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Moncure D. Conway to Walt Whitman, 12 October 1867

 loc.01317.001_large.jpg My dear friend,

I regret to say that our hopes of getting out the complete and arranged edition of your Poems with O'Connor's1 Introduction is at present remote. Just as I was beginning to consult about the matter I found that John Camden Hotten2 had already contracted with W. M. Rossetti3 to prepare and edit a volume of selections from your Poems.4 I found that Hotten is not yet ready to bring out the whole work as we would wish. My first feeling at hearing of this arrangement was one of regret. On thinking the whole matter over however I came to think that such an arrangement as that was not without some advantages. In the first place its​ a thing which cannot be prevented. Americans have not granted the English any protection for their works or choice about bringing them out, and in the absence of a just law on the subject no one can claim property in his work over here. I may say in passing, however, that in reply to a letter from me to Mr. Hotten he  loc.01317.002_large.jpg  loc.01317.003_large.jpg told me that he meant to share with you the pecuniary profits of the venture, and spoke in an honorable tone.

Now the advantages I see in the plan of having Rossetti edit the selected volume are these: I believe that it is the best means of paving the way for a public demand for the entire work. The English people are the very ones to desire that which is reserved. Until there is such a popular demand no publisher can be found to print the poems which are now quite extensive. In the next place it is far better, in my opinion and that of your real friends here, that the introduction of you to the general public will come much more gracefully from an English literary man than from any American. No introduction could easily surpass in simple breadth that which O'Connor has written; and some day it must appear; but his reputation here is confined to the few who have read his noble pamphlet,5 and, which is still more important, it can never have so much effect here for an American to praise American work. It says more for your work that it has kindled enthusiasm in the mind of one of another nation,  loc.01317.004_large.jpg  loc.01317.005_large.jpg and one whose good judgments cannot be ascribed to personal friendship more than to national pride. These facts together with the assured social and literary position of Rossetti make him of all persons of my acquaintance the fittest I could name to undertake the work. It at once secures the position of your work. The criticism which he wrote in the Chronicle6 will show you the spirit in which his work will be done, and I know that he is putting a great deal of very careful work upon his introductory essay. I have passed an evening with him. He tells me that his plan will be to divide up the Poems according to their subjects; e.g. "Poems of Democracy," "Personal Poems," "Poems of Friendship," etc. He does not intend to alter any of the Poems he publishes. His volume will I should judge include about one half you have written. There will be footnotes explaining "phebe–bird" and other things not known in England so far as he can.

Now for some questions he wishes me to ask you: What is Calamus?7 I could not tell him, satisfactorily, either the exact thing you meant or its metaphorical meaning to you. Again, Rossetti admires very much indeed your introduction to  loc.01317.006_large.jpg  loc.01317.007_large.jpg the first edition of the "Leaves of Grass," and wishes to publish it; but he is deterred by a few words. He wishes to know whether you will not send him a word instead of "father–stuff" (p. 7, 17th line from bottom) and if on p. 10, bottom lines, you will allow him to alter "venereal sores or discolorations," "onanist" and "any depravity of young men." These are the only words he anywhere wishes to modify. The essay is a great one & would have a great effect; but if you do not permit the alterations he will not print it—as he goes on the honorable principle that he has not the right to change an author's language.8

Now, my dear friend, I hope that on reflection you and O'Connor will think as I do (who am on the ground) that on the whole we had best feel good naturedly toward this plan of Hotten's and Rossetti's. We are not here up to the point yet, but are rising, & this book will help us I am quite sure. The other day the Saturday Review9 which once ridiculed Leaves of Grass began a review of some American's poems by saying that nothing related to America had appeared in its literature with the simple exception of Walt Whitman's works. The word had its effect. And now goodbye. Let me hear from you as soon as you can, and believe me ever cordially your friend.

