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Walt Whitman to Anne Gilchrist, 20 March 1872

My dear friend1,

Your letter is rec'd, having been sent on to me from Washington.2 My address still remains Solicitor's office, Treasury there. I am moving about a good deal the past year, & shall be for the ensuing year—I am to start for northern New England, & remain awhile3—am also arranging for a trip afterward to California—a journey I have had in contemplation for several years, & which has been two or three times fixed, but postponed, during that time.

I have been stopping for two months, (Feb. & March,) home with my Mother4, & am writing this home. Mother is towards eighty—has had an active domestic & maternal life—has had eight children—has brought them all up—has been healthy & strong, always worked hard—now shows the infirmities of age (indeed rapidly advancing) but looks finely, & is cheerful hearted—will probably soon give up her housekeeping & go to live with one of my brothers, who is married5—My father died seventeen years since.

Dear friend, I am quite sure that every one of your letters has safely reached me—sometimes after delays & circuits, (as you will now understand better) on account of my more & more frequent wanderings—The letter with the photographs gave me great pleasure—& was acknowledged by a letter I sent you6—Have you not received it?

Walt Whitman

Dear friend, let me warn you somewhat about myself—& yourself also. You must not construct such an unauthorized & imaginary ideal Figure, & call it W. W. and so devotedly invest your loving nature in it. The actual W. W. is a very plain personage, & entirely unworthy such devotion.7


  • 1. Anne Burrows Gilchrist (1828–1885) was the author of one of the first significant pieces of criticism on Leaves of Grass, titled "A Woman's Estimate of Walt Whitman (From Late Letters by an English Lady to W. M. Rossetti)," The Radical 7 (May 1870), 345–59. Gilchrist's long correspondence with Whitman indicates that she had fallen in love with the poet after reading his work; when the pair met in 1876 when she moved to Philadelphia, Whitman never fully returned her affection, although their friendship deepened after that meeting. For more information on their relationship, see Marion Walker Alcaro, "Gilchrist, Anne Burrows (1828–1885)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 2. Evidently Gilchrist's letter of January 24, 1872, or one now unknown. [back]
  • 3. A reference to his trip to Dartmouth College in June 1872, mentioned in Whitman's June 27, 1872 letter to Peter Doyle. [back]
  • 4. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman (1795–1873) married Walter Whitman, Sr., in 1816; together they had nine children, of whom Walt was the second. The close relationship between Louisa and her son Walt contributed to his liberal view of gender representation and his sense of comradeship. For more information on Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, see Sherry Ceniza, "Whitman, Louisa Van Velsor (1795–1873)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 5. With George, who now lived in Camden, New Jersey. [back]
  • 6. Gilchrist sent the photographs on January 24, 1872. Perhaps Whitman intended to acknowledge them in his February 8, 1872, response to Gilchrist. [back]
  • 7. On April 12, 1872, Gilchrist objected to this warning: "it hurts so, as seeming to distrust my love. . . . O, I could not live if I did not believe that sooner or later you will not be able to help stretching out your arms towards me & saying 'Come, my Darling.'" On June 3, 1872, Gilchrist begged for a longer letter, "for I sorely need it." Though she declared that she would be satisfied with a gossipy letter about his affairs, she really wanted more: "And if you say 'Read my books, & be content—you have me in them'—I say, it is because I read them so that I am not content." Toward the conclusion of the letter she spoke of coming to America. On July 14, 1872, she acknowledged his gift of As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free and wrote again of the effect of Whitman's poems on her: "Had I died the following year 1870, it would have been the simple truth to say I died of joy." Gilchrist wrote again on November 12, 1872—Walt Whitman had been silent—"I must write not because I have anything to tell you—but because I want so, by help of a few loving words, to come into your presence as it were—into your remembrance." [back]
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