Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 27 December 1888

Date: December 27, 1888

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07536

Source: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. The transcription presented here is derived from Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977), 4:256. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

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

1 P M
Dec: 27 '88

A change in the weather—cloudy & disposed to rain—very moderate temperature—I continue to feel fairly & what may be call'd improving—bowel movement this forenoon—I read letter from my young valued journalistic (German-educated & theosophistic) friend in Boston, Sylvester Baxter,2 wh' I include3—also copy printed of your letter on big book4—(I can send several copies if you want)—have rec'd yours of 24th, & note carefully what you say of food, alcohol, &c, and of the effete wretchedness5—all thoroughly judged & true, & shall charge myself practically with it—certainly so—& glad to get it all—

As I write, the Post paper comes, with an item ab't my health &c, authentic6—& I enclose two more printed copies of the letter & send—I have rec'd from F B Sanborn7 & Kennedy,89 acknowledging the big books. Rec'd y'rs of evn'g Dec. 25th10

3 P M—Passing an easier day upon the whole—have just eaten chocolate ice cream—read y'rs of 24th a second time—I guess I am getting along pretty well, considering everything—to have the books off my mind is a great relief—If I can now be freed of this gastric, head & feeble trouble—

Walt Whitman

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: Dr R M Bucke | Asylum | London | Ontario | Canada. It is postmarked: Camden, N.J. | Dec 27 | 8 PM | 88. [back]

2. Sylvester Baxter (1850–1927) was on the staff of the Boston Herald. Apparently he met Whitman for the first time when the poet delivered his Lincoln address in Boston in April, 1881; see Rufus A. Coleman, "Whitman and Trowbridge," PMLA 63 (1948), 268. Baxter wrote many newspaper columns in praise of Whitman's writings, and in 1886 attempted to obtain a pension for the poet. For more, see Christopher O. Griffin, "Baxter, Sylvester [1850–1927]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

3. Baxter thanked Whitman on December 25, 1888 for his copy of Complete Poetry & Prose and recommended that Whitman read Bellamy's Looking Backward, "a noble work, and delightful as well. It has made a profound impression and will do much towards realizing a grander future for our land." [back]

4. Whitman had printed a broadside entitled "An impromptu criticism on the 900 page Volume, The Complete Poems and Prose of Walt Whitman, first issued December, 1888" (reprinted in Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Thursday, December 27, 1888). The broadside was from a letter Bucke had sent to Whitman, though Whitman acknowledged he "never asked Doctor if I might print it." Whitman excused his own failure to seek Bucke's permission since it was "a private affair, all in the family: only for the elect, the few," though he had "quite a number struck off." [back]

5. Bucke seems to have written to Whitman twice on December 24, 1888. Since the only surviving letter from Bucke of that date does not mention food or alcohol, the letter that Whitman references here is lost. [back]

6. The article in the Post was a factual account of his recent illness written by the poet himself (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Thursday, December 27, 1888). Not surprisingly, he had obtained thirty copies of the article to send to friends. [back]

7. Franklin B. Sanborn (1831–1917) was an abolitionist and a friend of John Brown. In 1860, when he was tried in Boston because of his refusal to testify before a committee of the U.S. Senate, Whitman was in the courtroom (Gay Wilson Allen, The Solitary Singer [New York: Macmillan, 1955], 242). He reviewed Drum-Taps in the Boston Commonwealth on February 24, 1866. He was editor of the Springfield Republican from 1868 to 1872, and was the author of books dealing with his friends Emerson, Thoreau, and Alcott. "A Visit to the Good Gray Poet" appeared without Sanborn's name in the Springfield Republican on April 19, 1876. For more on Sanborn, see Linda K. Walker, "Sanborn, Franklin Benjamin (Frank) (1831–1917)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

8. 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]

9. On December 25, 1888, Sanborn thanked Whitman, and noted that he had two copies of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, given to him by Emerson and Sophia Thoreau (Feinberg; Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Thursday, December 27, 1888). Kennedy wrote enthusiastically on the same day about the new book, which he personally delivered to Sanborn, Sylvester Baxter, Hamlin Garland, and Elisabeth Fairchild (see December 25, 1888; Feinberg). [back]

10. See Bucke's letter to Whitman of December 25, 1888. [back]


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