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Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 29 December 1888

Fine, still sunny day, not cold—continue ab't the same—pretty comfortable upon the whole—N Y Herald 23d last Sunday has a leading (book notice) two third column review of Nov: Boughs,2 mostly extracts—favorable more than any thing else3—glad you hit (fix)4 on the autobiographic underlying element of the collected Vol5—Was wondering whether that w'd be detected—did not say anything ab't it, but it has been in my mind of late y'rs unremittedly—of course not in the usual auto-writing style & even purposes, but with a freer margin—& I think if the book really grips, that will be what the good class literary detectives of the future will mainly settle & agree upon—Then I sh'd be tickled enough if I c'd think I had indeed skimm'd some of the real cream of the American History of the last 35 years & preserv'd it here—I have sent to some 20 of our friends & specialists home & abroad (wrapt in the Post item of last Thursday) the printed copy of y'r letter ab't it—(the "impromptu criticism")—I send you Kennedy's6 letter of 25th7—yr's of 26th came last evn'g8

Yes, I shall mind—think I understand & accept the matter below it, & shall practically put it in action—as I finish I am sitting alone by my oak-fire—every thing still—& the sun out shining brightly—

Walt Whitman

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).


  • 1. This letter is addressed: Dr R M Bucke | Asylum | London | Ontario | Canada. It is postmarked: Camden (?) | Dec 29 | 8 PM | (?). [back]
  • 2. 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]
  • 3. The title of the review was "Walt Whitman Unbosoms Himself About Poetry." Whitman considered the notice "very good: a very generous one" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Friday, December 28, 1888). [back]
  • 4. 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]
  • 5. In "An impromptu criticism," Bucke wrote: "It is a gigantic massive autobiography, the first of its kind. . . ." For Whitman's guarded reaction to Bucke's assertion, see Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Friday, December 21, 1888. [back]
  • 6. 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). [back]
  • 7. See William Sloane Kennedy's letter to Whitman of December 25, 1888. [back]
  • 8. Since Bucke's letter of December 26 is missing, it is not possible to explain Whitman's allusion in the following paragraph. For speculation as to what Whitman may have been referring to, see Bucke's letter to Whitman of December 24, 1888, note 2. [back]
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