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Joseph W. Thompson to Walt Whitman, 20 January 1880

 loc_vm.00357_large.jpg Dear Sir

In December I received from you a post-card, under date St Louis Misouri​ Nov​ 20, saying that you had been detained from home by illness but would soon return, when you would send to me the two books (Vistas & Memoranda) which I wrote to you for back in the fall.1 Since that I have not heard from you—this makes me rather anxious to know that you are still getting on towards recovering your health—I am very glad indeed that you have had such a "good time" in the west of the States, but it would be sad if you were to be ill for long as a consequence of your travel.

I have now sent you a post office order for 21 shillings—This is for your second volume of the complete Edition of 1875 ("Two Rivulets")  loc_vm.00358_large.jpgI have a very dear cousin Ethel Thompson—who lately became 21 years old. That is an occasion for rejoicing and congratulating people over here. I don't know why. I think people ought to be condoled with, rather. Anyhow, it is also the practice to cheer them up with presents—and, as I believed that your "Leaves of Grass" would give my cousin more pleasure than anything else I could give her, I gave her that book.

But her sister—another woman who is dear to me—Honora Thompson—had thought just the same and gave her the same book! So I have taken back "Leaves of Grass" and am going to keep it as a loan copy. That is a copy to lend to those who know little about your poems and want to know more.

And I am going to give to Ethel Thompson "Two Rivulets" so that she will be the gainer by two  loc_vm.00359_large.jpgof her friends' having determined to give her Whitman as a birthday present.

I want you, if you will, to write in the book "Ethel Thompson from Joseph William Thompson, December the 15th 1879" and, having written this, to sign it with your own name and the actual date of your so signing. Do you mind doing this for me and then sending it off by post to— Ethel Thompson Charles Thompson—esquire— Preswylfa near Cardiff 

I shall be very grateful to you, but not so grateful as I am for your having written what you have written (in your book, I mean).

Honora Thompson tells me that she was not able satisfactorily to answer two questions which you put to her about the selection of your poems made by Mr W. M. Rossetti,2 I can tell you. The book is out of print and the publishers—Messrs Chatto and Windus (of Piccadilly—  loc_vm.00360_large.jpgLondon) have definitely answer'd the question as to whether they were going to republish it in the negative.

You say that you never received any thing from the publishers on account of that selection. But do you think that a profit was made? From the manner in which Mr Rossetti writes in the preface, I should think it very possible that it was a 'labour of love' on his part to bring the book out, and that he neither hoped for nor got any gain excepting the knowledge that he had done his best to make your works better known in England.

That is how it seems to me—I know nothing.

But many in England are anxious that there should be a good selection of your poems in a popular form, so that all may gradually get knowledge of them. I who write to you am young (26) and inexperienced. I have lately abandoned my intention—half-formed—of trying to earn my living at the bar—and I am  loc_vm.00359_large.jpguncertain what work I shall do. But some work, some good to the world, I will try to do. Amongst other things, if it is not done before I can put my hand to it, I will, if you will give me leave, make and bring out a selection of your poems and sell it at a cheap price. People will not give 10 dollars—or 5—for that of which they know nothing. And thus you remain an unknown writer to the great mass of Englishmen and Englishwomen. I hope that, come time, I shall write to you for your permission—At present, I cannot undertake this work—I want to have a more thorough knowledge—such knowledge as the digesting by time can alone give—of your poems, and I need not add that if it came in my path to come to America to see you, it is a chance which I should very eagerly grasp at. That  loc_vm.00362_large.jpgmay possibly happen in the summer of next year. I do not know.

Meanwhile, a Mr Lewin3 of Birkenhead, who edits a small quarterly magazine called "Papers for the Times" seems to wish to reprint here the "Preface to Leaves of Grass" which you have omitted from all your later editions—May I ask you why you have omitted it? I know that you have practically embodied some of it in your other poems—but not all of it. I myself do not know whether your preface is in reality a preface—something good to prefix—or itself a poem just as much as the other poems are. I have thought that that might be the reason for your no longer printing it as a preface. I have told Mr Lewin that I would ask you as to your wishes with regard to it being reprinted. I must tell  loc_vm.00363_large.jpgyou that Mr Lewin or whoever should undertake it would in all probability have no margin of profit, but (probably) a margin the other way—But if I, personally, had anything to do with the publishing, I should make it a condition that any profit that there might be should be handed over to you.

