Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 25–26 December 1889

Date: December 25–26, 1889

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07741

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), 4:408–409. 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, Ashlyn Stewart, Breanna Himschoot, and Stephanie Blalock




Camden
'891

Dec. 25 6 p m—have been out to-day in the wheel chair2—& down to the kitchen at the table for my supper—now sitting as usual up in my den—J A Symonds3 from Switzerland has sent the warmest & (I think sh'd be call'd) the most passionate testimony letter to L of G. & me yet4—I will send it to you after a little while—

Yesterday went out (two hours drive) to the Harleigh Cemetery & selected my burial lot—a little way back, wooded, on a side hill—lot 20 x 30 feet—think of a vault & capping all a plain massive stone temple, (for want of better descriptive word)5—Harleigh Cemetery is a new burial ground & they desire to give me a lot6—I suppose you rec'd the Critic7

Dec 26 noon Perfect sunny day—Tom Donaldson8 here last evn'g—sold a little pocket-book L of G. to-day,9 & got the money10—am feeling fairly (inclined to heavy) to-day—plain indications of rheumatism in my right arm—both my parents had r but not yet in me—Shall have a currying & then get out in the wheel chair—


Walt Whitman

Sudden death of a special friend & neighbor I have known from her 13th—a fine young handsome woman11—typhoid—buried to-day—


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, N.J. | Dec 26(?) | 8 PM | 89. [back]

2. 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]

3. John Addington Symonds (1840–1893), a prominent biographer, literary critic, and poet in Victorian England, was author of the seven-volume history Renaissance in Italy, as well as Walt Whitman—A Study (1893), and a translator of Michelangelo's sonnets. But in the smaller circles of the emerging upper-class English homosexual community, he was also well known as a writer of homoerotic poetry and a pioneer in the study of homosexuality, or sexual inversion as it was then known. See Andrew Higgins, "Symonds, John Addington [1840–1893]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

4. Symonds' letter of December 9, 1889 was indeed "passionate": "I cannot even attempt to tell yourself (upon this page of paper with this pen in my hand), what it is that makes me ask you now to bless me. . . . Perhaps we shall yet meet [after death]: . . . I shall ask you about things which have perplexed me here—to which I think you alone could have given me an acceptable answer. . . . I cannot find words better fitted to express the penetrative fate with which you have entered into me, my reliance on you, & my hope that you will not disapprove of my conduct in the last resort." What Whitman failed to see was that Symonds, who was preoccupied with his study of sexual inversion, was trying to ask the questions he finally posed nine months later. See Whitman's August 19, 1890, letter to Symonds. [back]

5. Whitman was buried in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden, New Jersey, on March 30, 1892, four days after his death, in an elaborate granite tomb that he designed. Reinhalter and Company of Philadelphia built the tomb, at a cost of $4,000. Whitman covered a portion of these costs with money that his Boston friends had raised so that the poet could purchase a summer cottage; the remaining balance was paid by Whitman's literary executor, Thomas Harned. For more information on the cemetery and Whitman's tomb, see See Geoffrey M. Still, "Harleigh Cemetery" Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland, 1998). [back]

6. Almost the same information appeared in the Camden Post on December 26, 1889, in a paragraph probably written by Whitman: "He resolutely passed by all the show parts and lawns, and chose a place back on a woody side hill, . . . where a solid gray stone monumental vault will be constructed" (The Commonplace-Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). [back]

7. The Critic of December 21, 1889 contained an extract from Harrison S. Morris's article in The American entitled "Whitman's 'Indescribable Masculinity,'" a review of French critic Gabriel Sarrazin's book by his American translator. [back]

8. Thomas Donaldson (1843–1898) was a lawyer from Philadelphia and a friend of Whitman. He introduced Whitman to Bram Stoker and later accompanied Stoker when he visited the poet; he also organized a fund-raising drive to buy Whitman a horse and carriage. He authored a biography of Whitman titled Walt Whitman, the Man (1896). For more information about Donaldson, see Steven Schroeder, "Donaldson, Thomas (1843–1898)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

9. 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's Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary[back]

10. Whitman recorded the following about the book purchase: A "morocco b'd L of G to Alma Johnston N Y. Paid 5" (The Commonplace-Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). [back]

11. As yet we have no information about this person. [back]


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