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Walt Whitman to John Burroughs, 21 December 1885

My dear friend

Real glad to hear from you once more, as by yours of 18th—The death of Mrs: Gilchrist is indeed a gloomy fact—she had cancer, & suffered much the last three months of her life with asthma—for a long time "every breath was a struggle," Herbert expresses it—the actual cause of death was dilatation of the heart. Seems to me mortality never enclosed a more beautiful spirit—

The trouble ab't my eyesight passed over, & I use both eyes now same as before—I am living here, rather monotonously, but get along—as I write, feel ab't the same as of late years—only the walking power seems quite gone from me, I can hardly get from one room to another—sometimes quite force myself to get out a few yards, but difficult & risky—

O'Connor seems to be holding on at Washington—I think he is middling well, except the leg power—his "gelatine legs" he calls them—will pass over I rather think—

I drove down yesterday (Sunday) to my friends the Staffords, 10 miles from here, & staid three hours, had dinner &c—I go there every Sunday—So I get stirr'd up some, but not half enough—three reasons, my natural sluggishness & the paralysis of late years, the weather, & my old, stiff, slow horse, with a lurking propensity to stumble down—

The "free will offering" of the English, through Rossetti, has amounted in the past year to over $400—I am living on it—I get a miserable return of royalties from McKay, my Philad. publisher—not $50 for both books L of G. and S D for the past year2

John, I like both the names in your note—I cannot choose—if I lean at all it is in favor of "Spring Relish"3—either would be first rate—Did you get W S Kennedy's pamphlet "the Poet as a Craftsman"4—I hear from Dr Bucke quite often—he was the past season somewhat broken in physical stamina & health—but is better—he gives up for the present his European tour, but is coming here soon for a week—As I close, my bird is singing like a house afire, & the sun is shining out—I wish you were here to spend the day with me—


Merry Christmas to you and 'Sula5 and the boy—

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).


  • 1. This letter is addressed: John Burroughs | West Park | Ulster county | New York. It is postmarked: Camden | Dec | 21 | 2 PM | 1885 | N.J.; New York | Dec 21(?) | 7 30 (?) | (?) | (?). [back]
  • 2. Actually $42.77 (see the letter from Whitman to William Michael Rossetti of November 30, 1885). S D refers to Whitman's Specimen Days. [back]
  • 3. "A Spring Relish" became the title of a chapter in Burroughs's Signs and Seasons (1886). [back]
  • 4. Burroughs, in his letter of December 31, stated that he liked what William Sloane Kennedy had to say about Whitman in his pamphlet, but thought that the statements about style were unsound. [back]
  • 5. Sula is Burroughs's wife, Ursula, and the boy is their son Julian, born in 1878. [back]
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