Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Richard Maurice Bucke to Walt Whitman, 20–22 August 1890

Date: August 20–22, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07357

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 derived from Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller, 6 vols. (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977), and supplemented, updated, or created by Whitman Archive staff as appropriate.

Contributors to digital file: Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Ian Faith, Breanna Himschoot, and Stephanie Blalock

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Superintendent's Office.
London, Ont.,
20 Aug 1890

I wrote the date as above on 20th and have not had a moment since in which to write the letter

It is now 22 Aug.

And in the first place I may say that I received by mail from England nearly a week ago J.A. Symonds'1 "Essays: Speculative & Suggestive," that I have, of course, found time to read "Democratic Art," and that I am greatly disappointed.2 It, to my mind, comes far short of what such a man ought to have written on such a subject.3 The singular thing to me is that he does not seem to understand the least what you are driving at, what you are there for. He speaks for instance of "Walt Whitman whose whole life has been employed in attempting to lay foundations for a new national literature."

Is it not extraordinary that he should not see through and behind this (perfectly true as far as it goes) phase of the matter?

How strange too (to cite a small but significant point) that he does not know that the "Poetry of the Future" is included in "Sp. Days & Collect"?4

The whole article is "flat, stale and unprofitable"—a saw dust chewing business–dealing with the hull, the shell, the superfices, never for one time, one flash of insight penetrating to the heart of the business. Too bad, too bad.

I have your note of 18th,5 Have not seen the "Rejoinder"6 you mention. Will you not send it? Or do you mean the reply to the Woodberry shirt sleeve lie?7 I have that & Kennedy's8 letter.9 I hope you will find Symonds' letter & send it,10 am particularly anxious to read it now and compare it with his "Democratic Art" (it may be he has purposely kept to the outside, the form in "D. A." All well here and going well—only too much work

Love always
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. John Addington Symonds (1840–1893), a prominent biographer, literary critic, and poet in Victorian England, was author of the seven-volume history Renaissance in Italy, as well as Walt Whitman—A Study (1893), and a translator of Michelangelo's sonnets. But in the smaller circles of the emerging upper-class English homosexual community, he was also well known as a writer of homoerotic poetry and a pioneer in the study of homosexuality, or sexual inversion as it was then known. See Andrew Higgins, "Symonds, John Addington [1840–1893]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

2. Bucke is referring to John Addington Symonds's Essays Speculative and Suggestive (London: Chapman and Hall, 1890). The chapter on "Democratic Art" is mainly inspired by Whitman. [back]

3. In his July 18–19, 1890, letter, Whitman told Bucke that Symonds had sent him a copy of his Essays. The poet "doubt[ed] whether [Symonds] has gripp'd 'democratic art' by the nuts, or L of G. either." In his August 24, 1890, response to Bucke's criticism in this letter; however, Whitman observed: "you are a little more severe on Symonds than I sh'd be." [back]

4. In his first footnote to "Democratic Art," Symonds observes: "'Poetry of the Future' (North American Review, February, 1881—why not included in his 'November Boughs,' I know not)" (see John Addington Symonds, Essays Speculative and Suggestive [London: Chapman and Hall, 1890], 242). Bucke correctly points out that "The Poetry of the Future," which first appeared in the North American Review 132.291 (February 1881), 195–210, was reprinted, in a slightly revised form, as "Poetry To-day in America—Shakspere—The Future" in Specimen Days & Collect (1882) (see Prose Works 1892, Volume 2: Collect and Other Prose, ed. Floyd Stovall [New York: New York University Press, 1964], 474–490). In a letter to Whitman of August 3, 1890, Symonds confessed that he had discovered this error and hoped to correct it in future editions. According to Schueller and Peters, the change was never made (see The Letters of John Addington Symonds, Volume 3: 1885–1893, ed. Herbert M. Schueller and Robert L. Peters [Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1969], 481–482, 484n). [back]

5. See Whitman's August 18, 1890, letter to Bucke, with which he enclosed the various items Bucke refers to in this letter. [back]

6. Whitman's "Rejoinder" was a discussion of some points raised by Symonds in "Democratic Art." It was published as "An Old Man's Rejoinder" in The Critic 17 (August 16, 1890), 85–86. It was reprinted in Good-Bye My Fancy (see Prose Works 1892, Volume 2: Collect and Other Prose, ed. Floyd Stovall [New York: New York University Press, 1964], 655–658). [back]

7. Charles J. Woodbury, who met Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1865, spread the story that Emerson told him that he once met Whitman for dinner at the Astor House in New York, and that the poet showed up without a coat, as if to "dine in his shirtsleeves." Whitman denied the rumor. For one of Whitman's responses to the shirtsleeves story, see Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Monday, August, 11, 1890[back]

8. William Sloane Kennedy (1850–1929) was on the staff of the Philadelphia American and later published biographies of Longfellow and Whittier (Dictionary of American Biography). Apparently Kennedy had called on the poet for the first time on November 21, 1880 (William Sloane Kennedy, Reminiscences of Walt Whitman [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]

9. Bucke is probably referring to Kennedy's most recent letter, dated August 15, 1890[back]

10. The letter referred to here is most likely the famous August 3, 1890, letter from Symonds. In the letter, Symonds asks Whitman to clarify the meaning of the "Calamus" poems and whether or not Whitman intended them to include physical and emotional intimacies between men. Whitman probably responded on August 19, 1890, though only a draft of the poet's letter survives. In this draft letter, Whitman denies having intended any homoerotic meanings for the "Calamus" poems and boasts that he had fathered six illegitimate children, a claim that is certainly false. The letter referred to here may also be an older one; Whitman also promised to pass along "an older letter" from Symonds in his August 24, 1890, letter to Bucke. The older letter would probably be Symonds' passionate letter of December 9, 1889, which prefigured Symonds' August 3rd letter. Whitman mentioned this older letter in his December 25–26, 1889 letter to Bucke. [back]


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