Not only is it a shiny new year; it’s also time to celebrate another very important person in Whitman’s intimate circle of friends. Today, January 2nd, is the 182nd birthday of William Douglas O’Connor (1832-1889). Whitman owes a great deal of his eventual success and recognition to the incredibly immense support William D. O’Connor bestowed upon him. O’Connor wrote the The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication (1866).
Here you can read a short bio on O’Connor and his relationship with Whitman at The WW Archive.
Someday in future posts, I’ll share more about this formidable yet tremendously-significant person in Whitman’s life, but what I want to share today is the highly emotional and quite curious first meeting of O’Connor and Horace Traubel. I say this meeting is curious because in my mind, it arouses some amount of suspicions about O’Connor’s sexuality.
In volume four of WWIC, Traubel, age 31, along with Dr. Bucke travel by train from Philadelphia to Washington D.C. to meet the very ill and weakened O’Connor, aged 57. The meeting takes place on March 2, 1889, just a few months before O’Connor dies.
Saturday, March 2, 1889
Hunting up Bucke at Dooner’s, according to appointment, we took together the 8.31 train from Broad Street. We had a comfortable ride. Talked of things in general. A great deal about Walt and O’Connor. Discussed things ahead—the way out of inevitable difficulties. It was a clouded day. There was no rain. Now and then the sun would break through. Past Wilmington. Past Baltimore. This was my initiation trip south of Wilmington. I shall never forget the first glimpse of Washington: the dome of the Capitol: white—half hid in the mist: elevated above the red brick of a building on the road.
Of course everything made me think of W. The buildings everywhere. The Capitol. The Treasury. Here O’C. worked, and W., and Burroughs. It was all W.’s stamping ground. It has been the environment of his daily life. Was in his books. In his memories as he talked to me from day to day. I felt all sorts of things as I went and looked about. Just as we had been saying: “This is America!” I found myself saying: “This is Walt: Walt is this!”
O’Connor’s little house. Two stories. Brick. The door was opened by Nellie. We were ushered into the little parlor. Talk. Quick questions and answers. Nellie said: “I am glad to see you both at last.” And she added: “William is impatient: he has been asking ever since Walt’s post came: when will they be here? when will they be here?” She went up to William. We looked at the pictures on the wall. Among them was one of Victor Hugo. Nellie called from upstairs: “Come up, Doctor.” B. started off saying: “You come too: she means both of us.” To the second floor. To William’s room.
We stayed about two hours and a half, all told—most of the time immediately with O’Connor. There were two communicating small rooms. In the front room were the beds and chairs. Two windows. In the back room were O’Connor’s books—what he called his “study.” Nellie, “knowing Walt’s fondness for details,” knowing, as she said, that he would ask us “all sorts of minute questions” when we got back, took us about into every nook and corner. Showed me O’Connor’s Donnelly manuscript, his collection of Bacon books, the place in which he did most of his work. He preferred this room. Nellie was very quiet, subdued, equable. She seemed well. O’Connor himself sat in the front room sidewise next the bed in a big arm chair. He looked mighty, but ill. No color in his face. His eye was lustreless—tired. He was stout, even thick—almost fat. When aroused, animated, the color would mount to his cheeks and his eyes would flash. Noble head, just stubbled with gray. He has a little cold, which made his voice a bit husky—but his voice was nevertheless very musical. Hands almost as beautiful as Walt’s. O’Connor greeted us with great cordiality. At once after our hellos he sort of gestured back to himself and said: “Well: here I am: or, rather, here are my remains!” He was in a jubilant mood. Nellie said: “You have stimulated him: I have not seen him so for two years.” William himself said: “You fellows are wine to me.” He looked me all over: “So you are Horace? so you are Horace?” Then he laughed, turning to Nellie: “Here he is, Nellie! see him: he is the youth in our story—its poetry, its prophecy, made visible.” To Bucke: “You know, Doctor, Horace is the romance of it all: with Walt, with us, in our notes, in our thoughts, it has been Horace, Horace, Horace: he is the wonderchild of our pilgrimage.”
Nellie sent for William’s Doctor, Hood. She wished Hood and Bucke to compare notes. Hood came in a few minutes. Bucke went downstairs to meet him. William turned again to Nellie. “Well—he’s here, Nellie: he’s Walt’s: he’s ours, too: how can he prevent himself from being ours, too?” Then to me: “Tell us about yourself first—then about Walt: yourself first: you have been a mystery figure to us: draw aside the curtain—bare yourself to us!” He laughed. “Oh Nellie! I’m glad he came before it was too late! It might have been too late!” Bucke called Nellie from the foot of the stairs. The instant Nellie had left the room William looking straight at me reached out both his arms. “Come!” he said. I went to him: he took both my hands: he drew me to himself—kissed my lips and eyes and brow: he pressed my body against his. His eyes filled with tears.
I went back to my seat. He said: “Now I’m happier!” and he added passionately: “Thank God you didn’t come too late! thank God! thank God!” And he also said: “When you get back to Walt tell him you are mine as well as his—tell him that in our brotherhood you don’t belong to one of us but to all of us!” He said: “I sit here all day, every day, and do nothing but think of Walt.” I said: “That’s what Walt does there all day thinking of you.” He nodded: “Yes: I have felt that it must be so: events have drawn us closer together than ever.” He talked of November Boughs. “I do not think Walt has said enough about the elder Booth: what he said he said with eloquence and has my approval: only, there was too little of it: there should have been more. I have wished to write to Walt about it but everything has stood in the way. I intended one letter for Booth alone: one letter, too, for the book as a whole.” Contrary to W.’s fear expressed to me William does like the book.
