Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Bernard O'Dowd to Walt Whitman, 31 August 1891

Date: August 31, 1891

Whitman Archive ID: loc.03385

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: Brandon James O'Neil, Ian Faith, Andy King, Stephanie Blalock, and Amanda J. Axley

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August 31st /91
Supreme Court Library

My Dear Master

I have received and heartily thank you for the papers you have sent and the welcome copy of "Good bye! My Fancy."1 I have not wanted to bother you during your severe illness, hence my silence. But we have followed with interest any information about you especially the facsimile letter which Dr. Johnston2 of Bolton was kind enough to send me and the article in a late "Review of Reviews"3 with a sketch of your house and a little chit chat on your political opinions (I have much the same opinions myself of late years, but that is not surprising for they are simple deductions from the spiritual principle of the spirit of "Leaves of Grass.") I gave a lecture on "Walt Whitman, the Poet of Democracy" to an audience of 3 or 400 people at a Sunday night meeting of the Australasian Secular Association4 and was very well received. The subject was evidently unfamliar but its reception gave me great hopes that it will not be so long in that quarter anyway. I made the acquaintance of another Whitman enthusiast at the meeting, Mr John Sutherland M.A.,5 and I can assure you we have had some glorious evenings together since talking of you and with you. He tells me that he has only read L. of G. once, but wants to read it no more. He doesn't remember the words particularly, but the new mental attitude to things he believes he has thoroughly absorbed, and the world is different and life different to him since. "Tom Touchstone"6 sent another disciple, Mr Carr,7 to me and he is quite devoted. He was greatly pleased at a portrait I was able to give him. Mr Sutherland & Jim Hartigan8 want a copy of "Good bye my Fancy." Could you send price, please. Fred Woods9 would like one of those portraits where you appear with (as it were) storm tossed beard, your hat on, and a hearty, sea-captain-like look on you. And, if it would not be too much trouble, with your name on it. He's a grand fellow Fred, and tossed as he was on seas of doubt & deserts of the barrenest materialism, you have become a virtual religion to him as you have to more than him. Mr Sutherland has translated Freiligrath's10 article on you (from Dr. Bucke's11 book12). It is wonderful what misunderstandings are about concerning your poems of sex.

I do not fear, as you seem to do, that we shall separate from Britain.13 I advocated it once, nay started a society to bring it about, which I am glad to say soon died. For this change as for many others, I must thank you. I like to hear your ideas on Australians and would say much myself but that I don't want to bother you too much. We want a Walt Whitman here: ours is a democracy too with ever more hopeful prospects than yours but with great dangers ahead (especially social) and here too the song of material interests drowns the other pieces in the chorus.

We love you all, and greet you with sympathy in your illnesses and with growing hopes for your speedy recognition by all men as being as much their Walt as you are ours.

B. O'Dowd
Bernard O'Dowd

Bernard O'Dowd (1866–1953), a self-styled "poor clerk in an obscure library" in Melbourne, Australia, wrote for the first time to Walt Whitman on March 12, 1890, although there is extant an unsent draft letter written on August 6, 1889. From his confessions in various letters it is clear that O'Dowd, the son of an Irish policeman, had a lonely and loveless childhood, that he was reared a Roman Catholic only to become a freethinker, that he became a teacher at an early age but then drifted (not unlike Walt Whitman) from job to job, and that despite his marriage the year before in his own eyes he was "a failure" and "an enigma to myself." He saw Whitman as an heroic father figure: "Had Carlyle added another chapter to his 'Hero Worship' the 'Hero as Nurse' with Walt Whitman as subject would have worthily capped his dome" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Alan L. McLeod, ed., Walt Whitman in Australia and New Zealand: A Record of his Reception [Sydney: Wentworth, 1964], 23). For more information on O'Dowd, see Alan L. McLeod's "Walt Whitman in Australia," Walt Whitman Review 7 (1961): 23–35. See also Alan L. McLeod, "Australia and New Zealand, Whitman in," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


1. Whitman's book Good-Bye My Fancy (1891) was his last miscellany, and it included both poetry and short prose works commenting on poetry, aging, and death, among other topics. Thirty-one poems from the book were later printed as "Good-Bye my Fancy 2d Annex" to Leaves of Grass (1891–1892), the last edition of Leaves of Grass published before Whitman's death in March 1892. For more information see, Donald Barlow Stauffer, "'Good-Bye my Fancy' (Second Annex) (1891)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [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 One 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. The Review of Reviews was a magazine begun by the reform journalist William Thomas Stead (1849–1912) in 1890 and published in Great Britain. It contained reviews and excerpts from other magazines and journals, as well as original pieces, many written by Stead himself. [back]

4. The Australasian Secular Association was founded in Melbourne in 1882 during a time of intense debates about religion. The Association fought for secular reforms like the opening of public libraries and art galleries on Sundays, and its members believed that the newly emerging Australian colonies could become one of the first truly secular societies. [back]

5. John Sutherland was a Fellow of the Institute of Actuaries and was considered a mathematical authority. [back]

6. Thomas Bury (1838–1900) was a journalist from Dublin, who went to Australia in search of gold, but settled in Victoria, where he held various jobs and continued to contribute to newspapers. He wrote for the Ballarat Courier on politics, religion, literature, and art. For more on Bury, see Joseph Jones, "Bury, Thomas (1838–1900)," Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3: 1851–1890 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1869). [back]

7. As yet we have no information about this person. [back]

8. James (Jim) Hartigan was a plasterer and a member of the Australem discussion club. See the letter from Whitman to Bernard O'Dowd of July 12, 1890[back]

9. Fred Woods was the author of Heavenly Thoughts (1932), a volume of poetry. See the letter from Whitman to Bernard O'Dowd of July 12, 1890[back]

10. Ferdinand Freiligrath (1810–1876) was a German poet and translator and friend of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In his January 16, 1872 letter to Rudolf Schmidt, Whitman wrote that Freiligrath "translates & commends my poems." His review in the Augsburg Allgemeinen Zeitung on April 24, 1868 (reprinted in his Gesammelte Dichtungen [Stuttgart: G. J. Göschen, 1871], 4:86–89), was among the first notices of Whitman's poetry on the continent. A translation of the article appeared in the New Eclectic Magazine, 2 (July 1868), 325–329; see also Gay Wilson Allen, Walt Whitman Abroad (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1955), 3–7. A digital version is available in Walter Grünzweig's "Whitman in the German-Speaking Countries," which collects numerous examples of German reception of Whitman's poetry. [back]

11. 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]

12. O'Dowd is referring to Bucke's 1883 biography Walt Whitman, which was published by David McKay of Philadelphia. Whitman wrote long passages for the book himself and heavily revised others. [back]

13. The first National Australasian Convention, which was held in Sydney in March and April 1891, officially marked the start of the journey for six British colonies—New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australian, Western Australia, and Tasmania—toward nationhood. In a process that took several years, the colonies agreed upon a Constitution Bill, and the British Parliament passed The Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act in 1900. Queen Victoria gave her royal assent to the legislation, which took effect on January 1, 1901. At the start of 1901, Australia's six colonies became a nominally independent nation, able to collectively govern as the unified Commonwealth of Australia.  [back]


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