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William Sloane Kennedy to Walt Whitman, 3 November 1890

 loc.03092.001.jpg Dear W. W:

How is this? I shd not have thought you cd have written so masterfully on so old a theme. You remind me of an incident: Dr Bucke1 & the attendant doctor2 I were making the rounds when we came to a fellow who was queried & searchingly examined by those wonderful eyes of the doctor's (Bucke's). "Well," says, Doctor B. you are a pretty sane man for a lunatic." So you seem to me a pretty live man for a dying (?) man! Not a living man could have written more vigorously than that (N. Am3 Article).4

Yes, wish we cd do honor to those glorious pumpkin pies. I like 'em hugely. I can see that that Ingersoll5 episode has brightened your spirits amazingly.6 May you live long, as Jefferson says in "Rip."7 You perhaps saw my ⅓ col. of Ingersoll's speech with remarks by me, in last Sat.'s Transcript8—(p. 2) great "'lection"9 times here. Busy times for printers & editors.

W. S. Kennedy.  loc.03092.002.jpg

William Sloane Kennedy (1850–1929) was on the staff of the Philadelphia American and the Boston Transcript; he also published biographies of Longfellow, Holmes, and Whittier (Dictionary of American Biography [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933], 336–337). Apparently Kennedy called on the poet for the first time on November 21, 1880 (William Sloane Kennedy, Reminiscences of Walt Whitman [London: Alexander Gardener, 1896], 1). Though Kennedy was to become a fierce defender of Whitman, in his first published article he admitted reservations about the "coarse indecencies of language" and protested that Whitman's ideal of democracy was "too coarse and crude"; see The Californian, 3 (February 1881), 149–158. For more about Kennedy, see Katherine Reagan, "Kennedy, William Sloane (1850–1929)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


  • 1. Richard Maurice Bucke (1837–1902) was a Canadian physician and psychiatrist who grew close to Whitman after reading Leaves of Grass in 1867 (and later memorizing it) and meeting the poet in Camden a decade later. Even before meeting Whitman, Bucke claimed in 1872 that a reading of Leaves of Grass led him to experience "cosmic consciousness" and an overwhelming sense of epiphany. Bucke became the poet's first biographer with Walt Whitman (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883), and he later served as one of his medical advisors and literary executors. For more on the relationship of Bucke and Whitman, see Howard Nelson, "Bucke, Richard Maurice," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 2. As yet we have no information about this person. [back]
  • 3. The North American Review was the first literary magazine in the United States. The journalist Charles Allen Thorndike Rice (1851–1889) edited and published the magazine in New York from 1876 until his death. Whitman's friend James Redpath joined the North American Review as managing editor in 1886. After Rice's death, Lloyd Bryce (1852–1915) became owner and editor. At the time of this letter, William Rideing (1853–1918) was assistant editor of the magazine. [back]
  • 4. On October 3, 1890, Whitman had accepted an invitation to write for The North American Review. He sent them "Old Poets," the first of a two-part prose contribution, on October 9. "Old Poets" was published in the November 1890 issue of the magazine, and Whitman's "Have We a National Literature?" was published in the March 1891 issue. [back]
  • 5. Robert "Bob" Green Ingersoll (1833–1899) was a Civil War veteran and an orator of the post-Civil War era, known for his support of agnosticism. Ingersoll was a friend of Whitman, who considered Ingersoll the greatest orator of his time. Whitman said to Horace Traubel, "It should not be surprising that I am drawn to Ingersoll, for he is Leaves of Grass. He lives, embodies, the individuality I preach. I see in Bob the noblest specimen—American-flavored—pure out of the soil, spreading, giving, demanding light" (Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, March 25, 1891). The feeling was mutual. Upon Whitman's death in 1892, Ingersoll delivered the eulogy at the poet's funeral. The eulogy was published to great acclaim and is considered a classic panegyric (see Phyllis Theroux, The Book of Eulogies [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997], 30). [back]
  • 6. On October 21, 1890, at Horticultural Hall in Philadelphia, Robert Ingersoll delivered a lecture in honor of Walt Whitman titled Liberty in Literature. Testimonial to Walt Whitman. Whitman recorded in his Commonplace Book that the lecture was "a noble, (very eulogistic to WW & L of G) eloquent speech, well responded to by the audience," and the speech itself was published in New York by the Truth Seeker Company in 1890 (Whitman's Commonplace Book [Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.]). [back]
  • 7. Joseph ("Joe") Jefferson III (1829–1905) was an American actor and one of the most famous American comedians of the nineteenth century. He was well known for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle onstage. On October 23, 1891, the American journalist and diplomat John Russell Young (1840–1899) invited Whitman to an informal luncheon at the Union Club in Philadelphia in honor of Joseph Jefferson and William Jermyn Florence, stage name of Bernard Conlin, a dialect comedian. Whitman declined the invitation, according to his October 24, 1891, letter to the Canadian physician Richard Maurice Bucke. [back]
  • 8. Kennedy worked in various capacities for the Boston Evening Transcript and occasionally published articles there. [back]
  • 9. The 1890 election was held during Republican President Benjamin Harrison's term of office (Harrison served from 1889–1893). Republicans suffered major losses in the election, with Democrats taking control of the House of Representatives, but with Republicans hanging onto control of the Senate. The Populist Party had some surprising successes, electing two U.S. Senators. In his November 8, 1890, letter to Richard Maurice Bucke, Whitman wrote that he was "tickled hugely with the election." [back]
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