Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Richard Maurice Bucke to Walt Whitman, 24 December 1888

Date: December 24, 1888

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07287

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

Editorial note: The annotation, "see notes 12/26/88," is in the hand of Horace Traubel.

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

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Superintendent's Office.
Asylum for the Insane
London, Ont.,1
24 Dec 18882

Yours of 213 containing Mrs O'Connor's4 letter this moment to hand (noon Monday). O'C.5 has wonderful grit and will make a hard fight yet—We will continue to wish him God speed and ourselves hope for the best. Poor Mrs O'C. too, what noble courage and determination she has! She is as grand as he is, as grand as any.6 Wm Gurd7 is here, arrived yesterday without letter or warning, just walked in. All seems to be going on as it should with the meter but slow, slow,—We propose now to make it safe in Canada and western Europe and then proceed to Philadelphia to lay it before experts and capitalists—perhaps establish a Co. to manufacture. I cannot tell how long it may take us yet to get to Phila but I think we ought to be there in the course of January. I trust to find you in good shape then. Nesbit8 (the other partner) will likely to be here very soon after Xmas we shall then settle on our immediate course

A lovely bright warm day. Would rather however have snow, sleighing and cold at Xmas time

A good Xmas and 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 | DE 24 | 88 | Canada; Camden [illegible] | Dec | 2 [illegible] | 6 AM | [illegible] | Rec'd. [back]

2. Letters for December 24 and 26, 1888, are currently missing. From the surviving evidence it is possible to reconstruct the general nature of these letters.

On December 27, 1888, Whitman wrote Bucke: "have rec'd yours of 24th, & note carefully what you say of food, alcohol, &c, and of the effete wretchedness—all thoroughly judged & true, & shall charge myself practically with it—certainly so—& glad to get it."

The extant Bucke letter to Whitman of December 24 contains no mention of diet. It would appear that Bucke wrote two letters to Whitman that day—something which he did on occasion (e.g. November 28, 1888, and later that same evening). On December 29, 1888, Bucke wrote Traubel: "I have urged the warm bath, medicine, moderate diet (almost starvation diet is safest for him) he has answered my letter and says he will attend to what I say" (Feinberg). Bucke is referring to the letter Whitman wrote on December 27, 1888. Some further evidence of the content of this letter is provided by Traubel:

"Among the letters W. gave me yesterday [December 27, 1888] was one from Bucke very specific about W.'s diet. W. said to-night: 'It is—yes it is—a very good letter: I am conscious it should be obeyed. I know no one better able to say these things than Bucke.' Bucke had advised that the letter be shown to Walsh, who could give more direct instructions. W. has not done this: it is doubtful if he will, though he may" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Friday, December 28, 1888).

It is more difficult to reconstruct the nature of Bucke's letter to Whitman of December 26, 1888.

On December 29, 1888, Whitman wrote Bucke: "y'rs of 26th came last evn'g—Yes, I shall mind—think I understand & accept the matter below it, & shall practically put it in action."

[Lozynsky goes on to argue that] Bucke's letter of December 26 was a follow-up to his letter of the 24th concerning diet. In his December 29 letter, Whitman may be reassuring Bucke that he intends to keep the promise made in his letter of the 27th. The fact that both these letters are missing suggests a link between them. They were put aside either for consultation about specific details or, as Traubel mentions, for presentation to Dr. Walsh. [Note copied from Artem Lozynsky, ed., The Letters of Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke to Walt Whitman (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1977), 98–99.] [back]

3. See Whitman's letter to Bucke of December 21, 1888[back]

4. Ellen M. "Nelly" O'Connor (1830–1913) was the wife of William D. O'Connor (1832–1889), one of Whitman's staunchest defenders. Before marrying William, Ellen Tarr was active in the antislavery and women's rights movements as a contributor to the Liberator and to a women's rights newspaper Una. Whitman dined with the O'Connors frequently during his Washington years. Though Whitman and William O'Connor would temporarily break off their friendship in late 1872 over Reconstruction policies with regard to emancipated African Americans, Ellen would remain friendly with Whitman. The correspondence between Whitman and Ellen is almost as voluminous as the poet's correspondence with William. Three years after William O'Connor's death, Ellen married the Providence businessman Albert Calder. For more on Whitman's relationship with the O'Connors, see Dashae E. Lott, "O'Connor, William Douglas [1832–1889]" and Lott's "O'Connor (Calder), Ellen ('Nelly') M. Tarr (1830–1913)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

5. 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]

6. See note 3 to Whitman's letter to Ellen O'Connor of December 19, 1888[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. John Nesbit was a partner with Bucke and Gurd in the marketing of the gas and fluid meter; see Bucke's letter to Whitman of August 28, 1888[back]


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