I begin in the first person today (Brian Rejack, here—hiya), in order to offer an anecdote to contextualize today’s letter to Thomas Richards. There’s a famous moment in Rejack family lore from one of the many visits that, early in my youth, we made to Florida, where my maternal grandfather (I called him Pop) lived his final years. He was a fun-loving guy, and one for whom decorum and politesse were definitely NOT considerations. (Another famous bit of family lore—technically this is DeMartino family lore, since Pop was Salvatore “Frank” DeMartino—involves Pop attending an opera at the Met in New York, where he put up his feet on the seat in front of him, promptly fell asleep and began snoring.) So on one of these visits to Florida to see Pop, the family was talking about our neighbor back home, who was cat-sitting for us while we were away. Her name was Claudia. So a conversation about Claudia was going on for several minutes, and apparently Claudia’s name was uttered several times. Pop listened for a while, until all of a sudden, he burst out with, “Who the hell is Claudia??” He wasn’t angry—just genuinely confused that everyone was talking about someone named Claudia, and he had no idea what was going on. Anytime after that when the name Claudia came up—or comes up, still—we’d fondly recall the moment (and probably ask the question yet again).
(Ok, back to our customary editorial third person)—One approaches today’s letter perhaps wondering, “Who the hell is Thomas Richards??” His name does not come up much in the story of Keats, and this letter remains the only extant one Keats sent to him. The existence of the letter, despite Richards being about as marginal a figure in Keats’s correspondence as one could imagine, offers us an important reminder. What we have of Keats’s life, and even of that part of his life registered and retained in extant correspondence, is such a small fraction of an unknown and unknowable whole. Just think of how many other Claudias of the Keats story are out there, waiting to be named so that those who thought they knew all there is to know, can ask once again, “who the hell is that??”
Thomas Richards, it turns out, was the son of a livery stable-keeper, so he had that in common with Keats. The only other mention of him in the correspondence comes from way back in December 1816, when Keats wrote to Charles Cowden Clarke that he had been at “Richards’s” and that “it was so whoreson a Night that I stopped there all the next day.” Although one night think “so whoreson a Night” refers to jubilant reveling and the next day’s hangover that might have kept Keats from heading home immediately, it appears he was referring to bad weather that kept him from departing. (See the inaugural episode of “This Week in Keats” for speculations along these lines.)
Other than that, we don’t know a whole lot about Richards. He was someone Keats knew. And according to the letter, Keats had promised to visit Richards, but Tom’s health had kept him from so doing. We also know that Charles Brown knew Richards, for he too wrote letters to him that survive. Brown’s letters help solve a mystery in Keats’s, which ends by asking that Richards remember him “to Mrs R—and to Vincent.” One might assume that the latter name refers to Vincent Novello, but regular readers of Keats’s letters will know he almost never uses first names, except to refer to family. In two of Brown’s letters to Richards, he sends his regards to a “Mr. Vincent” and a “Mrs. Vincent.” It thus seems likely that Keats is referring to the same person. Now, who the hell is Mr. Vincent?? We do not know. (Rollins details these questions and how they came to be resolved in the notes to this letter in his edition.)
The provenance of the manuscript is also fraught through with uncertainty. It now resides at the University of Virginia library (the only Keats letter there–poor lonely MS!). It was presumably part of the collection of books and manuscripts donated to the library in 1938 by Tracy McGregor, a philanthropist whose giving included money (and items) for university libraries. How he came to own this letter is unclear. It is possible that the letter was passed down in the family to Richards’s grandson, John F. Richards, whose archives included one of the “Amena” letters written to Tom by Charles Wells (in an elaborate hoax to trick Tom into thinking he had a secret admirer–Keats mentions the scheme in anger when he finds some of the correspondence in spring 1819, about which he writes to George and Georgiana). So perhaps the letter to Thomas Richards was also at some point in possession of John F. Richards, before it was sold to someone else (maybe McGregor, but more likely multiple owners before McGregor got his hands on it). It was first published in the 1930s by Maurice Buxton Forman, but (we think) after it had already been acquired by McGregor. And that’s about all we know!
Since the letter was first published post-1923, we don’t have any out-of-copyright editions in which it appears to link for you here. But here’s a screenshot of it from Rollins’s edition (via Google Books preview).