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Ellen M. O'Connor to Walt Whitman, 20 December 1888

 loc.02953.001.jpg Dear Walt,

Your p.c. of yesterday came at breakfast time.1 I often wish that I could write you a long letter, & tell you all about us, but as I wrote you, my head & eyes gave out, & I can write but very little, even to my two sisters,— & we are all that are left of the family of nine, seven children & the father & mother. But one  loc.02953.002.jpg night last week I had a most vivid dream of you, & thought I should write that day, but the many duties that came each day prevented it. I am sorry that I have not better news to give you of William.2 He has failed very much in the last six weeks, indeed I date the marked change for the worse from the paralysis of the eye lid, & that was the last of Sept., but a very marked change for the worse since  loc.02953.003.jpg Nov. 23d. No one is as well aware of it as I am, for I see him at his worst, as well as his best. I am his sole & only nurse, & help to dress, undress & bathe him, & he is under no restraint to say how he always puts the best face on things to every one, & is always ready to joke about himself, & often makes me laugh when I am ready to cry. But now he often debates whether he shall  loc.02953.004.jpg go out at all, & does not go till 11 or 10:30 A.M. & sometimes later. He, until very lately, would almost resent the idea of staying at home when I suggested it,—but locomotion is becoming more & more labored, & when I am helping him to get up & down, I have sometimes wondered if I shall be able to lift him more & more, as he is less able to lift himself, as he weighs 200 or more & I 105. Until lately, too, he has had the most wonderful courage, & would  loc.02953.005.jpg not give up, but it is not so all the time now. Still, there is one thing in his favor, (if one so regards it) & that is that he is still determined to live, I never saw such clinging to this life, in any one; & he still feels that if the right doctor could be found that he could be made entirely well. He counted up the other day, & found that he had had fifteen doctors. Besides the "paresis" he suffers from inconveniences of various  loc.02953.006.jpg other kinds, which follow from his not being able to reach the water closet in time. Then he has had inflammation, some time ago, in one, & then the other toe, lately the second finger of the right hand, was very bad, & is not wholly well yet. I look at him & wonder how any one can want to live who suffers so; the body seems to me such a prison under these conditions. But his deepest unhappiness now is that he has not yet been able to  loc.02953.007.jpg get his article published which he wrote in defense of Donnelly,3 & as yet, he has not. He put life & energy into it, & said if he could only get to New York he could get it into the right magazine.

We are always glad of a word from you, & hope that you are on the gain in earnest now. I need not tell you that the long strain of anxiety & care has told deeply on me,—but I have  loc.02953.008.jpg been upheld so far, & have faith & hope still,—& shall have, no matter what comes.

With best love from us both.

as ever yours— Nelly O'Connor

I ought to add that William sleeps well, & has an excellent appetite, "almost too good," he says.

Good by.

With love— E.M. O'C.

Ellen M. "Nelly" O'Connor (1830–1913) was the wife of William D. O'Connor (1832–1889), one of Whitman's staunchest defenders. Before marrying William, Ellen Tarr was active in the antislavery and women's rights movements as a contributor to the Liberator and to a women's rights newspaper Una. Whitman dined with the O'Connors frequently during his Washington years. Though Whitman and William O'Connor would temporarily break off their friendship in late 1872 over Reconstruction policies with regard to emancipated African Americans, Ellen would remain friendly with Whitman. The correspondence between Whitman and Ellen is almost as voluminous as the poet's correspondence with William. Three years after William O'Connor's death, Ellen married the Providence businessman Albert Calder. For more on Whitman's relationship with the O'Connors, see Dashae E. Lott, "O'Connor, William Douglas [1832–1889]" and Lott's "O'Connor (Calder), Ellen ('Nelly') M. Tarr (1830–1913)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


  • 1. O'Connor is referring to Whitman's postal card of December 19, 1888. [back]
  • 2. 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]
  • 3. Ignatius Loyola Donnelly (1831–1901) was a politician and writer, well known for his notions of Atlantis as an antediluvian civilization and for his belief that Shakespeare's plays had been written by Francis Bacon, an idea he argued in his book The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon's Cipher in Shakespeare's Plays, published in 1888. [back]
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