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William D. O'Connor to Walt Whitman, 30 December 1864

 loc.03021.001.jpg Dear Walt:

I have been constantly hoping to have you here again and now begin to see something more than a glimmer of fruition. Ashton1 has spoken (at my instigation) to Mr Otto2 the Assistant Secretary of the Department of the Interior in your behalf, and Mr Otto says that if you will write a letter of application to the Secretary of the Interior, he will endeavor to put you in.3

Now, dear Walt, do this without delay. The object of your writing the letter is to get a specimen of your hand. Pick out, then, a good pen and write as fairly as you can a letter formally applying for a clerkship. Then enclose a copy of this  loc.03021.002.jpgletter to Ashton, so that he can follow it in to the Secretary. The first letter you will, of course, mail to the Secretary direct.

Do this as soon as you can. We shall fetch it this time. I have every confidence that you will get a good and an easy berth, a regular income, &c, leaving you time to attend to the soldiers, to your poems, &c,—in a word, what Archimedes wanted, a place on which to rest the lever.

I shall wait anxiously to hear that you have sent on the letters. I have been thinking of you constantly for months and have been doing everything I could to secure you a foothold here. For a long time, deceived (I must think) by Swinton's4 pretensions to influence and by his profuse promises, I hoped to get you either one of the New York State Agency  loc.03021.003.jpgAssistantships or the place of an Assistant Librarian in the Congress Library (the latter would be really a sinecure if the right one was got).5 But who follows Swinton follows a will-of-the-wisp and though I followed him remorselessly, every blessed day for several weeks, and gave him neither rest nor peace, as the saying is, I got nothing except promises. Since I gave him up, I have been badgering Ashton, who is a man of another sort, as what he has done shows. The difficulty was to get the right thing. He secured me some little time ago a place in the Post Office for you, but I declined it, because I thought it was not the proper place for you. I think a desk in the Interior would be first rate.

I told Ashton there was nothing I would not do for him if he would carry this affair to a safe conclusion. He has been very  loc.03021.004.jpggood and anxious in your behalf. He would have given you a desk in his own office if a vacancy had occurred as expected.

Don't forget to do as I tell you immediately.

I never answered your letter of September 11th, but, dear Walt, I always think of you, though I write so seldom and so badly. You are never forgotten. I read your poems often, I get their meaning more and more, I stand up for them and you, I expound, define, defend, vindicate, justify them and you with all the heart and head I have whenever occasion demands.

I got the Times with your long letter about the Hospital experiences, which I read with a swelling heart and wet eyes. It was very great and touching to me. I think I could mount the tribune for you on that and speak  loc.03021.005.jpgspeech which jets fire and drops tears. Only it filled me with infinite regrets that there is not a book from you, embodying these rich and sad experiences. It would be sure of immortality. No history of our times would ever be written without it, if written with that wealth of living details you could crowd into it. Indeed, it would itself be history.

I saw your letter about the prisoners. It was as just as powerful. I have been hearing for a fortnight past that it is the Secretary of War's "policy" which prevents exchange, and if this is true, I pray from my heart of hearts that it never may be forgotten against him. Reddest murder is white to an act like this and its folly is equal to its crime. It would  loc.03021.006.jpgbe a demonism of another kind indeed than the Southerners', yet as bad, perhaps worse, because sprung from calculation rather than hatred.

Such things make one sicken of the world.

I write this letter at intervals between the press of office work, which has driven upon me in spasms today, but pretty severely when it did come. Any incoherences in it, you may refer to the obfusticated state which such hurryings have induced in me.

Farewell, dear Walt. I hope to hear from you very soon. We are all tolerably well at home. Eldridge6 comes every evening. We often talk of you. On Christmas, you were wanted to make the dinner at home perfect. We all spoke of you. On Thanksgiving  loc.03021.007.jpgit was the same. At dinner that day, I said "I wish"—and stopped. "What?"—said Nelly.7 "I know," chirped little Jeannie, "he wishes Walt was here." Which was true—that was the unuttered wish.

Let me hear soon.

