Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to Bernard O'Dowd, 12 July 1890

Date: July 12, 1890

Whitman Archive ID: slv.00001

Source: Manuscripts Collection, State Library Victoria (Melbourne, Australia). 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.

Contributors to digital file: Ashlyn Stewart, Ian Faith, Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Marie Ernster, Tara Ballard, and Stephanie Blalock

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328 Mickle Street Camden New Jersey
U S America
July 12 18901

Dear Comrade B O'D (& all the friends)

Y'r good long varied & loving letter came yesterday2 & has been welcome & nourishing to me—Sure I read ab't that Australian "interior" bit, and "shearing"—& ab't the experience & death of Gordon the poet3—& the whole letter—with much I will not particularize—with deepest interest, & thank you for sending it to me & hope for more—& can almost see you all there, & w'd wish to specifically send remembrance & love to you, Fred Woods,4 Jim Hartigan,5 Ada, Eve,6 Mr: and Mrs: Fryer,7 Ted, Louie,8 "Tom Touchstone"9 (when there,) & any other friends not named—the 'cute & loving appreciation of my book & me by them there in Australia has gone right to my heart—is far more than literary or technical fame.

I have sent you a copy of Dr Bucke's10 book11 by mail—if I repeat parrot–like you must pardon—for one thing I forget & for another I am not certain former letters by P O get there, sent yesterday same address as this—(it will interest you all but it is over color'd flattered)—Dr B is well & is busy—is a leading personal friend & my chief literary advocate—full of work & responsibility in London, Ontario, Canada—has a large family of sons & daughters12—I keep pretty well, eat & sleep middling well, (eat bread & honey, blackberries &c this summer weather—occasionally a mutton chop)—my worldly circumstances are good enough for me on a very low plane of course—I have a good strong tight cane chair & get out in it almost every day13—propell'd by my stout young man nurse14—an hour last evn'g at sunset down by riverside (the Delaware)—keep in fair spirits & in good flesh but no more bodily volition or locomotive power than a log—can't get across the room—I am still sitting here at this moment in a big cane chair—pleasant weather, open window (have had it very hot here)—Farewell for the present

God bless you & all—it is so welcome to me to be loved by you all but I know I am overestimated
Walt Whitman

Bernard O'Dowd (1866–1953), a self-styled "poor clerk in an obscure library" in Melbourne, Australia, wrote for the first time to Walt Whitman on March 12, 1890, although there is extant an unsent draft letter written on August 6, 1889. From his confessions in various letters it is clear that O'Dowd, the son of an Irish policeman, had a lonely and loveless childhood, that he was reared a Roman Catholic only to become a freethinker, that he became a teacher at an early age but then drifted (not unlike Walt Whitman) from job to job, and that despite his marriage the year before in his own eyes he was "a failure" and "an enigma to myself." He saw Walt Whitman as an heroic father figure: "Had Carlyle added another chapter to his 'Hero Worship' the 'Hero as Nurse' with Walt Whitman as subject would have worthily capped his dome" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection; A. L. McLeod, ed., Walt Whitman in Australia and New Zealand: A Record of his Reception [Sydney: Wentworth, 1964], 23). For discussions of O'Dowd, see A. L. McLeod's article in Walt Whitman Review 7 (June 1961), 23–35, and his Walt Whitman in Australia and New Zealand (1964).


1. This letter is addressed: Bernard O'Dowd | Supreme Court Library | Melbourne | Victoria | via San Francisco. It is postmarked: Camden N.J. | JUL12 | 8 PM | 90; [illegible] | JUL12 | 8 PM | 90; Philadelphia, PA. | JUL12 | 9 PM | F.D.; San Francisco [illegible] | JUL 17; Melbourne | [illegible] | AU23 | 90. [back]

2. It is uncertain which letter Whitman is referring to here. [back]

3. Adam Lindsay Gordon (1833–1870), a British-born poet who had emigrated to South Australia, and whose grave O'Dowd had recently visited according to O'Dowd's letter to Whitman of June 9 (Charles E. Feinberg Collection; A. L. McLeod, ed., Walt Whitman in Australia and New Zealand: A Record of his Reception [Sydney: Wentworth, 1964], 21). [back]

4. Fred Woods was a member of the Australeum discussion club and later wrote Heavenly Thoughts (1932), a volume of poetry. See A. L. McLeod, "Walt Whitman in Australia," Walt Whitman Review 7 (June 1961), 28n. [back]

5. James Hartigan was a plasterer and member of the Australeum discussion club. [back]

6. Evangeline (Eva) Mina Fryer O'Dowd was the wife of Bernard O'Dowd. [back]

7. Mr. and Mrs. Fryer were Bernard O'Dowd's in-laws. John Robbins Fryer (1826–1912) was a carpenter and conductor of the Melbourne Secular Lyceum. Jane Trump Fryer (1832–1917) was often considered a "political and religious radical," who was also a teacher in the Lyceum. For more on the Fryers, see Frank Bongiorno, "Fryer, Jane (1832–1917)," Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplemental Volume, Online Version, 2006. [back]

8. Little is known about these individuals (Ada, Ted, and Louie) save that they are likely relatives of Bernard O'Dowd's wife, Eva Fryer O'Dowd. They may include her sibling (or siblings) and their spouses. [back]

9. Thomas Bury, penname "Tom Touchstone," was a columnist for the Ballarat Courier (Victoria). See A. L. McLeod, "Walt Whitman in Australia," Walt Whitman Review 7 (June 1961), 28n. [back]

10. 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]

11. In 1883 Whitman arranged with David McKay, his Philadelphia publisher, to print Bucke's Walt Whitman (1883). The poet personally supervised publication, including proofreading. The typesetting of Bucke's biography was completed on March 31 (Whitman's Commonplace Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). Bucke generated some of the text, but Whitman controlled every detail, altering the proofs at will. [back]

12. Richard Maurice Bucke (1837–1902) and his wife Jessie Gurd Bucke (1839–1926) had three daughters and five sons: Clare Georgina (1866–1867), Maurice Andrews (1868–1899), Jessie Clare (1870–1943), William Augustus (1873–1933), Edward Pardee (1875–1913), Ina Matilda (1877–1968), Harold Langmuir (1879–1951), and Robert Walpole (1881–1923). [back]

13. Horace Traubel and Ed Wilkins, Whitman's nurse, went to Philadelphia to purchase a wheeled chair for the poet that would allow him to be "pull'd or push'd" outdoors. See Whitman's letter to William Sloane Kennedy of May 8, 1889[back]

14. Frank Warren Fritzinger (1867–1899), known as "Warry," took Edward Wilkins's place as Whitman's nurse, beginning in October 1889. Fritzinger and his brother Harry were the sons of Henry Whireman Fritzinger (about 1828–1881), a former sea captain who went blind, and Almira E. Fritzinger. Following Henry Sr.'s death, Warren and his brother—having lost both parents—became wards of Mary O. Davis, Whitman's housekeeper, who had also taken care of the sea captain and who inherited part of his estate. A picture of Warry is displayed in the May 1891 New England Magazine (278). See Joann P. Krieg, "Fritzinger, Frederick Warren (1866–1899)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), 240. [back]


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