Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Richard Maurice Bucke to Walt Whitman, 15 May 1889

Date: May 15, 1889

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07302

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.,
15 May 18891

I returned from Toronto (after attending, yesterday, Mrs O'Reilly's2 funeral) at noon today and find your long and interesting letter of Saturday and Sunday enclosing Mrs. O'Connor's3 most pathetic letter, to you, of 9th.4 Poor Mrs O'Connor is indeed alone, I fear the rest of her life will be terribly lonely. I am much pleased that you have actually been out in the chair5 and that you seemed to find it a success—I shall feel easier about you—you will not be so horribly dull now though you may still be dull enough. But to get out even a little while once or twice a day (in good weather) will undoubtedly break the monotony a little. It will be good for Ed,6 too, will give him something to do—some little exercise. I am glad to hear that you sweat freely now that the warm weather has come. It is a capital thing for you and frequent baths with more or less massage each day will keep the skin acting and will be most beneficial to you.7 Do not be discouraged because you do not see good effects from such things (as baths, massage, getting out &c &c) at once—at your age reaction takes place slowly—but all these things will tell in the long run and I have good hopes that you may make a rally yet for you have a constitution of ten thousand. The letter containing the 1st prescription must have miscarried (I certainly sent it). I do not think very much of the dinner scheme8 but all the same I should like to be there (have heard nothing abt. it except your letter).9 If there were some good speeches well reported it might not be amiss (I am a firm believer in all legitimate forms of advertizing). I should like to be there and make a speech myself all right enough

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: [OT WEST UR WY ST ATN?] | PM | MY 15 | 89 | London; Ca [illegible] | May | 1 [illegible] | 6 AM | 1889 | Rec [illegible]. [back]

2. According to Bucke's letter to Whitman of May 13, 1889, Mrs O'Reilly was "the wife of the Inspector of Asylums." [back]

3. 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]

4. See O'Connor's letter to Whitman of May 9, 1889. See also Whitman's letter to Bucke of May 11–12, 1889[back]

5. Horace Traubel and Ed Wilkins, Whitman's nurse, went to Philadelphia to purchase a wheeled chair for the poet that would allow him to be "pull'd or push'd" outdoors. See Whitman's letter to William Sloane Kennedy of May 8, 1889[back]

6. Edward "Ned" Wilkins (1865–1936) was one of Whitman's nurses during his Camden years; he was sent to Camden from London, Ontario, by Dr. Richard M. Bucke, and he began caring for Whitman on November 5, 1888. He stayed for a year before returning to Canada to attend the Ontario Veterinary School. Wilkins graduated on March 24, 1893, and then he returned to the United States to commence his practice in Alexandria, Indiana. For more information, see Bert A. Thompson, "Edward Wilkins: Male Nurse to Walt Whitman," Walt Whitman Review 15 (September 1969), 194–195. [back]

7. See Whitman's May 11–12, 1889, letter to Bucke, where he discusses bathing, the chair, and the delayed calomel prescription mentioned below. [back]

8. For Whitman's seventieth birthday, Horace Traubel and a large committee planned a local celebration for the poet in Morgan's Hall in Camden, New Jersey. The committee included Henry (Harry) L. Bonsall, Geoffrey Buckwalter, and Thomas B. Harned. See Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Tuesday, May 7, 1889. The day was celebrated with a testimonial dinner. Numerous authors and friends of the poet prepared and delivered addresses to mark the occasion. Whitman, who did not feel well at the time, arrived after the dinner to listen to the remarks. [back]

9. In his June 1, 1889, letter to Bucke, Whitman reports the success of the dinner. See also Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Friday, May 31, 1889[back]


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