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Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe to Walt Whitman, 26 October 1889

 loc.01390.001_large.jpg Dear Mr. Whitman

I think it must have been my guardian angel that gave thee the "impalpable nudge" to write to me. Thy card has come2 to cheer me just at a time when I am feeling unusually low in spirits & discouraged. I have been quite ill all summer—"over-work," "nervous prostration" & the rest—& in  loc.01390.002_large.jpg spite of many weeks of tedious "absolute rest," I am worse & not better, & now I have to go off for I don't know how long to the Pyrennees, leaving my husband3 & the two little ones4 in England. I start tomorrow. The one bright spot is that mother5 is going with me. But thy letter has really cheered me—it reminds me that absence is not the end of everything  loc.01390.003_large.jpg & it sings, without the definite words, the "Song of the Open Road." My road has seemed so shut up—I am laid aside in the midst of all the work I care for—fit for nothing—and oh! the horror of feeling one's mind, as well as one's physical powers, under an eclipse. I have not been able to read or study or write or do anything I cared  loc.01390.004_large.jpg to all summer long.

But thy remembrance reminds me not to complain, & thy example encourages me to keep sound in spirits—"which is the main thing." Thank thee for writing.

I will write from the Pyrennees in a few days—& I hope I shall not be so egotistic & gloomy. I am sure thee will have seen Alys6 by this time & that she will have told thee all our news.

Gratefully & lovingly, Mary Costelloe.

Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe (1864–1945) was a political activist, art historian, and critic, whom Whitman once called his "staunchest living woman friend." For more information about Costelloe, see Christina Davey, "Costelloe, Mary Whitall Smith (1864–1945)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


  • 1. Whitman enclosed this letter in his November 4, 1889, letter to the Canadian physician and pyschiatrist Richard Maurice Bucke. [back]
  • 2. Whitman had written to Costelloe on August 8, 1889 and October 15, 1889. [back]
  • 3. Benjamin Francis Conn Costelloe (1854–1899), Mary's first husband, was an English barrister and Liberal Party politician. [back]
  • 4. Rachel Pearsall Conn Costelloe (1887–1940) was Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe's first daughter. Rachel ("Ray") was a writer and women's suffrage activist who ran for a seat in the British parliament soon after women were granted the right to vote. She eventually married Oliver Strachey (brother of biographer Lytton Strachey). Karin Stephen (née Catherine Elizabeth Costelloe) (1889–1953) was Mary's second daughter. She would become a British psychoanalyst and psychologist, and the wife of Adrian Stephen (psychoanalyst and prominent member of the Bloomsbury Group, and brother of Virginia Woolf). [back]
  • 5. Hannah Whitall Smith (1832–1911) was a speaker and author in the Holiness movement in the United States and the Higher Life Movement in Great Britain. She also participated in the women's suffrage movement. She was the wife of Robert Pearsall Smith and the mother of Mary, Alys, and Logan Pearsall Smith. [back]
  • 6. Alyssa ("Alys") Whitall Pearsall Smith (1867–1951) was born in Philadelphia and became a Quaker relief organizer. She attended Bryn Mawr College and was a graduate of the class of 1890. She and her family lived in Britain for two years during her childhood and again beginning in 1888. She married the philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1894; the couple later separated, and they divorced in 1921. Smith also served as the chair of a society committee that set up the "Mothers and Babies Welcome" (the St Pancras School for Mothers) in London in 1907; this health center, dedicated to reducing the infant mortality rate, provided a range of medical and educational services for women. Smith was the daughter of Robert Pearsall and Hannah Whitall Smith, and she was the sister of Mary Whitall Smith (1864–1945), the political activist, art historian, and critic, whom Whitman once called his "staunchest living woman friend." [back]
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