Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to William Sloane Kennedy, 28 January 1889

Date: January 28, 1889

Whitman Archive ID: med.00861

Source: The location of this manuscript is unknown. Edwin Haviland Miller derives his transcription from a transcript of the letter printed in William Sloane Kennedy, Reminiscences of Walt Whitman (Paisley and London: Alexander Gardner, 1896), 61. The transcription presented here is derived from The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977), 4:276. 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, Alex Ashland, and Stephanie Blalock




Jan. 28, '89

Your letter and the translation have come and I thank you markedly.1 I have sent M. Sarrazin2 (his piece is a great steady trade-wind hurrying the ship into port) a copy of the big book3. . . . Dr. Bucke4 makes a little fun of Howells's5 notice of Nov: Boughs in Feb. Harper's6 (the wonder is that it is so friendly and good). . . . I sit up all day and read and write (tho' both are getting almost loathsome), and keep fair spirits upon the whole.


Correspondent:
William Sloane Kennedy (1850–1929) was on the staff of the Philadelphia American and later published biographies of Longfellow 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 [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).

Notes:

1. Whitman asked Kennedy to translate Sarrazin's article on January 22, 1889. The poet had an edited, condensed version of Kennedy's translation printed, and he circulated it among his correspondents. See his February 1, 1889, letter to Kennedy, with which Whitman enclosed a proof of this version. [back]

2. Gabriel Sarrazin (1853–1935) was a translator and poet from France, who commented positively not only on Whitman's work but also on Poe's. Whitman later corresponded with Sarrazin and apparently liked the critic's work on Leaves of Grass—Whitman even had Sarrazin's chapter on his book translated twice. For more on Sarrazin, see Carmine Sarracino, "Sarrazin, Gabriel (1853–1935)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

3. Whitman's Complete Poems & Prose (1888), a volume Whitman often referred to as the "big book," was published by Philadelphia publisher David McKay in December 1888. With the help of Horace Traubel, he made the presswork and binding decisions for the volume. Frederick Oldach bound the book, which included a profile photo of the poet on the title page. For more information on the book, see Ed Folsom's Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary. [back]

4. 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]

5. William Dean Howells (1837–1920) was an American realist novelist and literary critic, serving the staff of the New York Nation and Harper's Magazine during the mid 1860s. During his tenure as editor-in-chief of The Atlantic Monthly from 1871 to 1880, he was one of the foremost critics in New York, and used his influence to support American authors like Hamlin Garland, Stephen Crane, and Emily Dickinson. He also brought attention to European authors like Henrik Ibsen, Giovanni Verga, and Leo Tolstoy in particular. Howells was highly skeptical of Whitman's poetry, however, and frequently questioned his literary merit. In an Ashtabula Sentinel review of the 1860 edition Leaves of Grass, Howells wrote, "If he is indeed 'the distinctive poet of America,' then the office of poet is one which must be left hereafter to the shameless and the friendless. for WALT WHITMAN is not a man whom you would like to know." In 1865, Howells would write the first important review of Drum-Taps in the Round Table, demonstrating early signs of his conflicted opinion about Whitman. For more information on Howells, see Goodman, Susan & Dawson, Carl, William Dean Howells: A Writer's Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).  [back]

6. Whitman is referring to "Editor's Study," which was published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in February 1889. The review was unsigned in the magazine. [back]


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