Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Ellen M. O'Connor to Walt Whitman, 28 January 1889

Date: January 28, 1889

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07875

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: Ashlyn Stewart, Breanna Himschoot, Alex Ashland, and Stephanie Blalock

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1015 O St. N. W.
Jan. 28. 1889
Monday A. M.

Dear Walt,

For many days I have tried to write you, but the pressure is so great that I can't get the moment to sit down, for as yet I am the only nurse, & my duties are constant, much of the time. If things get worse I shall have to have a man to help me lift & nurse William.1 This morning after your card came2 he asked me to write & tell you how very ill he is. The attack he had on the 18th was less severe than the one a year ago on the 16th of Jan. but he is so much worse in all other ways, & the lower limbs so useless that all is harder for him. He feels discouraged for the first time, & says the outlook is very gloomy. His constant annoyance from the bladder trouble now is worse than all else, & so far the Doctors have not reached it at all. If Dr. Bucke3 comes in soon can he not, will he not, be able to run over & call on us? I am sure he could advise me how to nurse & care for William in the best hospital manner,—as yet he has not at all come to the idea that any one but me is needed,—& I don't mean to suggest it till I have come to the point where I must, & can't do for him, but he is very helpless & very heavy.

I try to keep my courage up, & not to look ahead more than I must.

William sends love, & is always glad to hear. He can read but not write.

With all best wishes, & with love—
Nelly O'Connor.

At this moment he is dressed & sitting up reading, but feeling very quiet, & very silent.

E. M. O'C.

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).


1. William Douglas O'Connor (1832–1889) was the author of the grand and grandiloquent Whitman pamphlet The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication, published in 1866. 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]

2. See Whitman's letter to William O'Connor of January 26, 1889[back]

3. 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). [back]


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