Your loving W D O'Connor. Walt Whitman, Esq.  loc.03021.008.jpg

For a time Whitman lived with William D. and Ellen M. O'Connor, who, with Charles W. Eldridge and later John Burroughs, were to be his close associates during the early Washington years. William Douglas O'Connor (1832–1889) was the author of Harrington, an abolition novel published by Thayer & Eldridge in 1860. He had been an assistant editor of the Saturday Evening Post before he went to Washington. O'Connor often complained about the various governmental clerical posts he was to hold until his death. However, his government work was relieved by the presence of Whitman, whom he was to love and venerate—and defend with a single-minded fanaticism and an outpouring of vituperation and eulogy that have seldom been equaled, most notably in his pamphlet, "The Good Gray Poet." He was the first, and in many ways the most important, of the adulators who divided people arbitrarily into two categories: those who were for and those who were against Walt Whitman. The poet praised O'Connor in the preface to a posthumous collection of his tales: "He was a born sample here in the 19th century of the flower and symbol of olden time first-class knighthood. Thrice blessed be his memory!" (Complete Prose Works [New York, D. Appleton, 1910], 513). For more on Whitman's relationship with the O'Connors see Deshae E. Lott, O'Connor, William Douglas [1832–1889].


  • 1. J. Hubley Ashton, the assistant Attorney General, actively interested himself in Whitman's affairs, and obtained a position for the poet in his office after Whitman lost his job in the Department of the Interior. James Harlan (1820–1899), Secretary of the Interior from 1865 to 1866, dismissed Whitman from his second-class clerkship on June 30, 1865. Harlan apparently took offense at the copy of the 1860 Leaves of Grass which Whitman was revising and which he kept at his desk. With the help of William Douglas O'Connor and Ashton, Whitman secured a position in the Attorney General's office. The Harlan episode led directly to O'Connor's pamphlet, "The Good Gray Poet." for more on Whitman and Ashton, see Amy M. Bawcom, "Ashton, J. Hubley (1836–1907)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 2. William T. Otto (1816–1905) was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Interior in January, 1863, and took an active interest in Indian affairs. He resigned from this post in 1871, but held various other governmental posts for many years. See also note 2 to Whitman's letter from January 20, 1865 . [back]
  • 3. William T. Otto (1816–1905) was Assistant Secretary of the Interior. William Douglas O'Connor arranged an interview for Whitman with Otto for a clerk position in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. [back]
  • 4. William Swinton (1833–1892) was war correspondent of the New York Times. His hostility to Union generals and his unscrupulous tactics led to his suspension as a reporter on July 1, 1864. Whitman did not have a high opinion of William's journalism; see his letter from June 10, 1864. He was professor of English at the University of California from 1869 to 1874. Thereafter he compiled extremely successful textbooks, and established the magazine Story-Teller, in 1883. He was the brother of John Swinton, managing editor of the New York Times; see the letter of February 23, 1863 from Walt Whitman to John Swinton. [back]
  • 5. John Swinton (1829–1901), managing editor of the New York Times, frequented Pfaff's beer cellar, where he probably met Whitman. On January 23, 1874 (Whitman said "1884"), Swinton wrote what the poet termed "almost like a love letter": "It was perhaps the very day of the publication of the first edition of the 'Leaves of Grass' that I saw a copy of it at a newspaper stand in Fulton street, Brooklyn. I got it, looked into it with wonder, and felt that here was something that touched on depths of my humanity. Since then you have grown before me, grown around me, and grown into me" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection; Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden [1906–1996], 9 vols., 1:24). He praised Whitman in the New York Herald on April 1, 1876 (reprinted in Richard Maurice Bucke, Walt Whitman [Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883], 36–37). Swinton was in 1874 a candidate of the Industrial Political Party for the mayoralty of New York. From 1875 to 1883, he was with the New York Sun, and for the next four years he edited the weekly labor journal, John Swinton's Paper. When this publication folded, he returned to the Sun. See Robert Waters, Career and Conversation of John Swinton, Journalist, Orator, Economist (Chicago: C.H. Kerr, 1902), and Meyer Berger, The Story of The New York Times, 1851–1951 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1951), 250–251. [back]
  • 6. Charles W. Eldridge was one half of the Boston-based abolitionist publishing firm Thayer and Eldridge, who put out the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. In December 1862, on his way to find his injured brother George in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Walt Whitman stopped in Washington and encountered Eldridge, who had become a clerk in the office of the army paymaster and eventually obtained a desk for Whitman in the office of Major Lyman Hapgood, the army paymaster. For more on Whitman's relationship with Thayer and Eldridge see "Thayer, William Wilde (1829–1896) and Charles W. Eldridge (1837–1903)." [back]
  • 7. Nelly is Ellen O'Connor's nickname. [back]
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