State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 66 Spring 2000


O'Dowd's ‘Whitman Cabinet’

Manuscript Collections come to the State Library of Victoria in a variety of containers — envelopes, brown paper bags, cardboard boxes, tin trunks, suitcases, even crates (one staff member recalls a crate labelled ‘Dynamite’, although the contents were mild by comparison). Collections are then sorted, listed, catalogued and permanently housed in archival boxes. It is unusual for a collection to include pieces of furniture in which papers have been kept. A notable exception is the specially constructed wooden cabinet in which Bernard O'Dowd kept his letters from Walt Whitman and other Whitman items. This interesting and very tangible evidence of the Australian poet's devotion to his ‘Beloved Walt’ was deposited in the Australian Manuscripts collection along with O'Dowd's papers in 1966. Apart from O'Dowd's own papers, the Manuscripts catalogue contains some two dozen references to material either by or about him, attesting to his prolific output and many interests.
Introduced to Whitman's works in the mid-1880's, Bernard O'Dowd (1866-1953) formed the habit of taking Sunday walks carrying his ‘dirty little Walt’ (a battered volume of Whitman) for company. On 6 August 1889 he took the bold step of writing to Whitman: ‘I wish that I could put myself into this sheet to shake hands with you,

Bernard O'Dowd (1866-1953), Cabinet, built 1892, to house O'Dowd's Walt Whitman collection. MS 6243, F 257 A. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection.

as you have put yourself into your writings and blessed me’. Walt Whitman (1819-1892), although used to attention from his fellow-Americans and from Europe, seems to have received little from Australia, and was undoubtedly touched by the devotion shown by the young Australian. The resulting brief correspondence (featured in Overland No. 23, 1962) made an indelible impression upon the aspiring poet, and his enthusiasm clearly struck a chord with the ailing Whitman: ‘the ‘cute and loving appreciation of my book & me by them there in Australia has gone right to my heart’, he wrote in response on 12 July 1890. The letters gradually became briefer, and more and more preoccupied with Whitman's failing health.
Whitman sent O'Dowd 12 letters plus various books and pictures of himself. ‘The books, in a bundle, (four complete works) [four copies of the Complete Poems & Prose of Walt Whitman] have just gone in Adams's Express, Wells, Fargo & Co: f'm San F, a bundle in brown envelope (16 inches square, 4 inches thick, y'r address on) to Melbourne, I have paid the expressage throughout — Look out for them in due time. I sh'l be a little anxious till I hear they have arrived for certain’ — letter dated 27 December 1890. His anxiety appears to stem from the thought that his friends might be deprived, rather than from the fear of a small monetary loss. Whitman was in comfortable, if not wealthy circumstances, and he clearly derived much pleasure from the thought of his work making such an impact on the other side of the world. The cost of postage does not seem to have been a factor. By late 1891 O'Dowd and his friends had been well and truly accepted into the fold, a point made clear in a letter dated 1 November 1891. He was happy for O'Dowd's friends to take their choice of the portraits sent — ‘I have plenty, I am cheerfully willing to send more to them!’
In order to house these works appropriately, a cabinet was specially made. O'Dowd's wife Evangeline had an uncle, Jethro Fryer, a carpenter who undertook this task. The cabinet was designed to survive possible fire (by being sturdy enough to withstand being thrown from a window!). Fortunately, it did indeed survive and is now in the secure environs of the Australian Manuscripts Collection. Its contents remain much the same as they were when in O'Dowd's possession, except that the letters and photographs have been placed in archival packaging and are housed separately.
The cabinet, handle on top for easy transportation, has five inner compartments, four vertical and one horizontal. It measures 38.0 cm high by 38.0 cm wide by 28.2 cm deep. It contains the books and magazines which Whitman sent O'Dowd, and other assorted books, pamphlets and articles on the subject of Whitman collected by O'Dowd. Pokerwork has been used to engave the following on the bottom side: ‘The / Walt Whitman / Cabinet / Made by Jethro F. Fryer / for / Bernard & Eva / Oct 14th — 1892’.
Sands and Macdougall's Melbourne and Suburban Directory for 1892 lists Fryer living at 448 Station Street, North Carlton. Presumably this meant that his close proximity to O'Dowd enabled him to regularly attend the gatherings of the Australeum, a club probably founded by O'Dowd, in his Drummond Street dwelling. Literature was the main subject of discussion and naturally Whitman was discussed a

