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Nellie Eyster to Walt Whitman, 14 June 1870

 loc.01610.001_large.jpg To Walt Whitman. Gentleman. Sir.

You have had many tributes from the learned and great of Europe and America, yet you will not despise that of a simple, honest woman who writes to thank you, in all sincerity for those "Leaves of Grass" from which her soul has drawn such health, freshness and aroma. I visited Washington for the first time, this May. The guest of Mrs. Schwartz,2 (who one night in passing off the platform of a Car, gave you a rose) I was compelled to many Car rides in my transit to "the City". On Car No 14, I encountered you more than once. Your face, which I chose to think a facsimile of the grand old patriarch's, Abraham,3 attracted me. Through Mr. Devlin,4 from Mr. Doyle,5 I was allowed to read your—I prefer saying—I was permitted a long look into that wonderful mirror of your creation, where I saw the reflex of your  loc.01610.002_large.jpg soul, and felt the influence of your divining power. Mr O'Conner's​ 6 manly, eloquent, but most unnecessary vindication7 of your purity was also given me.

"Only themselves understand themselves and the like of themselves. As Souls only understand Souls."8

I needed no one to translate for me the language of yours, written so plainly in every line and furrow of your face, and revealed to the world in the many gracious deeds of love to your kind.

I closed your book revelation, a wiser and more thoughtful woman, than when, from idle curiosity I first opened it, at the very stanza, "Perfections" which I have just quoted. Life held grander possibilities to me from that hour, and the mission of a soul, born into this world to love, influence, and suffer, was invested with profounder responsibilities.

To whoever is granted the power to make  loc.01610.003_large.jpg another long for Truth, for its own beautiful sake; love the lowly and oppressed for the sake of the divinity spark which is in each human body, and see in Nature the heart of the great Mother–God who conceived and gave it birth.—To such an one there is a debt due of allegiance and profound gratitude.

I thank you Sir, with all my heart, and pray for you the abiding Presence and hourly Comfort of the divine Pure in Heart whom you worship.

I need make no apology for this note. You will not misunderstand it. I go to my home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, tomorrow. I may never again chance to see you, but you will believe, nevertheless that I will wish for you—and teach others to do the same—a long earth–life of usefulness, and an eternity of appreciation and reward.

Reverently yours. Mrs. Nellie Eyster.  loc.01610.004_large.jpg  loc.01610.005_large.jpg from a lady—a stranger | Washington—1870 | a letter to comfort a fellow & brace him up Nellie Eyster 1888 see notes Apr 14 1888  loc.01610.006_large.jpg

Penelope Anna Blessing Eyster (known as Nellie Eyster, b. 1836), who lived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania at the time she wrote to Walt Whitman, moved to San Francisco in 1876 and became a lecturer and author. She served as the first president of the Pacific Coast Woman's Press Association (formed in 1887), was an active proponent of women's suffrage, edited The Pacific Ensign, wrote a number of books (including Sunny Hours, or the Child Life of Tom and Mary and Chincapin Charlie), and contributed articles to several magazines.


  • 1. This letter is addressed: To Walt Whitman. | The Good Grey Poet. | Washington City. | D.C. It is postmarked: [illegible] | JUN | 14 | [illegible]0; CARRIER | JUN | 14 | 7 PM. [back]
  • 2. As yet we have no information about this person. [back]
  • 3. Abraham, the ancient Hebrew patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. [back]
  • 4. "John Devlin, a Brooklyn merchant convicted on Feb. 3, 1868, in a Federal court in New York for the illegal sale of liquor was pardoned early in 1869 by President Johnson." See Clarence Gohdes and Rollo G. Silver, eds, Faint Clews & Indirections. Manuscripts of Walt Whitman and His Family (New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1965), 200n. [back]
  • 5. Peter Doyle (1843–1907) was one of Walt Whitman's closest comrades and lovers, and their friendship spanned nearly thirty years. The two met in 1865 when the twenty-one-year-old Doyle was a conductor in the horsecar where the forty-five-year-old Whitman was a passenger. Despite his status as a veteran of the Confederate Army, Doyle's uneducated, youthful nature appealed to Whitman. Although Whitman's stroke in 1873 and subsequent move from Washington to Camden limited the time the two could spend together, their relationship rekindled in the mid-1880s after Doyle moved to Philadelphia and visited nearby Camden frequently. After Whitman's death, Doyle permitted Richard Maurice Bucke to publish the letters Whitman had sent him. For more on Doyle and his relationship with Whitman, see Martin G. Murray, "Doyle, Peter," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 6. 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]
  • 7. 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]
  • 8. Eyster quotes "Perfections" from Leaves of Grass. [back]
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