Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman, [5–23 September 1863]

Date: September 5–23, 1863

Source: Transcribed from digital images or a microfilm reproduction of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Location: The Trent Collection of Whitmaniana, Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library

Whitman Archive ID: duk.00429

Contributors to digital file: Felicia Wetzig, Wesley Raabe, and Elizabeth Lorang



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Dear Walter1

i2 write quite often d[i?]nt i you cant complain of my not writing i thought i would write to say that i think Andrew3 is better he was here yesterday and i think his throat is somewhat better he says it is not but i know it is nancy4 was here last night she said he was better he took home some pie she said he eat that and 3 eggs so his throat couldent hurt him so bad as it has he took cold when he went in the country5 he was very bad when he came back he said yesterday he wanted some roast lamb i said get a small peice and have it cooked i told him to have whatever he wanted but to be saving of what he had but to get anything he could eat but Walt it is no use to talk they just get the very most expensive things lamb is 20 cents pr lb and tell about jim6 eating 4 eggs for his breakfast other things not half so expensi[ve?]7 would be much more healthy for the child when Andrew went away the first time he ha between 30 and 40 dollars so nan[c?]y said when he went the second time i gave him 10 he only staid one night the first time an 2 o 3 the last8 and they get things on credit to a grocery and th[eir?]9 money is not much left i gess they have got to move too the landlord has told them they must so now they expect me tto pay the rent i told nanc i would pay one month walt they expect to much from me i suppose martha10 has told nancy i have got 2 or 3 hundred dolla[rs?] in the bank they never gave Jim one cent worth when he went away not even a shirt when Jeff11 has 1[8?] mat said if they work and got them as they had done they could have them12 to i said to mat the other day in a joke if they had another young one they would be so stingy we wouldent know what to doo but i got the same old retort that it was me that was stingy with my bank book13 that is such a common thing to hear if i make any remark that i would like to have any thing [illegible] why dont i get it with my14 bank book i told her the other day because i had 2 or 3 [hn?] dollar15 if i us[ed?] it all i might go to the poor house sometimes i think i wish the bank book as they call it was in guinea sis16 too says grandma take your bank book i suppos walt you ll think i are foolish and childish but i get out of patience sometimes Jeffy wanted me to take Andrew here17 he said he would feed him well i dident feel walter as if i could undertake it they would soon get tired of fixing things for him and i know if i had him i must have the whole family i told Jeff i was willing to doo all i could for him but it would be too much for me his complaint makes him testy of course and i thought walt i had [about?] enoughf Andrew says nanc does every thing for him gets him every thing any would go to greenport18 to get him any thing he wanted but she has no econimy19 to get thing[s?] what is to become of them this winter God only knows nancy can get shirts to make at 6sh a peice but she says she cant take them20 georgegy is so cross he aint a nice child21 at all jim is better he is here almo[st?] every day as dirty as a pig but very healthy they talk of taking part of a house in hampton st the next to this when mrs more22 lived at any rate they have g[o?]t to moove sometimes i feel as if i wished i was away from every body i get tired and think they expect too much from [me?] i feel pretty well since the weather is cool but i am lame in my knees at times quite bad write on a piece of paper [loo?]se from the letter if you say any thing you [do?]nt want23 all to read

you got my letter and georges24


Notes:

1. Although Louisa Van Velsor Whitman provided no clear clue about the date of this letter in her own hand, a wide range of contextual matters, some conflicting, make it possible to date this letter to a range between September 5 and September 23, 1863. Richard Maurice Bucke assigned the approximate date November 1, 1863 on an accompanying slip of paper in the Trent Collection (not reproduced here). Edwin Haviland Miller dated this letter September 3, 1863 (Walt Whitman, The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77], 1:144–145, n. 33). Dennis Berthold and Kenneth M. Price dated this letter both September 10? and September 15?, 1863 (see Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman's September 5, 1863 and September 24, 1863 letters to Walt Whitman).

