Skip to main content

Walt Whitman to William Sloane Kennedy, 10 October 1889

Yr's of 9th just come;—Whittier's poetry1 stands for morality (not its ensemble or in any true philosophic or Hegelian sense but)—as filter'd through the positive Puritanical & Quaker filters—is very valuable as a genuine utterance & very fine one—with many capital local & yankee & genre bits—all unmistakably hued with zealous partizan anti-slavery coloring. Then all the genre contributions are precious—all help. Whittier is rather a grand figure—pretty lean & ascetic—no Greek—also not composite & universal enough, (don't wish to be, don't try to be) for ideal Americanism—Ideal Americanism would probably take the Greek spirit & law for all the globe, all history, all rank, the 19/20ths called evil just as well as the 1/20th called good (or moral)2

The sense of Mannahatta means the place around which the hurried (or feverish) waters are continually coming or whence they are going

Walt Whitman

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).


  • 1. John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892) earned fame as a staunch advocate for the abolition of slavery. As a poet, he employed traditional forms and meters, and, not surprisingly, he was not an admirer of Whitman's unconventional prosody. For Whitman's view of Whittier, see the poet's numerous comments throughout the nine volumes of Horace Traubel's With Walt Whitman in Camden (various publishers: 1906–1996) and Whitman's "My Tribute to Four Poets," in Specimen Days (Philadelphia: Rees Welsh & Co., 1882–'83), 180–181. [back]
  • 2. Kennedy requested permission on October 15, 1889 to quote Whitman's comments on Whittier; the poet wrote on Kennedy's letter: "don't know ab't this—wasn't indited for publication." [back]
Back to top