Skip to main content

Mary I. P. Cummings to Walt Whitman, [12] August 1890

 loc.01209.001_large.jpg Brother—

I have no excuse to offer for this letter—only an explanation. Of course, I. have been familiar with your name for years, but only recently have I had opportunity to get and study "Leaves of Grass." Being a confirmed and rather melancholy invalid myself—something in that book overwhelmed me with sorrow—a sorrow not quite like anything I ever felt before. I contrast the picture in that book of the sturdy young man, with the one in The "Magazine of Poetry"—and the contrast chokes me with emotion. Then and NOW!! Life's morning—the strong bird, with its wild, jocund song—soaring, singing over the mountain tops, along  loc.01209.002_large.jpg the upper ether—at night with broken wings and halting song fluttering to earth to die.

Dear Friend!!—"Watchman, what of the night? Can you see "the lights along the shore"?2 Does the swash of the out-going tide dismay you? This has been my life:—

From early morn till evening, I've labored here for naught, And others coming after— Have found what I have sought. "And some other coming after—," When I've fallen by the way— With a touch completes my life 
And receives the wreaths of bay.

I have always been a writer from  loc.01209.003_large.jpg early childhood, but was, by fate planted in such a stern, cold, barren soil, that I have, in turn, suffered leaf-flight and twig-flight, and with a fair enough outside, shall fall, at last, with my heart eaten out—dead at the core.

We, writers, ought not to be surprised at any cranky correspondence, but if this letter surprises or annoys you, you must blame the influence of that book; and I trust that some pleasant hour, you will feel strong enough to tell me in a few words what you think is to come for us, or to us, when

"The fever, called living, Is over at last."3  loc.01209.004_large.jpg

"Dearly Beloved" There is so much that I would say to you, but fear you are not well enough. Indeed even now you may be—

"Beyond the rock-waste and 
 the river—
Beyond the ever and the never— Beyond the joys of earth so fleeting, Beyond the parting and the 
Beyond the pulses fever 

Oh, this compulsory life thrust upon us without wish or will of ours—Crying in the darkness because of scourgings for other's sins, reaching for the hand of one who could support you and missing it—Oh, the riddle of life!!—I  loc.01209.005_large.jpg shall be only too glad to give it up. A primary school, is it? I have missed the recess, and shall be glad of the announcement—dismissed.

In closing, I beg that you will not exert one muscle to reply to this—We will get at it all, by and by—or—we will not—Which?

And the night is closing round us— We have toiled through all the day— Loose our bonds, and give us 
Oh, break down these walls of clay!
Friend and Brother, fare-ye well. M. I. Cummings 512 Kearney Ave.  loc.01209.006_large.jpg

Mary Isabella Purington Cummings (1838–1914), originally from Bowdoinham, Maine, was the daughter of Rachel Pennell and Isaac Purington. She married the Civil War veteran Amasa F. Cummings (1822–1898; also known as "Amos"), who was also a native of Maine, and the couple had two children, Leroy and Francis ("Frank"). The family moved to San Diego, California, around 1890 and lived on Kearney Avenue until 1910, according to city directories. The directories also indicate that Amasa Cummings was a joiner, while Leroy and Frank worked as printers. Mary and Amasa Cummings are buried in San Diego's Mount Hope Cemetery.


  • 1. Edwin Haviland Miller suggests the date of August 12, 1890, for this letter in the calendar of letters written to Whitman that Miller includes in the fifth volume of his edition of Whitman's correspondence. This date is supported by Bucke's reference to Cummings's letter in his letter to Whitman of August 17, 1890. Bucke's letter indicates that Whitman had enclosed Cumming's letter, along with one from Ernest Rhys, in a letter to Bucke dated August 14, 1890, though Whitman makes no mention of the enclosures in the text of his letter to Bucke. [back]
  • 2. Cummings is referencing the "Watchman" passage in the Bible, which is found in Isaiah 21:11–12. [back]
  • 3. Cummings is paraphrasing Edgar Allan Poe's (1800–1849) poem "For Annie." The line Cummings references reads: "And the fever called 'Living' is conquered at last." [back]
  • 4. Cummings is quoting selected lines from "Beyond the Smiling and the Weeping," a hymn-poem by Dr. Horatius Bonar (1808–1889). [back]
Back to top