Louisa either enclosed a letter from George Washington Whitman or had recently forwarded a letter from him with her previous letter (her postscript is ambiguous). As mail from George when he was stationed in Kentucky took approximately a week to reach Brooklyn (but often longer), Louisa may have enclosed George's September 7, 1863 letter. If a letter from George was enclosed with this or with Louisa's previous letter to Walt (not extant), the approximate range of dates for this letter extends from September 12 to September 23. A letter preceding George's September 7 letter, or an intermediate letter from George, may be lost, but Walt in his September 29, 1863 letter to Louisa wished for news from George: Walt's receipt of this letter from Louisa with George's letter enclosed thus rules out a date after September 23, 1863. This approximate range of dates (September 5 to September 23) is corroborated by topics in Jeff Whitman's September 24, 1863 letter to Walt, though some topics in Louisa's letter may suggest an earlier date.

Louisa was in sharp disagreement with Jeff and his wife Martha Mitchell "Mattie" Whitman over assistance that they could, or should, extend to the family of Andrew Jackson Whitman. Jeff and Mattie were willing to provide more nourishing food for Andrew because they feared neglect could contribute to his death, but Jeff and Mattie refused to provide direct aid to Andrew's wife Nancy and their children. Louisa challenged Jeff and Mattie to be more generous to James "Jimmy," Andrew and Nancy's son. Jeff and Mattie insisted that Louisa should use her "bank book"—her deposits of George's military pay—if she wished to assist Jimmy. Jeff charged Louisa with mistaken notions of economy—she scrimped on the food for herself and sons Jesse and Edward when George's military pay could provide relief.

Because Louisa again discussed the expense of Andrew's two drunken sprees—$30 and $10—on the heels of his recovery from a debilitating episode of pleurisy, this letter could date to near Louisa's August 31 to September 2, 1863 letter to Walt, in which Andrew's two sprees are mentioned with a sense that the second spree occurred within the past week. Jeff's suggestion—bringing Andrew into the Portland Avenue home, which Louisa rejected—also appears in Jeff's September 5, 1863 letter to Walt. The parallel between Jeff's suggestion on Andrew and Louisa's rejection of it may have prompted Miller's early September 3, 1863 date for this letter, but Louisa's reference to Jeff's suggestion in this letter is perfunctory, as a matter that she had long dismissed from consideration. Because no pattern of consistencies among topics is predominant, the letter is assigned to a date range from September 5 to September 23, 1863.

Louisa's September 25 or October 2, 1863 letter to Walt almost certain follows this one, and October 2 is a more likely date for that letter. However, if that letter dates to September 25 rather than October 2, this letter is likely to date earlier in the range of possible dates, to no later than September 18. The parallel passages with Jeff's September 5, 1863 and September 24, 1863 letters to Walt are annotated, and readers may judge for themselves which parallels offer the most convincing evidence for assigning this letter within the range from September 5 to September 23, 1863.  [back]

2. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman (1795–1873) married Walter Whitman, Sr., in 1816; together they had nine children, of whom Walt Whitman was the second. For more information on Louisa and her letters, see Wesley Raabe, "'walter dear': The Letters from Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Her Son Walt" and Sherry Ceniza, "Whitman, Louisa Van Velsor (1795–1873)." [back]

3. Andrew Jackson Whitman (1827–1863) was Walter Whitman, Sr., and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's son, and Walt Whitman's brother. Andrew developed a drinking problem that contributed to his early death, leaving behind his wife Nancy McClure Whitman, who was pregnant with son Andrew, Jr., and their two sons, George "Georgy" and James "Jimmy." For more on Andrew, see Martin G. Murray, "Bunkum Did Go Sogering," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 10:3 (1993), 142–148. [back]

