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Walt Whitman to William Sloane Kennedy, 26 March 1888

I return Mr Johnson's1 letter2—I do not see any thing in it more than facts or appearances warrant—as he is & as things are down there poor J is in a bad, unhappy fix—as of coffee being ground in a mill—Much relieved to know you will yourself see all the proofs of the Wilson book3—give them a good searching reading—for with Dr Bucke's4 book they are to be in all probability the vignette & authority of many things in my & my works' future—the backward & contemporary reference. Nothing new in particular with me—more or less evidences of gradual physical deterioration5—but spirits good—appetite &c fair—& you know I begin my 70th year now in ab't two months—thank God indeed that things are as well as they are & that I & my fortunes (literary & otherwise) are—Rainy & dark & raw here all day—I was out yesterday four hours to my friends the Harneds6—was taken & bro't back in my phæton7—a lull in my Herald contributions8—I send you the Kottabos9 from Dublin—Morse10 is still out in Indiana—Dr B kindly writes to me often & you must do so too.

Walt Whitman

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. 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]
  • 2. Whitman had requested that Kennedy send along to him a letter that Johnson had written to Kennedy. Whitman is keeping his promise to return the letter. For Whitman's request, see his letter to Kennedy of March 22, 1888. [back]
  • 3. Whitman is referring to Kennedy's manuscript "Walt Whitman, Poet of Humanity." Kennedy had reported in a letter to Whitman of January 2, 1888 that Frederick W. Wilson was willing to publish the study. Kennedy's manuscript eventually became two books, Reminiscences of Walt Whitman (1896) and The Fight of a Book for the World (1926). [back]
  • 4. 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]
  • 5. On March 24, 1888, Whitman noted "the pulse pains (heart?) in left breast the last 20 hours and during the last night" (Whitman's Commonplace Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). [back]
  • 6. Thomas Biggs Harned (1851–1921) was one of Whitman's literary executors. Harned was a lawyer in Philadelphia and, having married Augusta Anna Traubel (1856–1914), was Horace Traubel's brother-in-law. For more on him, see Dena Mattausch, "Harned, Thomas Biggs (1851–1921)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). For more on his relationship with Whitman, see Thomas Biggs Harned, Memoirs of Thomas B. Harned, Walt Whitman's Friend and Literary Executor, ed. Peter Van Egmond (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1972). [back]
  • 7. In September 1885, Whitman received a horse ("Nettie") and a phæton as a gift from a group of prominent friends, and he used the horse and carriage for three years. A photo is available here. [back]
  • 8. No pieces appeared in the New York Herald between March 20 and April 10 (see Whitman's letter to Bucke dated January 24, 1888). [back]
  • 9. According to Kennedy's The Fight of a Book for the World, the first issue of Kottabos, prepared by the classical students at Trinity College, contained "a translation by J.I. Beare into Greek anapests" of "Come Lovely and Soothing Death" (42). In his letter on March 29, 1888, Kennedy noted his request to Tennyson "to say a few words of you for the appendix to the book. Also wrote Enrico Nencioni (c/o Nuova Antologia, Rome) asking him to send me a statement as to 'Walt Whitman in Italy.'" [back]
  • 10. Sidney H. Morse (1832–1903) was a self-taught sculptor as well as a Unitarian minister and, from 1866 to 1872, editor of The Radical. He visited Whitman in Camden many times and made various busts of him. Whitman had commented on an earlier bust by Morse that it was "wretchedly bad." For more on this, see Ruth L. Bohan, Looking into Walt Whitman: American Art, 1850–1920 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), 105–109. [back]
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