Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 28–29 August [1890]

Date: August 28–29, [1890]

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07830

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: Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Ian Faith, Zainab Saleh, Breanna Himschoot, and Stephanie Blalock

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Aug: 28 P M—

Dr Johnston2 got back to England all right—he went down to Long Island West Hills &c:—saw Herbert Gilchrist3—saw John4 Burroughs5— the Illustrated American N Y Aug: 30 has a long middling good piece ab't Ruskin,6 a ¶ or two devoted to me7—fine sunny weather—bread & fruit & comb honey for breakfast—The essay "Comparison of Elizabethan with Victorian Poetry" (2d vol) in Symonds's8 books makes up for all the ponderosity (if that's the trouble) of the rest & is first rate9—Yes, I enclose a slip of "rejoinder"10—I have just sold 50 sets in sheets11 big book12 $3 each—(I suppose some Londoner, Eng—don't know for certain)—have had my early supper—out soon in wheel chair13—pleasant cool evn'g—

Aug: 29, early A M—have had my breakfast—oatmeal, comb honey, & some melon—fine day—was out last evn'g—O W Holmes14 has a fling at me in last Atlantic—I send you it in paper15—the "rejoinder" continues to be extracted & criticised & talked ab't—(it is nothing but what I say throughout in my books)16—frequent visitors—generally receive them, but do not if too ill or stupid wh' happens at times—Sit here the same in the old den—as now—my grip takes the form of cold in the head & sore throat to-day—

God bless 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. | Aug 29 | 8 PM | 90; NY | 7-29-90 | [illegible]PM | [illegible] ;London | PM | AU 30 | 9 | Canada. [back]

2. Dr. John Johnston (d. 1918) was a physician from Bolton, England, who, with James W. Wallace, founded the "Bolton College" of English admirers of the poet. Johnston and Wallace corresponded with Whitman and with Horace Traubel and other members of the Whitman circle in the United States, and they separately visited the poet and published memoirs of their trips in John Johnston and James William Wallace, Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–1891 by Two Lancashire Friends (London: Allen and Unwin, 1917). For more information on Johnston, see Larry D. Griffin, "Johnston, Dr. John (d.1918)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

3. Herbert Harlakenden Gilchrist (1857–1914), son of Alexander and Anne Gilchrist, was an English painter and editor of Anne Gilchrist: Her Life and Writings (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1887). For more information, see Marion Walker Alcaro, "Gilchrist, Herbert Harlakenden (1857–1914)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

4. The naturalist John Burroughs (1837–1921) met Whitman on the streets of Washington, D.C., in 1864. After returning to Brooklyn in 1864, Whitman commenced what was to become a lifelong correspondence with Burroughs. Burroughs was magnetically drawn to Whitman. However, the correspondence between the two men is, as Burroughs acknowledged, curiously "matter-of-fact." Burroughs would write several books involving or devoted to Whitman's work: Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person (1867), Birds and Poets (1877), Whitman, A Study (1896), and Accepting the Universe (1924). For more on Whitman's relationship with Burroughs, see Carmine Sarracino, "Burroughs, John [1837–1921] and Ursula [1836–1917]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

5. Burroughs commented on Dr. Johnston's visit in his journal on July 24: "A canny young Scot. Like him first rate" (see Clara Barrus, Whitman and Burroughs—Comrades [Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1931], 292). [back]

6. John Ruskin (1819–1900) was one of the leading art critics in Victorian Great Britain. Whitman sent Leaves of Grass and a "couple of photographs" to Ruskin via William Harrison Riley in March 1879 (see the letter from Whitman to Riley of March 18, 1879). Ruskin, according to Whitman, expressed "worry [...] that [Leaves is] too personal, too emotional, launched from the fires of [...] spinal passions, joys, yearnings" (see the letter from Whitman to William O'Connor of October 7, 1882). Whitman, late in life, said to Horace Traubel: "[I] take my Ruskin with some qualifications." Still, Ruskin "is not to be made little of: is of unquestionable genius and nobility" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Thursday, January 24, 1889). [back]

7. Whitman is referring to "John Ruskin" by "A Companion of His Guild of St. George," The Illustrated American 3 (August 30, 1890): 347–352. The article not only referred to Whitman, but also reprinted a letter from the poet to the author, William Harrison Riley. See Whitman's letter of March 18, 1879 to Riley. [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. Whitman is referring to John Addington Symonds's Essays Speculative and Suggestive (London: Chapman and Hall, 1890). The chapter on "Democratic Art" is mainly inspired by Whitman. 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." On August 24, 1890, Whitman observed: "you are a little more severe on Symonds than I sh'd be." [back]

10. "An Old Man's Rejoinder" was published 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 2: 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]

11. See Whitman's letter to Frederick Oldach on August 27, 1890, requesting the fifty sets be made up. [back]

12. Whitman's Complete Poems & Prose (1888), a volume Whitman often referred to as the "big book," was published by the poet himself—in an arrangement with publisher David McKay, who allowed Whitman to use the plates for both Leaves of Grass and Specimen Days–in December 1888. With the help of Horace Traubel, Whitman made the presswork and binding decisions for the volume. Frederick Oldach bound the book, which included a profile photo of the poet on the title page. For more information on the book, see Ed Folsom, Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary. [back]

13. 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]

14. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (1809–1894) was a Bostonian author, physician, and lecturer. One of the Fireside Poets, he was a good friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson as well as John Burroughs. Towards Whitman's poetry, Holmes remained ambivalent. He married Amelia Lee Jackson in 1840 and they had three children, including the later Supreme Court judge Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. For more information, see Julie A. Rechel-White, "Holmes, Oliver Wendell (1809–1894)," (Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, eds. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings [New York: Garland Publishing, 1998], 280). [back]

15. Whitman is referring to a piece by Oliver Wendell Holmes. See "Over the Teacups. X." Atlantic Monthly 66 (September 1890), 388–390. Bucke responded on September 2, 1890: "O. W. is to all intents and purposes an Englishman (and a very good speciment too) Such a book as L. of G. and the mentality that goes with such a book is as far as possible from his ideal." [back]

16. In his letter of September 2, 1890, Bucke wrote: "Of course you have said it all before (and more than once) but the children have not learned the lesson yet and there is no harm (even need) to repeat." [back]


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