Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Robert Buchanan to Walt Whitman, 8 January 1877

Date: January 8, 1877

Whitman Archive ID: loc.04207

Source: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. The transcription presented here is derived from Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, Inc., 1961), 1:2–3. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Alicia Bones, Kevin McMullen, Grace Thomas, Nicole Gray, and Kenneth Price

16 UP. Gloucester Place, Dorset Square, London
Jan. 8, 1877.

Dear Walt Whitman:

Pray forgive my long silence.1 I have been deep in troubles of my own. All the books have arrived and been safely transmitted. Many thanks.

You have doubtless heard about affairs in England. The tone adopted by certain of your friends here became so unpleasant that I requested all subscriptions etc. to be paid over to Rossetti,2 and received no more myself. During a certain lawsuit against the Examiner, your admirers—notably Mr. Swinburne3—pleaded against me that I had praised you, cited your words against me in court etc. I never was so shocked and astonished, for I would not have believed human beings capable of such iniquity.

As I think I told you before, I shall ever regret the insertion of certain passages in your books (Children of Adam4 etc). I do not believe them necessary or defensible. These passages are quoted as being the work of an immoral writer, and, altho' I tried to show they were part of a system of philosophy, it would not do. I know the purity and righteousness of your meaning, but that does not alter my regret.

I think your reputation is growing here, and I am sure it deserves to grow. But your fatal obstacle to general influence is the obnoxious passages. I wish you would make up your mind to excise them with your own hand.

God bless you!—May your trouble lift, and may happy days be in store for you!—Let me know about your affairs. I may soon be in a position to help you more definitely.

Yours ever,


1. Robert Buchanan (1841–1901), a Scottish poet, novelist and dramatist, was an ardent supporter of Walt Whitman's works in England (see Harold Blodgett, "Whitman and Buchanan," American Literature, 2:2 [May 1930], 131–40). [back]

2. William Michael Rossetti (1829–1915), brother of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti, was an English editor and a champion of Whitman's work. In 1868, Rossetti edited Whitman's Poems, selected from the 1867 Leaves of Grass. Whitman referred to Rossetti's edition as a "horrible dismemberment of my book" in his August 12, 1871, letter to Frederick S. Ellis. Nonetheless, the edition provided a major boost to Whitman's reputation, and Rossetti would remain a staunch supporter for the rest of Whitman's life, drawing in subscribers to the 1876 Leaves of Grass and fundraising for Whitman in England. For more on Whitman's relationship with Rossetti, see Sherwood Smith, "Rossetti, William Michael (1829–1915)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

3. The British poet, critic, playwright, and novelist Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909) was one of Whitman's earliest English admirers. At the conclusion of William Blake: A Critical Essay (1868), 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" (300–303). 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," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 21 (Summer 2003), 38–39. [back]

4. Originally entitled "Enfans d'Adam" in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, this cluster of poems celebrating sexuality was called "Children of Adam" in 1867 and thereafter. The poems, openly "singing the phallus" and the "mystic deliria," were too bold for their time and often led to trouble for Whitman. His relationship with esteemed writer Ralph Waldo Emerson cooled after he refused Emerson's advice in 1860 to drop the poems; in 1865, he lost his job in the Department of the Interior in Washington D.C., for writing "indecent" poems; and he had to withdraw the 1881 edition of Leaves from publication in Boston when the Society for the Suppression of Vice found it immoral. For more on "Children of Adam" and its reception, see James E. Miller, Jr., " 'Children of Adam' [1860]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings [New York: Garland Publishing, 1998]). [back]


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