Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 24 August 1890

Date: August 24, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07827

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.

Related item: Whitman wrote this letter to Bucke on the blank inside of an envelope in which he likely received a letter—postmarked July 30, 1890—from his brother-in-law, Charles L. Heyde. Whitman also used this envelope as writing paper for completing a series of mathematical calculations.

Contributors to digital file: Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Ian Faith, Zainab Saleh, Breanna Himschoot, and Stephanie Blalock

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Sunday noon
Aug: 24 '90

Continue well as usual. Horace2 here this morning & yesterday afternoon—Tom Harned3 last evn'g—Geo: Stafford4 (the elder) yesterday—Cool weather here—fine sunny—My nurse Warren Fritzinger5 went to Atlantic City yesterday—returns to–night—He is very good to me—made a good relishy breakfast, bread, honey in the comb coffee—appetite fair to plus—I sent you Aug: 17 the "rejoinder" a printed slip with papers6—enclose another in this (copied Boston Transcript)7—papers notice it some—(is my old theory repeated, that's ab't all)—you are a little more severe on Symonds8 than I sh'd be9—he has just sent me a singular letter, wh' I have answer'd (tho't at first I w'd not answer at all, but did)10—have not found the older letter of his, but doubtless will & will surely send it you11—(sometimes I wonder whether J A S don't come under St Paul's famous category12)—I am sitting here alone in my den thick undershirt & big blue woolen gown but open window. —Scribble away some—

—Love to you & all

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. | Aug 25 | 6 AM | 90; N.Y. | 8–25–90 | 10 30 AM | 10; London | PM | AU 26 | 90 | Canada. [back]

2. Horace L. Traubel (1858–1919) was an American essayist, poet, and magazine publisher. He is best remembered as the literary executor, biographer, and self-fashioned "spirit child" of Walt Whitman. During the mid-1880s and until Whitman's death in 1892, Traubel visited the poet virtually every day and took thorough notes of their conversations, which he later transcribed and published in three large volumes entitled With Walt Whitman in Camden (1906, 1908, & 1914). After his death, Traubel left behind enough manuscripts for six more volumes of the series, the final two of which were published in 1996. For more on Traubel, see Ed Folsom, "Traubel, Horace L. [1858–1919]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

3. 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]

4. George Stafford was the father of Harry Stafford, a young man whom Whitman befriended in 1876 in Camden. Harry's parents, George and Susan Stafford, were tenant farmers at White Horse Farm near Kirkwood, New Jersey, where Whitman visited them on several occasions. For more on Whitman and the Staffords, see David G. Miller, "Stafford, George and Susan M." Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), 685. [back]

5. 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]

6. "An Old Man's Rejoinder" appeared in The Critic 17 (August 16, 1890), 85–86. The "Rejoinder" was later reprinted in Good-Bye My Fancy (1891) (See Prose Works 1892, Volume II: Collect and Other Prose, ed. Floyd Stovall [New York: New York University Press, 1964], 655–658). Bucke acknowledged receiving it on September 2, 1890[back]

7. Whitman is referring to an offprint of "An Old Man's Rejoinder," headed "From The Critic, New York, Aug. 16, 1890." [back]

8. 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]

9. In his August 20–22, 1890, letter, Bucke remarked: "The whole article is 'flat, stale and unprofitable'—a saw dust chewing business—dealing with the hull, the shell, the superfices, never for one line, one flash of insight penetrating to the heart of the business." [back]

10. In response to Symonds' concerns over the "semi-sexual" implications of comradeship in his letter of August 3, Whitman writes in a draft letter of August 19: "Ab't the questions on Calamus pieces &c: they quite daze me. L of G. is only to be rightly construed by and within its own atmosphere and essential character—all of its pages & pieces so coming strictly under that—that the calamus part has even allow'd the possibility of such construction as mention'd is terrible—I am fain to hope the pages themselves are not to be even mention'd for such gratuitous and quite at the time entirely undream'd & unreck'd possibility of morbid inferences—wh' are disavow'd by me & seem damnable." Symonds' reply on September 5 concealed his disappointment. As a disciple he thanked the poet for stating "so clearly & precisely what you feel about the question I raised." But his opinion remained unchanged: "It seems to me, I confess, still doubtful whether (human nature being what it is) we can expect wholly to eliminate some sensual alloy from any emotions which are raised to a very high pitch of passionate intensity." The same reservation appears in Studies in Sexual Inversion (1897): "No one who knows anything about Walt Whitman will for a moment doubt his candour and sincerity. Therefore the man who wrote 'Calamus,' and preached the gospel of comradeship, entertains feelings at least as hostile to sexual inversion as any law-abiding humdrum Anglo-Saxon could desire. It is obvious that he has not even taken the phenomena of abnormal instinct into account. Else he must have foreseen that, human nature being what it is, we cannot expect to eliminate all sexual alloy from emotions raised to a high pitch of passionate intensity, and that permanent elements within the midst of our society will emperil the absolute purity of the ideal he attempts to establish". [back]

11. This "older letter" would probably be Symonds' passionate letter of December 9, 1889, which prefigured Symonds' August 3rd letter. Whitman mentioned this older letter in his December 25–26 1889, letter to Bucke. [back]

12. Bucke is referring to St. Paul's categories of those who will "not inherit the kingdom of God," particularly men who had sex with men. See, for example, 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, which in the King James version reads: "Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God." In the New King James Version (1982), "homosexuals" and "sodomites" replace "effeminate" and "abusers of themselves with mankind." [back]


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