Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 18 December 1888

Date: December 18, 1888

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07559

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), 4:248. 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, and Stephanie Blalock

Tuesday afternoon
Dec: 18 '88

Sent you quite a letter & budget of papers last evn'g—hope you rec'd them right—hope the big books2 have surely reach'd you all right by this time—I ought to be better than I am—but am feeling bad & sore & tired out—had a decided bowel movement this forenoon—appetite pretty good (I have just eaten some chocolate ice cream)—have not eaten any solid food for ten days—drink cold milk by preference—have much thirst—Dr Walsh3 comes every day, seems to watch carefully but gives no medicine—I like him & his ways—Have been sitting up here trying the morning newspaper—the utter fiasco of poor Lesseps4—the 81st birthday of Whittier5—&c—have now been sitting up from three to four hours—have written to Kennedy6—Yours of 16th7 rec'd & welcom'd—two sweet nice letters from 15 y'r girls—so good, so tasty—I must now get to bed to rest—

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 18 | 8 PM | 88. [back]

2. Whitman's "big book" is a reference to his Complete Poems and Prose of Walt Whitman (1888). Whitman published the book himself—in an arrangement with the Philadephia publisher David McKay, who allowed Whitman to use the plates for both Leaves of Grass and Specimen Days—in December 1888. [back]

3. James Francis Walsh was a young Camden physician who attended Whitman, visiting him nearly every day, during the poet's illness of 1888–89. Walsh was the brother of William S. Walsh, an American author and editor of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. Whitman had a favorable opinion of Walsh because he visited often, watched his patient carefully, but did not give medicine. See Whitman's letter to Bucke of December 18, 1888. Bucke had arranged to have Walsh accompany Dr. Osler to see Whitman, since Bucke believed it would be useful to have a younger doctor examine the poet. See Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, December 5, 1888[back]

4. Vicomte Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps (1805–1894), promoter of the Suez Canal, was later president of the French company constructing the Panama Canal. The New York Tribune on December 18 noted the defeat of the Panama Canal bill in the French Chamber of Deputies. [back]

5. John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892) earned fame as a staunch advocate for the abolition of slavery. As a poet, he employed traditional forms and meters, and, not surprisingly, he was not an admirer of Whitman's unconventional prosody. For Whitman's view of Whittier, see the poet's numerous comments throughout the nine volumes of Horace Traubel's With Walt Whitman in Camden (various publishers: 1906–1996) and Whitman's "My Tribute to Four Poets," in Specimen Days (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882–'83), 180–181. [back]

6. 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]

7. See Bucke's letter to Whitman of December 16, 1888[back]


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