Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 8–9 December 1890

Date: December 8–9, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07859

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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Camden N J1
Monday nightDec' 8—

Horace2 has been here back from his brief N Y trip—he saw Ingersoll3 at I's splendid Wall st offices, surrounded with his clerks & Mr Baker,4 & had a long talk, varied & animated & interesting—was at (Jeweler) Johnston's5—staid there—had good confabs & good meals there—went to the Ethical Convention &c &c &c

—I am sitting here alone—had my supper two hours ago—mostly vegetables & cup of tea—am feeling middling comfortable—cold weather—snow, rain & mist—financial failures these days6—but I believe the experts here don't feel generally alarmed—Have just had a good icy cup of sweet milk bro't to me wh' I am drinking slowly at intervals as I write—the sound of the RR cars on the track next street, and a half-muffled whistling in the snow—

A M Dec: 9—Sun shining—west wind—snow on ground—some toast & tea for breakfast—sent off proof of obituary of my dear bro: Jeff7 to N Y Engineering Record (will send you one when printed)8—did you get Critic of Nov: 29? Or shall I send you mine? Talcott Williams9 (Phil: Press) had a stenographer there at Reisser's evn'g May 31 '89,10 & took down the conversation bet'n Ingersoll and self (ab't immortality &c) after supper it seems—& is now type writing it out & to send me copies, one of wh' I will surely forward to you soon as he does11—have just got a letter12 f'm Johnston N Y, buying a big book13 enc: the money14—enough belly-ache to signify itself (indigestion mainly I guess)—noon & early afternoon fine out but bad traveling—What is this I hear ab't some one in Phila: (at some bust there anent of me) giving him (Johnston N Y) $10 to hand me?15—how was it?—bowel motions but slow & hard & sluggish

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, [illegible] Dec 9 | 4 30 PM | 90; London | AM | DE 11 | 0 | Canada, N.Y. | 12-9-90 | 11PM | [illegible]. [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. 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]

4. Isaac Newton Baker (1838–1923) was the private secretary and biographer of the orator Robert Green Ingersoll. [back]

5. John H. Johnston (1837–1919) was a New York jeweler and close friend of Whitman. Johnston was also a friend of Joaquin Miller (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden [New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1915], 2:139). Whitman visited the Johnstons for the first time early in 1877. In 1888 he observed to Horace Traubel: "I count [Johnston] as in our inner circle, among the chosen few" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, October 3, 1888). See also Johnston's letter about Whitman, printed in Charles N. Elliot, Walt Whitman as Man, Poet and Friend (Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1915), 149–174. For more on Johnston, see Susan L. Roberson, "Johnston, John H. (1837–1919) and Alma Calder," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

6. The Panic of 1890 involved the near insolvency of Barings Bank of London, England, which had invested heavily in Argentina’s failing economy, leading to international financial distrust and a sharp recession in the U.S. [back]

7. Thomas Jefferson Whitman (1833–1890), known as "Jeff," was Walt Whitman's favorite brother. As a civil engineer, Jeff eventually became Superintendent of Water Works in St. Louis and a nationally recognized figure. For more on Jeff, see Randall Waldron, "Whitman, Thomas Jefferson (1833–1890)." [back]

8. Whitman's obituary for his brother, "Thomas Jefferson Whitman: An Engineer's Obituary," was published in the Engineering Review of December 14, 1890. See Prose Works 1892, Volume 2: Collect and Other Prose, ed. Floyd Stovall (New York: New York University Press, 1964), 692–693. [back]

9. Talcott Williams (1849–1928) was associated with the New York Sun and World as well as the Springfield Republican before he became the editor of the Philadelphia Press in 1879. His newspaper vigorously defended Whitman in news articles and editorials after the Boston censorship of 1882. For more information about Williams, see Philip W. Leon, "Williams, Talcott (1849–1928)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

10. In honor of Whitman's 71st birthday, his friends gave him a birthday dinner on May 31, 1890, at Reisser's Restaurant in Philadelphia. The main speaker was Col. Robert G. Ingersoll, and there were also speeches by the physicians Richard Maurice Bucke and Silas Weir Mitchell. The Camden Daily Post article "Ingersoll's Speech" of June 2, 1890, was written by Whitman himself and was reprinted in Good-Bye My Fancy (Prose Works, 1892, ed. Floyd Stovall, 2 vols. [New York: New York University Press: 1963–1964], 686–687). "Honors to the Poet" appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, June 1, 1890. See also the notes on Whitman's birthday party in the poet's June 4, 1890, letter to Bucke. [back]

11. Williams was in Camden on December 5 with the "proof" typescript of "Off-hand talk between WW and R[G] Ingersoll" (Whitman's Commonplace Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). [back]

12. See Johnston's letter of December 3, 1890. [back]

13. 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]

14. The book was for Agnes Schilling (Whitman's Commonplace Book). [back]

15. Bucke explained the matter in his letter of December 12: a man named Beers gave Johnston $10 for tickets on the day of the Philadelphia lecture. [back]


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