Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 5–7 [July] 1889

Date: [July] 5–7, 1889

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07674

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

Contributors to digital file: Braden Krien, Kirby Little, Caterina Bernardini, Ryan Furlong, Ashlyn Stewart, and Stephanie Blalock



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Camden
1889
June 5 P M1

Fine weather, sunny, not hot & I feel well for me—good sound sleep last night & rest & quiet (bad enough the previous day & night)— appetite, bowels &c: fair continued—have rec'd a lettter f'm Mrs: O'C2—enclosed—y'rs comes safely3—the "Camden Compliment"4 little book copy goes into the printer Ferguson's5 hands to-day I believe —is to be frontispieced by a photo (wh' I do not like but the others do, & this is not my funeral) of Morse's6 bust (wh' I do like)—There is a good deal in the text wh' will please you I guess

June 6—Fine weather—sun shining—bad spell resumed—got out in the wheel chair7 last sunset to river side (full tide fine)—nearly two hours —sat there by the edge in my chair—saw the sun set over Phila:

June 7—Sunday forenoon—Fine sunny weather continued—bad spell quite decided—rec'd y'r prescription, & shall use it this noon— thanks—Ed8 is just making up the bed—nothing very new—McKay9 goes off (for 4 or 5 weeks) on a business & drumming tour west—quiet forenoon here—


Walt Whitman


1015 O St. N. W.
Washington D. C.
July 3d 1889.

Dear Walt,

I was on the point of writing you when this minute 8.30 A. M. the postman just gave me your card. Yes, I am in the same place, the little house where we have lived almost 21 years & paid rent enough to buy it twice over. How long I shall be here, or what I am to do in the future is all a problem. I am sorry to tell you that after all my careful economy & saving, the various things into which William10 had put money are mostly worthless, inventions that are good for nothing but to swallow up good money. Then in these last years since this illness began in 1884 his expenses have been enormous, & the bills of doctors, &c. very heavy. He has also been most lavish & generous to the poor & needy, & to the causes in which he believed, & the result is almost nothing left for me. Mr. Kimball11 who knew more of all this probably than I, (I mean the bad investments) came to see me soon after William's death12 to say that if things were as they used to be, he could make a place for me in the office & take me right in there, but that under the Civil Service rules, even if I should pass a good examination, one must wait till there is a vacancy in the State to which one is accredited, & that might be five years! But he said that he would try very hard to get me into the Census bureau which is soon to be organized! I hoped then that I should not need it, but the revelations from day to day seem to make the outlook worse & worse financially, & I have just sent him a note, & shall tell him that if I can fill any position, shall be grateful for it.

But first I must go away & rest. I have had no manner of rest since William had the first attack a year ago last January, & I am really broken, & these late revelations have helped to make me ill; [tho'?] I did make a solemn & holy vow that I would not worry about what has been & can't be helped. But I am, or have been ill, so ill as to alarm the neighbors, but not myself. Then, too, I am alone, since Harold Channing13 went home, & I find that is not good for me.

I go to New England, & then in the autumn, return here, whether to break up & vacate forever this little house, I know not. Indeed the way now looks very dark, but I try to trust & hope & confide in the loving care that always guides us.

I did so plead with William, always, to try with me to buy a little, little house, so that we might have a home; but it was not to be, & so it must be right.

Yes, I have from day to day, rec'd. the papers, & all the many reminders of your thought to me, thanks for all, & the copy of "Passage to India," & the account of birth-day celebration, &c. From day to day I wanted to write, but have had such discouraging & disheartening work to do, & so much of it, & so many the papers & letters to go over, & the work is only begun; for in the last four or five years William has not kept his affairs in the order that he used to, his illness has told upon him in many ways. But I have been trying my best to put into order; but must soon drop all & go for a time, or I shall not be able to get away. When I go, will send you my address, so that if you are disposed you can still keep me in mind by papers & whatever you please to send.

You are mistaken, dear Walt, in saying that I have not written you since dear William's death. The first letter that I wrote was to you, on the very day, May 9th I have had several most vivid dreams of you. So distinct that all the next day I felt as if I had been with you; & I wonder whether my "astral body" went to you, or yours came to me.

A day or two before William passed away he awoke from a nap & asked me "if Walt had gone?" I said you had not been here, but he repeated the question, & then I said yes, you had gone.

