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Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 19 November 1889


Feeling fairly—dark wet day—bowel action—have just written (a ten or twelve line welcome sonnet to Brazil) "A north Star to a South" & send it off to Harper's Weekly2—yr's just rec'd3—Sold a big book4 & [sent] it off by express to Maine5—dull & stupid as can be here—Capital massages6 tho' rough & rasping as I can stand like the ones ordered by my old Washington physician in '73—went up to Tom Harned's7 & took a glass of champagne—H full of work (making money too)—the new baby growing & splendid—

I forget whether you ever got the really good & full edition of Robert Burns8—Globe edition, 636 pages 16mo (or 12mo), Macmillan pub'r, Alexander Smith editor9—if not get one—the common cloth bound is 3s 6d sterling—I sh'd give you mine but I cannot spare it—Burns shows deeply (they all do) how the personnel, the fortunes, ups & downs & concrete & worldly & physiological facts are indispensable to getting really in his meaning & works—

Walt Whitman  loc_zs.00208.jpg  loc_zs.00209.jpg  loc_zs.00210.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. | Nov 19 | 8 PM | 89; LONDON | AM | NO 22 | 89 | CANADA; PHILADELPHIA PA. | NOV | 19 | 9 PM | 1889 | TRANSIT. [back]
  • 2. Whitman sent the poem (later entitled "A Christmas Greeting") to John Foord of Harper's Weekly and asked $10. When it was rejected, he sent the manuscript on December 4 to S. S. McClure (see his December 9–10 letter to Bucke), who paid $11 for the rights to publish the poem in his syndicate of newspapers; whether it was ever published is still unknown (Whitman's Commonplace Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). [back]
  • 3. It is uncertain which of Bucke's letters Whitman is referring to here. [back]
  • 4. Whitman's Complete Poems & Prose (1888), a volume Whitman often referred to as the "big book," was published by the poet himself—in an arrangement with publisher David McKay, who allowed Whitman to use the plates for both Leaves of Grass and Specimen Days—in December 1888. With the help of Horace Traubel, Whitman made the presswork and binding decisions for the volume. Frederick Oldach bound the book, which included a profile photo of the poet on the title page. 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]
  • 5. See Whitman's November 19, 1889, letter to R. F. Wormwood. [back]
  • 6. Whitman's nurse at the time, Warren Fritizinger, regularly gave the poet massages. [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. Robert Burns (1759–1796) was widely regarded as Scotland's national poet. An early Romantic poet who wrote in both Scots and English (often though not exclusively inflected by Scottish dialect), Burns is perhaps best known for his poems "Auld Lang Syne," "Tam o' Shanter" and "To a Mouse" (from which the title of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is derived). Of Burns, Whitman wrote in November Boughs: "Though so much is to be said in the way of fault-finding, drawing black marks, and doubtless severe literary criticism . . . after full retrospect of his works and life, the aforesaid 'odd-kind chiel' remains to my heart and brain as almost the tenderest, manliest, and (even if contradictory) dearest flesh-and-blood figure in all the streams and clusters of by-gone poets." For Whitman's full opinion of Burns as it appeared in November Boughs, see "Robert Burns as Poet and Person," November Boughs (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1888), 57–64. [back]
  • 9. Whitman is likely referring to a copy of a Globe Edition of Poems Songs and Letters Being The Complete Works of Robert Burns, edited by Alexander Smith, and published by Macmillan publishing. [back]
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