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Walt Whitman to Moncure D. Conway, 1 November 1867

Dear friend,

My feeling and attitude about a volume of selections from my Leaves by Mr. Rosetti, for London publication, are simply passive ones—yet with decided satisfaction that if the job is to be done, it is to be by such hands.1 Perhaps, too, "good-natured," as you advise—certainly not ill-natured. I wish Mr. Rosetti to know that I appreciate his appreciation, realize his delicacy & honor, & warmly thank him for his literary friendliness.

I have no objection to his substituting other words—leaving it all to his own tact, &c.—for "onanist," "father-stuff" &c.2 Briefly, I hereby empower him, (since that seems to be the pivotal affair, & since he has the kindness to shape his action so much by my wishes—& since, indeed, the sovereignty of the responsibility is not at all mine in the case,)—to make verbal changes of that sort, wherever, for reasons sufficient to him, he decides that they are indispensable. I would add that it is a question with me whether the introductory essay or prose preface to the first edition is worth printing.

"Calamus" is a common word here. It is the very large & aromatic grass, or rush, growing about water-ponds in the valleys—[spears about three feet high—often called "sweet flag"—grows all over the Northern and Middle States—(see Webster's Large Dictionary—Calamus—definition 2).]3 The recherché or ethereal sense of the term, as used in my book, arises probably from the actual Calamus presenting the biggest & hardiest kind of spears of grass—and their fresh, aquatic, pungent bouquet.

I write this to catch to-morrow's steamer from New York. It is almost certain I shall think of other things—moving me to write you further in a week or so.


  • 1.

    On October 12, 1867, Moncure D. Conway reported to Walt Whitman that John Camden Hotten had "contracted with W. M. Rossetti to prepare and edit a volume of selections from your Poems." William Michael Rossetti received £25 and twelve copies of the book; see William Michael Rossetti, Rossetti Papers (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1903), 240. Conway noted as advantages of this new plan that a volume of selections would prepare the public for the complete work, and that it was better to have a well-known English critic introduce an American poet to the British public than an unknown American author like O'Connor; according to Whitman's July 24, 1867 letter to Conway, O'Connor was originally named as the introduction's author. The irony, of course, was that Walt Whitman had written the Introduction.

    Hotten (1832–1873) printed Swinburne's Poems and Ballads when another publisher withdrew after the book caused a furor. Perhaps because he had lived in the United States from 1848 to 1856, Hotten introduced to an English audience such writers as Robert Lowell, Artemus Ward, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Bret Harte. After his death, his business was purchased by Chatto and Windus. In his letter to Conway on December 5, 1866, O'Connor had suggested Hotten as the English publisher of Walt Whitman: "Seems to me the courage that prints Laus Veneris might dare this" (Yale).

  • 2. In addition, Rossetti requested permission to delete "venereal sores or discolorations" and "any depravity of young men" (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], 3:298). Rossetti noted in his diary, on November 28, 1867, O'Connor's "distaste" for the "concession to the outcry against W's indecencies" and his intimation that "Whitman, though resigned, is not really pleased at the publication of a mere selection from his poems" (William Michael Rossetti, Rossetti Papers [New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1903], 244). [back]
  • 3. The material in brackets has been supplied from the draft version. Someone cut out Walt Whitman's signature in the original. Rossetti quoted this definition in a note; see Poems by Walt Whitman, 390n. [back]
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