Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: William Roscoe Thayer to Walt Whitman, 12 October 1885

Date: October 12, 1885

Whitman Archive ID: loc.04279

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: Alex Kinnaman, Stefan Schöberlein, Ian Faith, and Stephanie Blalock

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68 Mt. Auburn Street.
Cambridge, Masstts.
1888, Octr, 12

Dear Mr. Whitman:

Many times during the past four or five weeks I have thought of your cordial invitation to me to write to you, but I have waited until I have got settled into my new mode of life before availing myself of the pleasure. Since I saw you I have spent nearly a fortnight at Mt. Desert— an island which in small space combines every variety of scenery—ocean and cliffs, mountain and lake, forest and beach— an epitome of what those who love beautiful landscape (and seascape) prize most. I wished, as I stood on the top of Green Mountain, the highest point on the island, and looked down upon a view of indescribable beauty & variety that I could by some magic have brought it all before your eyes, because I suspected that in Camden you would have given much for such a sight and also for many a long breath of the fresh brisk breeze. I can't describe to you the mysterious fascination the ocean has for me, or how I was stirred and pleased to hear once more the tone from his "husky-haughty lips"1— those ceaseless chatterers and orators.

As you are probably aware Bar Harbor, the chief place on Mt. Desert, has become a fashionable resort. A few years ago the natives, (like most of the Maine folk, dull, cloddish creatures) passed from season to season in unbroken monotony, content to grab a few vegetables from ill-tilled, rocky, soil and to live on smoked fish. Not so long before them the Indians themselves built their wigwams and hunted game in the forests.

Now, you meet the rich [idlers?] from Boston, New York, Chicago and other cities, during their gorgeous turn-outs along well-kept roads. French cooks poke their white caps from the kitchen windows of costly villas, and French millinery adorns fashionable ladies. In the season—that is during part of July and the whole of August—big hotels are crammed with thousands of visitors, and social extravagance reaches so high a level as in Fifth Avenue in winter. Of all this I saw but little, because most of the gay people had left, but I could not help contrasting the unsatisfying showiness and gilded insincerity of some of the drawing rooms I visited, with the homelike simplicity and comfort of your little parlor, where I found "plain living and high thinking"2 embodied. For that privilege I shall long be grateful.

Well, I came back from Mt. Desert feeling much better in body and spirits, having exchanged some of the heaviness and weariness contracted in Philadelphia for the beneficient effects wrought by crisp air, blue skies, endlessly fascinating play of color and shadows in sea and slopes, and old ocean's tranquilizing drone. Without much trouble I found a sunny room in Cambridge and having at last got my books within reach I begin to feel at home. It is pleasant to be my own master again, and to be able, for the present at least, to follow my inclinations. If I am reading I need not hurry to reach the office, or submit to other interruption; if I wish to walk, the day and the night, and roads leading in all directions, are mine. Occasionally comes the desire of writing but the proper moment has not yet accompanied it, and I do not force myself, suspecting that as I gradually outline the strain upon mind and body which nearly four years of constant journalistic drudgery caused, the impulse to write will need no coaxing.

I attend several courses at the University, chiefly upon historical subjects. Good fortune for me has been James Russell Lowell's3 consent to conduct a course dealing with Dante and Cervantes. I have as yet met him but once, but then I was charmed by him. You won't detect pedant or such about him, but a splendid example of a cultivated American, who knows the best that other lands and times have to offer, but who is still American. I look forward to a closer acquaintance with him. Certainly, it will be impossible to meet such a man frequently without getting much good. I find it of inestimable value to see in operation traits and principles over which men theorize interminably. Better, one example of nobility than fifty recipes for it. And so, in Mr. Lowell, one has a remarkable pattern of the man of broad culture. When I remember that he dared to lift his voice against slavery years ago, when to do so was dangerous to one's body and particularly difficult for those who belonged to the social circle in which he and Wendell Phillips were brought up—when I remember this, and witness the well-deserved honor of his later years, I think he must stand among the few thoroughly fortunate poets who have received during their lifetime what usually is bestowed upon poets' memory. Of course you are familiar with Lowell's "Commemoration Ode"4—a poem, it seems to me—in which the best Americanism gets itself uttered in memorable fashion.

I was very glad to receive several weeks ago an account of the horse and phaeton. I am sorry that I knew nothing of the surprise beforehand so that I might have had the pleasure of being among those who planned the gift. I hope you are able to drive every day, and that from your new point of view you will make some observation that you will share with your friends. Do you discover a different aspect in nature and men now that you look down upon them from the seat of your vehicle? I earnestly wish that this new possession may bring you much pleasure and improve your health.

I have given the newspapers so little attention during the past month—merely glancing at its telegraphic news from day to day—that I haven't seen anything that might interest you, which you have not also seen; but I shall soon be more regular in skimming the English & American weeklies, and I will send you whatever I deem you would care to have. I am reading—among a dozen books—Lewes's "Life of Goethe,"5 bright, easy and entertaining. Like everything that pertains to Goethe this account of him has an especial charm for me.—But I must stop, first, because you may find my garrulity tedious, and second, because the clocks have tolled midnight.

Very truly
William R. Thayer.

P.S. It occurs to me to remind you of that letter of Sidney Lanier6 which we spoke of in one of our talks—and yet I feel that I have but slight claim upon your good nature.

William Roscoe Thayer (1859–1923) was an American historian, editor of John Hay's letters, and a biographer of Theodore Roosevelt. He would publish Personal Recollections of Walt Whitman in 1919.


1. Thayer is alluding to Whitman's 1884 poem, "With Husky-Haughty Lips, O Sea!" [back]

2. Thayer is quoting William Wordsworth's sonnet "Written in London, September, 1802." Emerson also used the phrase in his essay "Domestic Life." [back]

3. James Russell Lowell (1819–1891) was an American critic, poet and editor of The Atlantic. One of Whitman's famous poetic contemporaries, Lowell was committed to conventional poetic form, which was clearly at odds with Whitman's more experimental form. Still, as editor of the Atlantic Monthly, he published Whitman's "Bardic Symbols," probably at Ralph Waldo Emerson's suggestion. Lowell later wrote a tribute to Abraham Lincoln titled "Commemoration Ode," which has often, since its publication, been contrasted with Whitman's own tribute, "O Captain! My Captain!" For further information on Whitman's views of Lowell, see William A. Pannapacker, "Lowell, James Russell (1819–1891)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998) [back]

4. Lowell's "Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration, July 21, 1865," was in honor of Harvard students who died in the Civil War. [back]

5. The English philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes (1817–1878) published his Life of Goethe in 1855. [back]

6. Sidney Lanier (1842–1881) was a Southern poet and musician who fought for the Confederacy and eventually became a professor at Johns Hopkins University. See his May 5, 1878, letter to Whitman. For more information about Lanier, see Lawrence I. Berkove, "Lanier, Sidney (1842–1881)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]


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