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Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 28–29 October 1889


Horace2 has been in & bro't a copy of the actual finish'd bound "Camden's Compliment" book3—& I suppose you will have some copies sent on to you to-morrow (before this gets to you I fancy)—It looks very well —& it has seem'd to me as I have just been looking over it an almost incredible book—deliberately I never expected to live to read such explicit things ab't L of G—probably the last pages are the most curious & incredible—Have had some New England (Fall River, Mass) visitors this afternoon, who bo't books (two ladies & one man)—cloudy & moderate to-day all—

Tuesday 29th—began sunshine but soon clouded and rain-looking—a rare egg, Graham bread & tea for my breakfast—extra bad fulness & uncomfortableness in head—Sitting here alone as usual—good letter (enclosed)4 f'm Pearsall Smith5—had a good currying (kneading) ab't 1—a letter f'm Kennedy6 this midday mail, but no news of Ed's7 arrival safe in Canada—

The Unitarians are having a sort of general convention in Phila.—& Tom Harned8 and Horace are interested & attending—Unpleasant this ab't Mary Costelloe's9 ailing health & strength10—I think quite a good deal ab't it—My sister at Burlington Vermont is sick—makes me sombre11—(primp'd here like a rat in a cage) sometimes the old Adam will burst forth—perhaps does good to let out the gall for a little—have been reading a book ab't Voltaire—I wonder if some of his causticity han't got in me—

Walt Whitman  loc_as.00098_large.jpg  loc_as.00099_large.jpg
 loc_jc.00213_large.jpg My dear friend,

Thank you—thank you! for several kind remembrences of you in periodicals and for your letter & postal,12 all of which bridge over the great separating waters of the Atlantic. Our Alys13 will have before this seen you, I trust, and given us a picture of how you fare in these days. Having got through the murderous heats of the Camden summer, I greatly  loc_jc.00214_large.jpg hope that you will have a cheerful winter. I would that I could look in on you now & then in your wilderness of books & papers! With much to bring pleasure to you from far & near—the hearty tribute of reverence and affection from those whose lives you have helped to illuminate & cheer, yet I know that there must be mixed with it physical & mental heart sinkings when the unsolved, unsolveable problems of sin, pain, sorrow & the unrevealed future  loc_jc.00215_large.jpg must press upon spirits more or less controlled by physical depression.

As Keeble​ 14 tells us—"the nearest heart & next our own, knows not one half the reasons why we smile or sigh"—and down in the depths of unrevealable consciousness, the problems are fought out—alas! with what small results of certitude. Not a few of us have met great audiences with bold words while the depths of purgatory were being stirred up within us!


Well, dear Comrade, we are helpless—we must go on with the deepest problems unsolved, & face pain, grief, loneliness, death bravely as we can. From the condition of my heart death is a daily probability to my conciousness​ & I face all my responsibilities in the sense that it may be for me the last time. And yet I find that I can do it cheerfully & can plan & work as though I had a century before me.

You have many, many friends among the young & earnest in whose unsoiled vigorous natures your bracing, tonic/words  loc_jc.00217_large.jpg find a quick lively response.

In our country home at Haslemere—close, by the way, to Tennysons15 home—are many highly cultivated people who love you. Alys will tell you how like paradise our home there is—and how often we have wished that we might have you there to drive around the beautiful hills, two thirds in woods & undergrowth for miles. I had hoped to guide you across the ocean, but I fear that we may not now hope for that.


