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Walt Whitman to William D. Rossetti, 3 December 1867

My dear Mr. Rossetti:

I have just received, & have considered your letter of November 17. In order that there be the frankest understanding with respect to my position, I hasten to write you that the authorization in my letter of November 1st to Mr. Conway, for you, to make verbal alterations, substitute words, &c. was meant to be construed as an answer to the case presented in Mr. Conway's letter of October 12.1 Mr. Conway stated the case of a volume of selections in which it had been decided that the poems reprinted in London should appear verbatim, & asking my authority to change certain words in the Preface to first edition of poems, &c.2

I will be candid with you, & say I had not the slightest idea of applying my authorization to a reprint of the full volume of my poems. As such a volume was not proposed, & as your courteous & honorable course & attitude called & call for no niggardly or hesitating response from me, I penned that authorization, & did not feel to set limits to it. But abstractly & standing alone, & not read in connection with Mr. C's letter of October 12, I see now it is far too loose, & needs distinct guarding.

I cannot & will not consent of my own volition, to countenance an expurgated edition of my pieces. I have steadily refused to do so under seductive offers, here in my own country, & must not do so in another country.

I feel it due to myself to write you explicitly thus, my dear Mr. Rossetti, though it may seem harsh & perhaps ungenerous. Yet I rely on you to absolve me, sooner or later. Could you see Mr. Conway's letter of October 12, you would, I think, more fully comprehend the integrity of my explanation.

I have to add that the points made in that letter in relation to the proposed reprint, as originally designed, exactly correspond with those, on the same subject, in your own late letter—& that the kind & appreciative tone of both letters is in the highest degree gratifying, & is most cordially & affectionately responded to by me—& that the fault of sending so loose an authorization has surely been, to a large degree, my own.

And now, my friend, having set myself right on that matter, I proceed to say, on the other hand, for you, & for Mr. Hotten, that if, before the arrival of this letter, you have practically invested in, & accomplished, or partially accomplished, any plan, even contrary to this letter, I do not expect you to abandon it, at loss of outlay, &c. but shall bona fide consider you blameless if you let it go on, & be carried out, as you may have arranged. It is the question of the authorization of an expurgated edition proceeding from me, that deepest engages me. The facts of the different ways, one way or another way, in which the book may appear in England, out of influences not under the shelter of my umbrage, are of much less importance to me. After making the foregoing explanation, I shall, I think, accept kindly whatever happens. For I feel, indeed know, that I am in the hands of a friend, & that my pieces will receive that truest, brightest of light & perception coming from love. In that, all other & lesser requisites become pale.

It would be better, in any Introduction, to make no allusion to me, as authorizing, or not prohibiting, &c.

The whole affair is somewhat mixed—& I write offhand3 to catch to-morrow's New York steamer. But I guess you will pick out my meaning. Perhaps, indeed, Mr. Hotten has preferred to go on after the original plan—which, if so, saves all trouble.

I have to add that I only wish you could know how deeply the beautiful personal tone & passages of your letter of November 17, have penetrated and touched me.4 It is such things that go to our hearts, and reward us, & make up for all else, for years. Permit me to offer you my friendship.

I sent you hence Nov. 23d5 a letter, through Mr. Conway. Also a copy of Mr. Burroughs's Notes, Mr. O'Connor's pamphlet, & some papers containing criticisms on Leaves of Grass. Also, later, a prose article of mine named Democracy, in a magazine.

Let me know how the work goes on, what shape it takes, &c. Finally I charge you to construe all I have written, through my declared & fervid realization of your goodness toward me, nobleness of intention, &, I am fain to hope, personal, as, surely, literary & moral sympathy & attachment. And so, for the present, Farewell.

Walt Whitman.


  • 1. See Walt Whitman's November 1, 1867 letter to Moncure D. Conway for a fuller explanation of the kinds of changes William Michael Rossetti had suggested. [back]
  • 2. Walt Whitman was disturbed by the following passage in Rossetti's letter: "But now, after your letter [referring to Whitman's November 1, 1867 letter to Moncure D. Conway] it seems to me that all or most of these poems, with some minimum of verbal modification or excision, may very properly be included: & indeed that there is nothing to prevent a reprint of the revised copy of your complete poems (which you sent to Mr Conway) coming out at once, instead of the mere selection—subject only to modification or excision here & there as above named" (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], 3:300). However, in his next letter, on December 8, 1867, Rossetti informed Walt Whitman that the publisher was unwilling to substitute a complete edition for the selections because printing was too far advanced. In the same letter, Rossetti stated the "two rules" which he had followed in making his selections: "1, to omit entirely every poem which contains passages or words which modern squeamishness can raise an objection to—& 2, to include, from among the remaining poems, those which I most entirely & intensely admire." See also Poems by Walt Whitman (London: John Camden Hotten, 1868), 20. [back]
  • 3. This was no offhand letter, as a casual glance at the manuscript of the draft reveals deletions and insertions appear in almost every line. [back]
  • 4. Rossetti had written on November 17, 1867: "I shall always hold it one of the truest & most prized distinctions of my writing career to be associated, in however modest a capacity, with the works of so great a poet & noble-hearted a man as you." And on December 16, 1867 he replied to Walt Whitman's offer of "friendship": "To be honoured by your friendship is as great a satisfaction & distinction as my life has presented or ever can present. I respond to it with all warmth & reverence, & the Atlantic seemed a very small space between us while I read and re-read your letter." [back]
  • 5. The letter was written on November 22, 1867. [back]
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