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Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 4 June 1889


Suppose you got the papers &c: with report of the dinner,2 speeches, &c:—quite a success, a great crowd, mark'd enthusiasm & yet a sort of Quaker (even Greek) no-excess, no hifalutin over all—the project now is to have all, speeches &c: printed in full in a handsome 72 page booklet3 (50cts) pub'd by Dave McKay4

Suppose you got the pocket-book b'd copy of L of G5—Felt better than usual & very phlegmatic (fortunately) Friday evn'g—& ever since—not quite so well to-day—weather heavy, damp, cloudy to-day—have been feasting on strawberries (a big basket f'm my sister Lou,6 the best I ever saw)—We are all gloomy here, f'm the dreadful cataclysm in Cambria county, Penn:7—the more we hear, the worse &more destructive & deadly it proves—

June 5 11 a m—Have just come out of the bath room—feeling fairly, leaning toward better, to-day—breakfast of rice-&-mutton soup, & asparagus galore—fine sunny day, not warm—A long good letter (Chicago) from a western soldier boy of twenty four years ago8—have not heard f'm Mrs: O'C9—send her the Boston or other paper 'most every day—have rec'd a good letter & gift from two friends in Bolton, England10—did I tell you I rec'd a handsome birthday gift (all lump'd) from Edward Carpenter,11 two sisters named Ford12 (Leeds), & others? Good wishes to Mrs: B.13 and all the childer—Y'rs ab't the ball &c: rec'd14—I believe Herbert G.15 expects to return to London next September. Ed and Horace16 well—I go out in the wheel chair17

Walt Whitman  loc_as.00249_large.jpg

yr's of 3d came18—acknowledging pocket b'k ed'n L of G

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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 Bucke | Asylum | London | Ontario | Canada. It is postmarked: Camden, N. J. | Jun 5 | 8pm | 89; Philadelphia, PA | Jun | 5 | 9 PM | 1889 | Transit; London | JU 8 | 89 | Canada. [back]
  • 2. For Whitman's seventieth birthday, Horace Traubel and a large committee planned a local celebration for the poet in Morgan's Hall in Camden, New Jersey. The committee included Henry (Harry) L. Bonsall, Geoffrey Buckwalter, and Thomas B. Harned. See Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Tuesday, May 7, 1889. The day was celebrated with a testimonial dinner. Numerous authors and friends of the poet prepared and delivered addresses to mark the occasion. Whitman, who did not feel well at the time, arrived after the dinner to listen to the remarks. [back]
  • 3. The notes and addresses that were delivered at Whitman's seventieth birthday celebration in Camden, on May 31, 1889, were collected and edited by Horace Traubel. The volume was titled Camden's Compliment to Walt Whitman, and it included a photo of Sidney Morse's 1887 clay bust of Whitman as the frontispiece. The book was published in 1889 by Philadelphia publisher David McKay. [back]
  • 4. 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]
  • 5. 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]
  • 6. Louisa Orr Haslam Whitman (1842–1892), called "Loo" or "Lou," married Whitman's brother George Whitman on April 14, 1871. Their son, Walter Orr Whitman, was born in 1875 but died the following year. A second son was stillborn. Whitman lived in Camden, New Jersey, with George and Louisa from 1873 until 1884, when George and Louisa moved to a farm outside of Camden and Whitman decided to stay in the city. Louisa and Whitman had a warm relationship during the poet's final decades. For more, see Karen Wolfe, "Whitman, Louisa Orr Haslam (Mrs. George) (1842–1892)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 7. Whitman is referring to the Johnstown flood. In his Commonplace Book he wrote on June 1, 1889; "The most pervading & dreadful news this m'ng is of the strange cataclysm at Johnstown & adjoining Cambria County, Penn: by wh' many thousands of people are overwhelm'd, kill'd by drowning in water, burnt by fire, &c: &c:—all our hearts, the papers & the public interest, are fill'd with it—the most signal & wide-spread horror of the kind ever known in this country—curious that at this very hour, we were having the dinner festivities &c—unaware" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). C. H. Browning, now the Philadelphia representative of the New York World, was instructed by Julius Chambers to ask Whitman for a "threnody on the Johnstown dead," which became "A Voice from Death" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, June 5, 1889). The poem was published in the New York World on June 7, 1889. [back]
  • 8. Milford C. Reed wrote to the poet on June 1, 1889: "Do you remember the young man of the 5th U S Calvary who you used to visit in Armory Square Hospital and the many time you used to take me into a Restaurant and give me a good square meal. I suppose you done that to so many you would hardly remember me by that. for all Soldiers know[n] to you looked upon you as their friend, for you ever wore your heart on your sleeve to Old Soldier boys. You used to call me Cody then....In the years gone by I have often passed through Camden, and had I have known it was your home I should surely have stopped to see you, that I might once more have crasped you by the hand and looked into that kindly face and fought over our battles (once again) in Washington." Whitman's reply on June 9 is lost. Reed also wrote to the poet on May 26, 1865. [back]
  • 9. Ellen M. "Nelly" O'Connor (1830–1913) was the wife of William D. O'Connor (1832–1889), one of Whitman's staunchest defenders. Before marrying William, Ellen Tarr was active in the antislavery and women's rights movements as a contributor to the Liberator and to a women's rights newspaper Una. Whitman dined with the O'Connors frequently during his Washington years. Though Whitman and William O'Connor would temporarily break off their friendship in late 1872 over Reconstruction policies with regard to emancipated African Americans, Ellen would remain friendly with Whitman. The correspondence between Whitman and Ellen is almost as voluminous as the poet's correspondence with William. Three years after William O'Connor's death, Ellen married the Providence businessman Albert Calder. For more on Whitman's relationship with the O'Connors, see Dashae E. Lott, "O'Connor, William Douglas [1832–1889]" and Lott's "O'Connor (Calder), Ellen ('Nelly') M. Tarr (1830–1913)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 10. See letter from James W. Wallace to Whitman of May 21, 1889. See also Whitman's reply on June 4, 1889. [back]
  • 11. 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]
  • 12. Isabella Ford (1855–1924) was an English feminist, socialist, and writer. Elizabeth (Bessie) Ford was her sister. Both were introduced to Whitman's writings by Edward Carpenter and they quickly became admirers of Whitman. [back]
  • 13. Jessie Maria Gurd Bucke (1839–1926) grew up in Mooretown, Upper Canada. She was the daughter of William Gurd, an army officer from Ireland. Gurd married Richard Maurice Bucke in 1865. The couple had eight children. [back]
  • 14. According to Bucke's letter on May 28, the annual ball at the asylum took place on May 30. On June 2 he observed: "There is nothing in God's world more absurd than these balls & parties at which one sits up all night pretending to have a good time and (without any pretence) has a very bad time for some days afterwards." [back]
  • 15. Herbert Harlakenden Gilchrist (1857–1914), son of Alexander and Anne Gilchrist, was an English painter and editor of Anne Gilchrist: Her Life and Writings (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1887). For more information, see Marion Walker Alcaro, "Gilchrist, Herbert Harlakenden (1857–1914)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 16. 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]
  • 17. 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]
  • 18. See the letter from Bucke to Whitman of June 3, 1889. [back]
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