Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Richard Maurice Bucke to Walt Whitman, 13 May 1889

Date: May 13, 1889

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07301

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.

Contributors to digital file: Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Caterina Bernardini, Alex Ashland, and Stephanie Blalock

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Superintendent's Office.
for the Insane
London, Ont.,
13 May 18891

So our old dear friend O'Connor2 is gone at last.3 Thank God that he died peacefully,4 without pain.5 My great regret is that with his magnificent abilities he should have done so comparatively little to keep his name alive. However he will be long remembered—if for nothing else—for the "Good Gray Poet" which will not be forgotten for a while yet.6 His death will be a great grief and also a great relief to Mrs O'C.7 The care of him was almost more than she could bear. She will of course grieve bitterly but for her sake I am glad his life was not prolonged if it had been she must have broken down and that would have made things worse than ever. I believe, dear Walt, that it is all right and as it should be—and I trust when I come to die myself, as I must and ought in a little while, that I shall say the same thing. "We shall go to him though he will not come back to us" and when we do go to him we shall see that there things are better managed than they would be if we had our way with them.

Mrs O'Reilly (wife of the Inspector of Asylums) died yesterday morning—I go to Toronto to the funeral tomorrow—back next day.

So we go one after the other—but it is all right—what good would it be to stay?

Your friend
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 | MY 13 | 89 | Canada; Camden, N.J. | May | 15 | [illegible]30 PM | 1889 | Rec'd. [back]

2. 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]

3. Ellen O'Connor wrote on May 9, 1889 to deliver the sad news of the death of her husband, William. [back]

4. See Whitman's postal card to Bucke of May 10, 1889[back]

5. For Whitman's reaction to the news of the death of O'Connor, see Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Friday, May 10, 1889[back]

6. Both Whitman and Bucke highly valued O'Connor's polemical writings on the poet. Bucke reprinted them in his biography of the poet, Walt Whitman (1883): "Mr. O'Connor's Letter, 1883," 73–98; The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication, 99–130; and "Two Subsequent Letters," 130–132. See also Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Monday, May 13, 1889[back]

7. 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]


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