Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: A. Van Rensellaer to Walt Whitman, 30 July 1865

Date: July 30, 1865

Whitman Archive ID: nyp.00223

Source: Oscar Lion Papers, 1914–1955, New York Public Library, New York, N.Y. A photostat reproduction of the manuscript is held in the Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection of the Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library. 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 created by Whitman Archive staff and/or were derived from Dear Brother Walt: The Letters of Thomas Jefferson Whitman, ed. Dennis Berthold and Kenneth M. Price (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1984), and supplemented or updated by Whitman Archive staff.

Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Ken Price, Kathryn Kruger, Kenneth M. Price, and Vanessa Steinroetter

New York,
July 30, 1865.

Dear Sir,

Looking over a file of papers in the reading room I saw a paragraph about your dismissal from the Interior Department, and as I once read your book, I am moved to express my feelings in the matter. The act strikes me as pretty mean but quite of a piece with Harlan's1 character. As I see you are in the Atty Gen'l's office I will call on you when I come to W. in a few days and tell you in confidence a little transaction I once had with Harlan, long time ago, which will show you what kind of chap he is. I read your book when it first came out and though I must admit a good deal of it was blind to me, I saw considerable which struck me as first class, though I don't pretend to much judgment in such matters. Anyhow I didn't see anything worse in what Harlan makes so much of than what is in old Bill Shakespeare and the Bible, and dashed in pretty thick too. Some folks are more squeamish than me, though.—Perhaps you might like to hear something Mr. Lincoln once said of you, which you probably never heard of. It wasn't much to say, but the way he said it struck me a good deal. It was in the winter time, I think in '64 I went up to the White House with a friend of mine, an M. C., who had some business with the President. He had gone out, so we didn't stop, but coming down stairs, quite near the door we met the President coming in and we stept back into the East Room and stood near the front windows, where my friends had a confab with him. It didn't last more than three or four minutes, but there was something about a letter which my friend had handed the President, and Mr Lincoln had read it and was holding it in his hand like one thinking it over, and looking out of the window when you went by, quite slow, with your hands in the breastpockets of your overcoat and a sizeable felt hat on your head pretty well up, just as I have often seen you on Broadway. Mr. Lincoln asked who you were, or something like that. I spoke up and said, mentioning your name and that you had written "Leaves of Grass," etc. Mr. Lincoln didn't say anything but took a good long look till you were quite gone by. Then he says—(I cant give you his way of saying it, but it was quite emphatic, and odd), "Well," he says, "he looks like a man." He said it pretty loud but in a sort of absent way and with the emphasis on the words I have underscored. He didn't say any more but began to talk again about the letter and in a minute or so, we went off. Seeing your name just now in the paper put me in mind of it it and I thought it was an item you might like to know. It was the only time I spoke to Mr. Lincoln though I saw him often.

I expect to be in Washington on my way down South in a few days and will take the freedom of giving you a call. Please don't mention my name in connection with what I write about Harlan. I'll explain why when I see you and you will see the reason for not spreading it round.

With respect, &c., truly yours,
A. Van Rensallaer.


1. James Harlan (1820–1899), secretary of the interior from 1865 to 1866, dismissed Whitman from his second-class clerkship on June 30, 1865. Harlan apparently took offense at the copy of the 1860 Leaves of Grass which Whitman was revising and which he kept at his desk. With the help of William Douglas O'Connor and Assistant Attorney General J. Hubley Ashton, Whitman secured a position in the attorney general's office. The Harlan episode led directly to O'Connor's pamphlet "The Good Gray Poet." Although Harlan was a Methodist, he was not a parson. Whitman may have sarcastically applied this term to Harlan because on May 30, 1865, Harlan had issued an official directive asking for the names of employees who disregarded "in their conduct, habits, and associations the rules of decorum & propriety prescribed by a Christian Civilization" (Jerome Loving, Walt Whitman's Champion [College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1978], 57). [back]


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