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Ellen M. O'Connor to Walt Whitman, 3 July 1889

 loc.02978.001.jpg Dear Walt,

I was on the point of writing you when this minute 8.30 A. M. the postman just gave me your card. Yes, I am in the same place, the little house where we have lived almost 21 years & paid rent enough to buy it twice over. How long I shall be here, or what I am to do in the future is all a problem. I am sorry to tell you that after all my careful economy & saving, the various things into which William1 had put  loc.02978.002.jpgmoney are mostly worthless, inventions that are good for nothing but to swallow up good money. Then in these last years since this illness began in 1884 his expenses have been enormous, & the bills of doctors, &c. very heavy. He has also been most lavish & generous to the poor & needy, & to the causes in which he believed, & the result is almost nothing left for me. Mr. Kimball2 who knew more of all this probably than I, (I mean the bad investments) came to see me soon after William's death3 loc.02978.003.jpg to say that if things were as they used to be, he could make a place for me in the office & take me right in there, but that under the Civil Service rules, even if I should pass a good examination, one must wait till there is a vacancy in the State to which one is accredited, & that might be five years! But he said that he would try very hard to get me into the Census bureau which is soon to be organized! I hoped then that I should not need it, but the revelations from loc.02978.004.jpg day to day seem to make the outlook worse & worse financially, & I have just sent him a note, & shall tell him that if I can fill any position, shall be grateful for it.

But first I must go away & rest. I have had no manner of rest since William had the first attack a year ago last January, & I am really broken, & these late revelations have helped to make me ill; tho' I did make a solemn & holy vow that I would not worry about what has been & can't loc.02978.005.jpg be helped. But I am, or have been ill, so ill as to alarm the neighbors, but not myself. Then, too, I am alone, since Harold Channing4 went home, & I find that is not good for me.

I go to New England, & then in the autumn, return here, whether to break up & vacate forever this little house, I know not. Indeed the way now looks very dark, but I try to trust & hope & confide in the loving care that always guides us.

I did so plead with William, always, to try with me to buy a  loc.02978.006.jpglittle, little house, so that we might have a home; but it was not to be, & so it must be right.

Yes, I have from day to day, rec'd. the papers, & all the many reminders of your thought to me, thanks for all, & the copy of "Passage to India," & the account of birth-day celebration, &c. From day to day I wanted to write, but have had such discouraging & disheartening work to do, & so much of it, & so many the papers & letters to go over, & the work is only  loc.02978.007.jpgbegun; for in the last four or five years William has not kept his affairs in the order that he used to, his illness has told upon him in many ways. But I have been trying my best to put into order; but must soon drop all & go for a time, or I shall not be able to get away. When I go, will send you my address, so that if you are disposed you can still keep me in mind by papers & whatever you please to send.

You are mistaken, loc.02978.008.jpg dear Walt, in saying that I have not written you since dear William's death. The first letter that I wrote was to you, on the very day, May 9th I have had several most vivid dreams of you. So distinct that all the next day I felt as if I had been with you; & I wonder whether my "astral body" went to you, or yours came to me.

A day or two before William passed away he awoke from a nap & asked me "if Walt had loc.02978.009.jpg gone?" I said you had not been here, but he repeated the question, & then I said yes, you had gone.

I can't, I can't possibly believe that he is gone, I find myself looking for him daily,—& the only time I have seen him since he departed this life was the day that I was so ill; & he then looked perfectly well & young, & as he he did in the L St. house. loc.02978.010.jpg I hope you get a copy of his last literary work, "Mr. Donnelly's Reviewers," I asked to have one sent you. If you see any notice of it, shall be very glad if you will send me.

If ever the people that owe money to William would pay me, I should not be so worried about my daily expenses, for one can't break up in a minute, & if I can keep on by having some one with me to loc.02978.011.jpg help share the expenses when I come back, till I can see what to do. It is like taking my life to have to give up a home with no prospect of ever having one again. It is the only earthly possession that I ever longed for.

So I said, I will keep you informed of my whereabouts.

& with love always— Nelly O'Connor.  loc.02978.012.jpg

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. 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]
  • 2. James P. Kimball (1836–1913) was an American geologist and was named Director of the United States Mint by President Cleveland in 1885, where he was charged with overseeing an improvement in the quality of U.S. coinage. [back]
  • 3. For Whitman's reaction to the news of the death of O'Connor, see Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Friday, May 10, 1889. [back]
  • 4. Harold Channing was the brother of Grace Ellery Channing (1862–1937). Harold and Grace were the children of William F. Channing, and they were the nephew and niece, respectively, of William D. O'Connor. [back]
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