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Walt Whitman to William D. O'Connor, 5 May [1867]

Dear William O'Connor,

When I arrived home yesterday I found my brother worse than I had anticipated.2 It is a case of malignant erysipelas, with great swelling, sores, & for a while complete blindness, now partially relieved. There are spells also of lethargy & flightiness—all bad enough, yet, as far as the case stands at this present writing, he will come out safe, I somehow feel certain.

Mother is well as usual—defers every thing else, & does the nursing, &c. for George. When I came, yesterday, I found her standing with a cup of warm tea, feeding slowly with a spoon, to some one wrapt in a great blanket, & seated in an arm chair, by the stove—I did not recognize my brother at first—he was so disfigured, & the features out of all proportion & discolored. Mother put down the cup, &c. & began to cry—this affected poor George—yet I preserved my composure, though much distrest, as you will understand.

The rest of the family are well. Jeff leaves to-morrow evening for St. Louis. It is cold here, with raw easterly wind. I met Henry Clapp3 in Broadway yesterday—he has a $1500 clerkship in a public office in New York—I met Edward H. House 4—also other of my young men friends—they are all very, very cordial & hospitable—I shall go over & make Mrs. Price a short visit this afternoon.

They all talk of you here—as of the good person, the desired one, exhilarating, whose presence gives sun, & whose talk nourishes—(I think you must have laid yourself out that evening.)5

Dear Nelly, I send you my love—also to Charles Eldridge—shall probably remain here the ensuing week.



  • 1. This letter's envelope bears the address, "Wm. D. O'Connor, | Light House Board, | U.S. Treasury Dep't. | Washington, | D.C." It is postmarked: "New-York | May | 8 | (?)." [back]
  • 2. On May 2, 1867, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman reported that George Washington Whitman was not well, but was still able to go to work; she did not indicate the gravity of his illness. She was upset by all the turmoil involved in Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman's moving. Martha, Jeff's wife, somewhat impulsively, sold all the furnishings "and spent the money as fast as it came in for clothes to go in the country." Under the circumstances, since the family desperately needed some one who could "take things coolly," it is understandable that Walt Whitman decided to hurry to Brooklyn. [back]
  • 3.

    Henry Clapp (1814–1875) was one of Walt Whitman's intimates from the Pfaffian days. Restless and adventurous, Clapp roamed to Paris, returned in the 1840s to Lynn, Massachusetts, to edit the Essex County Washington (later The Pioneer), and eventually went to New York, where he became "king of the Bohemians." As editor of the short-lived Saturday Press (1858–1860; 1865–1866), he printed "A Child's Reminiscence" ("Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"), and, in 1860, praised Leaves of Grass when others condemned it; see Gay Wilson Allen, The Solitary Singer (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1955), 242–244, 260–261. "Henry Clapp," Walt Whitman said to Horace Traubel, "stepped out from the crowd of hooters—was my friend: a much needed ally at that time (having a paper of his own) when almost the whole press of America when it mentioned me at all treated me with derision or worse. If you ever write anything about me in which it may be properly alluded to I hope you will say good things about Henry Clapp" (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden [1906–1996], 1:236). In his reply to Walt Whitman on May 9, 1867, O'Connor was amused that Clapp was "becoming a respectable citizen. When once a man enters upon the downward path, &c.…one can see as the guilty result of Bohemianism, a place in the Common Council or Board of Aldermen!"

    See also Clapp's March 27, 1860 and October 3, 1867 letters to Whitman. Clapp is referred to in Whitman's September 15, 1867 letter to William D. O'Connor and in his September 21, 1867 letter to John Burroughs. See William Winter's sympathetic account of Clapp in Old Friends, Being Literary Recollections of Other Days (New York: Moffat, Yard and Company, 1909), 57–63.

  • 4.

    Edward Howard House (1836–1901) was music and drama critic of the Boston Courier from 1854 to 1858, and was appointed to the same post on the New York Tribune in 1858. Walt Whitman evidently knew House as early as 1857, for, in his "Autograph Notebook—1857" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.), he pasted a calling card signed by House. During the Civil War, House was a war correspondent for the Tribune.

    At this time House was not with the New York Tribune; he was engaged in theatrical management in New York and London.

  • 5. O'Connor, much flattered by this paragraph, compared himself to "a young girl finding herself beloved or admired by some one unsuspected before." In the same letter of May 9, 1867, he went on to describe how deeply Whitman's mother "affected" him: "Her cheerfulness, her infinite gentleness and tenderness, were like the deep smile of the evening sky. As I saw her that night, with the children on each side, and each leaning a head upon her, I thought of the Madonna grown old." [back]
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