Autograph Letter Signed, to "Dear Sir" [the editor of Harper's New Monthly Magazine]. Walt Whitman.
Autograph Letter Signed, to "Dear Sir" [the editor of Harper's New Monthly Magazine].

Autograph Letter Signed, to "Dear Sir" [the editor of Harper's New Monthly Magazine].

[Whitman writes his own epitaph] One page, "Camden New Jersey: Aug: 29 '89" [so handwritten by Whitman].

The text of this letter reads:

Yr's of yesterday rec'd with picture suggesting piece (illustration in text). Will this do? I shall want proof (wh- don't forget) -- the price is $25. -- Respectfully [signed] Walt Whitman

On August 28th -- the day before -- Harper's editor Henry Mills Alden had written Whitman soliciting a poem that could appear in Harper's New Monthly Magazine -- and with that request, Alden had enclosed an image of an 1867 George Inness painting "The Valley of the Shadow of Death" (in which a white-robed figure stands at the opening of a very dark, cloud-shrouded canyon) -- the "illustration in text" for which Alden wanted Whitman to write a poem. "...I send it on the chance that it may meet some spontaneous current of poetic movement in you. If it does will you let the movement have its course & let us have the result in the shape of a poem which we may print in our magazine? We intend using the illustration as a frontispiece..."

The very next day, Whitman sent this letter, enclosing (but not included here) his "spontaneous current of poetic movement," a 21-line poem he titled "Death's Valley (To accompany a picture; by request)." As prompted by the illustration Alden sent, the poem consists of Whitman's thoughts on death, and in particular on his own mortality (he was approaching his 70th birthday)...

Nay, do not dream, designer dark...

For I have seen many soldiers die,

After dread suffering -- have seen their lives pass off with smiles;

And I have watched the death-hours of the old; and seen the infant die;

The rich, with all his nurses and his doctors;

And then the poor, in meagreness and poverty;

And I myself for long, O Death, have breathed my every breath

Amid the nearness and the silent thought of thee....

Thee, holiest minister of Heaven -- thee, envoy, usherer, guide at last of all,

Rich, florid, loosener of the stricture-knot call'd life,

Sweet, peaceful, welcome Death.

In this letter Whitman asks "Will this do?" and requests $25.00 in payment: yes it would do, and on September 1st Harper's paid him the $25.00 (per the Commonplace-Book). But the poem would not appear in the magazine for almost three more years -- in the April 1892 issue. And that issue's frontispiece is not Inness's painting, but rather J.W. Alexander's portrait of a very old-and-tired-looking Whitman -- a sketch of which also appears with the poem on pp 708-709.

Why the three-year delay, and why the change in the illustration? Because Walt Whitman had just died on March 26, 1892. And that raises the question: when, 29 months earlier, Alden had asked Whitman to write a poem to accompany an illustration about death, had this been Alden's intention all along? -- to "trick" Whitman into writing, in effect, his own epitaph, for publication upon his death?

The letter's condition is near-fine -- very minor toning and wear at the marginal edges, faint evidence of prior archival mounting at the corners.

For this letter see Whitman Archive ID med.00881 ("The location of this manuscript is unknown," with the letter's text gleaned from an Anderson Galleries sale in 1923); Whitman Correspondence #2100; for the poem see Myerson F22 (broadside), E2769 (Harper's 1892 appearance), and C8.I.f (Leaves of Grass, Boston 1897). Item #14507

Price: $6,950.00

See all items in Signed & Inscribed
See all items by