Life & Letters


About this Item

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

Date: April 16, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: loc.08237

Source: The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. . The transcription presented here is derived from Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977), 5:38–39. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Related item: Whitman composed this letter, which includes a newspaper clipping, on the back of a partial letter and envelope from an as-yet-unknown correspondent.

Contributors to digital file: Andrew David King, Cristin Noonan, Yara Moustafa, Marie Ernster, and Stephanie Blalock

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April 16 11 am '90

All goes well—& has gone well—Had a fair sleep–night, & have eaten & relished a heartier breakfast than usual—The piece last night went off all right—got thro' all without dishonor—feel my sight & voice not what they were—presence (self–possession &c) perfect—audience large & very cordial—It is probably my "last public appearance"2—As near as I remember the Cape May place, not a show place, is call'd the Aldine3—it is or was, (& I think they owned it) by German family my nieces liked—

Walt Whitman

The Record

Philadelphia, April 16, 1890

Walt Whitman at the Contemporary Club


Walt Whitman was the lion of last evening's reception by the Contemporary Club.4 He gave an address on the death of Abraham Lincoln, and in concluding called him the "first great martyr of his race."5 The aged poet sat during his address and his readings from his poems. His voice was so distinct and steady that all of the audience, which filled the room to overflowing, could hear every word. His well-known venerable appearance was heightened by a shaded lamp placed beside him to light his manuscript.


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. | Apr 16 | 4 30 PM | 90; London | AM | AP 18 | 90 | Canada. There is one additional postmark, but it is largely illegible except for the the date of April 1890. [back]

2. In his Commonplace Book, Whitman described the evening of the Contemporary Club reception as follows: "[W]ent over in carriage (Mrs D[avis] and Warren with me) to Phila., to Art Gallery, Broad st. . . . all went well—this must be the 13th time & is probably the last" (Whitman's Commonplace Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). [back]

3. The "Aldine" was a Cape May hotel at which Bucke was planning to stay a few weeks later. See Whitman's letter to Bucke of May 12, 1890[back]

4. The Contemporary Club was a Philadelphia literary circle established in 1886 by the essayist Agnes Repplier. In 1887, Whitman had given a reading of "The Mystic Trumpeter" and "A Voice from the Sea" at the club. [back]

5. Whitman has written the word "democratic" in black ink to the left of the newspaper clipping. He has also added an insertion mark in black ink after the phrase "first great" and before the word "martyr" in the article. He is providing a correction to the reporter's account of his address. The quote should have indicated that Whitman called Lincoln the "first great democratic martyr of his race." [back]


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