Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 14 April 1889

Date: April 14, 1889

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07599

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

Contributors to digital file: Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Ashlyn Stewart, Breanna Himschoot, Alex Ashland, and Stephanie Blalock

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April 14 '891

Fine sunny weather—nothing special in my health—(if any difference am suffering less from the join'd "cold in the head" & constipation firm)—am sitting here in the big chair—have been trying to eke out a two-page preface for the new reprint of Backw'd Glance of 70th y'r ed'n L of G.2 & shall send off to the printer what I have, hit or miss—

—Sleep at night pretty well—appetite poor—Did you get the letter3 (via O'C)4 containing Stedman's?5—Have not heard from O'C for a week—am a little anxious—Harned6 & Mrs. H7 here & little Tom—Horace8 faithful as always—Ed9 all right—the doctors all abstinent—havn't had a call for two months—Signs of spring—longer days—presents of little bunches of flowers—had a letter from our friend R P Smith10—England (enclosed)—The letter from Kennedy also enclosed11—I have made no answer or opinion to him ab't it—

God bless you & all—very partial sort o' restricted bowel actions, ab't every other day—seem natural—took a calomel powder night before last—often the Frederichshall water12

Walt Whitman

March 31 1889

My dear friend,

I was glad to hear by your postal that you are getting along without an increase of suffering. I wish that we all were near you, if so be that we might make an occasional hour brighter for you & contribute to your exterior comforts. I see no time to be fixed for our return. Alys13 proposes to go to Bryn Mawr College in September & then will visit you. She will return to us if all is well in June 1890 with her diploma in her pocket.

She, with her mother,14 a niece & myself have been wandering this winter through Paris, Marseilles, the paradise of Nice and the Riviera, Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, Switzerland & home escaping thus the melancholy skies of London with its "pea soup" smoky atmosphere.

Logan15 is doing well at his college at Oxford & is studying faithfully in his vacation at home.

Mary's second daughter,16 3 weeks old, opens new hopes & joys—but through much suffering. Her husband17 is in the new London City Council and is becoming prominent in abilities & in his profession as a barrister.

My old enemy "melancholia" spreads its vampire wings still over my life and will I presume go with me to the end. I take it quietly, as a physical disease simply & live on remembering the phrase—"Its dogged that does it."

So I have not much to tell. Yet it is fun to be in the midst of this great fermenting intense life of London as an on looker.

I see with interest that you have issued a complete edition18 of your writings. You have many, many devoted friends in England among thoughtful people who would delight to see you here.

Good bye, dear old friend,—Write me when your spirit moves you & tell me how you are.

With love from our children I am always

Yours affectionately
Robert Pearsall Smith

Belmont Mass
April 8 89

Dear W. W.

With yr welcome card19 came to-night a letter fr. Gardner of Paisley,20 accepting my MS. "Walt Whitman the Poet of Humanity." He is going to pub. in 2 vols. Is evidently enthusiastic. The poltroon, however,(!) wants me to cut out the censor's list of objectionable passages. I don't really know that they are essential,—guess I'd better let him. I suppose his idea is that people will buy L. of G. more if they are not given the passages in question in my book. He bites hard—says "it wd be a vast pity if the book were to fall through," owing to my obstinacy I suppose he means. I shall satisfy him. Have written him to leave those out.

I too have a terrific cold in head. Am deaf in one ear temporarily, through sitting by open window (necessarily) where I work. But it is nothing. Wax in ear only.

We are having house painted. Do hope you will get over that cold, dear Walt. Thank you for the news fr. O'C. the Transcripts21 are so thin I am ashamed to send 'em half the time. But it is little trouble, & you can throw them on the floor when you get sick of em. Remembrances to Traubel &c. It does one good to think of Dr. Bucke. One well man at least, ha, ha, thank God for 'em those hearty "fellers." I take great delight in dogs for same reason.

