Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 15 February 1890

Date: February 15, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07757

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, Ian Faith, Zainab Saleh, and Stephanie Blalock

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Feb: 15 '90—noon

Fine sunny weather—I sit here alone pretty dull—this physical brain business (whatever it is) uncomfortable enough—(I have not probably the grip but I suppose I must pay my toll one way or another)—have been writing a little poemet "Twilight Song"2 & sent it off to the Century—so you see I have not escaped the harness yet. Y'rs rec'd—then Matilda Gurd is dead3—I remember her well & most favorably—my sympathies & condolences to Mrs: B and you—Mrs: Davis4 has gone off for a couple of days (more or less) to see an old relative & friend a sea-captain,5 appears to be very sick perhaps dying—in Bucks Co: Penn—Harry Stafford6 has been very ill but better now—an addition also to his family, baby boy7—Alys Smith8 here yesterday—have had my midday massage, have two, one bet: 12 & 1—& one at 9 before I go to sleep—rather gusty wind—Keep a good fire—the great vulgar excitement here is the LeConey murder trial—an unusual muddle & paradox9

Finish this up in my den—am now going down in the little sitting room while Warren10 goes out on some errands—

Love to you & all—
Walt Whitman

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. | Feb 15 | 3 PM | 90; NY | 2-15-90 | 12PM | [illegible] | London | AM | FE 17 | 90 | Canada. According to Bucke's February 17, 1890, response to this letter, Whitman included two enclosures. One is likely the postal card from Ellen O'Connor, dated February 13, 1890; the other, a letter from Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe, may not be extant. [back]

2. Whitman's poem "A Twilight Song" was published in the May 1890 issue of Century[back]

3. Matilda Gurd was Richard Maurice Bucke's sister. She was also the wife of William Gurd, the co-inventor of the gas and fluid meter that Bucke regularly mentions in his letters to Whitman from this period. [back]

4. 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]

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

6. Walt Whitman met the 18-year-old Harry Lamb Stafford (1858–1918) in 1876, beginning a relationship which was almost entirely overlooked by early Whitman scholarship, in part because Stafford's name appears nowhere in the first six volumes of Horace Traubel's With Walt Whitman in Camden—though it does appear frequently in the last three volumes, which were published only in the 1990s. Whitman occasionally referred to Stafford as "My (adopted) son" (as in a December 13, 1876, letter to John H. Johnston), but the relationship between the two also had a romantic, erotic charge to it. In 1883, Harry married Eva Westcott. For further discussion of Stafford, see Arnie Kantrowitz, "Stafford, Harry L. (b.1858)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

7. George Wescott Stafford was born on January 30, the second child of Harry and Eva. See Charles L. Stafford, The Stafford Family (n.d.), 17. [back]

8. 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]

9. Chalkley LeConey of Merchantville, New Jersey was tried for the brutal murder of his niece Anna LeConey; the trial, a huge media event, was held in Camden, and he was acquitted on March 3, 1890. [back]

10. 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. A picture of Warry is displayed in the May 1891 New England Magazine (278). See Joann P. Krieg, "Fritzinger, Frederick Warren (1866–1899)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), 240. [back]


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