Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Richard Maurice Bucke to Walt Whitman, 23 October 1888

Date: October 23, 1888

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07258

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 note: The annotation, "See notes Oct 25, 1888," is in the hand of Horace Traubel.

Contributors to digital file: Jeannette Schollaert, Alex Ashland, Caterina Bernardini, and Stephanie Blalock

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Superintendent's Office.1
London, Ont.,
23 Oct 1888

Your letter of 13th2 to Burroughs,3 O'Connor4 and myself written on the back of Mrs Costelloe's5 letter to you reached me last evening. Burroughs sent it to O'C. and he to me and with it the little note which I enclose. I have written a long letter to O'C. to try to cheer him up a bit, I fear he is in a bad way. That paralisis of the eyelid (Ptosis) I fear will not let up. It is an extension of the disease (sclerosis) that has troubled him so long and a disease of this kind is a good deal more in the habit of going forwards than backwards.6

It is still raining here (beats the Dutch how it rains) we have had hardly a fine day in a month and it looks this morning as if we shd never have fine weather again. It is well enough (as Longfellow says) that some days should be dark and dreary—but I don't see the fun of so much cloudy weather.

I am glad you like the Photo—I have not had many printed from it yet, been waiting for bright weather to try another negative but I agree with you that the one I sent you is very good. No word yet from Wm Gurd7 in re meter—I shall not be able to fix the time of my going East untill I hear from him (and perhaps not when I first hear from him). Yours of 21st8 just to hand—I have not seen any of the papers you mention, wish you or Horace9 wd send them & the Critic10 with your letter in when it comes out. We are all well and all goes on as usual—quiet and pleasant. Shall write again soon

Love to you
R M 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. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | 328 Mickle Street | Camden | New Jersey | U.S.A. It is postmarked: LONDON | PM | OC 23 | 88 | CANADA; [illegible] N.J. | Oct | 25 | 6 AM | 18 [illegible] | REC'D. [back]

2. Bucke may be referring to Whitman's letter of October 15, 1888. If there is an additional letter addressed to all three men of October 13, 1888, it may not survive. [back]

3. The naturalist John Burroughs (1837–1921) met Whitman on the streets of Washington, D.C., in 1864. After returning to Brooklyn in 1864, Whitman commenced what was to become a decades-long correspondence with Burroughs. Burroughs was magnetically drawn to Whitman. However, the correspondence between the two men is, as Burroughs acknowledged, curiously "matter-of-fact." Burroughs would write several books involving or devoted to Whitman's work: Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person (1867), Birds and Poets (1877), Whitman, A Study (1896), and Accepting the Universe (1924). For more on Whitman's relationship with Burroughs, see Carmine Sarracino, "Burroughs, John [1837–1921] and Ursula [1836–1917]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

4. William Douglas O'Connor (1832–1889) was the author of the grand and grandiloquent Whitman pamphlet The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication, published in 1866. For more on Whitman's relationship with O'Connor, see Deshae E. Lott, "O'Connor, William Douglas (1832–1889)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

5. 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]

6. On October 20, 1888, O'Connor had written Bucke that "a month ago my right eye closed, and the lid had not yet lifted, spite of battery. So I am practically blind" (See Edwin Haviland Miller, ed., The Correspondence of Walt Whitman [New York: New York University Press, 1969], 4:227n89). Earlier that year, January 23, 1888, O'Connor had described one of his attacks for Bucke:

"My state of health is exasperating. Everyone says I look very well and I feel reasonably so but for the horrible lameness and feebleness. Last Monday (the 16th) I had a new experience. I sat down to dinner, suddenly felt a curious still feeling, pushed back my chair, and became perfectly insensible. It was then five o'clock in the afternoon. When I came to it was ten. The room was lighted, and four doctors were around me, and my wife and a couple of neighbors. I thought I had died, did not know where I was, and for about an hour could not articulate. Then I began to realize I was still in the world, and began a resolute effort to have three or four messages written for me, for I tranquilly thought I was dying. I succeeded, and was then helped up stairs and put to bed, where I remained for the rest of the week. It was a tough of apoplexy, incident to my malady the doctor said, and a small blood vessel in my head had broken. Now I am no worse than usual, save that I am very feeble; and I go to the office, though I can't do much." (See the letter from O'Connor to Bucke of October 20, 1888 in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.).

As Bucke had predicted, this was the sort of disease that "is a good deal more in the habit of going forwards than backwards." On March 8, 1889, Ellen O'Connor, William Douglass O'Connor's wife, wrote to Whitman about her husband's worsening condition and his epileptic seizures.

"Dear Walt, I have not been able to write you again, for Wm. has been & is very ill. On the 6th Wed. he had five of those epileptic seizures, the last four from 5 P.M. to 9.30 going from one to another, without recovering consciousness. He has not been up since, is very weak & sick, & his mind not clear yet. Will send word again as soon as I can. With love— Nelly O'C." (Artem Lozynsky, ed., The Letters of Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke to Walt Whitman [Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1977], 75n2. [back]

7. William John Gurd (1845–1903) was Richard Maurice Bucke's brother-in-law, with whom he was designing a gas and fluid meter to be patented in Canada and sold in England. Bucke believed the meter would be worth "millions of dollars," while Whitman remained skeptical, sometimes to Bucke's annoyance. In a March 18, 1888, letter to William D. O'Connor, Whitman wrote, "The practical outset of the meter enterprise collapsed at the last moment for the want of capital investors." For additional information, see Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Sunday, March 17, 1889, Monday, March 18, 1889, Friday, March 22, 1889, and Wednesday, April 3, 1889. [back]

8. Whitman mentioned reviews of November Boughs by W.S. Kennedy in the Boston Transcript and by Melville Philips in the Philadelphia Press. See Whitman's letter to Bucke of October 21, 1888. See also Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Saturday, October 20, 1888). [back]

9. Horace L. Traubel (1858–1919) was an American essayist, poet, and magazine publisher. He is best remembered as the literary executor, biographer, and self-fashioned "spirit child" of Walt Whitman. During the late 1880s and until Whitman's death in 1892, Traubel visited the poet virtually every day and took thorough notes of their conversations, which he later transcribed and published in three large volumes entitled With Walt Whitman in Camden (1906, 1908, & 1914). After his death, Traubel left behind enough manuscripts for six more volumes of the series, the final two of which were published in 1996. For more on Traubel, see Ed Folsom, "Traubel, Horace L. [1858–1919]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

10. See note 10 accompanying the letter from Whitman to Bucke of October 21, 1888[back]


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