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Walt Whitman to Edward Dowden, 18 January 1872

Dear Mr Dowden,

I must no longer delay writing, & to acknowledge your letters of Sept 5 and Oct 15 last.2 I had previously (Aug 22)3 written you very briefly in response to your friendly letter of July 23d, the first you wrote me, accompanying copy of the Review.4 All—letters & Review—have been read & reread. I am sure I appreciate you in them. May I say you do not seem to stand afar off, but very near to me. What John Burroughs5 brings adds confirmation. I was deeply interested in the acc'ts​ given in the letters of your friends. I do not hesitate to call them mine too.6 Tyrell, Cross, your brother,7 Miss West,8 Todhunter,9 O'Grady10—Yeats,11 Ellis,12 Nettleship.13 Affectionate remembrance to all of them. You especially, and Mrs. Dowden, & indeed all of you, already, I say, stand near to me. I wish each to be told my remembrance (or to see this letter if convenient).

I like well the positions & ideas in your Westminster article—and radiating from the central point of assumption of my pieces being, or commencing "the poetry of Democracy." It presents all the considerations which such a critical text & starting point require, in a full, eloquent, & convincing manner. I entirely accept it, all & several, & am not unaware that it probably afforded, if not the only, at least the most likely gate, by which you as an earnest friend of my book, & believing critic of it, would gain entrance to a leading review—Besides, I think the main theme you exploit is really of the first importance—and all the rest can be broached & led to, through it, as well as any other way.

I would say that (as you of course see) the spine or verteber principle of my book is a model or ideal (for the service of the New World, & to be gradually absorbed in it) of a complete healthy, heroic, practical modern Man—emotional, moral, spiritual, patriotic—a grander better son, brother, husband, father, friend, citizen than any yet—formed & shaped in consonance with modern science, with American Democracy, & with the requirements of current industrial & professional life—model of a Woman also, equally modern & heroic—a better daughter, wife, mother, citizen also, than any yet. I seek to typify a living Human Personality, immensely animal, with immense passions, immense amativeness, immense adhesiveness—in the woman immense maternity—& then, in both, immenser far a moral conscience, & in always realizing the direct & indirect control of the divine laws through all and over all forever.

In "Democratic Vistas" I seek to make patent the appalling vacuum, in our times & here, of any school of great imaginative Literature & Art, fit for a Republican, Religious, & Healthy people—and to suggest & prophesy such a Literature as the only vital means of sustaining & perpetuating such a people. I would project at least the rough sketch of such a school of Literatures—an entirely new breed of authors, poets, American, comprehensive, Hegelian, Democratic, religious—& with an infinitely larger scope & method than any yet14

There is one point touched by you in the Westminster criticism that if occasion again arises, might be dwelt on more fully—that is the attitude of sneering denial which magazines, editors, publishers, "critics" &c. in the U. S. hold toward "Leaves of Grass." As to "Democratic Vistas" it remains entirely unread, uncalled for here in America. If you write again for publication about my books, or have opportunity to influence any forthcoming article on them, I think it would be a proper & even essential part of such article to include the fact that the books are hardly recognized at all by the orthodox literary & conventi[on]al authorities of the U. S.—that the opposition is bitter, & in a large majority, & that the author was actually turned out of a small government employment & deprived of his means of support by a Head of Department at Washington solely on account of having written his poems.

True I take the whole matter coolly. I know my book has been composed in a cheerful & contented spirit—& that the same still substantially remains with me. (And I want my friends, indeed, when writing for publication about my poetry, to present its gay-heartedness as one of its chief qualities.)

I am in excellent health, & again & still work as clerk here in Washington.

I saw John Burroughs very lately. He is well. He showed me a letter he had just rec'd from you.

I wish more & more (and especially now that I realize I know you, & we should be no strangers) to journey over sea, & visit England & your country.15

Tennyson has written to me twice—& very cordial & hearty letters. He invites me to become his guest.

I have rec'd​ a letter from Joaquin Miller.16 He was at last accounts in Oregon, recuperating, studying, enjoying grand & fresh Nature, & writing something new.

Emerson has just been this way (Baltimore & Washington) lecturing. He maintains the same attitude—draws on the same themes—as twenty-five years ago. It all seems to me quite attenuated (the first drawing of a good pot of tea, you know, and Emerson's was the heavenly herb itself—but what must one say to a second, and even third or fourth infusion?) I send you a newspaper report of his lecture here a night or two ago. It is a fair sample.17

And now, my dear friend, I must close. I have long wished to write you a letter to show, if nothing more, that I heartily realize your kindness & sympathy, & would draw the communion closer between us. I shall probably send you any thing I publish, and any thing about my affairs or self that might interest you. You too must write freely to me—& I hope frequently—

Direct Walt Whitman Solicitor's Office Treasury Washington D C U. S. America.