I can't, I can't possibly believe that he is gone, I find myself looking for him daily,—& the only time I have seen him since he departed this life was the day that I was so ill; & he then looked perfectly well & young, & as he he did in the L St. house. I hope you get a copy of his last literary work, "Mr. Donnelly's Reviewers," I asked to have one sent you. If you see any notice of it, shall be very glad if you will send me.

If ever the people that owe money to William would pay me, I should not be so worried about my daily expenses, for one can't break up in a minute, & if I can keep on by having some one with me to help share the expenses when I come back, till I can see what to do. It is like taking my life to have to give up a home with no prospect of ever having one again. It is the only earthly possession that I ever longed for.

So I said, I will keep you informed of my whereabouts.

& with love always—
Nelly O'Connor.


Correspondent:
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).

Notes:

1. This letter is addressed: Dr Bucke | Asylum | London | Ontario | Canada. It is postmarked: Camden, (?) | Jul 7 | 5pm | 89; Philadelphia, PA | Jul | 7 | 6PM | [illegible]; London | AM | JY 9 | 89 | Canada. Whitman misdated this letter consistently for three days. July 7 fell on a Sunday, June 7 on a Friday. Mrs. O'Connor sent an eleven-page letter to Whitman on July 3, 1889 about which he expressed doubts to Traubel on July 6, 1889 as to sending it to Bucke (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Sunday, July 7, 1889). But he did include O'Connor's letter as an enclosure along with this letter to Bucke. For additional confirmation of the date, see Traubel's account of the poet's activities from July 5 to 7 (With Walt Whiman in Camden, Friday, July 5, 1889 and Saturday, July 6, 1889). Whitman rightly foresaw that Bucke would seize upon the following section in Mrs. O'Connor's letter: "I have had several most vivid dreams of you, so distinct that all the next day I felt as if I had been with you; & I wonder whether my 'astral body' went to you, or yours came to me. A day or two before William passed away he awoke from a nap & asked me 'if Walt had gone?' I said you had not been here, but he repeated the question, & then I said yes, you had gone." See also the letter from Whitman to Bucke of July 13, 1889[back]

2. Ellen M. "Nelly" O'Connor 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 black citizens, Ellen would remain friendly with Whitman. The correspondence between Whitman and Ellen is almost as voluminous as the poet's correspondence with William. For more on Whitman's relationship with the O'Connors, see Dashae E. Lott, "O'Connor, William Douglas [1832–1889]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, ed. (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

3. Whitman was likely referring to Bucke's letter of July 5, 1889. This letter does not seem to be extant; only discussion about it survives. See see Artem Loyzynsky, ed., The Letters of Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke to Walt Whitman (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1977), 134. [back]

4. The notes and addresses that were delivered at Whitman's seventieth birthday celebration on May 31, 1889 in Camden, were collected and edited by Horace Traubel. The volume was titled Camden's Compliment to Walt Whitman, and it included a photo of Sidney Morse's 1887 clay bust of Whitman as the frontispiece. The book was published in 1889 by Philadelphia publisher David McKay. [back]

5. George Ferguson was the printer who had set the type for Whitman's November Boughs (1888). [back]

6. 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]

7. Horace Traubel and Ed Wilkins, Whitman's nurse, went to Philadelphia to purchase a wheeled chair for the poet that would allow him to be "pull'd or push'd" outdoors. See Whitman's letter to William Sloane Kennedy of May 8, 1889[back]

8. 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. For more information, see Bert A. Thompson, "Edward Wilkins: Male Nurse to Walt Whitman," Walt Whitman Review 15 (September 1969), 194–195. [back]

9. David McKay (1860–1918) took over Philadelphia-based publisher Rees Welsh's bookselling and publishing businesses in 1881–2. 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 publisher Whitman had originally contracted with for publication of the volume, to withdraw. McKay also went on to publish Specimen Days & Collect, November Boughs, Gems from Walt Whitman, and Complete Prose Works. 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]

10. William Douglas O'Connor (1832–1889) was the author of the grand and grandiloquent Whitman pamphlet "The Good Gray Poet," published in 1866 (a digital version of the pamphlet is available at "The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication"). 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]

11. James P. Kimball (1836–1913) was an American geologist and was named Director of the United States Mint by President Cleveland in 1885, where he was charged with overseeing an improvement in the quality of U.S. coinage. [back]

12. For Whitman's reaction to the news of the death of O'Connor, see Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Friday, May 10, 1889[back]

13. Harold Channing was the brother of Grace Ellery Channing (1862–1937). Harold and Grace were the children of William F. Channing, and they were the nephew and niece, respectively, of William D. O'Connor. [back]


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