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Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 14 August 1889


Middling—nothing very new. Specimens of the photos: have come & I like pretty well a large half-size sitting figure—have requested some & shall reserve one for you when I get them2—I send you another paper a'bt the "elixir"3—If you want any more send me word—if not, not—do you remember the blue glass furore4 of ten or twelve y'rs ago? My picture collation goes on5—I send papers &c: to Mrs. O'C6 at North Perry, Maine. Y'rs of 12th has just come—

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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 14 | 8 PM | 89. [back]
  • 2. Whitman sat for the photographer Frederick Gutekunst in Philadelphia on August 7, 1889, and requested "specimens" of what he called the "big half-length, sitting, no hat," a photograph that he and Bucke both admired. [back]
  • 3. In 1889, physiologist Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard (1817–1894) injected himself with an elixir of extracts from monkey testicles and reported rejuvenated sexual prowess. His elixir received a great deal of publicity and was used by thousands of men. [back]
  • 4. In 1877, the former Union Civil War General Augustus James Pleasonton (1808–1894) started a health craze based on his notion that the color blue (like the blue sky) promoted growth in animals and plants, and he experimented by growing grapes and raising pigs under blue glass. Many dismissed his claims as quackery, but others took the claims seriously, and what Whitman called the "blue glass furore" lasted several years—with blue glass supposedly curing a range of maladies from back pain to baldness—before being fully debunked. [back]
  • 5. At this time, Whitman was preparing a portfolio of self-portraits. He wanted to publish the portfolio, but the project was never completed. Whitman did include several photographs (or engravings of them) in the 1889 issue of Leaves of Grass. [back]
  • 6. 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]
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