M. D. Conway

Observe my change of address10


Moncure Daniel Conway (1832–1907) was an American abolitionist, minister, and frequent correspondent with Walt Whitman. Conway often acted as Whitman's agent and occasional public relations man in England. For more on Conway, see Philip W. Leon, "Conway, Moncure Daniel (1832–1907)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


  • 1. William Douglas O'Connor (1832–1889) was the author of the grand and grandiloquent Whitman pamphlet The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication, published in 1866. For more on Whitman's relationship with O'Connor, see Deshae E. Lott, "O'Connor, William Douglas (1832–1889)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 2. John Camden Hotten (1832–1873) re-issued Algernon Charles Swinburne's first Poems and Ballads in 1866 after the public outcry caused Swinburne's previous publisher to withdraw. Perhaps because he had lived in the United States from 1848 to 1856, Hotten introduced such writers as James Russell Lowell, Artemus Ward, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Bret Harte to an English audience. After his death, his business was purchased by Chatto & Windus. In his letter to Conway on December 5, 1866, William Douglas O'Connor had suggested Hotten as the English publisher of Whitman: "Seems to me the courage that prints Laus Veneris might dare this." Whitman was dissatisfied with Hotten's work, referring to the publisher as "the English pirate-publisher" and the edition as "bad & defective" in a January 16, 1872, letter to Rudolf Schmidt. For Whitman's relationship with Hotten, see Whitman's November 1, 1867, letter to Moncure D. Conway. [back]
  • 3. William Michael Rossetti (1829–1915), brother of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti, was an English editor and a champion of Whitman's work. In 1868, Rossetti edited Whitman's Poems, selected from the 1867 Leaves of Grass. Whitman referred to Rossetti's edition as a "horrible dismemberment of my book" in his August 12, 1871, letter to Frederick S. Ellis. Nonetheless, the edition provided a major boost to Whitman's reputation, and Rossetti would remain a staunch supporter for the rest of Whitman's life, drawing in subscribers to the 1876 Leaves of Grass and fundraising for Whitman in England. For more on Whitman's relationship with Rossetti, see Sherwood Smith, "Rossetti, William Michael (1829–1915)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 4. See Whitman's November 1, 1867, letter to Moncure D. Conway for a fuller explanation of the kinds of changes William Michael Rossetti had suggested. [back]
  • 5. William Douglas O'Connor's The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication was published by Bunce & Huntington, 459 Broome Street, New York, in 1866 and was reprinted by Richard Maurice Bucke in his 1883 biography of Walt Whitman. The 46-page pamphlet opposed Whitman's critics while praising those who held the poet in high regard. The nickname "Good Gray Poet" originated here and remained with Whitman throughout his life. The correspondence between the publishers and O'Connor is in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection (Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). [back]
  • 6. William Michael Rossetti's review of Whitman's poetry was significant for Whitman's European reputation ("Walt Whitman's Poems," London Chronicle, July 6, 1867, 362–363). Rossetti described Leaves of Grass as "incomparably the largest poetic work of our period" (see "Current Literature," New York Times, July 28, 1867, 2). For more information on Rossetti's criticism of Whitman's poems, see Rossetti, William Michael (1829–1915), Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 7. "Calamus" was first published in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. The poem cluster is known for its homoeroticism and celebration of "the manly love of comrades." See also John Addington Symonds's letter to Whitman of August 3, 1890, in which he asks Whitman for clarification of the poems, and Whitman's drafted response of August 19, 1890, in which he is cagey and tries to distance himself from homoerotic meanings in the poems. [back]
  • 8. In his twenty-seven page "Prefatory Notice" to the 1868 British Poems by Walt Whitman, William Michael Rossetti justified his editorial decisions, which included editing potentially objectionable content and removing entire poems: "My choice has proceeded upon two simple rules: first, to omit entirely every poem which could with any tolerable fairness be deemed offensive to the feelings of morals or propriety in this peculiarly nervous age; and, second, to include every remaining poem which appeared to me of conspicuous beauty or interest." For more information on Rossetti's book, see "Introduction to the British Editions of Leaves of Grass." [back]
  • 9. The London Saturday Review did ridicule Leaves of Grass on March 15, 1856, saying, "If the Leaves of Grass should come into anybody's possession, our advice is to throw them instantly into the fire." It later described the 1860 Leaves of Grass as "a book evidently intended to lie on the tables of the wealthy," and quipped that "No poor man could afford it, and it is too bulky for its possessor to get it into his pocket or to hide it away in a corner" (Saturday Review 10 [ July 7, 1860], 19). However, on September 21, 1867, the Review published a review of American poets, "Some American Verse," which exempts Whitman from the otherwise "feeble, commonplace, and pretty" school of American poetry (Saturday Review 24 [September 21, 1867], 383). [back]
  • 10. The postscript is written in the left margin. [back]
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