Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 13 September 1890

Date: September 13, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07832

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), 5:84. 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, Ryan Furlong, Ian Faith, and Stephanie Blalock

a m Sept: 13 '901

Medley sort of weather half rain half sunshine some breeze—will probably send you Kennedy's2 Dutch piece3 soon (see enclosed letter f'm him)4—Am looking over the Kreutzer Sonata5 & have Ingersoll's6 criticism in N[orth] A[merican] Review7—the political intestinal agitation here in U S is essentially ab't unrestricted trade (general reciprocity) and the damnable diseased policy the Harrison8 gov't typifies call'd protectionism—thats the bottom of it, below every thing else—probably the world never saw such a mean dog-in-the-manger principle so thoroughly attempted & made the base of a great party (the remains, dead cadaverous trunk of the once glorious live Lincoln party of '60 to '64 and '5) as to-day & in the U S—But agitation, experiment &c: must9 be a gain one way or another here in U S—

I told you Mrs Davis10 has gone on a visit to Kansas—It is a long jaunt—she gets there 14th—

Walt Whitman

I return enc'd Dr J[ohnston]'s11 letter.12

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. | Sep 13 | 3 PM | 90. [back]

2. William Sloane Kennedy (1850–1929) was on the staff of the Philadelphia American and the Boston Transcript; he also published biographies of Longfellow, Holmes, 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 [London: Alexander Gardener, 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]

3. William Sloane Kennedy's "Dutch Traits of Walt Whitman" was published in The Conservator 1 (February 1891), 90–91. It was reprinted in In Re Walt Whitman, ed. Horace Traubel, et al. (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1893), 195–199. [back]

4. Whitman may be referring to Kennedy's letter of September 10, 1890[back]

5. Whitman had just finished reading Leo Tolstoy's novella The Kreutzer Sonata (1889), which he called "a masterpiece"; he considered writing about the book. He commented on the The Kreuzer Sonata in conversation with Horace Traubel. See Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Saturday, September 13, 1890 and Sunday, September 28, 1890[back]

6. Robert "Bob" Green Ingersoll (1833–1899) was a Civil War veteran and an orator of the post-Civil War era, known for his support of agnosticism. Ingersoll was a friend of Whitman, who considered Ingersoll the greatest orator of his time. Whitman said to Traubel, "It should not be surprising that I am drawn to Ingersoll, for he is Leaves of Grass. He lives, embodies, the individuality I preach. I see in Bob the noblest specimen—American-flavored—pure out of the soil, spreading, giving, demanding light" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, March 25, 1891). The feeling was mutual. Upon Whitman's death in 1892, Ingersoll delivered the eulogy at the poet's funeral. The eulogy was published to great acclaim and is considered a classic panegyric (see Phyllis Theroux, The Book of Eulogies [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997], 30). [back]

7. Whitman is referring to Robert Ingersoll's "Tolstoi and 'The Kreutzer Sonata,'" The North American Review 151 (September 1890), 289–299. [back]

8. Benjamin Harrison (1833–1901) was the twenty-third U.S. president and grandson of the ninth president, William Henry Harrison. Harrison was the Republican nominee who defeated Democratic incumbent Grover Cleveland in 1888. Whitman had very negative views of Harrison, once calling him a "scalawag" and a "shit-ass": "I never had any faith in him, in his course!" See Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Sunday, April 21, 1889[back]

9. The word is underscored heavily: possibly Whitman was ironic, although he rarely was, or more probably he had to convince himself that all things worked out well in the end. [back]

10. 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]

11. Dr. John Johnston (1852–1927) of Annan, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, was a physician, photographer, and avid cyclist. Johnston was trained in Edinburgh and served as a hospital surgeon in West Bromwich for two years before moving to Bolton, England, in 1876. Johnston worked as a general practitioner in Bolton and as an instructor of ambulance classes for the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railways. He served at Whalley Military Hospital during World War One and became Medical Superintendent of Townley's Hospital in 1917 (John Anson, "Bolton's Illustrious Doctor Johnston—a man of many talents," Bolton News [March 28, 2021]; Paul Salveson, Moorlands, Memories, and reflections: A Centenary Celebration of Allen Clarke's Moorlands and Memories [Lancashire Loominary, 2020]). Johnston, along 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 (1852–1927)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

12. On August 27, 1890, Dr. Johnston wrote to Bucke to apologize for not visiting him in Canada and to report in reverential terms his meeting with Walt Whitman: "The memory of that 'good time' will ever be one of my most valued possessions and it is associated with my most unique experience. Although it is now over six weeks since I saw him it is no exaggeration for me to say that I still feel the magnetism of his personality." See also Johnston's September 13, 1890, letter to Whitman. [back]


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