A sob burst from his throat. A smile broke out all over his face. He reached out: took my right hand between his right and left hands. “Horace: you must return as my delegate to Walt: take my body and take my soul, with you: set them down at his doorstep, under his feet, across his pillow: anywhere, so that he may know I have survived whole and entire and complete in the old faith: to this message I consecrate your journey back to Camden.” He dropped my hand. Sank back in the chair. Closed his eyes. I was all broken up. He said then looking at me again: “You are the next of your race, but not the last: God was good: I thought I was never to see you, but here you are, the child of our flock, talking to me, face to face, in a man’s voice: now I can die contentedly: my cup is full—my joy (though with sadness in it, too) is rounded and whole.” What could I have said to all this? “I have said to Nellie: ‘It will never happen,’ but she always said, ‘He will come.’ Even yesterday after Walt announced that you were preparing to take the trip I said, ‘It will never happen,’ and Nellie kept on saying, ‘He will come.’ This morning I felt half buoyant yet half doubtful still. I said, ‘Nellie, do you still think he will come?’ and she said, ‘William, I am sure of it: even now he must be on the way.’ And here you are! God was on my side after all. I run my pennants up up into the air and fill the skies with my cry: Victory is mine forever!” I was not prepared for such an incident. He shook me to my foundations.
I asked William: “What broke you up?” He answered at once: “Overwork.” I asked: “Is life hard in the Departments?” He said: “If you take it seriously, yes: I took it seriously.” I asked: “How did Walt manage not to break down?” “Oh! by not working hard. He would come in of a morning, sit down, work like a steam engine for an hour or so, then throw himself back in his chair, yawn, stretch himself, pick up his hat and go out.” Then O’Connor was grave. “But that was the making of him: don’t mistake that. If he had been any other sort of fellow we never should have had Leaves of Grass.” O’C. said again: “Two things in Walt we must always bear in mind: they explain so much: his prophetic nature and his masterly composure.” I said: “Yes: if it wasn’t for that masterly composure he’d be dead today.” O’C. said: “Undoubtedly—not dead today, dead long ago!” Smile. O’C. added: “I of all men should know what that signifies: if I had had that composure I would not be where I am today: but the Irish in me won’t do for me what the Dutch in Walt does for him.”
We had to leave at 3.30. William said: “I hate to have you go.” I said: “We hate to go.” Bucke too: “Yes, William: we hate to go.” I felt that we were going for good. I was sure I would never see him again.
William said: “Your visit has not been an invasion: it has been an illumination. Your departure will leave me in the darkness.” I said: “I’d rather you had felt like saying, ‘leave me in the light.'” He looked at me, all eyes: “You are a wise son of your father: it will be that: you’ll leave me in the light.” Bucke said: “We are hoping seeing us will help you as seeing you has helped us.” William said: “After the immediate shock of your leaving me is gone I have no doubt the rest will be a glad memory.” Nellie stood just outside the bedroom door watching us. She seemed habitually restrained and composed. Bucke and William and I were face to face. William looked up at us. He held one of Bucke’s hands and one of mine. Nellie moved off towards the stairway, choked. William said: “Well.” Bucke said: “William!” I said: “Love always!” No more. William reached his hand to Bucke’s face: “Bucke, you’re true blue!” And then he pulled my head down between his two palms and kissed me: “You are the pride of the flock!” Bucke and I edged off towards the door. Outside we waved back our salutations which he returned. Then I saw his head drop on his breast. Nellie was waiting for us at the foot of the stairs. “It has all been beautiful,” she said: “he will carry it with him into the next world.” So we left.
Here’s what I find most curious is in this passage above:
“The instant Nellie had left the room William looking straight at me reached out both his arms. “Come!” he said. I went to him: he took both my hands: he drew me to himself—kissed my lips and eyes and brow: he pressed my body against his. His eyes filled with tears.”
Keep in mind the year was 1889 and the social norms of those times were dramatically different than those of present day, but what I question is why did O’Connor wait until his wife Nellie left the room to kiss Traubel on the lips and press his body to Traubel’s?
What do you think? Are my suspicions unfounded? Is this merely an emotional and dying man expressing his love and passing that love on to the next generation? Or is there something more to this?
Before you decide, let me mention the one other significant piece to this puzzle: the very fact that O’Connor offered unyielding support to Whitman from 1860-1889. Recall that Whitman was widely criticized in conservative Victorian America for his overtly sexual poems, particularly those in the homosexually-charged Calamus cluster of poems. And yet O’Connor risked his own employment, his own reputation, and stood in strong defense of Whitman against all the oppressors and naysayers.
I may be way off track on this, but my question: what would make O’Connor so impassioned to staunchly defend this dirty poet for nearly 30 unwavering years if he himself did not (at least on some occasions) possess some degree of homosexual feelings?
William D. O’Connor signature in the Dinner With Walt collection.
O’Connor image, Library of Congress
Traubel, Horace. (date). With Walt Whitman in Camden, Volume 4 (January 21 to April 7, 1889). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 552-563.
O’Connor signature, Dinner With Walt collection