Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: William Sloane Kennedy to Walt Whitman, 27 February 1889

Date: February 27, 1889

Whitman Archive ID: yal.00297

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: Kara Wentworth, Breanna Himschoot, Alex Ashland, and Stephanie Blalock

page image
image 1
page image
image 2
page image
image 3
page image
image 4
page image
image 5
page image
image 6
page image
image 7
page image
image 8
page image
image 9
page image
image 10

Feb 27. '89

Dear W.W:—

The German Grashalme2 rec'd.! How honors thicken & cluster. This book is a remarkable step forward. Do you know it gave me a curious (perhaps to you not altogether intelligible) feeling as I read yr familiar poems in the foreign tongue I have so long been reading. I seemed to see to feel you doubled, foreignized, speaking over there the same message to a new nation; & I also imagined this as but the beginning of a long pilgrimage you are to make around the world, uttering yr gospel in the thousand tongues of men. It was a very [peculiar?] feeling & something grand & thrilling in its forecast, or prophecy-tinge.

I give you here an accurate line for line translation of all of Knortz's3 and Rolleston's4 prefaces although I don't deem them worth much (for novelty), except the inevitable biographical summary of Rolleston. The translations are very well done. The German tongue (flexible, many-inflected, wide ranging language) lends itself admirably to yr your! long sentences. They have translated the very best of the poems for foreign presentation, I think.

Do you know anything abt how Rolleston came to be so good a German scholar? Studied in Germany when a boy doubtless? Do you know whether he or Knortz is married?

Give my love to Dr. B.5

You can make any use you want to of the transl. tho' I merely made it for you.

WS Kennedy.

My Dear W Whitman,6

Yr letter7 & papers both rec'd with thanks. I have written lately one of the most elaborate things I ever did—on the nature of Poetry—going deep down, canvassing all nature for analogies (Ruskin's five vols of Mod Painters helping me much)8 going over all the poets, & taking yr Burial Hymn of Lincoln as the model of the poetical style of the future.9 My article is scientific, I even reverently analyze Shakespeare's technique & prove that he inclined more & more to prose, abandoning rhyme. I show that yr your! long twenty syllable, & twenty-five syllable lines are the first true heroics ever written in a Germanic tongue, and that while rhymes & the clang-tints of verse will continue, you have revolutionized the technique of the drama & the epic.

I am cunning on acct of our enemies, & only introduce my great friend—yourself—at the close, when I have cut the other poets to pieces & have interrogated Nature & compared the two—herself & the poets.

I had been reserving this piece of work until I moved into my new house. I married a darling little wife six months ago, & she & I have built a pretty cottage in Belmont—on the hill—magnificent view, at night the illuminated world of Boston twinkling below us—the revolving "Boston Light" out—flashing away in the harbor, lime-lights bright & numerous. By day birds & squirrels in the numerous cedars at our door—a perfect forest of Virginia cedars. We have half an acre with trees (wild) & are in complete solitude in our eyrie,–no neighbors within sight, except through the trees. Is not this tempting? And now does it not tempt you to come & see me? Let me beg of you if you come to Boston, to let me know at once, & I will escort you out, & instal you in our prophet's chamber, where there is a fireplace, & a great prospect, with deserted woodland walks right at hand. Will you promise? Write & tell me. Mrs K.10 goes in to the city every day, so we shd have the day to ourselves, I also go in nearly every day, & you cd have the house to yourself much of the time. Do come & stay two weeks if you can. We have no girl (servant) to bore us. I am a little nobody, but I reverence you, & that sheds a little borrowed greatness on me.

I sent my article on poetry to the Century. They ordered an article on E.E. Hale,11 wh. I have sent also. I have a splendid plum for you in that. Hale wrote an appreciative review of yr first book in '56 or '60, also in the North American, & he told me that he thought he shd stand by every word of it to-day, But that's nothing, after all.

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. This letter is addressed: Walt Whitman | Camden | New Jersey. It is postmarked: Belmont | Mar | 2 | Mass.; Camde [illegible] | Mar | 3 | 10 AM | Rec'd. Kennedy dated this letter February 27, but starting with the third page of this letter, he added the equivalent of another letter sometime before March 2, when the letter was postmarked. [back]

2. 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]

3. Karl Knortz (1841–1918) was born in Prussia and came to the U.S. in 1863. He was the author of many books and articles on German-American affairs and was superintendent of German instruction in Evansville, Ind., from 1892 to 1905. See The American-German Review 13 (December 1946), 27–30. His first published criticism of Whitman appeared in the New York Staats-Zeitung Sonntagsblatt on December 17, 1882, and he worked with Thomas W. H. Rolleston on the first book-length translation of Whitman's poetry, published as Grashalme in 1889. For more information about Knortz, see Walter Grünzweig, "Knortz, Karl (1841–1918)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

4. Thomas William Hazen Rolleston (1857–1920) was an Irish poet and journalist. After attending college in Dublin, he moved to Germany for a period of time. He wrote to Whitman frequently, beginning in 1880, and later produced with Karl Knortz the first book-length translation of Whitman's poetry into German. In 1889, the collection Grashalme: Gedichte [Leaves of Grass: Poems] was published by Verlags-Magazin in Zurich, Switzerland. See Walter Grünzweig, Constructing the German Walt Whitman (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995). For more information on Rolleston, see Walter Grünzweig, "Rolleston, Thomas William Hazen (1857–1920)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

5. 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]

6. Kennedy dated this letter February 27, 1889, but, beginning with this page, he wrote an additional letter sometime before March 2, 1890. This second letter has been encoded as an enclosure. [back]

7. See Whitman's February 25, 1889, letter to Kennedy. [back]

8. Kennedy is referring to the five–volume Modern Painters (1843–1860), written by the Victorian art critic John Ruskin. [back]

9. Whitman's original title for the cluster of poems memorializing Lincoln's death was "President Lincoln's Burial Hymn." For more information see Bernard Hirschhorn, "''Memories of President Lincoln' (1881–1882)," ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]

10. Kennedy's wife was Adeline Ella Lincoln (d. 1923) of Cambridge, Massachusetts. They married on June 17, 1883. The couple's son Mortimer died in infancy. [back]

11. Edward Everett Hale (1822–1909) was a Unitarian minister and fiction writer, best-known for the short-story "The Man Without a Country" (1863). [back]


Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Matt Cohen, Ed Folsom, & Kenneth M. Price, editors.