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Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, [26]–27 October 1889


Am so-so—Sitting here as usual—had the old half-trembling sapless leafless tree in front cut down & the walk brick-paved over this forenoon (was afraid it w'd fall & perhaps hurt some one)—all done by a stout young black man in less than two hours—$2½—(& I gave him a glass of sherry)—was satisfied with the whole job—goodbye old tree—how long shall I linger behind?—("Why cumbereth it the ground?")2Harpers Monthly man rejects my poem3—says it is too much an improvasition4 —An Englishman (in an eulogism with the money) sends a letter rec'd this mn'g for a pk't-b'k L of G5—Alice Smith,6 the dear delicate cheery girl, is over this afternoon & pays me a good long sunshiny visit—I have been down in the little front room for a change—dark cloudy half raw weather—inclined to rain—

Evn'g—½—moderate & rainy—Tom Harned7 here—Horace8 too— Have been reading J T Fields's9 "Yesterdays with authors"10—read the Hawthorne piece, every line—then the others—full of letters, good idea —If any one throws up to you the praise (or sweetness or eulogism) of your W W book—let him read these two pieces ab't Hawthorne and Dickens—gossipy but very interesting this book of Fields—am sweating moderately to-night—

Sunday forenoon Oct. 27—Rainy & dark—buckwheat cakes & honey & coffee for breakfast—a fairly good night—sitting here alone by stove— bowel action at 10—head mussy (?catarrhy) sore & aching, half uneasy—reading the Sunday Phil. Press—this enclosed piece is (I suppose) in Nov. Century11—as I take it Mrs. O'C12 is yet in Boston—

Walt Whitman  loc_as.00094_large.jpg  loc_as.00093_large.jpg

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. | Oct 27 | 5 PM | 89; Philadelphia, PA | Oct | 27 | 7PM | 1889 | Transit; Buffalo, N.Y. | Oct | 28 | [illegible]AM | 1889 | Transit; London | AM | OC 29 | 89 | Canada. [back]
  • 2. An almost identical entry appeared in Whitman's Commonplace Book (Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.) on this date. Whitman is referring to "The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree" from the Bible, which is found in the book of Luke, Chapter 13, Verses 6–9, and the quote is from Verse 7. [back]
  • 3. On October 18, 1889, Whitman sent a cluster of poems entitled "Old Age's Echoes" to Henry Mills Alden of Harper's New Monthly Magazine and asked $100 (Whitman's Commonplace Book [Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.]). On October 24, Alden rejected the work: "It is too much of an improvisation for our use. I had it set up, hoping that, seeing it in type, I might come to a more favorable impression of its form. The thought is worthy of a more careful texture in its parts & of a more shapely embodiment as a whole. I am not critisizing. Criticism has no place in the poet's world. I am writing only as a Magazine editor with reference to Magazine requirements." Alden's letter cannot be located. On November 2, 1889, Whitman sent the piece, now called "Old Age Echoes," to Nineteenth Century and asked £20; the editor, James Knowles, returned the manuscript on February 21, 1890. The "3 or 4 sonnets poemets," as the poet characterized the work in his Commonplace Book, were eventually published in the March 1891 issue of Lippincott's Magazine. Here, the poem "Old-Age Echoes" consists of the "poemets" titled "Sounds of the Winter," "The Unexpress'd," "Sail out for Good, Eidólon Yacht!" and "After the Argument." "To the Sun-Set Breeze" appeared in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine in December, 1890; Whitman received $60 (Commonplace Book). [back]
  • 4. See the letter from Whitman to Bucke of October 18–[19], 1889. [back]
  • 5. Walter Delaplaine Scull, a young English artist, sent $6 for the book on October 14, 1889. [back]
  • 6. Alyssa ("Alys") Whitall Pearsall Smith (1867–1951) was born in Philadelphia and became a Quaker relief organizer. She attended Bryn Mawr College and was a graduate of the class of 1890. She and her family lived in Britain for two years during her childhood and again beginning in 1888. She married the philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1894; the couple later separated, and they divorced in 1921. Smith also served as the chair of a society committee that set up the "Mothers and Babies Welcome" (the St Pancras School for Mothers) in London in 1907; this health center, dedicated to reducing the infant mortality rate, provided a range of medical and educational services for women. Smith was the daughter of Robert Pearsall and Hannah Whitall Smith, and she was the sister of Mary Whitall Smith (1864–1945), the political activist, art historian, and critic, whom Whitman once called his "staunchest living woman friend." [back]
  • 7. Thomas Biggs Harned (1851–1921) was one of Whitman's literary executors. Harned was a lawyer in Philadelphia and, having married Augusta Anna Traubel (1856–1914), 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). For more on his relationship with Whitman, see Thomas Biggs Harned, Memoirs of Thomas B. Harned, Walt Whitman's Friend and Literary Executor, ed. Peter Van Egmond (Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1972). [back]
  • 8. 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]
  • 9. James T. Fields (1817–1881) succeeded James Russell Lowell as editor of the Atlantic Monthly in 1861 and held the position until 1871. [back]
  • 10. Yesterdays with Authors by James T. Fields was published in 1872 by James R. Osgood and Company of Boston, and it was reprinted in 1886. [back]
  • 11. Whitman enclosed a reprint of "My 71st Year" with corrections (Feinberg). [back]
  • 12. 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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