Selected Criticism

Conway, Moncure Daniel (1832–1907)
Leon, Philip W.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Born in slave-holding Virginia, Moncure D. Conway belonged to a distinguished family and was a direct descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. After graduating from Dickinson College (B.A., 1849; M.A., 1852) he practiced law in Virginia, but shortly thereafter abandoned the law and turned to the ministry. He began to read Emerson, with whom he corresponded, and in 1852 entered the Unitarian Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. From 1854–1857 he was a minister of the Unitarian church in Washington, D.C., where he earned a reputation as an abolitionist. At the urging of Emerson, Conway visited Whitman in New York in 1855 shortly after publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass.

Conway left Washington for Boston in 1863, becoming the editor of Commonwealth. That same year he visited England to deliver speeches and sermons on slavery, and he accepted an offer to become the minister at South Place Chapel in London, where he remained until 1884. In 1867 Whitman and Conway corresponded concerning an edition of Whitman's poems which William M. Rossetti wanted to bring out in England. In a letter to Conway, Whitman seemed to allow Rossetti to substitute words for "onanist" and "father-stuff." He also explains that "'Calamus' is a common word here" in America and that its use should not offend an English audience (Whitman 941). But a later letter to Rossetti recanted this position: "I cannot and will not consent, of my own volition, to countenance an expurgated edition of my pieces" (Whitman 942). Rossetti ultimately published a selected edition of Whitman's poems, changing no words, but omitting poems he thought might be offensive.

Upon his return to America in 1885, Conway settled in New York City, where he published treatises and discourses in newspapers and magazines. Conway published several biographies, among them works on Thomas Carlyle (1881), Edmund Randolph (1888), George Washington (1889), Nathaniel Hawthorne (1890), and Thomas Paine (1892).


Conway, Moncure D. Autobiography. Vol. 1. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1904.

D'Entremont, John. Southern Emancipator: Moncure Conway, the American Years, 1832–1865. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Ridgely, J.V. "Whitman, Emerson and Friend." Columbia Library Columns 10 (1960): 15–19.

Whitman, Walt. The Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. Ed. Louis Untermeyer. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1949.


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