Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 2 May 1889

Date: May 2, 1889

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07613

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 The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977), 4:328–329. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Caterina Bernardini, Brandon James O'Neil, and Stephanie Blalock

May 2 '891

Feeling ab't fairly—weather not unpleasant, cloudy, & a little cool—am sitting here by the oak fire—a middling fair bowel action an hour ago, I go out to the closet myself & return—Horace2 has been in—the L of G. pocket-book ed'n3 is getting along—(probably the press-work to-day—also some of the plates at the plate press)—Well the big N Y show4 seems to have all pass'd over successfully—to me the idea of it is good, even grand, but I have not enthused ab't it at all—(may be a whim, but the most insignificant item in the whole affair has been Harrison himself, President for all he is)5—So the circus here was a success last night—Ed6 enjoy'd it hugely7—& I suppose Dr Baker8 has gone off (to Minneapolis) immediately after his graduation9—Mrs. Davis10 was there—Osler11 spoke well & was treated to great applause—all this in the Phila: Academy wh' must have look'd gayly—

I have been looking over the May Century, the Book News and the Critic (so I may be supposed to be posted with current literature)—read Whittier's12 long N Y centennial ode13—also Wyatt Eaton's reminiscences (interesting) of J F Millet14—the "cold in the head" still upon me palpably—stew'd chicken, Graham bread & coffee for my meals lately—Ed gives me a good currying every evening—Sleep fairly—Sun bursting forth as I write—the great long burr-r-r of the Phila. whistles from factories or shores often & plainly here sounding, & I rather like it—(blunt & bass)—some future American Wagner15 might make something significant of it—Guess you must have all good times there—occupied & healthy & sufficiently out door—I refresh myself sometimes thinking (fancying) ab't you all there—I enclose Mrs. O'C[onnor]'s16 yesterday's card17—I send card or something every evn'g—

Love to you, Mrs B & the childer18

Y'rs of April 30 rec'd—

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 (?) | May 3(?) | 6 AM | 89. [back]

2. Horace L. Traubel (1858–1919) was a close acquaintance of Walt Whitman and one of the poet's literary executors. He met Whitman in 1873 and proceeded to visit the aging author almost daily beginning in the late 1880s. The result of these meetings—during which Traubel took meticulous notes—is the nine-volume collection With Walt Whitman in Camden. Later in life, Traubel also published Whitmanesque poetry and revolutionary essays. He died in 1919, shortly after he claimed to have seen a vision of Whitman beckoning him to 'Come on'. For more on Traubel, see Ed Folsom, "Traubel, Horace L. (1858–1919), Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, ed., (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), 740–741. [back]

3. Whitman had a limited pocket-book edition of Leaves of Grass printed in honor of his 70th birthday, on May 31, 1889, through special arrangement with Frederick Oldach. Only 300 copies were printed, and Whitman signed the title page of each one. The volume also included the annex Sands at Seventy and his essay A Backward Glance O'er Traveled Roads. See Whitman's May 16, 1889, letter to Oldach. 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]

4. Whitman is referring to the three-day celebration of the centennial commemorating the inauguration of George Washington. [back]

5. Benjamin Harrison (1833–1901) was the twenty-third U.S. president and grandson of the ninth president, William Henry Harrison. Harrison was the Republican nominee who defeated Democratic incumbent Grover Cleveland in 1888. [back]

6. 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]

7. Whitman mentioned that Ed (Edward "Ned" Wilkins, one of Whitman's nurses during his Camden years) was going to "Barnum's great circus" in his May 1, 1889, postal card to Bucke. [back]

8. Frank Baker (1841–1918) was an American anatomist from New York. Before his illustrious medical career, he served in the 37th New York Volunteers (1861–1863) and then transferred to Washington, D.C., for government service, where he became intimately familiar with Walt Whitman and John Burroughs. After receiving a medical degree from Columbia University, he served as professor of anatomy at Georgetown University, assistant superintendent of the United States Life Saving Service, and president of numerous biological and medical societies, among them the Anthropological Society of Washington. He also edited American Anthopologist and authored several medical monographs, including two papers on President Garfield's assassination and several articles on the history of medicine and anatomy. For more on Baker, see Howard Atwood Kelly and Walter L. Burrage, A Cyclopedia of American Medical Biography (Baltimore: The Norman Remington Company, 1920). [back]

9. Whitman mentioned Frank Baker's graduation in his May 1, 1889, postal card to Bucke. [back]

10. 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]

11. Sir William Osler (1849–1919) was a Canadian physician and one of the four founding staff members of Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he served as the first Chief of Medicine. Richard Maurice Bucke introduced Osler to Whitman in 1885 in order to care for the aging poet. Osler wrote a manuscript about his personal and professional relationship with Whitman in 1919; see Philip W. Leon, Walt Whitman and Sir William Osler: A Poet and His Physician [Toronto: ECW Press, 1995]). For more on Osler, see Philip W. Leon, "Osler, Dr. William (1849–1919)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). For more on the relationship of Osler and Whitman, see Michael Bliss, William Osler: A Life in Medicine (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999). [back]

12. 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]

13. Whittier's "The Vow of Washington" appeared in the New York World and elsewhere on May 1, 1889. [back]

14. Wyatt Eaton's "Recollections of Jean Francois Millet" in the May 1889 Century (90–104). For Walt Whitman's comments, see Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Friday, May 3, 1889 and Saturday, May 4, 1889[back]

15. For Whitman's response to German composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883), see Edwin Haviland Miller, Walt Whitman's Poetry: A Psychological Journey (New York: New York University Press, 1968), 175–177. [back]

16. 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]

17. Whitman is referring to the April 30, 1889, letter he received from Ellen O'Connor. [back]

18. 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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