Portrait of Walt Whitman from the papers of Bernard O’Dowd, MS6237 Box 257/2

Born two hundred years ago this month, prominent American poet and iconoclast Walt Whitman has rightly gained his place as America’s pre-eminent ‘poet of democracy’. This is due in no small part to his seminal work Leaves of grass, a multi-volume epic poem that celebrates the centrality of the self in relation to the American national project.

Reception of Whitman’s poetry and ideas, however, was not limited just to the United States: circles in the United Kingdom, Canada, and other nations fervently consumed Whitman’s work and Australia was no exception. In Victoria, Bernard O’Dowd, perhaps best known for his poem Australia, was an early contemporary supporter of Whitman’s verse, and entered a brief but remarkably intense and intimate correspondence with his American counterpart in the 1890s until just before Whitman’s death in 1892.

Walt Whitman’s letters to Bernard O’Dowd (envelopes), MS6237 Box 257/2

Whitman in Victoria: Tom Bury, Bernard O’Dowd and Walt Whitman

According to critic AL McLeod, the first Whitman enthusiast in Victoria was most likely journalist Tom Bury, who contributed a regular column to the Ballarat Courier under the pseudonym ‘Tom Touchstone’ in the 1880s. Bury would frequently take a few lines from poets like Tennyson, Robert Burns or Whitman and develop them into essays, expounding on topics ranging from the importance of preserving Christian morality to whether, and how, delinquent youths should be disciplined. Bury’s frequent quotations of Whitman’s work resonated with O’Dowd, who was a school teacher in Ballarat at the time, and a passion for the American poet was born.

Walt Whitman’s letters to Bernard O’Dowd, MS6237Box 257/1

I wish that I could put myself into this sheet to shake hands with you, as you have put yourself into your writings and blessed me.

In March 1890, following an attempt at a letter that went unsent, ­O’Dowd sent his first letter to Whitman. A brief correspondence followed, and Whitman sent twelve letters, as well as various books and pictures of himself, to O’Dowd.

Despite the relatively short period of correspondence, the letters cover remarkably diverse topics, with discussions ranging from the similarities between the American and Australian settler colonial projects to descriptions of O’Dowd’s time in the Australian bush. O’Dowd also tasked himself with spreading Whitman’s work to a broader audience in Victoria, a concern indicated through a letter dated September 1 1890, in which O’Dowd writes proudly to Whitman that:

After a long “try” we have managed to get Leaves of Grass into our Public Library (a magnificent institution) (November Boughs is already there); this will do it good I think, for the reviewers and critics (your midwives) will be able to get it, and the general reader too.

While the letters are inflected with an intellectual intensity, they also discuss matters of Whitman’s health. The poet had suffered a recent stroke, and O’Dowd was sympathetic to his idol’s ailing health, writing later in the same letter that ‘the joy with which we receive your letters is flecked with great pangs for your sufferings.’ Indeed, Whitman was to pass away on March 26, 1892, some months after his final letter was sent to his Antipodean counterpart.

The Whitman Cabinet

The Whitman Cabinet, MS F BOX 257A

O’Dowd understandably valued the items he had received from Whitman and wanted them to be housed appropriately. His wife Evangeline had an uncle, Jethro Fryer, who constructed a cabinet, known as the ‘Whitman Cabinet’, to fulfil the task. Fryer, a carpenter by trade, designed the cabinet to be sturdy enough both to survive possible fire and to withstand being thrown out of a window. Like the volume of Leaves of grass donated in 1890, the Whitman Cabinet is now part of the State Library Victoria’s collection. 

Critical responses to Whitman

Critical responses to Whitman’s oeuvre in Victoria, however, have not all been as positive as O’Dowd’s fervent enthusiasm for the poet’s work. McLeod, for instance, writes how a ‘former Chief Librarian’ of the State Library Victoria stated that the letters between O’Dowd and Whitman were ‘rather pathetic’. More recently, broader criticisms have been levelled against both poets for their simplistic portrayals of Indigenous people in their work and mutual correspondence.

Perhaps most significantly, about thirty years before O’Dowd sent his first letter to Whitman, Melbourne coroner Samuel Curtis Candler harshly castigated Leaves of grass in a letter sent to Melbourne Public Library trustee Redmond Barry on June 7 1861. Specifically, Candler wrote that:

of all the pure beastliness that has ever been published in this generation I should say Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass beats anything … One cannot help reflecting, what must be the moral condition of a country where such a work is tolerated for a moment … I shall not present it to the Library & hope you have not sent for it.


(Quoted in Galbally, p.85)

Historian Ann Galbally speculates that Candler was referring to the third edition of Leaves of grass published in 1860, which contains Whitman’s Calamus poems. The Calamus poems are commonly read as Whitman’s most explicit confessions of his homosexuality, unapologetically celebrating ‘the dear love of man for his comrade, the attraction of friend to friend’.

It is hard to say whether the Library refused to acquire any of Whitman’s works before the 1880s due to his homosexuality or because of Barry’s relatively restrictive collection policy that prioritised non-fiction works over fictional works like novels and poetry. There is no evidence that Barry actively suppressed the acquisition of Whitman’s works other than the fact that, the Library notably lacked any works by Whitman published before 1880. (A 1860 edition of Leaves of grass was likely acquired after Barry’s tenure, due to O’Dowd mentioning in the 1890s that the Library only held a copy of November boughs at that point). Regardless, with this in mind, if Galbally’s judgement that Candler was referring to the 1860 edition of Leaves of grass is correct, his moralism is deeply hypocritical, since the correspondence between Candler and Barry also records their mutual consumption and enjoyment of ‘thoroughly obscene’, yet presumably heterosexual, works of literature.

Conclusion

Fortunately however, O‘Dowd’s desire for Whitman’s poetry to be more widely known to the public meant that he saw the State Library Victoria as the ideal place to care for these precious items. Indeed, O’Dowd wrote in the preface to Hugh Anderson’s biography of him:

…[Whitman] implanted in me a sense of both the real meaning of democracy, and of the revolutionary functions and power of true poetry.

This sentiment, best realised through the Australian poet’s decision to deposit the bulk of his collection within Melbourne’s State Library Victoria, means that Whitman’s work is accessible and open for generations to come.

This post was written by Stephen Jakubowicz, Library Officer.


References

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This article has 2 comments

  1. Great article. Many people don’t get sufficient recognition for their work.

  2. Renata Jakubowicz

    A well written blog about a person I had never heard of. I especially liked the information about the ‘Whitman Cabinet’. O’Dowd must have valued Whitman’s items immensely!

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