Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Richard Maurice Bucke to Walt Whitman, 31 December 1888

Date: December 31, 1888

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07289

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 annotations, "see | notes | Jan 2d | 1889," and "see | notes | Jan 2 | 1889," are in the hand of Horace Traubel.

Contributors to digital file: Alex Ashland, Ian Faith, and Stephanie Blalock

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Superintendent's Office
for the Insane
London, Ont.,
31 Dec 18881

Goodby poor old '88! Hurra for 89!

This morning arrived your post card of 28th2 your letter enclosing Kennedy's3 of 29th4 and the "Springfield Repn for all which thanks. Yesterday I read over again (for the 3d 4th or 5th time) "A Backward Glance" and "Elias Hicks"5 and dipped into a lot of other old favorites6 in the big Volume.7 Superficial readers will not of course detect the fine, oblique, personal touches running everywhere, through every page of this wonderfull book—nor do I pretend that I see the last meanings everywhere—but I see alot! More than in any other writing—but the subtlety of much of it is wonderful and when seen that very elusiveness gives it an extraordinary piquancy: yes, I think you need not doubt that you have put in so much of yourself and contemporary America that a 'cute man reading the "C.W." hundreds of years from now could reconstruct in his own mind both you and your time & land in a truer and more radical sense than any past time of even 50 or 100 years back can be reconstituted from any book in actual existence and this for many reasons but cheifly for the reason of the unique vitality and suggestiveness of L. of G. Yes, I think you may trust me to know something of your book & you, I have not studied them this past twenty years for nothing! If I did not know you both and love you both there would be something wrong on the one side or the other—but I don't think there is much wrong!

Love to you
R M Bucke8

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 31 | 8 [illegible]; Camden N.J. | Jan | 2 | 1 PM | 188 [illegible] | Rec'd. [back]

2. See Whitman's letter to Bucke of December 28, 1888. For a transcription and further context, see Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, January 22, 1889[back]

3. William Sloane Kennedy (1850–1929) was on the staff of the Philadelphia American and the Boston Transcript; he also published biographies of Longfellow, Holmes, and Whittier (Dictionary of American Biography [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933], 336–337). Apparently Kennedy called on the poet for the first time on November 21, 1880 (William Sloane Kennedy, Reminiscences of Walt Whitman [London: Alexander Gardener, 1896], 1). Though Kennedy was to become a fierce defender of Whitman, in his first published article he admitted reservations about the "coarse indecencies of language" and protested that Whitman's ideal of democracy was "too coarse and crude"; see The Californian, 3 (February 1881), 149–158. For more about Kennedy, see Katherine Reagan, "Kennedy, William Sloane (1850–1929)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

4. Whitman sent Kennedy's letter of December 25, 1888, as an enclosure in his December 29, 1888, letter to Bucke. [back]

5. Elias Hicks (1748–1830) was a Quaker from Long Island whose controversial teachings led to a split in the Religious Society of Friends in 1827, a division that was not resolved until 1955. Hicks had been a friend of Whitman's father and grandfather, and Whitman himself was a supporter and proponent of Hicks's teachings, writing about him in Specimen Days (see "Reminiscence of Elias Hicks") and November Boughs (see "Elias Hicks, Notes (such as they are)"). For more on Hicks and his influence on Whitman, see David S. Reynolds, Walt Whitman's America (New York: Knopf, 1995), 37–39. [back]

6. The short titles Bucke lists here refer to Whitman's essay on Elias Hicks and his essay titled "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads," both of which were also published in November Boughs (1888). [back]

7. Whitman's Complete Poems & Prose was published in December 1888. With the help of Horace Traubel, Whitman made the presswork and binding decisions, and Frederick Oldach bound the volume, which included a profile photo of the poet on the title page. For more information on the book, see Ed Folsom, Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary (University of Iowa: Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, 2005). [back]

8. Bucke enclosed a printed copy of "An impromptu criticism on the 900 page Volume, 'The Complete Poems and Prose of Walt Whitman,' first issued December, 1888," in which he praised Whitman's collection as "the bible of the future." See Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Thursday, December 27, 1888[back]


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