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Mary Ashley to Walt Whitman, 7 January 1889

Dear Sir:

I have very often felt that I should like to write to you and tell you how much pleasure and instruction your books have given me, and now I have determined that I will do so, because I have just read November Boughs1 and am so much pleased with it.

I have been watching for it to be published for some time, ever since I saw in The Pall Mall Gazette that you were engaged on it. Some of the poetical pieces in it please me greatly.

I have long cared for Leaves of Grass and Specimen Days.2 I love nature so much myself that there is much in Specimen Days that appeals to me. I have often experienced the feeling of absorbing into myself, physically and spiritually, the very life and spirit of nature. It is a thing that must be felt to be understood. The other papers in that book are interesting to me too. The broad and deep views you take of the future of democracy in America—everything connected with America—is a most interesting study to me. Your poems touch me very deeply as all true poetry that comes from the heart must do.

Please accept my best wishes that the year we have entered upon may bring to you much calm peacefulness, and that you may experience much comfort and sympathy in return for that which you have so generously given to others during your life.

I hope you will not think that I shall expect any reply to this, for I know how weak you are, and that you are not able to reply to all the letters that you receive.3

I am, my dear sir, yours very truly and gratefully, Mary Ashley

Mary Ashley (c. 1843–1903) was a self-taught astronomer and a member of the Selenographical Society and the Liverpool Astronomical Society. She may have owned her own observatory and apparently garnered some international attention for her scientific drawings (A. J. Kinder, "Letter to the Editor: Another Victorian Lady Astronomer," Journal of the British Astronomical Association 108 [1998], 338).


  • 1. Whitman's November Boughs was published in October 1888 by Philadelphia publisher David McKay. For more information on the book, see James E. Barcus Jr., "November Boughs [1888]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 2. The first issue of Whitman's Specimen Days and Collect was published by the Philadelphia firm of Rees Welsh and Company in 1882. The second issue was published by David McKay. Many of the autobiographical notes, sketches, and essays that focus on the poet's life during and beyond the Civil War had been previously published in periodicals or in Memoranda During the War (1875–1876). For more information on Specimen Days, see George Hutchinson and David Drews "Specimen Days [1882]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 3. Whitman told Horace Traubel that he did not have "the least idea" who Mary Ashley was, and yet he was quite taken with this letter: "What is there in her note to move me so? I confess it moved me. Was it something in the letter or something in me? I find myself emotionally much more readily stirred some times than others. These days I seem to need something: seem to be looking for something—feeling towards it: something my illness makes me crave: God knows what it is: something there seemed to be a hint of in the gentle Mary's letter." See Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Monday, January 21, 1889. [back]
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