(Love?) Letters of Note

In 1876, Bram Stoker wrote a letter to Walt Whitman. Stoker, the future author of Dracula, was a big fan of Whitman and admired both him and his book of poetry, Leaves of Grass. With his letter, Stoker also included a draft of a much longer letter he had written but never sent to Whitman. The letters reveal a lot about Stoker including some things that he may have not intended for many people to see. It shows how intimate and personal letter writing can be and how people are able to express feelings they may not be able to say in person. Through analyzing the letters and researching the backgrounds of the two writers, it seems possible that this could be a love letter from Stoker to Whitman. There is evidence for why they would have wanted to keep this exchange private for various reasons. To understand the relationship between Whitman and Stoker, it is important to know about the background and content in Leaves of Grass. Leaves of Grass was Walt Whitman’s only book of poetry and it was first published in 1855. The book’s main subject was America with poems about topics such as democracy, love, social change, the natural world, and the Civil War (“A Guide to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass”). The poems are notable because Whitman emphasizes praising the senses during a time when displays like this were thought of as immoral (“Leaves of Grass”). Through this book of poetry, Whitman became an activist for many different causes. He was inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson who at the time expressed the need for a uniquely American poet and Whitman decided he could do it. 

With Leaves of Grass came some controversy and mixed responses. At one point, the book had been banned for talking about sensuality yet at another time it was praised for the same reason. Whitman faced charges of obscenity and immorality for his work but this actually ended up increasing the popularity of his book (“Leaves of Grass”). In fact, some of the poems reminded people of bible verses. This may show one of the reasons why Stoker was so attracted to them. He could’ve thought of this book as his version of the bible and the way he talks about it in his letter makes it seem like it is something he worships. It spoke to him in a way that the actual bible didn’t. Some people thought that Whitman was homosexual. Although he never said it, there is evidence that this could be true. After his death, romantic letters to a male streetcar conductor from him were published. In that time period, homosexuality was not allowed and Whitman could have been putting himself and others in a lot of danger. In fact, Emerson tried to stop Whitman from publishing poems about sex and sexuality but he didn’t listen (Masel). Today Whitman is seen as a champion of same sex love. 

The letter from Stoker can be seen as a love letter whether it’s love towards the book, the person, or both. Although the love letters read in class were all to people, it doesn’t necessarily always have to be that way. He could have been professing his love for the book but it seems more like it is for the author. From his letter, one can make the conclusion that Stoker could also be homosexual. Many readers appreciated Whitman’s statements about the body and how he valued manly love (Masel). Love letters don’t have to use very romantic language and that can be seen in this one. It shows there are so many ways to express how you feel about someone. Love letters seem to be very effective but it may also depend on the circumstances you are in. In the case of Stoker, this could have been one of his only ways to express his feelings to someone who may have been going through the same thing without people finding out about it. Bram Stoker was able to write his letters in a way where he was able to get his point across without being too explicit. While his letter may look like just fan mail, on a deeper level of analysis it can be seen as a love letter between two people needing to keep a secret. 

For some, It is easier to express feelings in letters especially if the feelings are something that wasn’t allowed or accepted at the time. Stoker had many reasons for writing this letter but he must have also known that besides the distance between them, the letter format was most likely the only way he could talk to Whitman and without anyone else seeing it. “I have been more candid with you – have said more about myself to you than I have ever said to any one before.” (“You are a true man”). In one part of his letter Stoker says, “I know I would not long be ashamed to be natural before you.” (“You are a true man”). This quote comes from his draft that he never sent. It is interesting he didn’t initially send this version because it is so open and descriptive. That could be the reason why he never sent it. He may have thought he was being too vulnerable with someone he doesn’t personally know. The much longer draft of the letter also has a seemingly angrier tone in the beginning. Stoker tells Whitman he can burn the letter if he wants to but then talks about how much he admires him. “If you are the man I take you to be you will like to get this letter. If you are not I don’t care whether you like it or not and only ask you to put it into the fire without reading any farther.” (“You are a true man”). It could have been that he was going back and forth with himself on whether he should write as his authentic self. 

Stoker also describes himself in a lot of detail for Whitman. “I know you from your work and your photograph, and if I know anything about you I think you would like to know of the personal appearance of your correspondents.” (“You are a true man”). He didn’t have to do this and if he was just sending this out of appreciation for the book, he probably wouldn’t have added details about his appearance. Again, he is being very open. He also knows Whitman values and appreciates the body. And even though it can be uncomfortable he knows this is a way to get his attention. It is seen a lot now that people will do ridiculous things for attention of someone they admire even if it is a risk. With love, or just like, comes risk and Stoker was willing to do that if it meant even the chance of meeting his idol. Many people have respect for authors in general or ones who are trying to make a statement. It is also possible to feel like you know someone well even if you haven’t met them. Stoker initially not sending this letter could be because he wasn’t well known at the time like Whitman. Even though he wants to be friends, he also says in the letter that he sees them as having a pupil and master relationship. This is acknowledging that Whitman is higher up than him and he sees him as someone he has learned from. Whether it is friends, romance, or idol, in general he is hoping for some kind of relationship but also to make his admiration known. Stoker even adds in his letter that he has seen other people write to each other and become friends. 

Letters don’t have to use what we normally think of romantic language to express love or admiration. There are many different ways to show your love for someone. The privacy or intimacy of letters allows people to be more vulnerable when writing them because it is going to and meant for one person. Stoker was able to write as if he was writing to someone he knew well and he shared things that he hadn’t shared with other people. This could be because he saw similarities with himself and Whitman. The letters from Bram Stoker to Walt Whitman show admiration and the want to have some kind of relationship with the person being idolized. It shows how it hasn’t always been easy to express your feelings and the things people had to do to make their feelings known. Especially during the time when this was written, Stoker wouldn’t have been able to express out loud his true feelings and Whitman was also already being punished for some of his writing. Through his writing, Whitman was trying to make a statement and that resonated with Stoker. There may not have been many authors back then like Whitman who were willing to write so truthfully even when they were told not to. Whitman can definitely be seen as an idol and someone who deserves appreciation.

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