Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Richard Maurice Bucke to Walt Whitman, 16 January 1891

Date: January 16, 1891

Whitman Archive ID: loc.07907

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: Cristin Noonan, Zainab Saleh, Andrew David King, Breanna Himschoot, and Stephanie Blalock

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Medical Superintendent's
16 Jan 1891

Your postcard of the 13th1 came to hand last ev'g. I was, and am, much concerned to hear such poor accounts of your health but a good deal relieved to find that the worst symptoms had passed off for the present—hope they will stay away for awhile. Shall look out for Feb. N.A. Review.2

I have some bad news to tell you. I have been in court the last two days (all Wednesday and Thursday)—an action was brought against me for slander by a discharged employee (a young woman) the case has gone against me—verdict is: "For Plantiff—Damages $500." Remains to be seen what stand the government will take—whether they will support me and how far—there may be also question of appeal. What I did & said was done and said entirely as Med. Supt. and my judgement and conscienece still tell me (as they told me all along) that my action has been what it should have been and must have been under all the circumstances—this being so I am comparatively indifferent as to what happens as consequence. Show this to Horace,3 I shall send you the newspapers in the case and show them to Horace too. We are all well—my arm (shoulder) no longer gives me any pain or much annoyance.4 Am comfortable, have a good appetite and feel hearty—all well at house—all goes well with meter5—I am not uneasy but that every thing will turn out well.

Dear Walt—if this bladder trouble returns and is bad will you not send for young Mitchell6 (Dr) and take such steps for relief as he advises? I wish you would—I know his advice will be good and that you will obtain relief by following it

With much love
R M Bucke

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. Bucke is referring to to Whitman's postal card of January 13, 1891[back]

2. The North American Review was the first literary magazine in the United States. The journalist Charles Allen Thorndike Rice (1851–1889) edited and published the magazine in New York from 1876 until his death. After Rice's death, Lloyd Bryce became owner and editor, and he held these positions at the time of Rideing's letter. [back]

3. 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 late 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]

4. Bucke described this accident in a December 25, 1890, letter to Whitman's disciple and biographer Horace Traubel: "I had a fall last evening and dislocated my left shoulder (it was the right arm last time, three months ago)." This letter is held in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. It is reprinted in Traubel's With Walt Whitman in Camden, Saturday, December 27, 1890[back]

5. Bucke and his brother-in-law William John Gurd were designing a gas and fluid meter to be patented in Canada and sold in England. [back]

6. Dr. John Kearsley Mitchell II (1859–1935) was the son of S. Weir Mitchell, the noted American physician and writer of historical fiction; the young Mitchell looked in on Whitman when his regular physician, William Osler, was unavailable. Whitman was not overly impressed with the Mitchells: "The young man Mitchell did not take me by storm—he did not impress me. I start off with a prejudice against doctors anyway. I know J. K.'s father somewhat—Weir: he is of the intellectual type—a scholar, writer, and all that: very good—an adept: very important in his sphere—a little bitter I should say—a little bitter—touched just a touch by the frosts of culture, society, worldliness—as how few are not!" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Thursday, July 12, 1888). [back]


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