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Walt Whitman to Richard Maurice Bucke, 23 July 1890


—So K2 is back all right & this is his letter—The same subject continued with me—bodily matters fair—Have just written to some (unknown) friends—quite a cluster of them, men & women, Bernard O'Dowd3 their spokesman—in Melbourne, Victoria, who persistently read & inwardly digest L of G. there at the antipodes & get along with it (as far as the law allows)—O'D's letters please me—Nothing very new with me—Y'r letters rec'd4—quiet here to day—fine weather—McKay5 sent over for big book6 yesterday—Horace T7 cannot get away till October—Did I tell you that a monument designer, Phila: has bro't me a design8 for the Cemetary vault9 (do you remember Blake's10 "Death"?11)

Best love to you all— Walt Whitman  loc_zs.00151.jpg  loc_zs.00152.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. | Jul 23(?) | 6 PM | 90, Buffalo, N.Y. | Jul | 2? | 9 AM | 1890 | Transit, Philadelphia, PA | Jul | 23 | ? PM | 1890 | Transit. [back]
  • 2. 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]
  • 3. According to Whitman's Commonplace Book, the poet wrote to O'Dowd on July 12 after receiving a letter on the preceding day. The location of the letter is not known, but the authors of Bernard O'Dowd (1954), Victor Kennedy and Nettie Palmer, claim to have seen a copy; see Walt Whitman Review 7 (1961), 28n. [back]
  • 4. See Bucke's letter of July 20, 1890. [back]
  • 5. David McKay (1860–1918) took over Philadelphia-based publisher Rees Welsh's bookselling and publishing businesses in 1881–82. McKay and Rees Welsh published the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass after opposition from the Boston District Attorney prompted James R. Osgood & Company of Boston, the original publisher, to withdraw. McKay also went on to publish Specimen Days & Collect, November Boughs, Gems from Walt Whitman, Complete Prose Works, and the final Leaves of Grass, the so-called deathbed edition. For more information about McKay, see Joel Myerson, "McKay, David (1860–1918)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 6. 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]
  • 7. 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]
  • 8. J. E. Reinhalter, the designer, and Ralph Moore called on July 11 to discuss the vault (The Commonplace Book). [back]
  • 9. Whitman was buried in Harleigh Cemetery in Camden, New Jersey, on March 30, 1892, four days after his death, in an elaborate granite tomb that he designed. Reinhalter and Company of Philadelphia built the tomb, at a cost of $4,000. Whitman covered a portion of these costs with money that his Boston friends had raised so that the poet could purchase a summer cottage; the remaining balance was paid by Whitman's literary executor, Thomas Harned. For more information on the cemetery and Whitman's tomb, see See Geoffrey M. Still, "Harleigh Cemetery" Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 10. William Blake (1757–1827), the English painter, printer, and Romantic-era poet, is known for his illuminated books, including his collection of poems Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789). He also illustrated numerous books, including works by the English writers Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Gray, and John Milton. [back]
  • 11. Whitman likely based the design of his tomb in Harleigh Cemetery on an illustration by Blake called "Death's Door," an image often reprinted in the nineteenth century (and re-engraved by Whitman's friend W.J. Linton); see Gary Schmidgall, Containing Multitudes: Walt Whitman and the British Literary Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 196–199. [back]
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