Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Walt Whitman to William Sloane Kennedy and John Burroughs, 25 October 1888

Date: October 25, 1888

Whitman Archive ID: upa.00094

Source: Walt Whitman Collection, 1842–1957, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania. 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 Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller, 6 vols. (New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977), and supplemented or updated by Whitman Archive staff.

Contributors to digital file: Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Alex Ashland, Breanna Himschoot, and Stephanie Blalock

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Thursday noon
Oct. 25 '88

First thank you for your good affectionate letter, inspiriting more than you knew—That seems to me too long, condensed, dwelling a pull proof reading work—pressing work too on the delication of the brain

—I had a friend a woman of 30 a counter in the Redemption Bureau in the Treasury—told me she was "going to the devil fast & steady" (her own description) from her dense brain‑exhausting‑dulling labors, till she adopted the plan of getting a 10 or 12 minutes' nap (sleep or even doze) at noon or one oclock every day, just leaning down at her desk—fortunately she could fall in her nap—wh' is the great part of it—at any rate it cured1

—I heard from Bucke2 to-day3—he sends me the enclosed little slip4 from O'C5—the condition is bad, & I feel pretty gloomy ab't my best friend—yet he has great vitality & may tide over it—

—Nothing very different with me—Dr Ostler6 (very 'cute, a natural physician, rather optimistic, but best so)—thinks I am either on a very good way, or substantially cured of this last attack—I only wish I could feel so, or even approximate it—But any how thank God so far my thoughts & mental power are entirely within my control—I have written a short letter to Critic (by their request) on the "poet" question (wh' they may print)7—My sister—George's wife8—has just paid me a good cheery visit (with some nice home made Graham biscuits)—So I get along well, am comfortable, have a fair appetite, & keep a good oak fire—

Walt Whitman

Please send this to John Burroughs with slip [Over]9

Oct' 25th 88

Dear B[urroughs]

I forward this to you.

You need not have returned the XM Register. It was a mistake—the "Please return."

Geo. W. Cooke10 is a wooden-head of the first order—the incarnation of commonplace yet—a well-meaning man.—

Cordially yrs
W S Kennedy

University Press
Oct 26.

What a good nice letter from the dear old fellow this is!

He cheery he is—keeps up heart most of the time.

Writen me a line when the mood takes you, dear friend—Any thought-point that may strike you—


This letter is addressed to two close acquaintances of Whitman: William Sloane Kennedy (1850–1929), a writer and defender of the poet, and the naturalist John Burroughs (1837–1921). For more on these figures, see these entries from Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998): Katherine Reagan, "Kennedy, William Sloane (1850–1929)" and Carmine Sarracino, "Burroughs, John (1837–1921) and Ursula (1836–1917)."


1. Kennedy wrote on October 20, 1888: "Mrs. K. is in Boston at a Symphony Concert and a precious ½ hour for my soul being at my disposal I feel a strong inner impulse to pour out here in the evening solitude, my heart to you in a genuine heart-letter of affection, welling up out of the deeps you long ago touched as no other ever did or can. Dear friend whom I have for so long admired, do you not feel that all is well with you & the great cause of freedom for which you have laid down yr life? I do. I feel somehow that the future is going to be with you, with us. Humanity is sweeping on into the larger light. To me who have drank at all fountains of literature the world over, & climbed the lonely peaks of thought in every land & age, your Leaves of Grass still towers up above everything else in grand aspiration, right philosophy, & the heart-beats of true liberty." Kennedy went on to complain that he was "really ill with hard work—nerves trembling, eye fluttering & above all sleepy." [back]

2. 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]

3. Whitman is referring to Bucke's letter of October 23, 1888[back]

4. A brief note from William D. O'Connor to Bucke on October 20, 1888 mentioned that "a month ago my right eye closed, and the lid had not yet lifted, spite of battery. So I am practically blind" (University of Pennsylvania). Whitman tells Kennedy and Burroughs that this letter had been enclosed with the letter he received from Bucke on October 23, 1888. [back]

5. 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]

6. Sir William Osler (1849–1919) was a Canadian physician and one of the four founding staff members of Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he served as the first Chief of Medicine. Richard Maurice Bucke introduced Osler to Whitman in 1885 in order to care for the aging poet. Osler wrote a manuscript about his personal and professional relationship with Whitman in 1919; see Philip W. Leon, Walt Whitman and Sir William Osler: A Poet and His Physician [Toronto: ECW Press, 1995]). For more on Osler, see Philip W. Leon, "Osler, Dr. William (1849–1919)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). For more on the relationship of Osler and Whitman, see Michael Bliss, William Osler: A Life in Medicine (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999). [back]

7. See Whitman's letter to the editors of the New York Critic, November 1888[back]

8. Whitman is referring to his brother, George Washington Whitman, and George's wife Louisa Orr Haslam (1842–1892), called "Loo" or "Lou." [back]

9. This postscript appears at the top of the first page of the letter. On the verso of this letter, Kennedy has written a letter to Burroughs dated October 25, 1888, as well as a second note, dated October 26, 1888. Both of those letters are transcribed below. [back]

10. George Willis Cooke (1848–1923) was a Unitarian minister and writer, known for his history of Unitarianism and for his books on Transcendentalist writers, including his 1881 Ralph Waldo Emerson, in which he deals with Emerson's views of Whitman. [back]


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