Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 3–4 October 1890

Date: October 3–4, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07843

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 on the back of a letter he received from Joseph B. Gilder on September 25, 1890.

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

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Friday PM Oct: 3—Have just rec'd another good (pretty long) letter f'm my friends in Australia2—(a fine cluster, men & women, centred in Melbourne)—& have just sent word in answer3—somehow to be read so thoroughly & made so much of by those tried & thoughtful folks of both sexes, away off at the antipodes, drives deep into me—The wet & cloudy days have pass'd & it is sunny & fine to-day—I made my breakfast of oysters brown bread & coffee—have sent my big book,4 your W W, & John Burroughs'5 Notes, with a cluster of my portraits all in a bundle by express to Ingersoll,6 45 Wall st N Y (as I heard he had not y'r book)7—Shall probably get out in wheel chair8 this aft'n—

Saturday a m Oct: 4—Fine sunny day—The Ing: address will probably be (as I before told you) at Horticultural Hall, Phil: ab't 22d Oct9—but the definite decision waits for Ing's word—(he was absent f'm N Y yesterday)—I doubt if Mrs: O'C10 tumbles to my "preface"11—she probably expected something more conventional & literary—but I find (upon second & more deliberate tho't) I have said it as I wanted to ab't Wm O'C12 & my wish to put on record such a testimony (tho' short) signed by my name, suits me exactly, & is consistent with the proposed book—I will send you the MS.—I have rec'd a formal invitation to write for the N A Review13 & sh'l probably do so.

God bless you—
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. | Oct 4 | 8 PM | 90; Philadelphia, P.A. | OCT | 4 | 1890 | Transit; London | PM | OC 6 | 90 | Canada. [back]

2. See Bernard O'Dowd's letter of September 1, 1890. [back]

3. See Whitman's October 3, 1890, letter to Bernard O'Dowd. [back]

4. 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]

5. 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]

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. Never one to leave things to chance, Whitman wrote to Ingersoll twice before the lecture, as evidenced by the latter's replies on October 12, 1890 and October 20, 1890 (See The Letters of Robert G. Ingersoll [New York, NY: Philosophical Library, 1951], 393–394). [back]

8. 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]

9. The event was arranged by John H. Johnston and Robert Ingersoll, who was to lecture on Whitman. There was some discussion about whether or not the event should be held in New York or Philadelphia. See Bucke's letter of September 17, 1890 and the poet's September 19 response. See also his September 20 letter to John H. Johnston. [back]

10. Ellen M. "Nelly" O'Connor was the wife of William D. O'Connor (1832–1889), one of Whitman's staunchest defenders. Before marrying William, Ellen Tarr was active in the antislavery and women's rights movements as a contributor to the Liberator and to a women's rights newspaper Una. Whitman dined with the O'Connors frequently during his Washington years. Though Whitman and William O'Connor would temporarily break off their friendship in late 1872 over Reconstruction policies with regard to emancipated black citizens, Ellen would remain friendly with Whitman. The correspondence between Whitman and Ellen is almost as voluminous as the poet's correspondence with William. For more on Whitman's relationship with the O'Connors, see Dashae E. Lott, "O'Connor, William Douglas [1832–1889]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

11. Three of O'Connor's stories with a preface by Whitman were published in Three Tales: The Ghost, The Brazen Android, The Carpenter (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1892). The preface was included in Good-Bye My Fancy (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1891), 51–53. [back]

12. William Douglas O'Connor (1832–1889) was the author of the grand and grandiloquent Whitman pamphlet "The Good Gray Poet," published in 1866 (a digital version of the pamphlet is available at "The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication"). For more on Whitman's relationship with O'Connor, see Deshae E. Lott, "O'Connor, William Douglas (1832–1889)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

13. On October 3, 1890, William H. Rideing, the assistant editor, requested an article of about "4000 words" on "Recent aspects of American literature" for "the sum of Two hundred dollars" or on "some other subject on which you would be more willing to write." Whitman sent "Old Poets" to the magazine on October 9, returned proof on October 18, and received $75 (Whitman's Commonplace Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). [back]


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