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Walt Whitman to William D. O'Connor, 28 September 1869

Dear William O'Connor:

As you were interested in Mr. Parton's money-borrowing item about me, I enclose you the receipts signed & given me by his Attorney at the time, (June, 1857.)2 The sum borrowed by me of Mr. Parton was Two hundred dollars. He had, just before, kindly volunteered the loan himself, without the least request or hint from me. I then declined, but afterward borrowed the money, & gave a short-time Note. I felt soon, & feel now, that it was a great impropriety on my part, & it has caused me much compunction & real unhappiness since. Any how when the time for paying the note came, I had no money. Mr. Parton then put the matter in the hands of his Attorney, Mr. Oliver Dyer, who sued. My recollection is that I confessed judgment, & proposed to Mr. Dyer that he should receive payment in goods. He came by appointment to my room in Classon avenue, Brooklyn, June 17, 1857, talked over the matter, behaved very kindly, positively accepted there & then, & conveyed away, goods to the amount of One hundred and eighty one dollars, and receipted for them, on account. He also, for the balance, conditionally accepted other goods, (which he also conveyed away with him,) on the agreement between us that if they, when more deliberately examined, proved acceptable, they would requite the balance, & the debt would be considered paid; otherwise they would be returned, & the balance would still stand against me. These goods he retained, and subsequently told me that they had proved acceptable, and consented to give me a receipt in full, & satisfaction paper—but, (I think,) said the latter would require the signature of Mr. Parton. This was a meeting either in the street, or on the Brooklyn ferry. On meeting him afterwards in a similar way, once or twice, I mentioned the matter of a receipt in full, but never pressed it—never procured such receipt, nor the original note either.

I consider the debt paid—(though if I had wealth, to-day, I should certainly pay it over again, in cash.) Among the goods rendered I remember an oil painting, an original, of marked beauty & value, by Jesse Talbot,3 illustrating a scene from Pilgrim's Progress, worth from four to five hundred dollars. This I put, if I remember right, at one hundred dollars. I presume Mr. Dyer or Mr. Parton has it yet.

The enclosed receipt, marked 1,4 was, on turning over the goods, written by me & signed, by Mr. Dyer, who then remarked that he would also give me one in more technical form, and wrote, signed, & handed me the receipt marked 25—I presume, (but do not know for certain,) that Mr. Dyer considers the debt fully paid.

(The balance of thirty five dollars mentioned, besides the one hundred & eighty one includes sixteen dollars as Mr. Dyer's fee, or more probably costs of suit, over & above the original two hundred.)

Walt Whitman


  • 1. This letter is endorsed (by O'Connor), "Parton Matter." Its envelope bears the address, "Wm. D. O'Connor, | Light House Board, | Treasury Dep't. | Washington City." Its postmark is indecipherable. [back]
  • 2. The "Parton affair" has never been adequately explained. This letter, with the accompanying documents (reproduced in Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden [1906–1996], 3:237–239), was Walt Whitman's version, written at the insistence of O'Connor when the story "was bandied about Washington—got into the papers" (3:235). Involved according to Whitman were the "venom, jealousies, opacities…[of] a woman" (3:235–236), probably Parton's wife, the poet Fanny Fern; yet she was the first woman to praise Whitman publicly (New York Dissected, 146–154, 162–165). James Parton (1822–1891) was a journalist and, according to the Dictionary of American Biography, "the most successful biographer of his generation." Shortly before Whitman had borrowed money, Parton had published his first best seller, The Life of Horace Greeley (1855). See Oral S. Coad, "Whitman vs. Parton," Journal of the Rutgers University Library, 4 (December 1940), 1–8; Gay Wilson Allen, The Solitary Singer (New York: Macmillan Co., 1955), 209–210; Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957), 2:352–353. [back]
  • 3. Jesse Talbot (1806–1879) was a Brooklyn genre painter. [back]
  • 4. This document, written by Walt Whitman and signed by Dyer, noted the receipt of $181 and the balance of $35 due. [back]
  • 5. The second document, in Dyer's hand, was headed: "Supreme Court Kings County. | James Parton | vs | Walt Whitman." [back]
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