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Anna Tolman Smith to Walt Whitman, 24 September 1877

 loc.01900.001_large.jpg Mr. Whitman;2 Dear Sir

My desire to address you springs from a question addressed me by a member of my class in literature.

What do you think of Walt Whitman?

Up to that moment I had read only a single one of your poems "The two mysteries" which moved me by its subtlety and beauty. Soon after the question, which I was not prepared to answer, came comments in a British Review to the effect that Americans did not  loc.01900.002_large.jpg know their poets when they had them, instancing our slow appreciation of yourself—put me upon the determination to know your works, but I have only been able to secure a volume of Leaves of Grass, which I understand are your earlier poems—

I should feel that my addressing you was an insult, if I could pretend not to have been moved by these. You seemed to me as near the divine secret of Nature, as most poets have been to her external graces and to have restored almost the virginal force, and vividness to language. But as true poems, are  loc.01900.003_large.jpg not like mosaics to be admired in bits, I have sought to discern the distinctive idea which informs and controls the expression in these

I feel its presence, but am conscious that I do not define it, nor am I able to get at your idea of poetical form which seems to me as essential an element in poetry, as lines of beauty are in the plastic arts. Many expressions in your poems pain me because many things which seem to me sacred, because natural, are profaned by the utterance. I have long been enamored of the poetry of the past, but lately find myself longing to come into sympathy with the poetry of the present, and  loc.01900.004_large.jpg most of all, as a teacher, I desire to know the truth of all art. Should you pardoning my presumption, and my candor, be kind enough to explain the points to which I have referred, I should consider myself highly favored.

I do not know which is most likely to reconcile you to the liberty I have taken, the accompanying letter, or the recollection of your own words—"Stranger if you passing meet me, and desire to speak to me—why should you not speak to me?"3

Respectfully Yours A. Tolman Smith, 506–5th St. N.W. Washington, D.C  loc.01900.005_large.jpg If not delivered return to 506–5th St. Washington, D.C. from Miss A T Smith Washington intr: by John Swinton Sept: '77 see notes Jan 26, 1887  loc.01900.006_large.jpg

Anna Tolman Smith (1840–1917) was an American writer and educator who wrote reports for the United States Office of Education for more than thirty-five years (American Association for the Advancement of Science, General Program of the Meeting [Washington: The Association, 1969] 40:77). She was the author of "Progress of Education for Women," which was published in the Annual Report of the Department of the Interior (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1871).


  • 1. This letter is addressed: Mr. Walt Whitman | Camden. | New Jersey. It is postmarked: Washington | SEP 25 | 4 PM | D.C. [back]
  • 2. Smith enclosed John Swinton's September 24, 1877, letter, intended to introduce her to Whitman, with this letter. [back]
  • 3. Smith quotes, almost in entirety, from Whitman's poem "To You." [back]
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