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Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 18 August 1890


Frank Sanborn's2 letter f'm Belgium enc'd3—the Transcript copies my "rejoinder" complete.4 Rainy dark forenoon here—I keep ab't well as usual (has been very hot here again) made my breakfast of bread and honey in the comb—was down to river side in wheel–chair5 last evn'g—the contemptible little Woodberry shirt:sleeve story (being piquant & a lie) is copied & circulated every where6—I have not heard f'm Dr Johnston (Eng'd)7—Suppose you rec'd three papers f'm me—the "rejoinder," the Woodberry comment & WSK's8 letter9—get quite a good many solicitous & other such–kind letters (one enc'd)—Tom Harned's10 family have ret'd f'm Cape May—Am on the watch for Symonds's11 letter12 to send you soon as I find it am'g my heaps—

God bless you all— Walt Whitman  loc_zs.00075.jpg  loc_zs.00076.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. | Aug 18 | 8 PM | 90; London | PM | AU 20 | 9 | Canada. [back]
  • 2. Franklin B. Sanborn (1831–1917) was an abolitionist and a friend of John Brown. In 1860, when he was tried in Boston because of his refusal to testify before a committee of the U.S. Senate, Whitman was in the courtroom (Gay Wilson Allen, The Solitary Singer [New York: Macmillan, 1955], 242). He reviewed Drum-Taps in the Boston Commonwealth on February 24, 1866. He was editor of the Springfield Republican from 1868 to 1872, and was the author of books dealing with his friends Emerson, Thoreau, and Alcott. "A Visit to the Good Gray Poet" appeared without Sanborn's name in the Springfield Republican on April 19, 1876. For more on Sanborn, see Linda K. Walker, "Sanborn, Franklin Benjamin (Frank) (1831–1917)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 3. If there was a letter from Sanborn, it has not survived. [back]
  • 4. On August 16 the Boston Evening Transcript printed a long article by Sanborn entitled "'The City of the Simple'" (an account of "a Famous Belgian Insane Asylum") as well as Whitman's response to Symonds' essay "Democratic Art" titled "An Old Man's Rejoinder." Both of these clippings are enclosed with the letter. "An Old Man's Rejoinder" was published in The Critic 17 (16 August 1890): 85–86. Whitman's "Rejoinder" was also reprinted in Good-Bye My Fancy (1891). See also Prose Works 1892, Volume 2: Collect and Other Prose, ed. Floyd Stovall (New York: New York University Press, 1964), 655–658. [back]
  • 5. Horace Traubel and Ed Wilkins, Whitman's nurse, went to Philadelphia to purchase a wheeled chair for the poet that would allow him to be "pull'd or push'd" outdoors. See Whitman's letter to William Sloane Kennedy of May 8, 1889. [back]
  • 6. Charles J. Woodbury, who met Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1865, spread the story that Emerson told him that he once met Whitman for dinner at the Astor House in New York, and that the poet showed up without a coat, as if to "dine in his shirtsleeves." Whitman denied the rumor. For one of Whitman's responses to the shirtsleeves story, see Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Monday, August, 11, 1890. [back]
  • 7. Dr. John Johnston (1852–1927) of Annan, Dumfriesshire, Scotland, was a physician, photographer, and avid cyclist. Johnston was trained in Edinburgh and served as a hospital surgeon in West Bromwich for two years before moving to Bolton, England, in 1876. Johnston worked as a general practitioner in Bolton and as an instructor of ambulance classes for the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railways. He served at Whalley Military Hospital during World War I and became Medical Superintendent of Townley's Hospital in 1917 (John Anson, "Bolton's Illustrious Doctor Johnston—a man of many talents," Bolton News [March 28, 2021]; Paul Salveson, Moorlands, Memories, and Reflections: A Centenary Celebration of Allen Clarke's Moorlands and Memories [Lancashire Loominary, 2020]). Johnston, along with the architect James W. Wallace, founded the "Bolton College" of English admirers of the poet. Johnston and Wallace corresponded with Whitman and with Horace Traubel and other members of the Whitman circle in the United States, and they separately visited the poet and published memoirs of their trips in John Johnston and James William Wallace, Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890–1891 by Two Lancashire Friends (London: Allen and Unwin, 1917). For more information on Johnston, see Larry D. Griffin, "Johnston, Dr. John (1852–1927)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 8. 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]
  • 9. Whitman is probably referring to Kennedy's most recent letter, dated August 15, 1890. Bucke acknowledged receiving Kennedy's letter in his August 20–22 1890, letter to Whitman. [back]
  • 10. 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]
  • 11. John Addington Symonds (1840–1893), a prominent biographer, literary critic, and poet in Victorian England, was author of the seven-volume history Renaissance in Italy, as well as Walt Whitman—A Study (1893), and a translator of Michelangelo's sonnets. But in the smaller circles of the emerging upper-class English homosexual community, he was also well known as a writer of homoerotic poetry and a pioneer in the study of homosexuality, or sexual inversion as it was then known. See Andrew C. Higgins, "Symonds, John Addington [1840–1893]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 12. The letter referred to here is most likely the famous August 3, 1890, letter from Symonds, to which Whitman probably responded on August 19, 1890, though only a draft of the poet's letter survives. However, Whitman also promised to pass along "an older letter" from Symonds in his August 24, 1890, letter to Bucke. The older letter would probably be Symonds' passionate letter of December 9, 1889, which prefigured Symonds's August 3rd letter. Whitman mentioned this older letter in his December 25–26 1889, letter to Bucke. [back]
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