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Walt Whitman to Ellen M. O'Connor, 19 December 1888

Have had a pretty bad spell—nothing to brag of yet, but the doctor calls me better. Am very uneasy ab't William2—have not heard now for many days—best love to him & to you.3


Ellen M. "Nelly" O'Connor (1830–1913) was the wife of William D. O'Connor (1832–1889), one of Whitman's staunchest defenders. Before marrying William, Ellen Tarr was active in the antislavery and women's rights movements as a contributor to the Liberator and to a women's rights newspaper Una. Whitman dined with the O'Connors frequently during his Washington years. Though Whitman and William O'Connor would temporarily break off their friendship in late 1872 over Reconstruction policies with regard to emancipated African Americans, Ellen would remain friendly with Whitman. The correspondence between Whitman and Ellen is almost as voluminous as the poet's correspondence with William. Three years after William O'Connor's death, Ellen married the Providence businessman Albert Calder. For more on Whitman's relationship with the O'Connors, see Dashae E. Lott, "O'Connor, William Douglas [1832–1889]" and Lott's "O'Connor (Calder), Ellen ('Nelly') M. Tarr (1830–1913)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998).


  • 1. This letter is addressed: Mrs: O'Connor | 1015 O Street | Washington D C. It is postmarked: Camden, N.J. | Dec 19 | 8 PM | (?); Washington, Rec'd. | Dec 20 | 7 AM | 88 | 3. [back]
  • 2. 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). [back]
  • 3. On the following day, Ellen O'Connor wrote at length of her husband's physical and emotional state: "I am sorry that I have not better news to give you of William. He has failed very much in the last six weeks, indeed I date the marked change for the worse from the paralysis of the eye lid, & that was the last of Sept. but a very marked change for the worse since Nov. 23d. No one is as well aware of it as I am, for I see him at his worst, as well as his best. I am his sole & only nurse, & help to dress, undress & bathe him, & he is under no restraint to say how he does feel to me, tho' he always puts the best face on things to every one, & is always ready to joke about himself & often makes me laugh when I am ready to cry. . . . Until lately, too, he has had the most wonderful courage, & would not give up, but it is not so all the time now. Still, there is one thing in his favor, (if one so regards it) & that is that he is still determined to live. I never saw such clinging to this life, in any one; & he still feels that if the right Doctor could be found that he could be made entirely well. He counted up the other day, & found that he had had fifteen doctors. . . . But his deepest unhappiness now is that he has not yet been able to get his article published which he wrote in defense of Ignatius Loyola Donnelly [Mr. Donnelly's Reviewers]" (see O'Connor's letter to Whitman of December 20, 1888). [back]
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