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Walt Whitman to William Sloane Kennedy, 8 November 1890


Fine sunny day—was out in wheelchair1 yesterday 12 to 2½—went to the north point shore of the city, Cooper's Point they call it—a ship building region—saw (almost gloatingly) the most beautiful just finished large four–masted shooner​ I ever saw sitting like a duck on the water—there thought I is indeed a poem—I send you in paper a full report of Ingersoll's2 lecture3—Dr Bucke4 dont like (for some reason—what?) The Old Poets piece —I have followed it (its style) however by another piece "National Literature"5 (!!) wh I sent off to NA Rev.6 last evn'g—

Am not even as well as usual—have the grip & bladder trouble & have eaten my breakfast though—enjoy mild outings the sun &c and am going to try it on now—Here is an item you can put in the paper if you care to—[tornaway]7


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. Horace Traubel and Ed Wilkins, Whitman's nurse, went to Philadelphia to purchase a wheeled chair for the poet that would allow him to be "pull'd or push'd" outdoors. See Whitman's letter to William Sloane Kennedy of May 8, 1889. [back]
  • 2. 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]
  • 3. 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.]). Following the lecture event, Horace Traubel went to Canada with Bucke. [back]
  • 4. 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]
  • 5. 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]
  • 6. 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. After Rice's death, Lloyd Bryce became owner and editor. [back]
  • 7. The remainder of this letter—likely including the item Whitman provided for Kennedy to publish, as well as the poet's closing and signature—is missing and has not yet been located. Kennedy, however, in his Reminiscences of Walt Whitman (1896), describes the now-missing enclosure: "On November 8, 1890, Whitman sent to us at the Transcript office, in Boston, for use in the paper, a 'jotting' memorandum, anent the then recent sweeping Democratic victory in many States of the Union, which was considered a rebuke of the McKinley Tariff and pension enormities:—'Walt Whitman likes the result of the late election, and wants more of it. Though an old Republican, he calls the party in power "the banditti combine," and says, if it were not for American elections as safety-valves, we would likely have a French Revolution here and Reign of Terror.'" [back]
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