When Dracula Author Bram Stoker Wrote a Gushing Fan Letter to Walt Whitman (1870)

Every artist starts out as a fan, and in gen­er­al we see the marks of ear­ly fan­dom on their mature work. The best, after all—as fig­ures from Igor Stravin­sky to William Faulkn­er have remarked—steal with­out com­punc­tion, tak­ing what they like from their heroes and mak­ing it their own. But what exact­ly, we might won­der, did Drac­u­la author Bram Stok­er steal from his lit­er­ary hero, Walt Whit­man? I leave it to you to read the 1897 Goth­ic nov­el that spawned innu­mer­able undead fran­chis­es and fan­doms next to Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the book that most inspired Stok­er when it made its British debut in 1868.

First pub­lished in 1855, then rewrit­ten over the rest of Whitman’s life, the book of poet­ry bold­ly cel­e­brat­ed the same plea­sure and sen­su­al­i­ty that Stoker’s nov­el made so dan­ger­ous. But Drac­u­la was the work of a 50-year old writer. When Stok­er first read Whit­man, he was only 22, wide-eyed and roman­tic, and “grown from a sick­ly boy into a brawny ath­lete,” writes Mered­ith Hind­ley at the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Human­i­ties mag­a­zine.

Whitman—himself a cham­pi­on of robust mas­cu­line health (he once penned a man­u­al called “Man­ly Health & Train­ing”)—so appealed to the young Irish writer’s deep sen­si­bil­i­ties that he wrote the old­er poet a gush­ing let­ter two years lat­er in 1870.

Stoker’s fan let­ter cer­tain­ly shows the Whit­man­ian influ­ence, “a long stream of sen­ti­ment cas­cad­ing through var­i­ous emo­tions,” as Brain Pick­ings’ Maria Popo­va describes it, includ­ing “surg­ing con­fi­dence bor­der­ing on hubris, del­i­cate self-doubt, absolute artist-to-artist ado­ra­tion.” Whit­man, flat­tered and charmed, wrote a reply, but only after four years, dur­ing which Stok­er sat on his let­ter, ashamed to mail it. “For four years, it haunt­ed his desk, part muse and part gob­lin.” When he final­ly gath­ered the courage in 1876 to rewrite the emo­tion­al let­ter and put it in the mail, he was reward­ed with the kind of praise that must have absolute­ly thrilled him.

“You did so well to write to me,” Whit­man replied, “so uncon­ven­tion­al­ly, so fresh, so man­ly, and affec­tion­ate­ly too.” Thus began a lit­er­ary friend­ship that last­ed until Whitman’s death in 1892 and seems to have been as wel­come to Whit­man as to his biggest fan. A stroke had near­ly inca­pac­i­tat­ed the poet in 1873 and sapped his health and strength for the last two decades of his life, leav­ing him, as he wrote, with a physique “entire­ly shatter’d—doubtless permanently—from paral­y­sis and oth­er ail­ments.” But “I am up and dress’d,” he added, “and get out every day a lit­tle, live here quite lone­some, but hearty, and good spir­its.”

One also won­ders if Stok­er would have received such a warm response if he had mailed his orig­i­nal let­ter unchanged. The “pre­vi­ous­ly unsent effu­sion,” notes Popo­va, “opens with an abrupt direct­ness unguard­ed even by a form of address.” Put anoth­er way, it’s blunt, melo­dra­mat­ic, and over­ly famil­iar to the point of rude­ness: “If you are the man I take you to be,” he begins, “you will like to get this let­ter. If you are not I don’t care whether you like it or not and only ask that you put it in to the fire with­out read­ing any far­ther.” Con­trast this with the revised com­mu­ni­ca­tion, which begins with the respect­ful salu­ta­tion, “My dear Mr. Whit­man,” and con­tin­ues in rel­a­tive­ly for­mal, though still high­ly spir­it­ed, vein.

Stok­er had mel­lowed and matured, but he nev­er left behind his ado­ra­tion for Whit­man and Leaves of Grass. When he elo­quent­ly sums up the effect read­ing the book and its orig­i­nal 1855 pref­ace had on him—he echoes the feel­ings of mil­lions of fans through­out the ages who have found a voice that speaks to them from far away of feel­ings they know inti­mate­ly but can­not express at home:

Be assured of this Walt Whitman—that a man of less than half your own age, reared a con­ser­v­a­tive in a con­ser­v­a­tive coun­try, and who has always heard your name cried down by the great mass of peo­ple who men­tion it, here felt his heat leap towards you across the Atlantic and his soul swelling at the words or rather the thoughts.

Read Stoker’s orig­i­nal and revised let­ters and Whitman’s brief, touch­ing response at Brain Pick­ings.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Walt Whitman’s Unearthed Health Man­u­al, “Man­ly Health & Train­ing,” Urges Read­ers to Stand (Don’t Sit!) and Eat Plen­ty of Meat (1858)

Mark Twain Writes a Rap­tur­ous Let­ter to Walt Whit­man on the Poet’s 70th Birth­day (1889)

Hor­ror Leg­end Christo­pher Lee Reads Bram Stoker’s Drac­u­la

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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