and Alice Holden (1837–1921). In 1899, he married Helena Harriet Tippins (1872–1939) and the couple had two children, Geoffrey Edmund (1901–1981) and Robert Osborn (1909–1995). English census data record Mercer as a solicitor living in Manchester. His sonnet "Blue and Gold" appeared in the August 24, 1889, issue of Chambers's Journal (544); he also regularly contributed essays to the Manchester Quarterly, published by the Manchester Literary Club, of which he was at one time a Council Member. When Mercer died in 1945, he was working for the firm of Maurice Rubin and Company, and his obituary in volume eleven of The Law Times claims that he was "reputed to be the oldest practicing solicitor in Manchester" (202).


1. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman Esq. | 328 Mickle Street. | Camden. | New Jersey. | U. S—America.. It is postmarked: MANCHESTER | 8 | NO28 | 90 | 5; MANCHESTER | 8 | NO28 | 90 | 5; MANCHESTER | 8 | NO28 | 90 | 5; PAID | K | All: NEW YORK | DEC 8; 90; CAMDEN, N.J. | DEC | 9 | 6AM | 1890 | REC'D. [back]

2. Dr. John Johnston (1852–1927) of Annan, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, was a physician, photographer, and avid cyclist. Johnston was trained in Edinburgh and served as a hospital surgeon in West Bromwich for two years before moving to Bolton, England, in 1876. Johnston worked as a general practitioner in Bolton and as an instructor of ambulance classes for the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railways. He served at Whalley Military Hospital during World War I and became Medical Superintendent of Townley's Hospital in 1917 (John Anson, "Bolton's Illustrious Doctor Johnston—a man of many talents," Bolton News [March 28, 2021]; Paul Salveson, Moorlands, Memories, and Reflections: A Centenary Celebration of Allen Clarke's Moorlands and Memories [Lancashire Loominary, 2020]). Johnston, along with the architect James W. Wallace, founded the "Bolton College" of English admirers of the poet. Johnston and Wallace corresponded with Whitman and with Horace Traubel and other members of the Whitman circle in the United States, and they separately visited the poet and published memoirs of their trips in John Johnston and James William Wallace, Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–1891 by Two Lancashire Friends (London: Allen and Unwin, 1917). For more information on Johnston, see Larry D. Griffin, "Johnston, Dr. John (1852–1927)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

3. Mercer seems to be referring to a piece on Whitman that he published in the annual periodical Great Thoughts from Master Minds (1884–1937), which was published in London and edited by Robert Colville. The publication included prose, poetry, and illustrations. [back]

4. The first issue of Whitman's Specimen Days and Collect was published by the Philadelphia firm of Rees Welsh and Company in 1882. The second issue was published by David McKay. Many of the autobiographical notes, sketches, and essays that focus on the poet's life during and beyond the Civil War had been previously published in periodicals or in Memoranda During the War (1875–1876). For more information on Specimen Days, see George Hutchinson and David Drews "Specimen Days [1882]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

5. Mercer is quoting from the final line of Whitman's poem, "Thanks in Old Age."  [back]


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