W. S. Kennedy

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. | Apr 14 | 5 PM | 89; London | AM | AP 16 | 89 | Canada. [back]

2. In celebration of his seventieth year, Whitman published the limited and autographed pocket-book edition of Leaves of Grass, a volume which also included the annex Sands at Seventy and his essay A Backward Glance O'er Traveled Roads[back]

3. Whitman is referring to his April 8, 1889, letter to William Sloane Kennedy, William Douglas O'Connor, and Richard Maurice Bucke. He sent instructions with this letter that directed Kennedy to send the letter and its enclosure to Ellen O'Connor (wife of William D. O'Connor), and then the O'Connors were to send the letters to Bucke. The enclosure Whitman sent with the letter was a March 27, 1889, letter that he had received from the writer and editor, Edmund Clarence Stedman. [back]

4. 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]

5. Edmund Clarence Stedman (1833–1908) was a man of diverse talents. He edited for a year the Mountain County Herald at Winsted, Connecticut, wrote "Honest Abe of the West," presumably Lincoln's first campaign song, and served as correspondent of the New York World from 1860 to 1862. In 1862 and 1863 he was a private secretary in the Attorney General's office until he entered the firm of Samuel Hallett and Company in September, 1863. The next year he opened his own brokerage office. He published many volumes of poems and was an indefatigable compiler of anthologies, among which were Poets of America, 2 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885) and A Library of American Literature from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, 11 vols. (New York: C. L. Webster, 1889–90). For more, see Donald Yannella, "Stedman, Edmund Clarence (1833–1908)," 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 (1856–1914), 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). For more on his relationship with Whitman, see Thomas Biggs Harned, Memoirs of Thomas B. Harned, Walt Whitman's Friend and Literary Executor, ed. Peter Van Egmond (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1972). [back]

7. Augusta Anna Traubel Harned (1856–1914) was Horace Traubel's sister. She married Thomas Biggs Harned, a lawyer in Philadelphia and, later, one of Whitman's literary executors. [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. 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]

10. Robert Pearsall Smith (1827–1898) was a Quaker who became an evangelical minister associated with the "Holiness movement." He was also a writer and businessman. Whitman often stayed at his Philadelphia home, where the poet became friendly with the Smith children—Mary, Logan, and Alys. For more information about Smith, see Christina Davey, "Smith, Robert Pearsall (1827–1898)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

11. Whitman is referring to the two enclosures he included with this letter to Bucke: the March 31, 1889, letter Whitman received from evangelical minister Robert Pearsall Smith and the April 8, 1889, letter he had receved from William Sloane Kennedy. Whitman responded to Kennedy on April 16, 1889, and he mentions having received Smith's letter in his April 19, 1889, letter to Mary Smith Costello, the daughter of Robert Pearsall Smith. [back]

12. Friedrichshall water is a purgative mineral water from springs located near Heidelberg, Germany. It was one of several mineral waters commonly used in the late nineteenth century to treat constipation. (See C. R. C. Tichborne, The Mineral Waters of Europe [London: Baillière, Tindall & Cox, 1883], Chapter 3, "Chemistry of the Purgative Waters.") [back]

13. Alys Smith (1867–1951) was a daughter of Robert Pearsall Smith and the sister of Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe. She eventually married the philosopher Bertrand Russell. [back]

14. Hannah Whitall Smith (1832–1911) was a speaker and author in the Holiness movement in the United States and the Higher Life Movement in Great Britain. She also participated in the women's suffrage movement. She was the wife of Robert Pearsall Smith and the mother of Mary, Alys, and Logan Pearsall Smith. [back]

15. Logan was the son of Robert Pearsall Smith and Hannah Whitall Smith; for more about him, see Christina Davey, "Smith, Logan Pearsall (1865–1946)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

16. Rachel ("Ray") Pearsall Conn Costelloe (1887–1940) was the daughter of Mary Smith-Costelloe; she would grow up to be a feminist writer and politician. [back]

17. Benjamin Francis Conn Costelloe (1854–1899), Mary's first husband, was an English barrister and Liberal Party politician. [back]

18. Whitman's Complete Poems & Prose (1888), a volume Whitman often referred to as the "big book," was published by the poet himself—in an arrangement with publisher David McKay, who allowed Whitman to use the plates for both Leaves of Grass and Specimen Days—in December 1888. With the help of Horace Traubel, Whitman made the presswork and binding decisions for the volume. Frederick Oldach bound the book, which included a profile photo of the poet on the title page. For more information on the book, see Ed Folsom, Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary (University of Iowa: Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, 2005). [back]

19. Kennedy is likely referring to Whitman's letter of April 7, 1889[back]

20. Alexander Gardner (1821–1882) of Paisley, Scotland, was a publisher who reissued a number of books by and about Whitman; he ultimately published William Sloane Kennedy's Reminiscences of Walt Whitman in 1896 after a long and contentious battle with Kennedy over editing the book. Gardner published and co-edited the Scottish Review from 1882 to 1886. [back]

21. Kennedy and others published a number of short pieces on Whitman in the Boston Evening Transcript in 1888, and Kennedy sent copies to Whitman. [back]


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