Logan16 is bravely & industriously doing his work at Oxford. He shows clear signs of talent but is not in haste to use his pen for the public. Alys has the courage to go alone across the sea to finish her college course & get B. A. added to her name. Mary is under a nervous breakdown—not suffering much but compelled to great quiet. Her two years old "Ray"17 is all sunshine to us. Her husband18 is pushed forward on the top wave of the new Radical politics—and I am a foundered horse at grass quietly waiting—while always

Yours affectionately R. Pearsall Smith

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 29 | 8 PM | 89. [back]
  • 2. 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]
  • 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. Whitman is referring to Robert Pearsall Smith's letter of October 13, 1889, whic was the most recent extant letter he had received from Smith. The enclosed letter is encoded below. [back]
  • 5. Robert Pearsall Smith (1827–1898) was a Quaker who became an evangelical minister associated with the "Holiness movement." He was also a writer and businessman. Whitman often stayed at his Philadelphia home, where the poet became friendly with the Smith children—Mary, Logan, and Alys. For more information about Smith, see Christina Davey, "Smith, Robert Pearsall (1827–1898)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 6. William Sloane Kennedy (1850–1929) was on the staff of the Philadelphia American and the Boston Transcript; he also published biographies of Longfellow, Holmes, and Whittier (Dictionary of American Biography [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933], 336–337). Apparently Kennedy called on the poet for the first time on November 21, 1880 (William Sloane Kennedy, Reminiscences of Walt Whitman [London: Alexander Gardener, 1896], 1). Though Kennedy was to become a fierce defender of Whitman, in his first published article he admitted reservations about the "coarse indecencies of language" and protested that Whitman's ideal of democracy was "too coarse and crude"; see The Californian, 3 (February 1881), 149–158. For more about Kennedy, see Katherine Reagan, "Kennedy, William Sloane (1850–1929)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 7. 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]
  • 8. 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]
  • 9. Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe (1864–1945) was a political activist, art historian, and critic, whom Whitman once called his "staunchest living woman friend." For more information about Costelloe, see Christina Davey, "Costelloe, Mary Whitall Smith (1864–1945)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 10. On October 26, 1889, Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe told Whitman that she was going to Spain, since her health had not improved. [back]
  • 11. On October 31, 1889, Whitman noted in his Commonplace Book (Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.): "Sister Han has had a bad spell illness— jaundice—is now easier." About this time he received a letter from Heyde about Hannah's indisposition and his (usual) economic problems. See the letter from Heyde to Whitman of October 1889. Whitman was probably referring to this letter when he wrote on November 8—"Snivelling letters continued (apparently endlessly) f'm the miserable whelp C L H[eyde] (he knows I can't help myself—I never answer them—I feel as if I could crush him out like an offensive bed-bug wh' he is)" (Whitman's Commonplace Book). The invective continued on November 18: "He is the worst nuisance & worriment of my illness —Keeps me back, (his damnable letters) ab't the worst factor of all time—always whining & squeezing me for more money—damn him—he ought to be crush'd out as you w'd a bed-bug" (Whitman's Commonplace Book). On December 19 Whitman sent $10 to Hannah "(5 for C)," and, apparently in response to two letters from Heyde in December, almost hysterical in their pleas for money, forwarded $2 on December 31 (Whitman's Commonplace Book). See the letters from Heyde to Whitman of December 1889 and December 27, 1889. [back]
  • 12. Whitman had written to Costelloe on August 8, 1889 and October 15, 1889. [back]
  • 13. Alys Smith (1867–1951) was a daughter of Robert Pearsall Smith and the sister of Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe. She eventually married the philosopher Bertrand Russell. [back]
  • 14. Pearsall Smith refers here to the English vicar, poet, and leader of the Oxford Movement John Keble (1792–1866), whose poem "Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Trinity" has the lines, "Nor even the tenderest heart, and next our own, / Knows half the reasons why we smile and sigh?" (from Keble's very popular book of poems for the Sundays of the church year, The Christian Year [1827]). [back]
  • 15. 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]
  • 16. Logan Pearsall Smith (1865–1946) was an essayist and literary critic. He was the son of Robert Pearsall Smith. For more information on Logan, see Christina Davey "Smith, Logan Pearsall (1865–1946)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 17. Rachel Pearsall Conn Costelloe (1887–1940), known as Ray Strachey, was the first daughter of Mary Whitall Smith Costelloe. She would later become a feminist writer and politician. [back]
  • 18. Benjamin Francis Conn Costelloe (1854–1899), Mary's first husband, was an English barrister and Liberal Party politician. [back]
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