Walt Whitman (1819-1892), Letter, 1 November 1891, to Bernard O'Dowd. ‘The Doctor says I have progressive paralysis, wh- is eligible to have a fatal termination any hour …write me soon as you can’. MS 6237, Box 257/1. La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection.

great deal. Members of the Fryer family often attended. O'Dowd sent details of these meetings to Whitman. (In 1918 H. H. Champion, then editor of the Book Lover, asked O'Dowd to write an account of these meetings, but O'Dowd does not appear to have responded to this invitation.) Among the many to whom Whitman sends love in his letters to O'Dowd are Mr and Mrs Fryer, although he may be referring to Eva's parents rather than to the maker of the cabinet and his wife. Surprisingly, Fryer is not mentioned in the trade and professional listing. However, he does appear in Wise's Post Office Directory for 1893-94 as a carpenter (not as a cabinetmaker, as suggested by the Palmer/Kennedy biography of O'Dowd) living at this time in Lygon Street, Brunswick. So he brought professional skills to bear on the project.
By comparing the contents of the cabinet against Whitman's letters, it is clear that the works he sent O'Dowd not only arrived but, with one possible exception, have stayed snugly intact for over a century. The letters mention the following works: it must be assumed all others were added by O'Dowd.
  • Whitman, Walt. Complete Poems & Prose of Walt Whitman 1855-1888 Philadelphia, 1881. [The front pages contain notes by O'Dowd, including ones on his family tree. He lists his children, rather as one might have done in a family Bible. Four copies were sent, two for O'Dowd and one each for O'Dowd's friends Jim Hartigan and Fred Woods.]
  • Bucke, Richard. Walt Whitman. Philadelphia, 1883. [Whitman described Bucke as ‘my chief literary advocate’.]
  • Ingersoll, Robert G. Liberty in Literature: Testimonial to Walt Whitman. New York, 1890. [Ingersoll visited Philadelphia in 1890 to give this lecture which was published shortly after. Whitman described it as a public address and added ‘the bills call it a “testimonial” to me’. One objective was to raise money for Whitman. The tidy sum of $869.45 was raised, helping to meet Whitman's needs.]
  • Whitman, Walt. Good-Bye My Fancy. Philadelphia, 1891. [Whitman wrote of putting the finishing touches on this publication before sending it to O'Dowd.]
  • Lippinscott's Monthly Magazine, March 1891, Philadelphia. [Contains articles by Whitman.]
  • Possibly an issue of the Gnostic published in California in July 1885 [which has an article about Whitman].
In a letter dated 13 January 1891 Whitman mentions sending a copy of the New York Truth Seeker which does not appear to have survived. There are two other newspapers (The Press [Philadelphia] 24 November 1890, containing a poem by Whitman, and The Post [Conder, New Jersey] 2 June 1890, containing a notice of Ingersoll's lecture in honour of Whitman's 72nd birthday) and a cutting from The Conservator U.S.A. but
exact location unknown, possibly Philadelphia February 1891, of an article about Whitman. These were probably sent by Whitman and are located in the main body of O'Dowd's papers.
On 29 September 1890, O'Dowd wrote to Whitman, ‘If I can ever manage to get my hand in at literary work, I shall make sturdy attempts to do you yeoman service, at any rate’. Over 60 years later, O'Dowd, having more than managed to attain this goal, was to write: ‘The wonderful stimulus of my communion with Walt Whitman, redeemed me from a growing disgust with the tinkling cymbalism of so much of what was then “modern” verse and implanted in me a sense of both the real meaning of democracy and of the revolutionary functions and power of true poetry’. (Preliminary Note to Hugh Anderson, Bernard O'Dowd (1866-1953): An Annotated Bibliography, Sydney, 1963.)
Sandra Burt

Notes on Contributors

Sandra Burt is a librarian in the La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria, with a special interest in Australian Literature.
Des Cowley is the Rare Printed Collections Manager, State Library of Victoria. His annotated checklist of the publishing firm, Reed and Harris, appeared in The La Trobe Journal No. 64.
Brian Hubber is the Rare Books Librarian at the State Library of Victoria. He is presently researching the Library's collections in preparation for an exhibition on the history of the book, to be installed in the galleries of the Domed Building as part of the Library's redevelopment.
Ian Jones has devoted almost 60 years to Kelly research. His publications include The Friendship that Destroyed Ned Kelly (1992), Ned Kelly: A Short Life (1995), and Joshua, The Man They Called Jesus (1999).
Ken Oldis is a Melbourne lawyer who has made a special study of the Kelly armour.
Dianne Reilly is the La Trobe Librarian at the State Library of Victoria.