Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 23 May 1891

Date: May 23, 1891

Whitman Archive ID: loc.08050

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: Cristin Noonan, Stephanie Blalock, Jason McCormick, Marie Ernster, and Amanda J. Axley

page image
image 1
page image
image 2
page image
image 3

PM May 23 '91

Nothing very new or different—bad bad enough—the fiendish indigestion block continued—heavy torpor increasing—the burial house in Harleigh2 well toward finished—I paid the constructor $500 last week3—(as far as I can see I am favor'd in having Ralph Moore4 as my alter ego in making it)—I wish to collect the remains of my parents & two or three other near relations, & shall doubtless do so—I have two deceased children5 (young man & woman—illegitimate of course) that I much desired to bury here with me—but have ab't abandon'd the plan on acc't of angry litigation & fuss generally & disinterment f'm down south—

Kennedy6 has printed a short criticism of "Good-Bye"7—finds it without the sign-marks of early L of G—praises it highly tho'8—As I get toward estimate—but that is more in the forming than settled state—f'm my own point of view I accept without demur its spurty (old Lear's9 irascibility)—its off-handedness, even evidence of decrepitude & old fisherman's seine character as part of the artism (f'm my point of view) & as adherence to the determin'd cartoon of personality that dominates or rather stands behind all of L of G. like the unseen master & director of the show—


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. | May 23 | 8 PM | 91; Philadelphia | May | 9PM | 1891 | Transit; London | MY 25 | 91 | Canada. Whitman wrote this letter on stationery printed with the following notice from the Boston Evening Transcript: "From the Boston Eve'g Transcript, May 7, '91.—The Epictetus saying, as given by Walt Whitman in his own quite utterly dilapidated physical case is, a 'little spark of soul dragging a great lummux of corpse-body clumsily to and fro around.'" [back]

2. Whitman was buried in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden, New Jersey, on March 30, 1892, in an elaborate granite tomb that he designed. Reinhalter and Company of Philadelphia built the tomb, at a cost of $4,000. Whitman covered a portion of these costs with money that his Boston friends had raised so that the poet could purchase a summer cottage; the remaining balance was paid by Whitman's literary executor, Thomas Harned. For more information on the cemetery and Whitman's tomb, see See Geoffrey M. Still, "Harleigh Cemetery," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

3. He made the payment to Reinhalter & Company on May 12 (Whitman's Commonplace Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). The firm had reported the work "over half done" on April 27, 1891. See Whitman's letters to Bucke of November 12–14, 1891 and November 22, 1891, for more on the payment arrangements for the tomb. The receipt from P. Reinhalter & Company, the builders of the poet's tomb, read: "Received from Walt Whitman tenth of July, 1891 One thousand dollars cash, for the tomb in Harleigh Cemetery—making, including the sum of five hundred dollars (paid May 12 last) altogether to date the sum of fifteen hundred dollars which is hereby receipted"; see the Detroit Public Library's publication, An Exhibition of the Works of Walt Whitman, (Detroit: February and March 1955), 41. [back]

4. Ralph Moore was the superintendent of Harleigh Cemetery, where Whitman had had his marble tomb built. [back]

5. Although Whitman writes here that he has fathered two children, both of whom are buried "down south," there is no evidence to substantiate this claim. [back]

6. William Sloane Kennedy (1850–1929) was on the staff of the Philadelphia American and the Boston Transcript; he also published biographies of Longfellow, Holmes, and Whittier (Dictionary of American Biography). Apparently Kennedy had called on the poet for the first time on November 21, 1880 (William Sloane Kennedy, Reminiscences of Walt Whitman [London: Alexander Gardener, 1896], 1). Though Kennedy was to become a fierce defender of Whitman, in his first published article he admitted reservations about the "coarse indecencies of language" and protested that Whitman's ideal of democracy was "too coarse and crude"; see The Californian, 3 (February 1881), 149–158. For more about Kennedy, see Katherine Reagan, "Kennedy, William Sloane (1850–1929)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

7. Whitman's book Good-Bye My Fancy (1891) was his last miscellany, and it included both poetry and short prose works commenting on poetry, aging, and death, among other topics. Thirty-one poems from the book were later printed as "Good-Bye my Fancy 2d Annex" to Leaves of Grass (1891–1892), the last edition of Leaves of Grass published before Whitman's death in March 1892. For more information see, Donald Barlow Stauffer, "'Good-Bye my Fancy' (Second Annex) (1891)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

8. Kennedy's criticism from the May 21, 1891, issue of the Boston Transcript is reprinted in Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Saturday, May 23, 1891[back]

9. Whitman is referring to King Lear, the titular character of William Shakespeare's play King Lear (1606). In the play, Lear abdicates his throne and loses his former glory, becoming insane and impoverished. [back]


Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Matt Cohen, Ed Folsom, & Kenneth M. Price, editors.