Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Ellen M. O'Connor, 15 September 1889

Date: September 15, 1889

Whitman Archive ID: nyp.00695

Source: The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, New York Public Library. The transcription presented here is derived from Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977), 4:374. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Alex Ashland, Ryan Furlong, Breanna Himschoot, and Stephanie Blalock

P M Sept: 15 '89

Enclosed I send Wm's1 picture given by him to me when last here—not knowing whether you have one like it, or w'd wish to use it, or favor it—But it is the one I like best2Of course I want it return'd to me here without fail—Have you rec'd the "Liberty" Boston, dated Sept. 7?—I requested one sent you at North Perry a week ago—If not reach'd you get one in Boston—there is a good memoriam3 of dear W4 (by Horace Traubel5)—

Nothing new or significant particular with me—I continue pretty poorly & uncomfortable brain, eyesight & viscera—half-clear & warmish here, after the week's storm—Sir Edwin Arnold,6 the English poet, was here to see me, very cheery & eulogistic—aged ab't 40, quite a traveler, now bound (soon) to the Pacific & round the world—I enclose you a picture or two besides—the one in the hat I call "the laughing philosopher"7—I am sitting here alone in my big ratan arm chair in my den—Supper soon—I only eat two meals (no dinner) but relish them—

Walt Whitman

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. Ellen O'Connor on September 12 asked Whitman's advice as to which picture of her husband she should submit to Appleton's Encyclopedia. She also described her anxiety: "I dread, dear Walt, I can't tell any one how much I dread the going back home. I say home, but the sense of loneliness that overtakes me when I think of going is heart-sickening. And the uncertainty of all adds to it" (Feinberg). [back]

3. Horace L. Traubel's article, "W.D. O'Connor of Massachusetts," was published in Liberty 6 (September 7, 1889), 5. Whitman praises the article in conversation with Traubel. See Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Saturday, September 7, 1889[back]

4. In her September 26, 1889, letter, Ellen O'Connor termed Traubel's note "noble and generous." [back]

5. Horace L. Traubel (1858–1919) was an American essayist, poet, and magazine publisher. He is best remembered as the literary executor, biographer, and self-fashioned "spirit child" of Walt Whitman. During the late 1880s and until Whitman's death in 1892, Traubel visited the poet virtually every day and took thorough notes of their conversations, which he later transcribed and published in three large volumes entitled With Walt Whitman in Camden (1906, 1908, & 1914). After his death, Traubel left behind enough manuscripts for six more volumes of the series, the final two of which were published in 1996. For more on Traubel, see Ed Folsom, "Traubel, Horace L. [1858–1919]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

6. On September 12, 1889, Sir Edwin Arnold (1832–1904) wrote from Washington, D. C. requesting permission to visit Whitman. (The Boston Traveller on October 5, 1889, however reprinted a purported letter from Arnold to Whitman dated September 12, written from New York, in a flamboyant style not found in the actual letter.) For an account of Arnold's visit, see Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Thursday, September 12, 1889 and Saturday, September 14, 1889: "My main objection to him, if objection at all, would be, that he is too eulogistic—too flattering." Arnold published his own version of the interview in Seas and Lands (1891), in which he averred that the two read from Leaves of Grass, surrounded by Mrs. Davis, knitting, a handsome young man (Wilkins), and "a big setter." There are at least two additional accounts of Arnold's visit with Whitman; "Arnold and Whitman" was published anonymously in The Times (Philadelphia, PA) on September 15, 1889, and a different article, also titled "Arnold and Whitman" was published anonymously in The Daily Picayune (New Orleans, LA) on September 26, 1889. Arnold was best known for his long narrative poem, The Light of Asia (1879), which tells the life story and philosophy of Gautama Buddha and was largely responsible for introducing Buddhism to Western audiences. [back]

7. "The Laughing Philosopher," one of the most famous photographs of Walt Whitman, was taken by G.C. Cox in 1887. [back]


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