Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 16 December 1890

Date: December 16, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07862

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.

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

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Dec: 16 '90

Fairly—bowel action so-so—four or five times a week—once in a while fairly full— sluggish quite always but not at all as bad as a year & a half ago—I suppose you got the Eng'ng Record N Y with the little obituary2—am sitting here in den—Warren3 is down stairs practicing on fiddle—in the distance (grumbling thunder) the Parnell rumpus4 & the Sioux raid5—indeed distant, that P. row—short note from Mrs: O'C6—no news yet f'm H. M. & Co: Boston7


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. | Dec 16 | 6 PM | 90; London | M | De 17 | 90 | Canada. [back]

2. In his November 28, 1890 letter to Bucke, Whitman tells of the passing of his brother Jeff in St. Louis from typhoid pneumonia. The Engineering Record (New York) of December 13, 1890, contained an obituary of Thomas Jefferson Whitman, which Whitman wrote and reprinted in Good-Bye My Fancy (1891). [back]

3. 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. A picture of Warry is displayed in the May 1891 New England Magazine (278). See Joann P. Krieg, "Fritzinger, Frederick Warren (1866–1899)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), 240. [back]

4. The "Parnell Rumpus" refers to the public scandal that occurred when the Irish soldier and member of Parliament Captain William O'Shea (1840–1905) named Charles Stewart Parnell, the leader of Irish Parliamentary Party, as a co-respondent in divorce proceedings. Parnell had a long-lasting affair with O'Shea's wife Katharine O'Shea, and there was considerable fear that the scandal would jeopardize support for Home Rule in Ireland. [back]

5. Throughout 1890, the U.S. government was concerned about the increasing influence of the Ghost Dance spiritual movement on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota; under the mistaken impression that the Sioux chief Sitting Bull was a Ghost Dancer, reservation police on December 15 attempted to arrest him and killed him in the process. This is the "raid" Whitman refers to here. Two weeks later, 250 Sioux were massacred near Wounded Knee Creek, ending the Ghost Dance movement. [back]

6. Ellen M. "Nelly" O'Connor (1830–1913) 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 African Americans, Ellen would remain friendly with Whitman. The correspondence between Whitman and Ellen is almost as voluminous as the poet's correspondence with William. Three years after William O'Connor's death, Ellen married the Providence businessman Albert Calder. For more on Whitman's relationship with the O'Connors, see Dashae E. Lott, "O'Connor, William Douglas [1832–1889]" and Lott's "O'Connor (Calder), Ellen ('Nelly') M. Tarr (1830–1913)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

7. Mrs. O'Connor wrote on December 14 that she had not heard from the publishers of the late William Douglas O'Connor's collection of stories, Three Tales, for which Whitman wrote the introduction. [back]


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