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Walt Whitman to William D. O'Connor, 5 July 1864

My dear friend

I have had the misfortune to fall back a little since I wrote to you—I have had three or four pretty bad days & nights—but I am feeling decidedly brighter this afternoon, & have no doubt I shall be myself again before long. The trouble has been as before, bad spells of weakness with heavy aching head—I think the throat is no worse, but it is not well yet—

William, I rec'd your letter to-day, also one from Charles Eldridge, with one in envelope—as to the future, & as to our meeting again, I have no doubt we shall meet again & have good times2—if Nelly has not gone when this reaches you, I wish her to consider it just the same as if written to her—I do not write much, nor do any thing hardly, but keep as quiet as possible—my physician thinks that time, with the change of locality, & my own latent recuperative power, will make me well, but says my system is probably saturated with the virus of the hospitals &c which eludes ordinary treatment—&c &c &c—

I have nothing new or interesting to write you. I intend to move heaven & earth to publish my "Drum-Taps" as soon as I am able to go around.

So Eldridge is down at Petersburgh3—if I were there at Washington & well I should want no better fun than accompanying them—When you see Count4 tell him I sent him my love—also Ashton—I will write should there be any change in my condition—

Good bye for present, my dear friend, & God bless you5



  • 1. The letter is endorsed, "Answ'd."  The envelope for this letter bears the address: Wm D O'Connor | Washington | D C. It is postmarked: [indecipherable]. [back]
  • 2. For a time Whitman lived with William D. and Ellen M. O'Connor, who, with Charles W. Eldridge and later John Burroughs, were to be his close associates during the early Washington years. William Douglas O'Connor (1832–1889) was the author of Harrington, an abolition novel published by Thayer & Eldridge in 1860. He had been an assistant editor of the Saturday Evening Post before he went to Washington. O'Connor was an intelligent man who deserved something better than the various governmental clerical posts he was to hold until his death. The humdrum of clerkship, however, was relieved by the presence of Whitman whom he was to love and venerate—and defend with a single-minded fanaticism and an outpouring of vituperation and eulogy that have seldom been equaled, most notably in his pamphlet, "The Good Gray Poet." He was the first, and in many ways the most important, of the adulators who divided people arbitrarily into two categories: those who were for and those who were against Walt Whitman. The poet praised O'Connor in the preface to a posthumous collection of his tales: "He was a born sample here in the 19th century of the flower and symbol of olden time first-class knighthood. Thrice blessed be his memory!" (Complete Prose Works [New York, D. Appleton, 1910] pp. 513). For more on Whitman's relationship with the O'Connors see O'Connor, William Douglas [1832–1889]. Of the O'Connors, Thomas Jefferson Whitman wrote on June 13, 1863: "I am real glad, my dear Walt, that you are among such good people. I hope it will be in the power of some of our family to return their kindness some day. I'm sure twould be done with a heartfelt gratitude. Tis pleasant, too, to think, that there are still people of that kind left."In his letter of July 2, 1864, O'Connor was deeply moved by Whitman's departure from Washington: "Many thoughts of you have come to me since you went away, and sometimes it has been lonely and a little like death. Particularly at evening when you used to come in . . . I wonder what the future for us is to be. Shall we triumph over obscurities and obstacles and emerge to start the Pathfinder, or whatever the name of it is to be? . . . Or shall we never meet, never work together, never start any Pathfinder, never do anything but fade out into death, frustrated, lost in oblivion? . . . I hardly believe you will come back here. But I hope you will." [back]
  • 3. According to Ellen M. O'Connor's letter of July 5, 1864, Eldridge had gone to pay the staff officers of the Fifth Corps. [back]
  • 4. Count Adam Gurowski (1805–1866), a Polish exile, published an eccentric three-volume Diary (1862–1866), a day-by-day account of the war written with a marked partiality toward extreme abolitionists. The Count was a colorful figure: he covered his lost eye with a "green blinder," and "he had a Roman head...a powerful topknot, in and out: people always stopped to look at him" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden [New York, Rowman and Littlefield, 1961], 3:79, 96). William D. O'Connor, who apparently translated Gurowski's manuscripts into English (see the letter from Gurowski to O'Connor in Feinberg), reported to Walt Whitman, on August 13, 1864, that "he is a madman with lucid intervals"—he had attempted "to discipline the firemen with a pistol." Walt Whitman maintained to Traubel, in 1888, that "he was truly a remarkable, almost phenomenal, man," and that "he was, no doubt, very crazy, but also very sane" (3:79, 340). O'Connor related in a letter on November 24, 1863, that the Count had said to her recently: "My Gott, I did not know that [Walt Whitman] was such a poet, tell him so, I have been trying every where to find him to tell him myself." In the last volume of the Diary, Gurowski placed Walt Whitman's name in the first category of his threefold evaluation of persons "mentioned in this volume": "Praise," "Half and Half," and "Blame." The Count referred in his entry for April 18, 1864, to Walt Whitman as among "the most original and genuine American hearts and minds" (187). In a footnote (372–373), appended September 12, 1865, Gurowski abused Harlan, who had "shown himself to be animated by a spirit of narrow-minded persecution that would honor the most fierce Spanish or Roman inquisitor." Gurowski was praised by Robert Penn Warren, in Malcolm Cowley, ed., Writers at Work: The "Paris Review" Interviews, (New York: Viking, 1958), 189. See also LeRoy Fischer, Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 36 (1949–1950): 415–434, and the Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement One (New York: Scribner, 1944). [back]
  • 5. On July 5, 1864, Ellen M. O'Connor asked Whitman what she should do with "Mrs. Beach's notes." Mrs. Juliette H. Beach was one of those enigmatic women associated with Whitman about whom imaginative biographers have spun ingenious theories. Mrs. Beach was to have reviewed the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass for the Saturday Press, but when her husband's unfavorable review was published instead, the journal had to take public note of matrimonial discord in order to correct the error (Gay Wilson Allen, The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman [New York: Macmillan, 1955; rev. ed., New York University Press, 1967], 260–262). Mrs. O'Connor contributed her bit to the theory that Mrs. Beach and Whitman had a love affair when she asserted that "Out of the Rolling Ocean, the Crowd," published in Drum-Taps, was composed for "a certain lady" who had angered her husband because of her correspondence with the poet (Emory Holloway, ed., The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman [Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page, 1921], 1:lviii). "Mrs. Beach's notes" may be the letters to Whitman, which later Burroughs vainly asked Mrs. Beach to print; see Clara Barrus, Whitman and Burroughs—Comrades (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1931) and The Life and Letters of John Burroughs (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1925), 1:120. If these were love letters, Whitman hardly treated Mrs. Beach's heart-stirrings discreetly. See also Allen, The Solitary Singer, 340–342. [back]
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