Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: William D. O'Connor to Walt Whitman, 12 July 1888

Date: July 12, 1888

Whitman Archive ID: loc.03324

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, "See notes 1888 Aug 21," is in the hand of Horace Traubel.

Contributors to digital file: Jeannette Schollaert, Ian Faith, Caterina Bernardini, and Stephanie Blalock

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Washington, D.C.1
Life Saving Service,
July 12, 1888.

Dear Walt:

I got your postal of yesterday this morning2 and was greatly gratified to hear from you. I have wanted badly to write to you for three weeks past, but have really felt too sad and anxious to do so, besides being quite crushed with the dead heat we have been having, and sick with obstinate bowel trouble and my enfeebling lameness. I have felt that you and I were brothers in misfortune—I hope in all other and better ways too.

Words cannot tell how badly I feel at your confinement to bed and to the house for so long, and I enter into the irksomeness of it, combined as it is with strengthlessness and general illness. But I hope the spirit will still surge strong in you to resist and endure—it is about all there is for us in life after a certain age is reached. My belief in your getting better is invincible, for your stamina is indomitable. If you can only get through this hot weather! It is our common enemy, and the worst. Everyone appears to be affected by it badly; even the well, and how much more the ailing!

I had two previous cards from you, one of June 17, and one of June 23.3 The proofs were read with much pleasure, and despatched to Dr. Bucke,4 as you wished.5 I was sorry you left in the one about the Red Emperor,6 but find some consolation in the sweet assurance that he is finally damned, and can trouble the earth no more! Many of the pieces are very beautiful, especially the one about the nirwana sunset. I think the title very fine.

When you sent the proofs, you wrote that you had been better all day—relieved from the prostration, and added that there had been a thunder-storm. See what atmosphere does for one! I think another storm is brewing today, and hope so, for I know it will give you relief.

I heard from our all-good Bucke the last of June, and owe him a letter.

I heard recently from Donnelly7 at London. His book is much abused by the English press, as by ours, but in private circles, among lettered and cultivated people, it gains great headway. Dr. Bucke is not convinced (no wonder since a part of the secret was withheld.) But I have no doubt that Donnelly has the truth and will make his way after a little, especially as the mathematicians back him.

I don't hear of Kennedy,8 but hope his book has prospects.

Charles Eldridge9 appears to have won a big law-suit. I daily expect to hear from him, and to hear that he has got his fee—a large one.

No news here. An even tenor. Nelly10 is pretty well, though under the weather, and sends her love and hopes. Cheer up, Walt, and take all the ease you can! I trust you can get out soon, if only for a drive.

Always with strong affection.
WD O'Connor

Walt Whitman.

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).


1. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | 328 Mickle Street, | Camden | New Jersey. It is postmarked: Washington, D. C. | Jul 25; 8PM | 88. There is one additional "Camden" postmark, but only the name of the city is legible. [back]

2. O'Connor is referring to Whitman's letter of July 11, 1888[back]

3. See Whitman's letters to O'Connor on June 17, 1888 and June 23, 1888[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. On June 23, 1888, Whitman sent O'Connor a twenty-page proof of "Sands at Seventy" and asked him to pass the pages on to Dr. Bucke after reading them. [back]

6. O'Connor is referring to Whitman's poem "The Dead Emperor," about the death of Emperor Wilhelm I of Germany, who died in March 1888. The poem was published in the New York Herald on March 10, 1888. [back]

7. Ignatius Loyola Donnelly (1831–1901) was a politician and writer, well known for his notions of Atlantis as an antediluvian civilization and for his belief that Shakespeare's plays had been written by Francis Bacon, an idea he argued in his book The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon's Cipher in Shakespeare's Plays, published in 1888. [back]

8. 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). [back]

9. Charles W. Eldridge (1837–1903) was one half of the Boston-based abolitionist publishing firm Thayer and Eldridge, who issued the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. In December 1862, on his way to find his injured brother George in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Whitman stopped in Washington and encountered Eldridge, who had become a clerk in the office of the army paymaster, Major Lyman Hapgood. Eldridge helped Whitman gain employment in Hapgood's office. For more on Whitman's relationship with Thayer and Eldridge, see David Breckenridge Donlon, "Thayer, William Wilde (1829–1896) and Charles W. Eldridge (1837–1903)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

10. 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]


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