Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 21 March 1889

Date: March 21, 1889

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07584

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), 4:306–307. 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, Caterina Bernardini, Brandon James O'Neil, and Stephanie Blalock

March 21 '89

Noon—Feeling pretty well—dark & rainy (the third day)—News not favorable from O'C[onnor]2 as you will see by enc'd card3—I write a few lines every day to him & send Mrs. O'C4 the Boston paper. The "process" plate (considerably reduced) of that ¾ pict: McK[ay]5 got in N Y. is good, & I shall use it in book before long—Shall send it you (probably several impressions) soon as I have them printed nicely—definite bowel action this forenoon—the Sat: Review (March 2) has either gone to you, or will soon go (A rather curious notice)—I haven't seen Lawyer Harned6 since you went7—Horace8 was in this forenoon—faithful & invaluable as ever—Mrs: Davis9 has come in for a few moments to see if I am "all right"—Ed10 has been making up the bed.

Toward sunset

Had a good thorough bath this afternoon, hot water—my "cold" has not altogether withdrawn—I feel it in the head perceptibly enough an hour or two now and then—heavy sloppy muddy day—I almost envy your having such lots to do, responsibilities & strong & well & energetic to do 'em—My lassitude is one of the worst points in my condition—but whether Sidney Morse's11 man's answer (when reproach'd for drunkenness) "Suppose 'twas so intended to be," was right or no—Mrs: Davis's woman's remark is "So it really is any how"—& answers all philosophy & argument (up to a certain line you probably say)—Well I will adjust myself for dinner, & hope you & Mrs B12 & all are having good times—& send my love to all—

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 (?) | Mar (?) | 6 (?) | 8(?); Philadelphia, Pa. | Mar | 21 | 7 30 PM | 1889. [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's card to Whitman of March 20, 1889 noted no significant change in William's condition (Feinberg). [back]

4. 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]

5. David McKay (1860–1918) took over Philadelphia-based publisher Rees Welsh's bookselling and publishing businesses in 1881–82. McKay and Rees Welsh published the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass after opposition from the Boston District Attorney prompted James R. Osgood & Company of Boston, the original publisher, to withdraw. McKay also went on to publish Specimen Days & Collect, November Boughs, Gems from Walt Whitman, Complete Prose Works, and the final Leaves of Grass, the so-called deathbed edition. For more information about McKay, see Joel Myerson, "McKay, David (1860–1918)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

6. Thomas Biggs Harned (1851–1921) was one of Whitman's literary executors. Harned was a lawyer in Philadelphia and, having married Augusta Anna Traubel, was Horace Traubel's brother-in-law. For more on him, see Dena Mattausch, "Harned, Thomas Biggs (1851–1921)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

7. A fib or a lapse of memory; see Whitman's letter to William Sloane Kennedy of March 20, 1889. Harned attempted to make the legal arrangements for the manufacture of Bucke's meter. [back]

8. Horace L. Traubel (1858–1919) was an American essayist, poet, and magazine publisher. He is best remembered as the literary executor, biographer, and self-fashioned "spirit child" of Walt Whitman. During the late 1880s and until Whitman's death in 1892, Traubel visited the poet virtually every day and took thorough notes of their conversations, which he later transcribed and published in three large volumes entitled With Walt Whitman in Camden (1906, 1908, & 1914). After his death, Traubel left behind enough manuscripts for six more volumes of the series, the final two of which were published in 1996. For more on Traubel, see Ed Folsom, "Traubel, Horace L. [1858–1919]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

9. Mary Oakes Davis (1837 or 1838–1908) was Whitman's housekeeper. For more, see Carol J. Singley, "Davis, Mary Oakes (1837 or 1838–1908)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

10. 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]

11. Sidney H. Morse (1832–1903) was a self-taught sculptor as well as a Unitarian minister and, from 1866 to 1872, editor of The Radical. He visited Whitman in Camden many times and made various busts of him. Whitman had commented on an earlier bust by Morse that it was "wretchedly bad." For more on this, see Ruth L. Bohan, Looking into Walt Whitman: American Art, 1850–1920 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), 105–109. [back]

12. Jessie Maria Gurd Bucke (1839–1926) grew up in Mooretown, Upper Canada. She was the daughter of William Gurd, an army officer from Ireland. Gurd married Richard Maurice Bucke in 1865. The couple had eight children. [back]


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