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John Addington Symonds to Walt Whitman, 29 January 1889

 loc_vm.00331.jpg Dear Mr. Whitman

I have to thank you for many mementoes in the shape of newspapers. One which lately reached me, of Dec 27 1888, contains the welcome news that you are recovering from your last severe & tedious attack of illness.

Your "November Boughs"1 has been my companion during the last week. I have read it with the deepest interest, finding the loc_vm.00332.jpg autobiographical passages regarding your early life & the development of your great scheme particularly valuable. Rejoicing also in the delightful rigour of your critical notes.

Now I am eager to get the 900 page volume of your Complete Works,2 & do not know where it is published. I shall try to obtain it through my London bookseller.


I have long wished to write about your views regarding the literature of the future. Each time I have attempted to do so, I have quailed before my own inadequacy to grapple with the theme. But I have in preparation a collection of essays on speculative & critical problems, one of which will be called "Democratic Art"3 & will be based upon your "Democratic Vistas"4 & "Leaves of Grass." This I have been working at during loc_vm.00334.jpg the last month; & however imperfect it may be, I have contrived to state in it a portion of what I think the world owes to you both for your suggestions & for the illustrations you have given in your poems—not only by asserting the necessity of a new literature adequate to the people & pregnant with the modern scientific spirit, but also by projecting & to a large extent realizing that literature in your own work.


Meanwhile I am able to echo the words of your friend Dr. Bucke5 in his "impromptu criticism,"6 & to congratulate you now in the autumn of your life upon the achievement of a monument "more enduring than brass or marble."

Believe me, dear master, to be, though a silent & uncommunicative friend, your true respectful & loving disciple

John Addington Symonds.  loc_vm.00336.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. Whitman's November Boughs was published in October 1888 by Philadelphia publisher David McKay. For more information on the book, see James E. Barcus Jr., "November Boughs [1888]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 2. Whitman's Complete Poems & Prose was published in December 1888. With the help of Horace Traubel, Whitman made the presswork and binding decisions, and Frederick Oldach bound the volume, 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]
  • 3. For Symonds' essay, see his book, Essays Speculative and Suggestive, Volume 2 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1890), 30–77. [back]
  • 4. Whitman's Democratic Vistas was first published in 1871 in New York by J.S. Redfield. The volume was an eighty-four-page pamphlet based on three essays, "Democracy," "Personalism," and "Orbic Literature," all of which Whitman intended to publish in the Galaxy magazine. Only "Democracy" and "Personalism" appeared in the magazine. For more information on Democratic Vistas, see Arthur Wrobel, "Democratic Vistas [1871]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 5. 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]
  • 6. Bucke had written to Whitman on December 20, 1888, registering at length his enthusiasm for Whitman's just-published Complete Poems and Prose. Whitman decided to have Bucke's letter printed for distribution among his friends and disciples, and he titled it "An impromptu criticism on the 900 page Volume, 'The Complete Poems and Prose of Walt Whitman,' first issued December, 1888." The first printing had several typos, including the addition of an acute accent over the first "e" of "Goethe," so Whitman had the errors corrected in a second printing that was completed by January 2, 1889. See Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Thursday, December 27, 1888. [back]
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