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Walt Whitman to William D. O'Connor (for Moncure D. Conway), [10 November 1867]

My dear Conway:1

Mr. Whitman has shown me your letter of October 12, with news of Mr. Hotten's proposed London print of Leaves of Grass or selection therfrom, edited by Mr. Rosetti, with an Introductory Essay or preface, by Mr. R.

Now, in view of the latter, if I may take the liberty, I wish to speak of two or three points, or rather, enforce them—for no doubt they will, to a certain extent, have occurred to Mr. Rosetti. But as I have made Leaves of Grass & their author my study for the last seven years, & have had some fortuitous advantages, perhaps Mr. Rosetti would not consider it intrusive in me, that I send this letter, which I wish you to hand him.

Considering the attitude of the public, and their average calibre, and also considering the general bearing of most of the criticisms on Mr. Whitman's poetry, I would suggest the expediency, in any forthcoming, friendly examination of his genius & writings, of dwelling pretty strongly on the following points, & making them unmistakably appear:

  • 1st—That personally the author of Leaves of Grass is in no sense or sort whatever the "rough," the "eccentric," "vagabond" or queer person, that the commentators, (always bound for the intensest possible sensational statement,) persist in making him. He has moved, & moves still, along the path of his life's happenings & fortunes, as they befall or have befallen him, with entire serenity & decorum, never defiant even to the conventions, always bodily sweet & fresh, dressed plainly & cleanly, a gait & demeanor of antique simplicity, cheerful & smiling, performing carefully all his domestic, social, & municipal obligations, his demonstrative nature toned very low, but eloquent enough of eye, posture, & expression, though using only moderate words; and offering to the world, in himself, an American Personality, & real Democratic Presence, that not only the best old Hindu, Greek, and Roman worthies would at once have responded to, but which the most cultured European, from court or academy, would likewise, on meeting to-day, see & own without demur. All really refined persons, and the women more than the men, take to Walt Whitman. The most delicate & even conventional lady only needs to know him to love him.2
  • 2.3 Critically, a significant, if not the most significant, fact about Leaves of Grass, is, that the genesis & fashioning of them have evidently not been for literary purposes, merely or mainly. Neither in mass nor detail have their pages been tried by the sine qua non of current literary or esthetic standards. Instead of that, the Book is the product of the largest universal law & play of things, & of that sense of kosmical beauty, of which even literature is but a fraction. This is probably the clue to the explanation of the puzzle of the widely-vexatious formal & esthetic argument involved in Leaves of Grass.
  • 3. The idea, however, which is this man's highest contribution, and which, compared even with the vastness of Biblical & Homeric poetry, still looms & towers—as, athwart his fellow-giants of the Himalayas, the dim head of Kunchainjunga rises over the rest—is the idea of Totality, of the All-successful, final certainties of each individual man, as well as of the world he inhabits. Joyousness, out of such sure ultimate happiness & triumph, rings throughout his verse. He holds the solution of each & every problem—the spell, giving full satisfaction; and his talisman is Ensemble. This is the word that epitomises the philosophy of Walt Whitman. Add the word modernness, & you begin to unlock Leaves of Grass.4

These are the points, my dear Conway, that I wish, through you, to submit to Mr. Rosetti. I have mentioned to Mr. Whitman my intention of writing him, & he, W., has made no objection. I would add, for myself, for Mr. Rosetti, that I hope he will not be deterred from giving fullest swing to what I am sure I have discovered in him, namely, an intuitional admiration & appreciation of our Poet, by the ostensibly timid attitude held at present by the critical & reading world toward Leaves of Grass—but hope he will strike at that loftier, honestly enthusiastic range of minds & readers, which, perhaps by the time Mr. Hotten's volume gets well in the hands of the public, will prove the genuine audience Mr. Whitman is certain of.

Again asking pardon of Mr. Rosetti for perhaps intruding these suggestions—yet placing them in any & every respect at his service should they be so fortunate as to strike him favorably—I remain &c &c


  • 1.

    Address: "M. D. Conway, | 14 Milborne Grove, | Brompton W. | London, | England."

    This draft letter was prepared by Walt Whitman for William D. O'Connor to copy and send to Conway, who was Walt Whitman's agent for the forthcoming English edition; see Whitman's letters of July 24 and November 1, 1867 to Moncure D. Conway. In 1888 Whitman did not remember whether O'Connor "had used it or not." "I must," he said to Horace Traubel, "have been intending to assist him in something he was to say to Conway. If he used it at all he probably recast it in his own manner" (With Walt Whitman in Camden [1906–1996], 1:381–382). The probabilities are that O'Connor sent it without substantial alteration. William Michael Rossetti noted in his diary, on November 28, 1867, that O'Connor "has written another letter (not yet in Conway's hands) setting forth the points he would wish insisted on in any prefatory work of mine. I replied to him in cordial terms, but to the effect that the Preface and part of the Selection are now in print, and cannot well be remodelled" (Rossetti Papers [London: Sands & Co, 1903], 244).

    A draft of this letter in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., includes two notations, written at different times: "Part of Wm O'Connor's | letter to Conway. | Nov. 10, 1867. . . . Good for | use in | review of Leaves | of Grass."

    That Whitman took pains in composing the letter is evidenced by the many changes he made in the draft which he retained and which Horace Traubel printed. He observed to Traubel: "It gives my idea of my own book: a man's idea of his own book—his serious idea—is not to be despised. I do not lack in egotism, as you know—the sort of egotism that is willing to know itself as honestly as it is willing to know third or fourth parties" (With Walt Whitman in Camden [1906–1996], 1:83).

  • 2. This paragraph does not appear in Walt Whitman's first draft. However, toward the end of that version appears this simple statement—"Personally the author is a man of normal characteristics, & of moderate, healthy, following a regular employment, averse to any display" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden [1906–1996], 1:384). [back]
  • 3. The earlier draft begins at this point. [back]
  • 4. In criticizing Conway's article in the Fortnightly Review, O'Connor wrote on December 5, 1866: "The great, paramount, unmistakable thing about 'Leaves of Grass' is its modernness" (Yale). In Notes on Walt Whitman, As Poet and Person (New York: American News Company, 1867), Burroughs wrote: "As we gaze and gaze, and wish the unlocking word, gradually the dimness and the many-tinted, many-twining lines become illumined, definite, showing clearly the word—MODERNNESS" (36). For Walt Whitman's critique of Conway see his November 13, 1866 letter to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman. [back]
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