Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Ellen M. O'Connor, 18 December 1889

Date: December 18, 1889

Whitman Archive ID: nyp.00702

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), 4:406–407. 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, Ashlyn Stewart, Breanna Himschoot, and Stephanie Blalock

Dec: 18 1889

Matters (pretty monotonous of course) are going on with me much the same as hitherto—(of course palpably physically declining)—Rec'd a letter, (I suppose you got one too) with the announcement of marriage between Chas: W Eldridge2 and Emily Louisa Brown3 at San Francisco, Dec: 5—(nothing but the printed announcement)—Also to-day a letter f'm John Burroughs4 f'm Poughkeepsie, where they are all, (wife5 boy6 & he) wintering, housekeeping—J B not either exactly well or ill, but has met a bad financial set-back & loss—$1000 or more—the little boy well & growing.7

Dr Bucke8 is well & busy—writes me every two or three days—Horace Traubel9 was here last evn'g as usual (always welcome)—he is well—is a clerk in a bank in Phila—Am sitting at present alone in my den—shall have a good stout currying & pummeling (massage) in a few minutes—a dark rainy day out, with indications of fog—& what's the news with you? & how are matters shaping? I enclose one of my late circulars10 as it may have a wisp of interest to you. The translation of (partial) L of G. is well rec'd in Germany.11 So Browning12 is dead & Whittier13 is 8214

Love & God bless you
Walt Whitman

Ellen M. "Nelly" O'Connor 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 black citizens, Ellen would remain friendly with Whitman. The correspondence between Whitman and Ellen is almost as voluminous as the poet's correspondence with William. For more on Whitman's relationship with the O'Connors, see Dashae 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).


1. This letter is addressed: Mrs: E M O'Connor | 1015 O Street N W | Washington | D C. It is postmarked: Camden, N J. | Dec 18 | 6 PM | 89; Washington, Rec'd. | Dec 19 | 11 AM | 89. [back]

2. Charles W. Eldridge (1837–1903) was one half of the Boston-based abolitionist publishing firm Thayer and Eldridge, who issued the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. In December 1862, on his way to find his injured brother George in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Whitman stopped in Washington and encountered Eldridge, who had become a clerk in the office of the army paymaster, Major Lyman Hapgood. Eldridge eventually obtained a desk for Whitman in Hapgood's office. For more on Whitman's relationship with Thayer and Eldridge, see David Breckenridge Donlon, "Thayer, William Wilde (1829–1896) and Charles W. Eldridge (1837–1903)." [back]

3. As yet we have no information about this person. [back]

4. The naturalist John Burroughs (1837–1921) met Whitman on the streets of Washington, D.C., in 1864. After returning to Brooklyn in 1864, Whitman commenced what was to become a lifelong correspondence with Burroughs. Burroughs was magnetically drawn to Whitman. However, the correspondence between the two men is, as Burroughs acknowledged, curiously "matter-of-fact." Burroughs would write several books involving or devoted to Whitman's work: Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person (1867), Birds and Poets (1877), Whitman, A Study (1896), and Accepting the Universe (1924). For more on Whitman's relationship with Burroughs, see Carmine Sarracino, "Burroughs, John [1837–1921] and Ursula [1836–1917]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

5. Ursula North Burroughs (1836–1917) was John Burroughs's wife. Ursula and John were married on September 12, 1857. The couple maintained a small farm overlooking the Hudson River in West Park, Ulster County. They adopted a son, Julian, at two months of age. It was only later revealed that John himself was the biological father of Julian. [back]

6. Julian Burroughs (1878–1954), the only son of John and Ursula Burroughs, later became a landscape painter, writer, and photographer. [back]

7. See Burroughs letter to Whitman of December 17, 1889[back]

8. 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]

9. 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 mid-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]

10. The circular advertised Complete Poems & Prose ($6), Leaves of Grass ($5), and Portraits from Life ($3). The advertisement appeared in Camden's Compliment to Walt Whitman (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1889); a facsimile of Walt Whitman's draft of the circular appears in Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Thursday, May 30, 1889[back]

11. Grashalme, the first book-length German translation of Leaves of Grass, by Karl Knortz and Thomas William Hazen Rolleston, was issued by Swiss publisher Jakob Schabelitz in 1889. [back]

12. Robert Browning (1812–1889) was an English poet known for his dramatic monologues, including "Porphyria's Lover" and "My Last Duchess." Browning was also the husband of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861). [back]

13. John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892) earned fame as a staunch advocate for the abolition of slavery. As a poet, he employed traditional forms and meters, and, not surprisingly, he was not an admirer of Whitman's unconventional prosody. For Whitman's view of Whittier, see the poet's numerous comments throughout the nine volumes of Horace Traubel's With Walt Whitman in Camden (various publishers: 1906–1996) and Whitman's "My Tribute to Four Poets," in Specimen Days (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882–'83), 180–181. [back]

14. Ellen O'Connor replied on December 21, 1889: she had visited William's grave and "plucked a few leaves [of ivy] for you." [back]


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