Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Thomas W. H. Rolleston to Walt Whitman, 11 July [1881]

Date: July 11, 1881

Whitman Archive ID: loc.05120

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.

Notes for this letter were created by Whitman Archive staff and/or were derived from Whitman and Rolleston: A Correspondence, ed. Horst Frenz (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1951), and supplemented or updated by Whitman Archive staff. The material appears here courtesy of Indiana University Press.

Editorial notes: The annotations, "Dresden, Saxony," and "¶"," are in the hand of Walt Whitman.

Contributors to digital file: Kirsten Clawson, Stefan Schöberlein, Nima Najafi Kianfar, Nicole Gray, and Elizabeth Lorang

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A valued Irish friend, a frequent traveler and resident on the European Continent—here is an extract from one of his late letters to me:1

bei Herrn Mauermeister Müller
168 Sidonian Strass
July 11th

There has been much more interest here,2 more sympathy and more indignation felt about the Presidents attempted murder,3 than if he was a European sovereign. From all sides, I think, the world looks to America; we love our own lands as much as you, but we feel that the future of the race is being decided there. Political corruption and public dishonesty are instinctively felt to be far more significant, occurring in America than in Germany or England, and we have been hearing so much about them lately that everyone's mind has been bent in expectation towards each new President, each striking turn of events in the U.S.; thinking that the time has come at last when something will be done to justify our hopes. We have thought we saw it being done since—Garfield's election—Hercules letting in the cleansing flood. Now, rightly or wrongly, this impression has been immensely strengthened. When we heard the President was dead it was as if we heard of a martyrdom. Now that the reports are more and more favourable everyday, it seems to us as if the good cause had assuredly triumphed in the first wrestle. I don't know how far these impressions of the state of things are true; but they have verisimilitude. I liked so much all I could hear of President Garfield. Is it not wonderful and inscrutable that out of the confusion and slander and insidious intrigue that seems to attend every Presidential election a man like that should have emerged? Things look to me every way as if the people were awaking.

I see your friend R. M. Bucke has brought out a book on 'Man's Moral Nature'—I must get it. I saw it noticed & praised in the 'Spectator' a few days ago—the critic said that "Mr. Bucke appeared to be an ardent admirer of Walt Whitman—hence, perhaps, some of the obscurities in the volume—which, we candidly confess, are beyond us."4 The Spectator is an excellent (weekly) paper—thoughtful, honest, manly; Radical in politics, but in religion belonging to that rather vapid sect, the Neo-Christian or Broad Church. Barring this latter particular there is a very great deal in the 'Spectator' which might be written out of you; and I have no doubt that if you had thrown your works into the form of systematic treatises and written in a strictly refined cultured and gentlemanlike way, you might have gained the approbation of the Spectator, possibly even of the Saturday Review, to which latter journal you are still a thorn in the flesh, of the first magnitude.5

We have left Bad-Elster, the baths having perfectly restored my wife's health to our great joy. And we are now pretty close to Dresden, about half an hour by train, living in two rooms in the [illegible]


1. Whitman evidently sent this letter to someone else, and wrote to send along with it this note, which appears on a separate leaf. Much of the letter itself Whitman crossed out with pencil, creating an "extract," including the header and the last several paragraphs. He also wrote "Dresden, Saxony" and added a ¶" at the top. The letter cuts off at the end, indicating that there was probably another page, which has not been located. [back]

2. Thomas William Hazen Rolleston (1857–1920) was an Irish poet and journalist. After attending college in Dublin, he moved to Germany for a period of time. He wrote to Whitman frequently, beginning in 1880, and later produced with Karl Knortz the first book-length translation of Whitman's poetry into German. In 1889, the collection Grashalme: Gedichte [Leaves of Grass: Poems] was published by Verlags-Magazin in Zurich, Switzerland. See Walter Grünzweig, Constructing the German Walt Whitman (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995). For more information on Rolleston, see Walter Grünzweig, "Rolleston, Thomas William Hazen (1857–1920)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

3. The newly elected President Garfield—to whom Rolleston had referred enthusiastically in his letter to Whitman of January 29, 1881—had been shot by a disappointed office-seeker on July 2, 1881; he died on September 19, 1881. [back]

4. Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke (1837–1902), a Canadian psychiatrist, became an intimate friend of Whitman and wrote the first complete life of the poet (see the letter from Rolleston to Whitman of September 27, 1883). The review to which Rolleston refers appeared in the June 4, 1881 issue of the Spectator (54, 742). The reviewer presents as the main thesis of Bucke's Man's Moral Nature (New York, 1879) the concept that love and faith are the basic elements of all progress and that Christianity is but "one step in an immense, perhaps an infinite series." The exact reading of the quotation given by Rolleston is: "The author of this essay is, it appears, an ardent admirer of Walt Whitman; hence, perhaps, some of the obscurities in his pages, which we must candidly say baffle us." [back]

5. The attitude of the Saturday Review toward Whitman was unsympathetic during his whole writing career. When Whitman sent a copy of his newly published Leaves of Grass to the periodical with a suggestion that it be favorably reviewed, he evoked the editor's comment that "If the Leaves of Grass should come into anybody's possession, our advice is to throw them instantly behind the fire." Representative of the Review's attitude is an article in the March 18, 1876 issue written in answer to a current drive by Whitman's friends to relieve his financial distress. It begins, "Whitman, it may be explained, is an American writer who some years back attracted attention by a volume of so-called poems which were chiefly remarkable for their absurd extravagance and shameless obscenity, and who has since, we are glad to say, been little heard of among decent people," and continues with such descriptions of his writing as a "stock of garbage," "so-called poetry," and "Whitman wares." The article even calls Whitman a "dirty bird which is shunned on account of its unclean habits." [back]


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