Skip to main content

William Harrison Riley to Walt Whitman, 4 April 1879

 loc.03354.001.jpg My dear Friend and Guide.

Today I have had a note from Ruskin.2 This is a copy:—

'London 3rd April

Dear Riley

Your letter was sent on here. I am very glad to know that I can give some pleasure to such a man. I will write to him directly. Send the book to Brantwood' [His residence in the 'lake district'] 'All you tell me is more frightful than I care to write of.

Ever very Gratefully Yrs

J. Ruskin'


You will require a little explanation respecting some parts of the note. When I wrote and told him the book had come, I also told him that you had been dismissed from office in Washington, and that the American publishers will not publish your works. This intense stupidity of the publishers is, I think, the 'frightful' fact of all. I was amazed when I read of the fact. The 'pleasure'  loc.03354.003.jpg I think is the greeting he can give you. He is the most eminent judge of Scripture and painting in Europe, and his stamp upon any work is regarded as being as infallible as the 'Goldsmith's Hall' stamp on British gold ware.3

He has no 'publisher,' though he could choose among the whole lot in England. His works are published by an old servant, and the price of his books is  loc.03354.004.jpg the same to a 'retail' as to a 'wholesale' buyer—I mean that there is no discount.

(I am writing very hastily, as I must go out and dig again as soon as possible, as the weather is favourable, and the 'season' is late.)

I can do little, but something must be done, whilst you are living, to increase the knowledge of your works.

Soon I also must have some photographs, and I think there is no one who  loc.03354.005.jpg so nearly worships you as I do, and nobody who would more willingly stick by you as long as we live.

The papers I should have sent, were not sent. Perhaps they will be sent to-day. (They are merely to show you the sort of writings I have penned.)

I hope you will be as glad as I am that Ruskin can see, and has seen your meaning.  loc.03354.006.jpg He is a stern critic, and as honest as God—or a tree.

Loving you for your human nature, and reverencing your divine nature.

I remain yours Faithfully William Harrison Riley.


  • 1. William Harrison Riley (1835–1907) of Manchester was a British socialist. He published Yankee Letters to British Workmen in 1871, and in 1872 began editing the British journal, the International Herald. He addressed Whitman as "My dear Friend and Master" in a letter on March 5, 1879. Twelve years earlier he had found a copy of Leaves of Grass "and saw a Revelation. . . . In all my troubles and successes I have been strengthened by your divine teachings." [back]
  • 2. John Ruskin (1819–1900) was one of the leading art critics in Victorian Great Britain. Whitman sent Leaves of Grass and a "couple of photographs" to Ruskin via William Harrison Riley in March 1879 (see the letter from Whitman to Riley of March 18, 1879). Ruskin, according to Whitman, expressed "worry...[that] Leaves of Grass is...too personal, too emotional, launched from the fires of...spinal passions, joys, yearnings" (see the letter from Whitman to William O'Connor of October 7, 1882). Whitman, late in life, said to Horace Traubel: "[I] take my Ruskin with some qualifications." Still, Ruskin "is not to be made little of: is of unquestionable genius and nobility" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Thursday, January 24, 1889, 17). [back]
  • 3. To recieve the 'Goldsmith's Hall' stamp, gold had to conform to the standard of at least 18 of gold to 6 of alloy. The sterling standard required 22 of gold to 2 of alloy. See Charles Knight, The English Cyclopaedia (London: Bradbury, Evans & Co., 1867), 4:1014. [back]
Back to top