Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Robert Pearsall Smith, 7 May 1888

Date: May 7, 1888

Whitman Archive ID: loc.05154

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.

Editorial notes: The annotation, "To R. Pearsall Smith," is in an unknown hand.

Related item: On the verso of this letter, Whitman has written a draft of the poem, "Life."

Contributors to digital file: Alex Ashland, Stefan Schöberlein, Caterina Bernardini, and Stephanie Blalock

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May 7 '88

Dear friend

I wish I could send you something more medicatious than real sympathy & sorrow for your suffering & confinement—but that heartily for want of anything better. I rec'd a note from Mary2 with programme of her intended lecture before London women. Rec'd a letter from Logan3 ab't his visit to H Gilchrist's4 WW Portrait blow—I am not much different here (but the net is slowly winding & tightening round me)—was out driving yesterday afternoon & to supper at my friends Lawyer & Mrs. Harned's5—I have been reading Boswell's Johnson—(what an old octopus J was!)—the oysters come—I had 3 or 4 for my breakfast—I take no other meal till ab't 5—Lady Mount Temple has sent me a present of a beautiful vest of knit stuff, wool & silk6—Love to Alys7—As old S J says "Let us pray for each other."

Walt Whitman

I see I have taken a sheet of paper with a rambling first draught of one of my Herald yawps8—but n'importe

Robert Pearsall Smith (1827–1898) was a Quaker who became an evangelical minister associated with the "Holiness movement." He was also a writer and businessman. Whitman often stayed at his Philadelphia home, where the poet became friendly with the Smith children—Mary, Logan, and Alys. For more information about Smith, see Christina Davey, "Smith, Robert Pearsall (1827–1898)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


1. This letter is addressed: R Pearsall Smith | 507 S Broad Street | Philadelphia. It is postmarked Camden, N.J. | May 7 | 430PM | 88; Received | May | 7 | 530PM | 1888 | Phila. The envelope is printed with Whitman's name and address as follows: WALT. WHITMAN, | Camden, | New Jersey. [back]

2. Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe (1864–1945) was a political activist, art historian, and critic, whom Whitman once called his "staunchest living woman friend." A scholar of Italian Renaissance art and a daughter of Robert Pearsall Smith, she would in 1885 marry B. F. C. "Frank" Costelloe. She had been in contact with many of Whitman's English friends and would travel to Britain in 1885 to visit many of them, including Anne Gilchrist shortly before her death. For more, see Christina Davey, "Costelloe, Mary Whitall Smith (1864–1945)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

3. Logan Pearsall Smith (1865–1946) was an essayist and literary critic. He was the son of Robert Pearsall Smith, a minister and writer who befriended Whitman, and he was the brother of Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe, one of Whitman's most avid followers. For more information on Logan, see Christina Davey, "Smith, Logan Pearsall (1865–1946)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

4. Herbert Harlakenden Gilchrist (1857–1914), son of Alexander and Anne Gilchrist, was an English painter and editor of Anne Gilchrist: Her Life and Writings (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1887). For more information, see Marion Walker Alcaro, "Gilchrist, Herbert Harlakenden (1857–1914)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

5. Augusta Anna Traubel Harned (1856–1914) was Horace Traubel's sister. She married Thomas Biggs Harned, a lawyer in Philadelphia and, later, one of Whitman's literary executors. [back]

6. Lady Mount Temple sent the vest, and Whitman received a letter with a parcel ticket for the vest from Wolmershausen on April 18, 1888. On April 28, 1888, Whitman was notified of the arrival of the vest by O.G. Hempstead & Son, a customs brokerage house in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The poet was somewhat annoyed: "By the time we get the thing in our hands we will have paid more than it is physically worth. . . . But we'll get the waistcoat if it takes our last cent" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, May 2, 1888). [back]

7. Alys Smith (1867–1951) was a daughter of Robert Pearsall Smith and the sister of Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe. She eventually married the philosopher Bertrand Russell. [back]

8. The finished version of the poem "Life" that Whitman drafts on the verso of this page was published in the New York Herald on April 15, 1888[back]


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