Edward Dowden (1843–1913), professor of English literature at the University of Dublin, was one of the first to critically appreciate Whitman's poetry, particularly abroad, and was primarily responsible for Whitman's popularity among students in Dublin. In July 1871, Dowden penned a glowing review of Whitman's work in the Westminster Review entitled "The Poetry of Democracy: Walt Whitman," in which Dowden described Whitman as "a man unlike any of his predecessors. . . . Bard of America, and Bard of democracy." In 1888, Whitman observed to Traubel: "Dowden is a book-man: but he is also and more particularly a man-man: I guess that is where we connect" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Sunday, June 10, 1888, 299). For more, see Philip W. Leon, "Dowden, Edward (1843–1913)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


  • 1. Miller derived his transcription, dated January 18, 1878, from another transcription by Edward Dowden, in the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, New York Public Library. A draft version of this letter held at the Library of Congress, however, is dated January 20, 1878. [back]
  • 2. See Dowden's letters of September 5, 1871, and October 15, 1871. See also Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden (1906–1996), 9 vols., 1:224–225, 3:41–42. [back]
  • 3. See Whitman's letter to Dowden of August 22, 1871. [back]
  • 4. The Westminster Review. [back]
  • 5. See Whitman's letter to Dowden of September 19, 1871. [back]
  • 6. Dowden omitted the names of his friends in his transcription; these are supplied from the draft letter. [back]
  • 7. On September 5, 1871, Dowden described Cross as a clergyman who "has I dare say taken you in more thoroughly than any of us" and his brother John as a clergyman "who finds his truth halved between John H. Newman (of Oxford celebrity) & you" (Traubel, 1:224–225). [back]
  • 8. Elizabeth D. West, daughter of the dean of St. Patrick's in Dublin, was one of Dowden's students and an author. She became Dowden's second wife in 1895, and after his death published Fragments from Old Letters—E. D. to E. D. W., 1869–1892 (1914). [back]
  • 9. Dowden characterized Dr. John Todhunter (1839–1916) as "a man of science, & a mystic—a Quaker." Todhunter later held a chair in English literature at Alexandria College in Dublin, and wrote Study of Shelley (1880), in which he termed Shelley, Hugo, and Whitman the three poets of democracy. See Harold Blodgett, Walt Whitman in England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1934), 180. [back]
  • 10. Standish James O'Grady (1846–1928), a lawyer and later a celebrated Irish poet, published, under a pseudonym, "Walt Whitman: the Poet of Joy," in The Gentleman's Magazine, 15 (1875), 704–716, in which he concluded that Whitman "is the noblest literary product of modern times, and his influence is invigorating and refining beyond expression." See Blodgett, 180–182, and Hugh Art O'Grady, Standish James O'Grady–The Man & the Writer (Dublin: Talbot Press Limited, 1929). [back]
  • 11. John Butler Yeats (1839–1922), the artist and father of the poet. [back]
  • 12. Edwin Ellis (1841–1895), an artist and poet, shared a studio in London with Yeats. See Letters of Edward Dowden and His Correspondents (London; New York: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd.; E. P. Dutton & Co., 1914), 43. [back]
  • 13. John Trivett Nettleship (1841–1902), a painter, had recently published Essays on Robert Browning's Poetry (London: Macmillan, 1868). He was a friend of W. M. Rossetti and a contributor to the 1876 appeal for funds for Whitman; see Rossetti Papers, 339, and Blodgett, 37. J. B. Yeats reported that Nettleship had spent almost his last three guineas to purchase a copy of Leaves of Grass which "had not been bereaved of its indecencies"; see Letters of Edward Dowden and His Correspondents, 44. [back]
  • 14. Note the similar material in Whitman's January 16, 1872, letter to Rudolf Schmidt. [back]
  • 15. Burroughs wrote twice to Dowden about Whitman's possible tour of Europe; see Clara Barrus, Whitman and Burroughs–Comrades (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1931), 74, 77. [back]
  • 16. On September 30, 1871, Joaquin Miller (1839–1913) had concluded his letter: "I am tired of books too and take but one with me; one Rossetti gave me, a 'Walt Whitman'—Grand old man! The greatest, and truest American I know, with the love of your son. Joaquin Miller" (Traubel, 1:107). In an entry in his journal dated August 1, 1871, Burroughs recorded Whitman's fondness for Miller's poetry; see Barrus, 60. Whitman met Miller for the first time later in 1872; he wrote of the visit in a July 19, 1872, letter to Charles W. Eldridge. [back]
  • 17. Emerson's lecture on January 16 was reported at length the next day in the Washington Daily Morning Chronicle. [back]
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