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Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 3–4 August 1889


Moist & warm continued, but the sun is out this afternoon—I am so-so—from sitting in the big chair (as now) to reclining on the bed, with palm leaf fan in hand—getting along fairly with all—I hope you will receive the two little L of G. sent by mail yesterday—Am slowly lazily occupying myself, (must have something to do or pretend) with getting the photos & prints of different stages on uniform sized cards or sheets, to be put in a good handsome fitting envelope (? perhaps album)—you shall receive one collected of all the portraits (there are 6 or 7 or more)2 soon as prepared—though you have them all now.

Sunday Aug: 4 towards noon—Fine & clear & quiet—feeling fair as usual—cut up peaches, an egg, &c: for my breakfast—am sitting here alone in my big den—bowel action an hour ago—Mr. Stafford3 here yesterday afternoon—they are all well—rec'd a long good letter from a German scholar, has been in America, writes English Good, Edward Bertz,4 Holzmark't Str. 18, Pots-dam Prussia5—He bids fair to be, or rather is, one of the first class friends of L of G.—I have sent him (& he rec'd) the big vol.6 & your book—I sent you a paper with intereting piece ab't Tennyson7 by Gosse8 (a pleasant blanc-mange bit for the palate)9

WW  loc_as.00179_large.jpg

–A lengthy article in the Eagle upon the Kings Co. farm for its lunatics and paupers at St. Johnland, aims to show that, despite the contentions and perhaps wasteful expenditure over the site and structure, the experiment itself, under the capable direction of Dr. D A Harrison,10 medical superintendent, has been a remarkable success. Only July 1 there were 660 patients, including epileptics, and the physical and mental benefit derived from their treatment—moderate daily exercise in the open air—is declared to be most noteworthy and gratifying. The "cottage system" of caring for and treating the insane, has proved in actual fact all that its advocates anticipated.

Again the North Pole

To win that bubble, fame, there is always a valiant "six hundred" who will rush into the jaws of death or into the mouth of hell. One of the outlets for these dauntless spirits has long been the quest for the North Pole. Whether its discovery is of sufficient value to science to warrant the tremendous hardships and risks to be run is not the question. It is a fruitful field for harrowing disaster, hence its attraction to the venturous. Next year there will be another attempt made to penetrate its frozen mysteries, this time by Dr. Nansen,11 a Norwegian, whose journey across Greenland last summer will furnish interesting reading when his book, which he is writing, is finished. His plan of campaign is bold and daring. He will ascend the east coast to a higher point, if possible, than the German and Lockwood expeditions, after crossing Greenland in its broaded part, starting from the west coast settlements. By this route, he will practically have completed the mapping of Greenland's coast line. Reaching the highest point possible on the Greenland coast, he will strike out over the frozen sea for the pole, severing all connections, and wasting no time in establishing bases of supplies. He has taken for his motto the old Norse proverb: "There is before us only heaven or hell," and says that he expects it will be the North Pole or death. Any well-equipped expeditions have been sent into these regions, but none have gained their ends. The elaborate preparations that were made for disaster in establishing a line of retreat exhausted their energies too soon. It would seem that a flying expedition like that propsed by Nansen might penetrate farther north than the former cumbrous ones. The scheme is backed by $100,000 capital, to which Mr. Gamel, whose name is already associated with arctic exploration, is the chief subscriber.

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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. | Aug 4 | 5 PM | 89; Philadelphia, PA | Aug 4 | 6PM | 1889 | Transit; Buffalo, NY | Aug 5 | 12AM | 1889 | Transit; London | AM | AU 6 | 89 | Canada. [back]
  • 2. Whitman was thinking of printing a select group of photos on uniform cards and arranging them, as he writes here, in "a good handsome fitting envelope (? perhaps album)." At this time he even wrote up instructions to the printer specifying a run of 200 copies with gilt labeling and the title Pictures from life of WW. The project, like many others in Whitman's final years, was never completed (though a smaller edition of six portraits in a ribbon-tied envelope did appear in 1889). [back]
  • 3. George Stafford (1827–1892) was the father of Harry Stafford, a young man that Whitman befriended in 1876 in Camden. George and his wife Susan were tenant farmers at White Horse Farm near Kirkwood, New Jersey, where Whitman visited them on several occasions. For more on Whitman and the Staffords, see David G. Miller, "Stafford, George and Susan M." Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, ed., (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), 685. [back]
  • 4. Edward Bertz (1853–1931), also spelled "Eduard," was a German writer and translator from Potsdam, who became involved with social democracy movements and signed a petition against the criminalization of homosexuality in Germany. Bertz, a novelist, philologist, and self-declared sexual researcher, also published an article in 1905 in the yearbook of the Wissenschaftlich-Humanitäre Komitee, positing that Whitman was a (sexually inactive) homosexual. For more about Bertz, see Walter Grünzweig, "Bertz, Eduard (1853–1931)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 5. Bertz had written to Whitman on July 21, 1889. [back]
  • 6. 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]
  • 7. Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892) succeeded William Wordsworth as poet laureate of Great Britain in 1850. The intense male friendship described in In Memoriam, which Tennyson wrote after the death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, possibly influenced Whitman's poetry. Whitman wrote to Tennyson in 1871 or late 1870, probably shortly after the visit of Cyril Flower in December, 1870, but the letter is not extant (see Thomas Donaldson, Walt Whitman the Man [New York: F. P. Harper, 1896], 223). Tennyson's first letter to Whitman is dated July 12, 1871. Although Tennyson extended an invitation for Whitman to visit England, Whitman never acted on the offer. [back]
  • 8. Sir Edmund William Gosse (1849–1928), English poet and author of Father and Son (a memoir published in 1907), had written to Whitman on December 12, 1873: "I can but thank you for all that I have learned from you, all the beauty you have taught me to see in the common life of healthy men and women, and all the pleasure there is in the mere humanity of other people" (see Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Friday, June 1, 1888). Gosse reviewed Two Rivulets in "Walt Whitman's New Book," The Academy, 9 (24 June 1876), 602–603, and visited Whitman in 1885 (see Whitman's letter inviting Gosse to visit on December 31, 1884, Gosse's December 29, 1884 letter to Whitman, and The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller [New York: New York University Press, 1961–1977], 3:384 n80). In a letter to Richard Maurice Bucke on October 31, 1889, Whitman characterized Gosse as "one of the amiable conventional wall-flowers of literature." For more about Gosse, see Jerry F. King, "Gosse, Sir Edmund (1849–1928)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 9. Kennedy on August 4, 1889 called Whitman's attention to Gosse's two-column article in the Boston Evening Transcript of the preceeding day entitled "Tennyson at Eighty." [back]
  • 10. Dr. D. A. Harrison had been assistant physician in charge of the St. Johnland Brach Asylum of the Kings County Lunatic Asylum. In 1887 he was made medical superintendent of the newly-opened Kings County Asylum, also know as Kings Park State Hospital. He resigned in 1889 over a dispute involving the management of the hospital and then became superintendent of the Asylum for the Insane in Newcastle County, Delaware. [back]
  • 11. Fridtjof Wedel-Jarlsberg Nansen (1861–1930) was a Norwegian explorer and scientist, who led the first crossing of the Greenland interior in 1888. He won worldwide fame after reaching a then-record northern latitude in an expedition in the 1890s, a venture funded by a wealthy Copenhagen merchant named Augustin Gamel. Nansen later won the Nobel Price for his work in helping displaced victims of the First World War. [back]
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