Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 4 November 1889

Date: November 4, 1889

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07723

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, Kara Wentworth, Ashlyn Stewart, Breanna Himschoot, and Stephanie Blalock

page image
image 1
page image
image 2
page image
image 3
page image
image 4
page image
image 5
page image
image 6
page image
image 7

Monday noon Nov 4 '891

Fine sunny day—perfect temperature—bowel action—Alys Smith2 here last evn'g, (a beautiful holly branch with red berries & green leaves), a nice long visit—Mary C3 not at all well as c'd be expected—(her letter to me enclosed)—She is going off to Spain and France on a half-jaunt half-racket (by advice of the doctor)—also rec'd a good letter from Ernest Rhys4 (wh I will send you)5—by this time E R is back in London—I don't hear any thing of Mrs. O'Connor6 but I suppose she is yet in Boston—I hear often (& very welcome) f'm Kennedy7—Tom Harned8 was here—he has sent off the Compliment9 to nearly a dozen people (purchasers) in parcels of f'm one or two copies to a dozen—all like it—(T H you know signed to take & pay for 200 copies to McK)10

The big general Unitarian Conference in Phila: is over—had lots of speeches, discussions, advices pro & con &c: I suppose all part of the great intestinal agitation that seems to be perhaps the great feature of the civilized world old & new our times—& no or few markedly individualized specimens (perhaps a good mark—"happy is that era country that has no history")—have sent off the little MS cluster "Old Age Echoes" to English "Nineteenth Century"11—if not rejected12 I will of course send you a slip—I am sending a Compliment to Sarrazin13 and to Bertz, Berlin14—Of course, very dull & stupid with me here, but I guess every thing going with me me fairly considering—Am sitting here alone in my den by the oak-wood fire alone as usual—my sailor boy15 is off to the dentist, for a long bad job with teeth—Fair appetite & night's rest continued—Fair spirits &c —In fact congratulating myself I get along as well as I am & do—

Walt Whitman

26 October. 1889.

Dear Mr. Whitman

I think it must have been my guardian angel that gave thee the "impalpable nudge" to write to me. Thy card has come16 to cheer me just at a time when I am feeling unusually low in spirits & discouraged. I have been quite ill all summer—"over-work," "nervous prostration," the rest—& in spite of many weeks of tedious "absolute rest," I am worse & not better, & now I have to go off for I don't know how long to the Pyrennees, leaving my husband17 & the two little ones18 in England. I start tomorrow. The one bright spot is that mother is going with me. But thy letter has really cheered me—it reminds me that absence is not the end of everything & it sings, without the definite words, the "Song of the Open Road." My road has seemed so shut up—I am laid aside in the midst of all the work I care for—fit for nothing—and oh! the horror of feeling one's mind, as well as one's physical powers, under an eclipse. I have not been able to read or study or write or do anything I cared to all summer long.

But thy remembrance reminds me not to complain, & thy example encourages me to keep sound in spirits—"which is the main thing." Thank thee for writing.

I will write from the Pyrennees in a few days—& I hope I shall not be so egotistic & gloomy. I am sure thee will have seen Alys by this time & that she will have told thee all our news.

Gratefully & lovingly,
Mary Costelloe.

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 Bucke | Asylum | London | Ontario | Canada. It is postmarked: Camden, N.J. | Nov 4 | 8 PM | 89; Philadelphia | Nov | 4 | 930 PM | 1889 | Transit; London | PM | No 6 | 89 | Canada. [back]

2. Alyssa ("Alys") Whitall Pearsall Smith (1867–1951) was born in Philadelphia and became a Quaker relief organizer. She attended Bryn Mawr College and was a graduate of the class of 1890. She and her family lived in Britain for two years during her childhood and again beginning in 1888. She married the philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1894; the couple later separated, and they divorced in 1921. Smith also served as the chair of a society committee that set up the "Mothers and Babies Welcome" (the St Pancras School for Mothers) in London in 1907; this health center, dedicated to reducing the infant mortality rate, provided a range of medical and educational services for women. Smith was the daughter of Robert Pearsall and Hannah Whitall Smith, and she was the sister of Mary Whitall Smith (1864–1945), the political activist, art historian, and critic, whom Whitman once called his "staunchest living woman friend." [back]

3. Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe (1864–1945) was a political activist, art historian, and critic, whom Whitman once called his "staunchest living woman friend." For more information about Costelloe, see Christina Davey, "Costelloe, Mary Whitall Smith (1864–1945)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

4. Ernest Percival Rhys (1859–1946) was a British author and editor; he founded the Everyman's Library series of inexpensive reprintings of popular works. He included a volume of Whitman's poems in the Canterbury Poets series and two volumes of Whitman's prose in the Camelot series for Walter Scott publishers. For more information about Rhys, see Joel Myerson, "Rhys, Ernest Percival (1859–1946)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

5. See the letter from Ernest Rhys to Whitman of October 23, 1889. [back]

6. 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]

7. William Sloane Kennedy (1850–1929) was on the staff of the Philadelphia American and later published biographies of Longfellow and Whittier (Dictionary of American Biography). Apparently Kennedy had called on the poet for the first time on November 21, 1880 (William Sloane Kennedy, Reminiscences of Walt Whitman [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]

8. 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]

9. 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]

10. 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]

11. See Whitman's letter to Bucke of October 18–[19], 1889[back]

12. On October 18, 1889, Whitman sent a cluster of poems entitled "Old Age's Echoes" to Henry Mills Alden of Harper's New Monthly Magazine and asked $100 (Whitman's Commonplace Book [Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.]). On October 24, Alden rejected the work: "It is too much of an improvisation for our use. I had it set up, hoping that, seeing it in type, I might come to a more favorable impression of its form. The thought is worthy of a more careful texture in its parts & of a more shapely embodiment as a whole. I am not critisizing. Criticism has no place in the poet's world. I am writing only as a Magazine editor with reference to Magazine requirements." Alden's letter cannot be located. On November 2, 1889, Whitman sent the piece, now called "Old Age Echoes," to Nineteenth Century and asked £20; the editor, James Knowles, returned the manuscript on February 21, 1890. The "3 or 4 sonnets poemets," as the poet characterized the work in his Commonplace Book, were eventually published in the March 1891 issue of Lippincott's Magazine. Here, the poem "Old-Age Echoes" consists of the "poemets" titled "Sounds of the Winter," "The Unexpress'd," "Sail out for Good, Eidólon Yacht!" and "After the Argument." "To the Sun-Set Breeze" appeared in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine in December, 1890; Whitman received $60 (Commonplace Book). [back]

13. Gabriel Sarrazin (1853–1935) was a translator and poet from France, who commented positively not only on Whitman's work but also on Poe's. Whitman later corresponded with Sarrazin and apparently liked the critic's work on Leaves of Grass—Whitman even had Sarrazin's chapter on his book translated twice. For more on Sarrazin, see Carmine Sarracino, "Sarrazin, Gabriel (1853–1935)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

14. Edward Bertz (1853–1931), also spelled "Eduard," was a German writer and translator from Potsdam, who became involved with social democracy movements and signed a petition against the criminalization of homosexuality in Germany. For more information on Bertz, see Grünzweig, Walter, "Bertz, Eduard (1853–1931)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland, 1998). [back]

15. Frank Warren Fritzinger (1867–1899), known as "Warry," took Edward Wilkins's place as Whitman's nurse, beginning in October 1889. Fritzinger and his brother Harry were the sons of Henry Whireman Fritzinger (about 1828–1881), a former sea captain who went blind, and Almira E. Fritzinger. Following Henry Sr.'s death, Warren and his brother—having lost both parents—became wards of Mary O. Davis, Whitman's housekeeper, who had also taken care of the sea captain and who inherited part of his estate.  [back]

16. Whitman had written to Costelloe on August 8, 1889 and October 15, 1889[back]

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

18. Rachel Pearsall Conn Costelloe (1887–1940) was Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe's first daughter. Rachel ("Ray") was a writer and women's suffrage activist who ran for a seat in the British parliament soon after women were granted the right to vote. She eventually married Oliver Strachey (brother of biographer Lytton Strachey). Karin Stephen (née Catherine Elizabeth Costelloe) (1889–1953) was Mary's second daughter. She would become a British psychoanalyst and psychologist, and the wife of Adrian Stephen (psychoanalyst and prominent member of the Bloomsbury Group, and brother of Virginia Woolf). [back]


Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Matt Cohen, Ed Folsom, & Kenneth M. Price, editors.