Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Ellen M. O'Connor to Walt Whitman, 29 March 1889

Date: March 29, 1889

Whitman Archive ID: med.00945

Source: The location of this manuscript is unknown. The transcription presented here is derived from With Walt Whitman in Camden, ed. Horace Traubel (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953), 4:451. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Stephanie Blalock and Brandon James O'Neil

March 29, 1889.

William1 had the best night last night since a week ago and has sat up all day. Your card just here.2 He has read some today but says his head is very weak. Le Barnes3 in, and looking at your big book,4 for which we thank you, both William and I, each, for our copies. William sends love. I too.


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. O'Connor may be referring to Whitman's letter of March 28, 1889[back]

3. John W. Le Barnes was an abolitionist and one of the so-called "Secret Six" who gave money to and supported John Brown. When Horace Traubel reads this letter to Whitman and then asks "Who was Le Barnes?" Whitman answers, "I knew him: he knows me: he is a literary New Englander of considerable quality" (Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Sunday, March 30, 1889)..  [back]

4. Whitman often referred to Complete Poems & Prose (1888) as his "big book." The volume was published by the poet himself in an arrangement with publisher David McKay, who allowed Whitman to use the plates for both Leaves of Grass and Specimen Days—in December 1888. With the help of Horace Traubel, Whitman made the presswork and binding decisions, and Frederick Oldach bound the volume, which included a profile photo of the poet on the title page. For more information on the book, see Ed Folsom, Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary (University of Iowa: Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, 2005). [back]


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