As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Whitman received countless letters from people the world over. In Traubel’s Volume 4 of With Walt Whitman in Camden, there’s a very poignant letter to Whitman from a Dr. William A. Hawley, from Syracuse, NY. The letter is dated, August 10, 1869 and was sent to Whitman while he was still in Washington D.C. at the Attorney General’s Office. *
Of course we know that Whitman very rarely discarded anything. Twenty years after the date of the letter, on Saturday, March 16, 1889, Whitman passes this on to Horace Traubel for his ever-growing collection of Whitman materials. Whitman says of the letter, “It’s from one of the unknowns—or the less knowns: he’s a doctor of the homeopathic stripe: he sends his picture: there’s something tender and beautiful to me in his few words: he does not pile it on—is simple, says a little, does not overdo it.”
After reading this touching letter, I felt a personal connection to what Dr. Hawley had to say to Whitman. I did a bit of Google-sleuthing and found some interesting information on Dr. Hawley that I will share after the letter below. Here’s the letter:
It’s a rather disappointing tale in what happens next between Whitman and Dr. Hawley. If we fast-forward seven months to Thursday, October 31, 1889, we learn Dr. Hawley paid a personal visit to Whitman at his home in Camden. Whitman tells Traubel in Vol. 6 of WWIC:
“I had another visitor today—a man, Hawley—from Syracuse or Rochester—a doctor, medical doctor. He bought 2 copies L. of G.: one for himself, one for a friend in the city—Kent, was his name, I think. He says he told Kent he was going to devote this afternoon to this visit, and then Kent, who knew nothing about me, gave him money for the book—probably from a curiosity to know how the wild beast looked at close quarters. O yes! Hawley was a medical doctor—a homeopathist. He even started to talk about me—discuss me physically—but I would have none of it—told him I was not open to discussion at that point.”
Recall I earlier described this visit as rather disappointing; surely Dr. Hawley was delighted to finally meet Whitman in the flesh, some twenty years after his touching letter to Whitman. But as we see by Whitman’s account above, W. almost seems annoyed at Dr. Hawley’s presence, as least as it is retold to Traubel.
Whitman was understandably at this time in his life in a very weakened and fragile state of health, in fact, he told Traubel earlier this very same day, “My head has been in a queer chaotic condition—as though in a whirl of phlegm. I was not in my best condition…”
It does seem possible that Whitman in his cloudy-headed state had not made the connection of his present visit by Dr. Hawley as the same man who wrote the 1869 “tender and beautiful letter…“. Surely and sadly, this had to be a disappointment to Dr. Hawley to meet Whitman with some amount of disapproval on Whitman’s part.
So just who is this Dr. Hawley you ask? Well, as a result of a little Google-sleuthing, William A. Hawley was born August 28, 1820 and died May 16, 1891. As Whitman mentioned, Dr. Hawley was a homeopathic doctor who was very highly regarded both in terms of his interpersonal relations to those around him and in his career field. I found an obituary which provides further background information and reveals his significance to the homeopathic field of early medicine.
Dr. Hawley is buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse, NY.
* As background info, it is interesting to note, that in 1869, the date of Dr. Hawley’s letter, Whitman was working on his fifth printing of Leaves of Grass. While Whitman at this time was gaining some bit of prominence with his English audience, he was still mostly frowned upon with the US audience and still widely regarded with disgust and disdain. As such, it should not be difficult for one to imagine Whitman’s delight in receiving this very touching letter in 1869.
Traubel, Horace. (date). With Walt Whitman in Camden, Volume 4 (January 21 to April 7, 1889). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 365.
Traubel, Horace & Traubel, Gertrude ed. 1982. With Walt Whitman in Camden, Volume 6 (September 15, 1889-July 6, 1890). Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern IL University. pp. 103.
Allen, Henry C., M. D., ed. 1891. The Medical Advance: A Monthly Magazine of Homeopathic Medicine. Chicago, John Rice Miner.