Skip to main content

Walt Whitman to William Sloane Kennedy, John Burroughs, William D. O'Connor, and Richard Maurice Bucke, 3–4 December 1888

This is the title-page of a small ed'n of Nov: B. in Scotland I tho't might amuse you2—My physical trouble has veer'd quite entirely lately, or more truly added to, & is now that senile botheration from prostrate or enlarged or inflamm'd gland, bladder business, diabetes—or other worse or less worse form of ailment—Dr Osler3 was here this afternoon, & is to bring over a surgeon expert on 5th P M for more concise examination—It has resulted the last four nights in quite no sleep, wh' is a pretty bad factor in my complication—

Have succeeded in a cheap & initiatory dress (binding) for the big book4—(trilogy the proof reader at the office calls it)—wh' I am now only waiting the hard press'd binders (at present) to achieve & put in form, & I will send you one—each of you dear ones for Christmas—(& good much may it do you)—The more elaborated court dress with frills, yet waits before desperate vacancy & uncertainty—

Dec: 4 10 a m—have finish'd my breakfast—two or three nice stew'd oysters—some coffee & Graham bread—better to-day—a fair night this last, & fair sleep—The gland suffering or whatever it is—the distressing recurrent stricture-like spasms ab't from three to ten minutes almost continuously the last five days & nights—have let up—& the parts at present seem to be assuming something like normal condition—I am sitting in my big chair by the fire, the stove—it is sharp & cold, bright & sunny—Ed Wilkins5 (my young Kanuck, my nurse & helper, Dr B. sent) has just come in to tell me the result of an errand—& so monotonously my thread winds on—

My friends Mr6 & Mrs: Harned7 have a new: born son8—every thing working well—poor Dave McKay9 (he appears to be a good husband &c) has had a dreadful time with serious sickness of wife—pronounc'd out of danger yesterday—Horace10 continues helpful & faithful—Love to you all & as I finish this scrawl glad to give you as I write the assurance of my comfortableness—

Walt Whitman

Kennedy, please send this to John Burroughs—J B, please send to O'Connor—O'C, please send to Dr Bucke—my Ed W. has gone to the printer & binders for me & I sit here alone, slight headache.—

This letter is addressed to four close acquaintances of Whitman: William Sloane Kennedy (1850–1929), the naturalist John Burroughs (1837–1921), the author of the Whitman pamphlet "The Good Gray Poet" (1866), William D. O'Connor (1832–1889), and the Canadian physician Richard Maurice Bucke (1837–1902). For more on these figures, see these entries from Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998): Katherine Reagan, "Kennedy, William Sloane (1850–1929)," Carmine Sarracino, "Burroughs, John (1837–1921) and Ursula (1836–1917)," Deshae E. Lott, "O'Connor, William Douglas (1832–1889)," and Howard Nelson, "Bucke, Richard Maurice (1837–1902)."


  • 1. This letter is addressed: Wm Sloane Kennedy | Belmost | Mass:. It is postmarked: Camden, N.J. | Dec 4 | 8 PM | 88. [back]
  • 2. The letter was written on a proof sheet of the title page of the Scottish edition of November Boughs (1888). [back]
  • 3. Sir William Osler (1849–1919) was a Canadian physician and one of the four founding staff members of Johns Hopkins Hospital, where he served as the first Chief of Medicine. Richard Maurice Bucke introduced Osler to Whitman in 1885 in order to care for the aging poet. Osler wrote a manuscript about his personal and professional relationship with Whitman in 1919; see Philip W. Leon, Walt Whitman and Sir William Osler: A Poet and His Physician [Toronto: ECW Press, 1995]). For more on Osler, see Philip W. Leon, "Osler, Dr. William (1849–1919)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). For more on the relationship of Osler and Whitman, see Michael Bliss, William Osler: A Life in Medicine (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999). [back]
  • 4. Whitman wanted to publish a "big book" that included all of his writings, and, with the help of Horace Traubel, Whitman made the presswork and binding decisions for the volume. Frederick Oldach bound Whitman's Complete Poems & Prose (1888), which included a profile photo of the poet on the title page. The book was published in December 1888. 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. Edward "Ned" Wilkins (1865–1936) was one of Whitman's nurses during his Camden years; he was sent to Camden from London, Ontario, by Dr. Richard M. Bucke, and he began caring for Whitman on November 5, 1888. He stayed for a year before returning to Canada to attend the Ontario Veterinary School. Wilkins graduated on March 24, 1893, and then he returned to the United States to commence his practice in Alexandria, Indiana. For more information, see Bert A. Thompson, "Edward Wilkins: Male Nurse to Walt Whitman," Walt Whitman Review 15 (September 1969), 194–195. [back]
  • 6. Thomas Biggs Harned (1851–1921) was one of Whitman's literary executors. Harned was a lawyer in Philadelphia and, having married Augusta Anna Traubel, was Horace Traubel's brother-in-law. For more on him, see Dena Mattausch, "Harned, Thomas Biggs (1851–1921)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 7. Augusta Anna Traubel Harned (1856–1914) was Horace Traubel's sister. She married Thomas Biggs Harned, a lawyer in Philadelphia and, later, one of Whitman's literary executors. [back]
  • 8. Herbert Spencer Harned (1888–1969) was born on December 2, 1888. [back]
  • 9. David McKay (1860–1918) took over Philadelphia-based publisher Rees Welsh's bookselling and publishing businesses in 1881–82. McKay and Rees Welsh published the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass after opposition from the Boston District Attorney prompted James R. Osgood & Company of Boston, the original publisher, to withdraw. McKay also went on to publish Specimen Days & Collect, November Boughs, Gems from Walt Whitman, Complete Prose Works, and the final Leaves of Grass, the so-called deathbed edition. For more information about McKay, see Joel Myerson, "McKay, David (1860–1918)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 10. Horace L. Traubel (1858–1919) was an American essayist, poet, and magazine publisher. He is best remembered as the literary executor, biographer, and self-fashioned "spirit child" of Walt Whitman. During the late 1880s and until Whitman's death in 1892, Traubel visited the poet virtually every day and took thorough notes of their conversations, which he later transcribed and published in three large volumes entitled With Walt Whitman in Camden (1906, 1908, & 1914). After his death, Traubel left behind enough manuscripts for six more volumes of the series, the final two of which were published in 1996. For more on Traubel, see Ed Folsom, "Traubel, Horace L. [1858–1919]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
Back to top