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Late Life Correspondence (1888-1892)

Status: 2396 published of about 2500 known letters from this era

2396 of 2500 published

Between 1888 and 1892, Whitman wrote and received more than 2,500 letters, including approximately 1,200 incoming letters from fans, friends, critics, and numerous readers who, despite never having met the poet, felt empowered to respond to him and his works in writing. During the Late Life years, the final years of Whitman's life, he published November Boughs (1888), a volume of poetry and prose with a long and significant preface titled "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads" in which the poet took a retrospective look back on his life and writings, as well as what has come to be known as the "deathbed edition" of Leaves of Grass (1891–1892). Whitman’s correspondence from these years records the determination of a physically debilitated writer to publish his final volumes, books that would attempt to define and summarize his career as a writer. The incoming letters in Whitman's last years offers compelling evidence of his increasing fame. British and American newspaper editors sought interviews, commercial offers poured in, and numerous readers—who had read the various editions of Leaves of Grass—wrote to discuss individual poems that had been personally meaningful. The letters from the Late Life period allow students of American history to see how the life and works of the nation’s most famous and innovative poet are interwoven with the social, cultural, and political events of his last four years, a time when the decline in his physical health occurred simultaneously with the emergence of a readership inspired to respond to him and to carry his democratic ideals into the nation's future.

This collection, made possible by a generous grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, brings together previously edited print material and freshly edited material that has never appeared in print. We thank all those holding relevant manuscripts—a great number of repositories and private collectors—for their cooperation with our project. The location of the original manuscript is indicated for each letter in the "About this Document" section. Once we finish publication, for the first time, all of Whitman's letters from this period will be gathered and both sides of his correspondence (outgoing and incoming) will be presented together. Previously unpublished letters are presented with scans of the original documents—and scans of all manuscripts will be added over time. In short, the Archive will feature the first complete edition of Whitman's correspondence for the Late Life period. For more information on the transcription and encoding of these diverse materials, please see our statement of editorial policy.

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