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Richard Maurice Bucke to Walt Whitman, 27 March 1891


I have your postcard of the evening of 23d.2 Very glad to hear you are "no worse" have had a letter from Dr. Longaker3 from which I judge that you will be relieved by his treatment—he finds nothing the matter with you which is threatening to life tho' much that would be absolutely destructive of all comfort unless looked sharp after. I judge from his letter that he is a thoroughly sensible fellow and probably a good physician and I hope you will have him look after you right along. I have had no report, "good" or bad, of Ingersoll's4 Shakespeare speech5—I wish you or Horace6 would send me one—We had a few lovely warm, bright days but now it is bleary and snowing again as if spring was two months ahead—but nil desperandum!7

Love to you R M Bucke see notes March 30 1891  loc_zs.00386.jpg  loc_zs.00387.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: Walt Whitman | 328 Mickle Street | Camden | New Jersey | U.S.A. It is postmarked: LONDON | PM | MR27 | 91 | CANADA; CAMDEN, N.J. | MAR30 | 6AM | 1891 | REC'D. [back]
  • 2. Bucke is referring to Whitman's postal card of March 23, 1891. [back]
  • 3. Daniel Longaker (1858–1949) was a Philadelphia physician who specialized in obstetrics. He became Whitman's doctor in early 1891 and provided treatment during the poet's final illness. For more information, see Carol J. Singley, "Longaker, Dr. Daniel [1858–1949]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R.LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 4. Robert "Bob" Green Ingersoll (1833–1899) was a Civil War veteran and an orator of the post-Civil War era, known for his support of agnosticism. Ingersoll was a friend of Whitman, who considered Ingersoll the greatest orator of his time. Whitman said to Horace Traubel, "It should not be surprising that I am drawn to Ingersoll, for he is Leaves of Grass. He lives, embodies, the individuality I preach. I see in Bob the noblest specimen—American-flavored—pure out of the soil, spreading, giving, demanding light" (Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, March 25, 1891). The feeling was mutual. Upon Whitman's death in 1892, Ingersoll delivered the eulogy at the poet's funeral. The eulogy was published to great acclaim and is considered a classic panegyric (see Phyllis Theroux, The Book of Eulogies [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997], 30). [back]
  • 5. Robert Ingersoll gave a Lotus Club speech about Shakespeare at the Broadway Theatre in New York on March 22, 1891, that was reported on in many newspapers. Whitman was quite taken with the reports of the speech and told Horace Traubel that "Ingersoll's Sunday speech . . . showed a change of base—a greater willingness to grant the possibility of immortality" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, March 25, 1891). In that speech, Ingersoll said: "Suppose that when you die, that is the end. The last thing that you will know is that you are alive, and the last thing that will happen to you is the curtain, not falling, but the curtain rising on another thought, so that as far as your consciousness is concerned you will and must live forever. No man can remember when he commenced, and no man can remember when he ends. As far as we are concerned we live both eternities, the one past and the one to come, and it is a delight to me to feel satisfied, and to feel in my own heart, that I can never be certain that I have seen the faces I love for the last time. . . . And whether there is another world, nobody knows. Nobody can affirm it; nobody can deny it. . . . But if there is such a place, I hope that all good fellows will be welcome" (The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll [New York: Dresden, 1902), vol. 12). [back]
  • 6. 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]
  • 7. The Latin phrase "nil desperandum" means no need to despair. [back]
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