Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Richard Maurice Bucke to Walt Whitman, 22 September 1890

Date: September 22, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07113

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 derived from The Letters of Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke to Walt Whitman, ed. Artem Lozynsky (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1977), and supplemented, updated, or created by Whitman Archive staff as appropriate.

Contributors to digital file: Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Ian Faith, Breanna Himschoot, and Stephanie Blalock

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Asylum London
22 Sept. '90

Yours of 19th1 enclosing Wallace's2 note3 just received. There is more "non aurthodox passion" among your friends than perhaps you are aware of. Though we do not set up and curse the (modern) Pharisees as Christ (or far more likely his friends did) yet we feel it. It is there all the same. We do not and cannot go with Ingersoll4 in his refusals and denials but we like the man and we should be foolish to do anything to deter him from giving us his friendship and support. We want the conservative, orthodox folk (all we can get of them) and we are getting a good many (I have a letter this morning from a young presbytarian clergiman—a good friend of yours5) but we want (to my mind) the independent freethinkers even more since the immediate future (I fancy) belongs to them. I think you are right to stand aside (personally) from this I.6 demonstration7 but for my part (as a friend of the cause) I look upon it (and think you should) with great complacency. I think therefore that you are entirely wrong to be "annoyed" at a demonstration in your favor even if it were entirely by freethinker—they cannot alter you or your teaching and (on the contrary) you will undoubtedly, in the end, alter many of them and will have (in the end) in all probability your most extreme partisans & lovers from this section of humanity. As for I. being "solicited" it seems to me that is neither here nor there—your friends have a right to do what seems best to them in such matters—their action does not affect you—you stand aside and let them act. That is all. For my part nothing could give me greater satisfaction than a rousing demonstration on the part of I. and his friends and I shall take part in it (if I can) with a good heart. I do heartily agree with you however in wishing that the affair8 could come off in N.Y. Could not this be managed? I shall write to Johnston9 on this point.

All well here, fine weather, Western Fair going on in London. Meter10 moving slowly but satisfactorily

Best love to you
RM Bucke

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).


1. See Whitman's September 19, 1890, letter to Bucke. [back]

2. James William Wallace (1853–1926), of Bolton, England, was an architect and great admirer of Whitman. Along with John Johnston (d. 1918), a physician from Bolton, he 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 Wallace, see Larry D. Griffin, "Wallace, James William (1853–1926)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

3. Bucke is referring to Wallace's letter of September 9, 1890. [back]

4. Robert "Bob" Green Ingersoll (1833–1899) was a Civil War veteran and an orator of the post-Civil War era, known for his support of agnosticism. Ingersoll was a friend of Whitman, who considered Ingersoll the greatest orator of his time. Whitman said to Traubel, "It should not be surprising that I am drawn to Ingersoll, for he is Leaves of Grass. He lives, embodies, the individuality I preach. I see in Bob the noblest specimen—American-flavored—pure out of the soil, spreading, giving, demanding light" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, March 25, 1891). The feeling was mutual. Upon Whitman's death in 1892, Ingersoll delivered the eulogy at the poet's funeral. The eulogy was published to great acclaim and is considered a classic panegyric (see Phyllis Theroux, The Book of Eulogies [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997], 30). [back]

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

6. Here and through the rest of the letter, Bucke uses the abbreviation "I." to refer to Ingersolll. [back]

7. In his letter of September 17, 1890, Bucke quoted a letter from John H. Johnston: "This morning an hours talk with Ingersoll and I got his promise and authority to proceed and get up a lecture entertainment by him for Walt's benefit—in Phila I guess—Shall I put you on committee?" In his September 19 letter to Bucke, Whitman wrote that being affiliated with Ingersoll and "freethinking folks" was "annoying" to him, despite the poet's deep respect for Ingersoll. See also Whitman's September 20 letter to John H. Johnston. [back]

8. John H. Johnston (of New York) and Bucke were in the process of planning a lecture event in Whitman's honor, which would take place October 21 at Philadelphia's Horticultural Hall. Robert Ingersoll delivered the lecture: "Liberty in Literature. Testimonial to Walt Whitman." See Ingersoll's October 12, 1890 and October 20, 1890, letters to Whitman. [back]

9. John H. Johnston (1837–1919) was a New York jeweler and close friend of Whitman. Johnston was also a friend of Joaquin Miller (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden [New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1915], 2:139). Whitman visited the Johnstons for the first time early in 1877. In 1888 he observed to Horace Traubel: "I count [Johnston] as in our inner circle, among the chosen few" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, October 3, 1888). See also Johnston's letter about Whitman, printed in Charles N. Elliot, Walt Whitman as Man, Poet and Friend (Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1915), 149–174. For more on Johnston, see Susan L. Roberson, "Johnston, John H. (1837–1919) and Alma Calder," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

10. Bucke and his brother-in-law William John Gurd were designing a gas and fluid meter to be patented in Canada and sold in England. [back]


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