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Walt Whitman to John Addington Symonds, 20 July 1890


Yr fine "Essays Speculative & Suggestive"2 two vols: have just come—thank you—I shall write soon ab't them more at length—Have you rec'd my Complete Works3 in one big vol: 900 pp? Send by mail to you—Also the L of G. latest ed'n (in pocket b'k binding?)4—Also the portraits in large envelope?—Say in y'r next if so or no. I keep up yet—paralyzed almost completely—get out in wheel chair5—sleep & appetite fair—my N A. Rev: piece is in "Spec: Days" call'd "Poetry, to-day in America"6—y'r letter three months ago rec'd7

Walt Whitman  loc_vm.00345_large.jpg

John Addington Symonds (1840–1893), a prominent biographer, literary critic, and poet in Victorian England, was author of the seven-volume history Renaissance in Italy, as well as Walt Whitman—A Study (1893), and a translator of Michelangelo's sonnets. But in the smaller circles of the emerging upper-class English homosexual community, he was also well known as a writer of homoerotic poetry and a pioneer in the study of homosexuality, or sexual inversion as it was then known. See Andrew C. Higgins, "Symonds, John Addington [1840–1893]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


  • 1. This postcard is addressed: John Addington Symonds | Davos Platz | Switzerland. It is postmarked: Davos | 1 Vil[illegible]—7 | Platz; Camden [illegible] | JUL | [illegible] | 6 AM | 90. [back]
  • 2. Whitman is referring to John Addington Symonds's Essays Speculative and Suggestive (London: Chapman and Hall, 1890). The chapter on "Democratic Art" is mainly inspired by Whitman. In his August 20–22, 1890, letter, Bucke remarked: "The whole article is 'flat, stale and unprofitable'—a saw dust chewing business—dealing with the hull, the shell, the superfices, never for one line, one flash of insight penetrating to the heart of the business." On August 24, 1890, Whitman observed: "you are a little more severe on Symonds than I sh'd be." [back]
  • 3. Whitman's Complete Poems & Prose (1888), a volume Whitman often referred to as the "big book," was published by the poet himself—in an arrangement with publisher David McKay, who allowed Whitman to use the plates for both Leaves of Grass and Specimen Days—in December 1888. With the help of Horace Traubel, Whitman made the presswork and binding decisions for the volume. Frederick Oldach bound the book, which included a profile photo of the poet on the title page. For more information on the book, see Ed Folsom, Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary (University of Iowa: Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, 2005). [back]
  • 4. Whitman had a limited pocket-book edition of Leaves of Grass printed in honor of his 70th birthday, on May 31, 1889, through special arrangement with Frederick Oldach. Only 300 copies were printed, and Whitman signed the title page of each one. The volume also included the annex Sands at Seventy and his essay A Backward Glance O'er Traveled Roads. See Whitman's May 16, 1889, letter to Oldach. For more information on the book see Ed Folsom, Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary (University of Iowa: Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, 2005). [back]
  • 5. 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]
  • 6. See John Addington Symonds, Essays Speculative and Suggestive (London: Chapman and Hall, 1890), 242. In his first footnote in "Democratic Art," his essay on Whitman, Symonds wonders: "'Poetry of the Future' (North American Review, February, 1881—why not included in his 'November Boughs,' I know not)." "The Poetry of the Future," which first appeared in the North American Review 132.291 (February 1881): 195–210, was reprinted, in a slightly revised form, as "Poetry To-day in America—Shakspere—The Future" in Specimen Days & Collect (1882) (see Prose Works 2: 474–490). In a letter to Whitman of August 3, 1890, Symonds confessed that he had discovered this error and hoped to correct it in future editions. The change was never made (see The Letters of John Addington Symonds, Volume III: 1885–1893, ed. Herbert M. Schueller and Robert L. Peters [Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1969], 481–482, 484n). [back]
  • 7. This letter has not yet been located. [back]
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