Skip to main content

Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 31 January 1890

Ab't the same as usual—a rare egg & Graham bread & prunes & coffee for my breakfast—I am pretty moderate in eating, & w'd be abstemious, but I fancy a fairly efficient fortification in stomach helps keep at bay quite many of the wolfs & wolflets of old fellows' physical (& perhaps all fellows) attacks. I take no medicines at all—hardly any alcoholic drink—never beer—eat plain fare—never risk—the trick is to steer between that last mention'd need to keep the wolf away & the benefit of very light food-eating, wh' is decided for an old fellow—

I enclose my latest pieces—(have not yet seen the Feb: Century but suppose the poemet is in it)2—have just been engaged to write some little bits for Munyon's Illustrated World (monthly Phila)—will send you when printed—$10 each, one paid3—So far have escaped the grip, (but I guess I have the am't of it in my physical brain already, & have had two years)—Alys Smith4 comes regularly, does me good to see her—She is the handsomest, healthiest best balanced young woman in the world known to me—have quite many visitors—sold a big book5 yesterday—

God bless you & yours— Walt Whitman

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. | Jan 31(?) | 4 30 PM | 90. [back]
  • 2. "Old Age's Ship & Crafty Death's" appeared in the February 1890 issue of the Century. [back]
  • 3. On January 26, 1890, Whitman sent to Melville Philips, of the Philadelphia Press, "Osceola" (The Commonplace-Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.), which was printed in Munyon's Illustrated World in April; see William Sloane Kennedy, The Fight of a Book for the World (1926), 271. Philips and two photographers visited the poet on January 29 and "'took me' in my room—(bo't two big books)" (The Commonplace-Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). Whitman did not like the photograph; see his February 22, 1890, letter to Melville Philips. [back]
  • 4. 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]
  • 5. Whitman often referred to Complete Poems & Prose (1888) as his "big book." The volume 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, and Frederick Oldach bound the volume, 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]
Back to top