I am afraid that my letter is growing to a much-too-great size, but there is one more topic. Mr Edward Carpenter4 has been so kind as to lend me Mr Burroughs's5 "Walt Whitman as Poet and Person"6 which I have read with very great interest. Mr Child7 (I think his name is) at Trubner's (the publisher's) says that he believes you have the remaining stock of these books. Is this so? If so, will you kindly send me a copy, to this  loc_vm.00364_large.jpgaddress (Goldsmith Building, Temple, London) and let me know what I owe you for it. Mr Carpenter's copy of the book (1867) was pubd​ by the American News Company,8 but I have seen it spoken of as being published by J.S. Redfield9—in 1871. Perhaps that is a later edition.

I am, dear sir, Yours affectionately J.W. Thompson

Walt Whitman— Camden, New Jersey.


  • 1. Joseph William Thompson was a lawyer from London and member of the Middle Temple, one of the four Inns of Court of the city. He was called to the bar in 1879. Thompson was the 5th son of Charles Thompson of Preswylfa near Cardiff, a member of the Society of Friends (Joseph Foster, Men-at-the-bar: A Biographical Hand-list of the Members of the Various Inns [London and Avlesbury: Hazell, Watson and Viney, Limited, 1885], 464). [back]
  • 2. William Michael Rossetti (1829–1915), brother of Dante Gabriel and Christina Rossetti, was an English editor and a champion of Whitman's work. In 1868, Rossetti edited Whitman's Poems, selected from the 1867 Leaves of Grass. Whitman referred to Rossetti's edition as a "horrible dismemberment of my book" in his August 12, 1871, letter to Frederick S. Ellis. Nonetheless, the edition provided a major boost to Whitman's reputation, and Rossetti would remain a staunch supporter for the rest of Whitman's life, drawing in subscribers to the 1876 Leaves of Grass and fundraising for Whitman in England. For more on Whitman's relationship with Rossetti, see Sherwood Smith, "Rossetti, William Michael (1829–1915)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 3. Walter Lewin's quarterly on "Literature, Philosophy and Religion" also published Frank W. Walters's essay "Walt Whitman." Lewin did end up publishing Whitman's 1855 preface in his journal in 1880 (with Trübner & Co. as the publisher). Lewin turned out to be an avid reviewer of Whitman, too, highly praising Leaves of Grass in a September 1887 review and Specimen Days and Collect in June 1887, Democratic Vistas, and Other Papers in 1888 as well as November Boughs in 1889. Whitman himself was little impressed, calling Lewin's piece on November Boughs "very shallow, superficial, [...] too!" and saying to Richard Maurice Bucke, "Doctor you had better take it: you are the fellow who adopts all the foundlings!" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection; Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1953), 4:274–275). [back]
  • 4. Edward Carpenter (1844–1929) was an English writer and Whitman disciple. Like many other young disillusioned Englishmen, he deemed Whitman a prophetic spokesman of an ideal state cemented in the bonds of brotherhood. Carpenter—a socialist philosopher who in his book Civilisation, Its Cause and Cure posited civilization as a "disease" with a lifespan of approximately one thousand years before human society cured itself—became an advocate for same-sex love and a contributing early founder of Britain's Labour Party. On July 12, 1874, he wrote for the first time to Whitman: "Because you have, as it were, given me a ground for the love of men I thank you continually in my heart . . . . For you have made men to be not ashamed of the noblest instinct of their nature." For further discussion of Carpenter, see Arnie Kantrowitz, "Carpenter, Edward [1844–1929]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 5. The naturalist John Burroughs (1837–1921) met Whitman on the streets of Washington, D.C., in 1864. After returning to Brooklyn in 1864, Whitman commenced what was to become a decades-long correspondence with Burroughs. Burroughs was magnetically drawn to Whitman. However, the correspondence between the two men is, as Burroughs acknowledged, curiously "matter-of-fact." Burroughs would write several books involving or devoted to Whitman's work: Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person (1867), Birds and Poets (1877), Whitman, A Study (1896), and Accepting the Universe (1924). For more on Whitman's relationship with Burroughs, see Carmine Sarracino, "Burroughs, John [1837–1921] and Ursula [1836–1917]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 6. John Burroughs's Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person was first published in New York in 1867. The text was extensively revised and rewritten by Whitman. [back]
  • 7. Whitman's dealings with Trübner & Company were handled through Josiah Child. Trübner & Company was the London agent for Whitman's books; see Whitman's December 27, 1873, letter to the firm. [back]
  • 8. The American News Company was a New York magazine—and later comic book—distribution company founded in 1864 by Henry Dexter (1813–1910). The American News Company published John Burroughs's Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person in 1867. [back]
  • 9. James S. Redfield, a publisher at 140 Fulton Street, New York, was a distributor of Whitman's books in the early 1870s. On March 23, 1872, Redfield accepted 496 copies of Leaves of Grass: "I am to account to him (for all that I may sell) at the rate of One Dollar & Fifty Cents a copy, (1.50)" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.) [back]
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