Skip to main content

Walt Whitman to William D. O'Connor, [4 January 1886]

 nyp_nhg.00090.jpg "Answered Jan. 21, 1886" (44

All ab't​ the same with me—I took dinner with the Scovel family Sunday & a ride with my old nag & rig in the afternoon3—So you see I have not utterly stopt​ moving—but I feel exceeding heavy & lethargic & stir only with great effort.

—I send you Kennedy's4 note rec'd​ to-day—Have you seen his pamphlet-essay on poetry?5—A dark persistently rainy warm day here.

 nyp_nhg.00087.jpg My Dear Friend:

I get a few good letters on my little essay on the poets. Burroughs6 thinks the old poetical forms all sound & good & likely to last. So does Stedman.7 he says he is "a universalist in art."—which I do not like. We are not to be universalists in painting & sculpture are we (I guess not) & revive the idiotic sculptures of India, Aegypt & Palenque, or the old wood paintings of the Pre-Giottesque painters? Things grow obsolete—worn out. Yet Stedman welcomes heartily, he says, the idea of a new & grander style in poetry. But I'm sure  nyp_nhg.00088.jpg I don't know why I dwell on him: A lady had his volume here in the house yesterday, & I re-read part of what he says on you. It seems to me not only insulting but terribly small & boomerangish in its tendency, self-condemning, utterly inadequate, not touching the real heart of the matter at all—a dwarf walking round a giant, a pigmy measuring a god.

Knortz8 sent 2 of the pamphlets to Germany. Bucke9 took 10.  nyp_nhg.00089.jpg I have been advertizing it—(ever since it was out—) in Critic & Index, & one is to appear in the Lit. World.

I hope you are not feeling badly this rather unhealthy weather. I receive & read with gratitude all the clippings you send me. Am hard at work on a Ruskin anthology for Pirate Alden, & feel rather knavish over the job.

Aff. W. S. Kennedy

William Douglas O'Connor (1832–1889) was the author of the grand and grandiloquent Whitman pamphlet The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication, published in 1866. For more on Whitman's relationship with O'Connor, see Deshae E. Lott, "O'Connor, William Douglas (1832–1889)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


  • 1. This letter is endorsed: "Answ'd Jan. 21/86." It is addressed: Wm D O'Connor | Life Saving Service | Washington | D C. It is postmarked: Camden | Jan | 4 | 4 PM | 1886 | N.J. [back]
  • 2. January 4 fell on Monday in 1886. [back]
  • 3. Later that year, on August 24, Whitman lent $50 to Colonel James Matlack Scovel (Whitman's Commonplace Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.), and see the letter from Whitman to Scovel on November 1, 1876. On September 16, Scovel thanked his "dear old friend." In 1888 Scovel reported "some ultra-intimate suspicions to [William Sloane] Kennedy about W.'s private life," which "shocked" the poet (Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden [New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914], 1:278–279). [back]
  • 4. William Sloane Kennedy (1850–1929) was on the staff of the Philadelphia American and the Boston Transcript; he also published biographies of Longfellow, Holmes, and Whittier (Dictionary of American Biography [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1933], 336–337). Apparently Kennedy called on the poet for the first time on November 21, 1880 (William Sloane Kennedy, Reminiscences of Walt Whitman [London: Alexander Gardener, 1896], 1). Though Kennedy was to become a fierce defender of Whitman, in his first published article he admitted reservations about the "coarse indecencies of language" and protested that Whitman's ideal of democracy was "too coarse and crude"; see The Californian, 3 (February 1881), 149–158. For more about Kennedy, see Katherine Reagan, "Kennedy, William Sloane (1850–1929)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 5. The Poet as A Craftsman (see the letter from Whitman to William Sloane Kennedy of December 2, 1885). [back]
  • 6. The naturalist John Burroughs (1837–1921) met Whitman on the streets of Washington, D.C., in 1864. After returning to Brooklyn in 1864, Whitman commenced what was to become a decades-long correspondence with Burroughs. Burroughs was magnetically drawn to Whitman. However, the correspondence between the two men is, as Burroughs acknowledged, curiously "matter-of-fact." Burroughs would write several books involving or devoted to Whitman's work: Notes on Walt Whitman, as Poet and Person (1867), Birds and Poets (1877), Whitman, A Study (1896), and Accepting the Universe (1924). For more on Whitman's relationship with Burroughs, see Carmine Sarracino, "Burroughs, John [1837–1921] and Ursula [1836–1917]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 7. Edmund Clarence Stedman (1833–1908) was a man of diverse talents. He edited for a year the Mountain County Herald at Winsted, Connecticut, wrote "Honest Abe of the West," presumably Lincoln's first campaign song, and served as correspondent of the New York World from 1860 to 1862. In 1862 and 1863 he was a private secretary in the Attorney General's office until he entered the firm of Samuel Hallett and Company in September, 1863. The next year he opened his own brokerage office. He published many volumes of poems and was an indefatigable compiler of anthologies, among which were Poets of America, 2 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885) and A Library of American Literature from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, 11 vols. (New York: C. L. Webster, 1889–90). For more, see Donald Yannella, "Stedman, Edmund Clarence (1833–1908)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 8. Karl Knortz (1841–1918) was born in Prussia and came to the U.S. in 1863. He was the author of many books and articles on German-American affairs and was superintendent of German instruction in Evansville, Ind., from 1892 to 1905. See The American-German Review 13 (December 1946), 27–30. His first published criticism of Whitman appeared in the New York Staats-Zeitung Sonntagsblatt on December 17, 1882, and he worked with Thomas W. H. Rolleston on the first book-length translation of Whitman's poetry, published as Grashalme in 1889. For more information about Knortz, see Walter Grünzweig, "Knortz, Karl (1841–1918)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 9. 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). [back]
Back to top