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Walt Whitman to William D. O'Connor, 6 January 1865

Dear friend

Your welcome letter of December 30 came safe. I have written & sent my application to Mr Otto,2 & also a few lines to Mr Ashton, with a copy of it.3 I am most desirous to get the appointment, as enclosing, with the rest of the points, my attentions to the soldiers & to my poems, as you intimate.

It may be Drum-Taps may come out this winter, yet, (in the way I have mentioned in times past.) It is in a state to put right through, a perfect copy being ready for the printers—I feel at last, & for the first time without any demur, that I am satisfied with it—content to have it go to the world verbatim & punctuation. It is in my opinion superior to Leaves of Grass—certainly more perfect as a work of art, being adjusted in all its proportions, & its passion having the indispensable merit that though to the ordinary reader let loose with wildest abandon, the true artist can see it is yet under control. But I am perhaps mainly satisfied with Drum-Taps because it delivers my ambition of the task that has haunted me, namely, to express in a poem (& in the way I like, which is not at all by directly stating it) the pending action of this Time & Land we swim in, with all their large conflicting fluctuations of despair & hope, the shiftings, masses, & the whirl & deafening din, (yet over all, as by invisible hand, a definite purport & idea)—with the unprecedented anguish of wounded & suffering, the beautiful young men, in wholesale death & agony, everything sometimes as if in blood color, & dripping blood. The book is therefore unprecedently sad, (as these days are, are they not?)—but it also has the blast of the trumpet, & the drum pounds & whirrs in it, & then an undertone of sweetest comradeship & human love, threading its steady thread inside the chaos, & heard at every lull & interstice thereof—truly also it has clear notes of faith & triumph.

Drum Taps has none of the perturbations of Leaves of Grass. I am satisfied with Leaves of Grass (by far the most of it) as expressing what was intended, namely, to express by sharp-cut self assertion, One's-Self & also, or may be still more, to map out, to throw together for American use, a gigantic embryo or skeleton of Personality, fit for the West, for native models—but there are a few things I shall carefully eliminate in the next issue, & a few more I shall considerably change.4

I see I have said I consider Drum-Taps superior to Leaves of Grass. I probably mean as a piece of wit, & from the more simple & winning nature of the subject, & also because I have in it only succeeded to my satisfaction in removing all superfluity from it, verbal superfluity I mean. I delight to make a poem where I feel clear that not a word but is indispensable part thereof & of my meaning.

Still Leaves of Grass is dear to me, always dearest to me, as my first born, as daughter of my life's first hopes, doubts, & the putting in form of those days' efforts & aspirations—true, I see now, with some things in it I should not put in if I were to write now, but yet I shall certainly let them stand, even if but for proofs of phases passed away—

Mother & all home are well as usual. Not a word for over three months from my brother George5—the probabilities are most gloomy. I see the Howells6 now & then. I am well, but need to leave here—need a change. If you see Miss Howard tell her Jesse Mullery7 has been to see me—came yesterday & has just left this forenoon. He talked of nothing but her. His life is saved, & he will have tolerably good strength & health, at least for present. His address is Ward 8, Centre st Hospital, Newark New Jersey. I was up at Mrs Price's the other night. She is better this winter. Mrs Paulina Wright Davis7 is stopping with her this winter. I have sent a paper with sketch of Hospital Visits, to Dr Wm F Channing.9 I cannot forgive myself for not acknowledging his assistance for the Hospitals, by letter at the time. I send you another paper also, as you might like it. I take it by a line in your letter that Charles Eldridge has not gone to Boston.10 I have been reading the strange articles from the Richmond press.11 A thousand Satans baffled, with terror, hatred, malignant squirming, appear in every paragraph. Little California is playing around me as I finish, & has been for half an hour. Love to dear Nelly & Jeannie & all.

Walt Whitman


  • 1. This letter is addressed: Wm D O'Connor | Light House Board | Treasury Department | Washington | D C. It is postmarked: New York | Jan | 6. [back]
  • 2. William T. Otto (1816–1905) was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Interior in January, 1863, and took an active interest in Indian affairs. He resigned from this post in 1871, but held various other governmental posts for many years. See also note 2 to Whitman's letter from January 20, 1865 . [back]
  • 3. On December 30, O'Connor informed Whitman that Ashton had spoken to Otto "in your behalf. . . . We shall fetch it this time. I have every confidence that you will get a good and an easy berth, a regular income, &c, leaving you time to attend to the soldiers, to your poems, &c" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection; Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden [Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1906–96], 2:401). [back]
  • 4. Of the 1867 edition Gay Wilson Allen observes: "What makes it important is Whitman's great exertion to rework the book by deletion, emendation, and rearrangement of the poems" (Walt Whitman Handbook [Chicago: Packard and Company, 1946], 173). He omitted from the "Calamus" poems "Long I thought that knowledge alone would suffice me" (#8), "Hours continuing long, sore and heavy-hearted" (#9), and "Who is now reading this?" (#16). [back]
  • 5. George's last known letter was the one of October 23, 1864. Though the family did not hear from George for some time, it did everything possible to send provisions to him and to arrange for a prisoner exchange. On January 4, 1865, David F. Wright wrote to Whitman to explain that a gentleman who had a relative in an Ohio prison camp was anxious to arrange for an exchange: "Your brother's name was given & the party promised to act upon it immediately." [back]
  • 6. See the letter from November 15, 1863 . [back]
  • 7. According to Whitman's "Hospital Book 12" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection), Sergeant Jesse Mullery, Company K, Fifteenth New Jersey, was in Ward A, Armory Square Hospital, on May 14, 1864. The twenty-year-old boy had been "shot through shoulder, ball in lung—(ball still in probably near lung)—lost right finger." On June 23, 1864, he went home to Vernon, New Jersey, on furlough, and then served as assistant cook in the army hospital in Newark. On December 26, 1864, Mullery proposed a visit to Brooklyn. He was still at the Newark hospital on January 23, 1865. By 1866, Mullery was employed in a store in New York. According to his letters of May 3 and June 11, 1865, he later was able to return to active duty. (In the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection, New York Public Library, there are four letters from Mullery and one from his father to Whitman.) In several letters Mullery referred to the kindnesses of a Miss Howard while he was in the hospital, and another soldier, Charles H. Harris, on May 30, 1864, asked to be remembered to Miss Howard and her sister. On February 20, 1866, Mullery wrote that one of the Howard sisters had died the preceding fall, and recalled "the Same Sad Smile on her countenance" (The Library of Congress). Probably these were the Misses Sallie and Carrie Howard listed in the 1866 Directory, or the Miss Garaphelia Howard mentioned in "Letter from Walt Whitman to Ellen M. O'Connor, 3 February 1874" (Correspondence, 2:271–272). [back]
  • 8. Pauline Wright Davis (1813–1876) was a well-known abolitionist and suffragette. She was the wife of Thomas Davis (1805–1895), a manufacturer of jewelry in Providence, Rhode Island, and a Congressman from 1853 to 1855. Whitman stayed at their home in October, 1868. [back]
  • 9. See the letter from September 11, 1864 . [back]
  • 10. Eldridge had spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with the O'Connors, according to William's letter of December 30. [back]
  • 11. The New York Times of this date quoted the following from the Richmond Sentinel: "Our authorities must do more. They must take care, whatever befalls us, to save us from the Yankees. If adverse gales and devouring billows should constrain our storm-lost ship into some port, let it be no Yankee port. If an unpropitious Providence should condemn us to a master, let it not be a Yankee master. Of all the people on earth, we should have most reason to loathe and to dread them. Any terms with any other would be preferable to subjugation to them." [back]
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