Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: William Sloane Kennedy to Walt Whitman, 7 March 1888

Date: March 7, 1888

Whitman Archive ID: yal.00296

Source: Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript 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 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: Jeannette Schollaert, Stefan Schöberlein, Ian Faith, and Stephanie Blalock

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Belmont Mass.
March 7: '88

I was really astonished to hear my quondam college mate—young Henry Norman1—was the one who engineered the Pall Mall Gazette subscription. I always knew Norman had a soft spot 'way down deep in him somewhere. There was a race-antipathy between us, however. I suspect I was the one who first introduced you to him. For when we were in college together in Cambridge Mass. I was in the first flush of my enthusiasm for you; had just read you for the first time, & after a while I came out & made a solemn confession of faith before the whole Divinity School—Professors & all— & told them what I had found in you. They were a band of earnest liberal fellows (Norman & I the best read of 'em) & I saw that they did not laugh, & that my solemnity impressed them. I suspect, my dear friend, that you–being of English & Dutch stock—do not find in you the race-antipathy that I—a French-Scotch-Irish-Englishman find in me.

As to Norman—It is what we might expect to find one of yr opposites seeking you for inspiration. He certainly needs you, if any man does—in the heart department he is quite stony—veilled by culture & Unitarianism (or was 8 yrs ago: I suspect he has mellowed since that) His father is a wealthy Unitarian manufacturer of Leicester County England. Norman is intellectually brilliant, & no mistake. We have had some tiffs in the Critic. But I wish him well. His pam. on the Irish evictions won my sympathy, & now what Rhys2 tells me of this Pall Mall matter increases my esteem. We must een love him, Hal. I suppose.

I had a crazy, crazy letter from poor Mid. Alabama fellow.3 He is in trouble of some sort. Sent me his name & $5 for the book. He is a very sore-headed crank still over his visit to you.

I have some score of names of subscribers sent to me. How many bro. Wilson4 rec'd I dont know.

Rhys continues his schemes on society's pocket-book, & demoralizes my nerves frightfully when I see him, somehow. Charity, charity, man, I keep saying (& think of my own grievous sins). I send you a Transcript marked, and also send you my love in unlimited quantities. Remember me cordially to Scovel5 if you remember it. Love to the canary-bird, & the dog, & respects to Mrs. Davis.6

Good night & noble dreams be ours enbosomed in a mystic universe as we are.
W.S. Kennedy

William Sloane Kennedy (1850–1929) was on the staff of the Philadelphia American and the Boston Transcript; he also published biographies of Longfellow, Holmes, and Whittier (Dictionary of American Biography [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933], 336–337). Apparently Kennedy called on the poet for the first time on November 21, 1880 (William Sloane Kennedy, Reminiscences of Walt Whitman [London: Alexander Gardener, 1896], 1). Though Kennedy was to become a fierce defender of Whitman, in his first published article he admitted reservations about the "coarse indecencies of language" and protested that Whitman's ideal of democracy was "too coarse and crude"; see The Californian, 3 (February 1881), 149–158. For more about Kennedy, see Katherine Reagan, "Kennedy, William Sloane (1850–1929)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


1. Sir Henry Norman (1858–1939) was an English liberal politician and on the editorial staff of the Pall Mall Gazette. In gathering funds to help Whitman, Norman was acting for the editor of the newspaper, William T. Stead (1849–1912); see American Literature, XXXIII (1961), 68–69, and the letter from Whitman to William T. Stead, August 17, 1887. See also Whitman's letter to Norman of January 3, 1887[back]

2. Ernest Percival Rhys (1859–1946) was a British author and editor; he founded the Everyman's Library series of inexpensive reprintings of popular works. He included a volume of Whitman's poems in the Canterbury Poets series and two volumes of Whitman's prose in the Camelot series for Walter Scott publishers. For more information about Rhys, see Joel Myerson, "Rhys, Ernest Percival (1859–1946)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

3. John Newton Johnson (1832–1904) was a colorful and eccentric self-styled philosopher from rural Alabama. There are about thirty letters from Johnson in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919 (Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.), but unfortunately there are no replies extant, although Whitman wrote frequently for a period of approximately fifteen years. When Johnson wrote for the first time on August 13, 1874, he was forty-two, "gray as a rat," as he would say in another letter from September 13, 1874: a former Rebel soldier with an income between $300 and $400 annually, though before the war he had been "a slaveholding youthful 'patriarch.'" He informed Whitman in the August 13, 1874, letter that during the past summer he had bought Leaves of Grass and, after a momentary suspicion that the bookseller should be "hung for swindling," he discovered the mystery of Whitman's verse, and "I assure you I was soon 'cavorting' round and asserting that the $3 book was worth $50 if it could not be replaced, (Now Laugh)." He offered either to sell Whitman's poetry and turn over to him all profits or to lend him money. On October 7, 1874, after describing Guntersville, Alabama, a town near his farm from which he often mailed his letters to Whitman, he commented: "Orthodoxy flourishes with the usual lack of flowers or fruit." See also Charles N. Elliot, Walt Whitman as Man, Poet and Friend (Boston: R. G. Badger, 1915), 125–130. [back]

4. Frederick W. Wilson was a member of the Glasgow firm of Wilson & McCormick that published the 1883 British edition of Specimen Days and Collect[back]

5. James Matlack Scovel (1833–1904) began to practice law in Camden in 1856. During the Civil War, he was in the New Jersey legislature and became a colonel in 1863. He campaigned actively for Horace Greeley in 1872, and was a special agent for the U.S. Treasury during Chester Arthur's administration. In the 1870s, Whitman frequently went to Scovel's home for Sunday breakfast (Whitman's Commonplace Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). For a description of these breakfasts, see Walt Whitman's Diary in Canada, ed. William Sloane Kennedy (Boston: Small, Maynard, 1904), 59–60. For Scovel, see George R. Prowell's The History of Camden County, New Jersey (Philadelphia: L. J. Richards, 1886). [back]

6. Mary Oakes Davis (1837 or 1838–1908) was Whitman's housekeeper. For more, see Carol J. Singley, "Davis, Mary Oakes (1837 or 1838–1908)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]


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