Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: William Harrison Riley to Walt Whitman, 13 May 1888

Date: May 13, 1888

Whitman Archive ID: loc.03355

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: Ryan Furlong, Breanna Himschoot, Ian Faith, and Stephanie Blalock



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Townsend Harbor, Mass
13.5.88.

Dear Friend,

Have you forgotten me—one of your earliest converts? ('Twas I who introduced your works to Ruskin.)1

I have for many years I have harkened for a letter from you. Can you write me three or four lines? (It is not for the mere autograph I seek.)

My friend Carpenter2—one of your best friends—has sent me a copy of his "Songs of Labour";3 containing two pieces from your works. I suppose you have got a copy.

The verses I enclose were written by a journeyman boiler-maker, in 1871.4


Wm Harrison Riley.

P.S. I cannot express my feelings in this Commercial language, when writing to people I love, and do not try.


Correspondent:
William Harrison Riley (1835–1907) was a British socialist who addressed Whitman as "My dear Friend and Master" in a letter on March 5, 1879. Twelve years earlier he had found a copy of Leaves of Grass "and saw a Revelation....In all my troubles and successes I have been strengthened by your divine teachings."

Notes:

1. John Ruskin (1819–1900) was one of the leading art critics in Victorian Great Britain. Whitman sent Leaves of Grass and a "couple of photographs" to Ruskin via William Harrison Riley in March 1879 (see the letter from Whitman to Riley of March 18, 1879). Ruskin, according to Whitman, expressed "worry [...] that [Leaves is] too personal, too emotional, launched from the fires of [...] spinal passions, joys, yearnings" (see the letter from Whitman to William O'Connor of October 7, 1882). Whitman, late in life, said to Horace Traubel: "[I] take my Ruskin with some qualifications." Still, Ruskin "is not to be made little of: is of unquestionable genius and nobility" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Thursday, January 24, 1889). [back]

2. 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]

3. Chants of Labour: A Song Book of the People was a collection of songs compiled by Edward Carpenter, and it included poetry by Whitman that had been set to music. The volume was first published by Swan Sonnenschein in London in 1888. It was reissued three times: in 1892, 1897, and 1905, and further editions were published into the 1920s. [back]

4. Riley's enclosure is unknown and may not survive. [back]


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