4. Nancy McClure Whitman was the wife of Walt Whitman's brother, Andrew Jackson Whitman. James "Jimmy" and George "Georgy" were Nancy and Andrew's sons, and Nancy was pregnant with Andrew, Jr., when her husband died in December 1863. Andrew, Jr., died in 1868, and Georgy died in 1872. For Nancy and her children, see Jerome M. Loving, ed., "Introduction," Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1975), 13–14. [back]

5. The euphemism "went in the country" refers to one of Andrew Whitman's extended drinking episodes after he recovered from pleurisy. This letter includes brief remarks on both episodes. See also Louisa's August 31 or September 2, 1863 letter to Walt Whitman for additional detail. [back]

6. James "Jimmy" Whitman was the son of Walt Whitman's brother Andrew Jackson Whitman (1827–1863) and Andrew's wife Nancy McClure Whitman. For more on Andrew's family, see Jerome M. Loving, ed., "Introduction," Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1975), 13–14. [back]

7. Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman criticized Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's diet and her unwillingness to spend money on food for herself and her sons Jesse and Edward: "Even to day she has 25 or $30 in the house and I will bet that all they have for dinner will be a quart of tomats and a few cucumbers, and then Mother wonders why Jess vomits up his meals However Mother gets them just as good or better than she has herself" (see Jeff's September 5, 1863 letter to Walt Whitman). Walt seconded Jeff's advice in his September 8, 1863 letter:"Mother, I hope you will live better—Jeff tells me you & Jess & Ed live on poor stuff, you are so economical—Mother, you mustn't do so, as long as you have a cent—I hope you will at least four or five times a week have a steak of beef or mutton, or something substantial for dinner." [back]

8. For a more detailed account of Andrew Jackson Whitman's drinking "spree," see Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's August 31 to September 2, 1863 letter to Walt Whitman. [back]

9. The last word on the line is either "their" or "then." Louisa contracted the letters as she approached the right margin of the page. [back]

10. Martha Mitchell Whitman (1836–1873), known as "Mattie," was the wife of Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman, Walt Whitman's brother. She and Jeff had two daughters, Manahatta and Jessie Louisa. In 1868, Mattie and her daughters moved to St. Louis to join Jeff, who had moved there in 1867 to assume the position of Superintendent of Water Works. For more on Mattie, see Randall H. Waldron, ed., Mattie: The Letters of Martha Mitchell Whitman (New York: New York University Press, 1977), 1–26. [back]

11. Thomas Jefferson Whitman (1833–1890), known as "Jeff," was Walt Whitman's favorite brother. Though he was willing to aid Andrew Jackson Whitman, Jeff rejected offering any assistance to his wife Nancy or their children: "I dont think myself that we have any thing to do with Nancy, she is able enough to make a good living both for herself and the children, if she wasnt so dam'd lazy" (see his September 24, 1863 letter to Walt). Jeff in early adulthood worked as a surveyor and topographical engineer, and in the 1850s he began working for the Brooklyn Water Works, at which he remained employed through the Civil War. For more on Jeff, see "Whitman, Thomas Jefferson (1833–1890)." [back]

12. Mattie's refusal to provide a shirt to James "Jimmy," son of Andrew and Nancy McClure Whitman, was consistent with her husband Jeff Whitman's opinion (see previous note). [back]

13. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman was thrifty because she desired to preserve George Washington Whitman's military pay as much as possible for his use. A comment in Walt Whitman's October 6, 1863 letter to Louisa, which refers to a letter that is not extant, suggests that Walt hoped to counteract Louisa's pride in her thriftiness with George's money. Walt enlisted George himself to pressure Louisa to spend more freely: "I sent him enclosed your letter before the last, though you said in it not to tell him how much money he had home, as you wanted to surprise him, but I sent it." Though George's October 16, 1863 letter is extant, the most recent letter that he had received then from his family was a non-extant September 28 letter from Walt. In the next extant letter from George, December 9, 1863, which followed Andrew Whitman's death, George pressed his mother to "dont be the least backward in useing the money for anything you want" and to "do all, that is required for, Andrews Family." [back]

14. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman struck through the phrase "money in the" after the word "my." [back]

15. The abbreviation after "3" is either "hn" or "hu" for "hundred." [back]

16. "Sis" is Manahatta "Hattie" Whitman (1860–1886), the elder daughter of Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman and Martha Mitchell "Mattie" Whitman. Hattie, who lived most of the first seven years of her life in the same home as Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, was especially close to her grandmother. The nickname "Sis" would eventually pass from Manahatta to her younger sister Jessie Louisa, the latter born in June 1863. Hattie and Jessie were both favorites of their uncle Walt. [back]

17. "Mattie has, I think very kindly, volunteered to cook and take care of [Andrew], and I feel that he could, in a short time, be fixed up so that he could carry out the Dr's idea. But Mother, says that she cant let him have the room, because it will bring his whole family here" (see Thomas Jefferson Whitman's September 5, 1863 letter to Walt Whitman). [back]

18. Greenport is a seaport village near the end of the northern fork of Long Island, New York. It was the home of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's daughter Mary Whitman Van Nostrand and family, but Louisa mentions it here proverbially as a distance that Andrew believes his wife Nancy would travel for him. [back]

19. Louisa's reference to Nancy's "econimy" in the sense of her financial means, the only time that the word appears in her correspondence, may derive from Jeff's criticism of Louisa's "economy." Jeff wrote to Walt that "Mother is following a mistaken notion of economy" in his September 5, 1863 letter. [back]

20. Mattie was a skilled seamstress who had engaged in contract sewing to supplement Jeff's income, and Robert Roper has determined that Jeff and Mattie had purchased an expensive sewing machine (Now the Drum of War [New York: Walker, 2008], 92–93).

Like Whitman scholars who have followed, neither Jeff nor Louisa extended sympathy to Andrew's wife Nancy McClure Whitman, whom Louisa described as dirty and as being on the street (see her September 25 or October 2, 1863 and her December 25, 1863 letters to Walt). Gay Wilson Allen referred to Nancy's "extravagance," repeated Louisa's adjectives "dirty, ugly, and lazy," and referred to Nancy's being in the street as "misconduct" (The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman, revised edition, [New York: New York University Press, 1967], 304, 306, 308). Even if Nancy was judged an inadequate housekeeper by the standards of Louisa and Mattie, Louisa's and Jeff's letters provide hints that the combination of Andrew's drinking sprees, his expensive medical treatments (see Jeff's October 15, 1863 letter to Walt), and Nancy's pregnancy rendered her and her children financially vulnerable. The financial strain that both Jeff and Louisa assumed for Andrew's illness and approaching death and their fears for George may have inured them to Nancy's suffering.

Their attitude toward Nancy may have been entwined with their ethnic prejudice toward Irish immigrants. After the New York City draft riots, Jeff gave vent to his hatred for Irish immigrants: "I hear that [Michigan Regiments] made fearful havoc with the irish ranks. Twas better so—they did not have that 'citizen feeling' that our militia would have had. The only feeling I have is that I fear that they did not kill enough of 'em Walt. I'm perfectly rabid on an Irishman I hate them worse than I thought I could hate anything" (see Jeff's July 19, 1863 letter to Walt Whitman). Louisa in her July 20, 1870 letter speculated that one positive result of the Franco-Prussian War would be if it inspired some Irish immigrants to leave the United States. [back]

21. George "Georgy" Whitman was the son of Walt Whitman's brother Andrew Jackson Whitman and Andrew's wife Nancy McClure Whitman. For more on Andrew's family, see Jerome M. Loving, ed., "Introduction," Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1975), 13–14. [back]

22. "mrs more" is E. D. Moore, the spouse of John Moore, an iron founder, who lived on Myrtle Avenue. Louisa probably refers to Hampden Street—there is no "hampton"—which intersects Myrtle Avenue near Washington Park. [back]

23. The paragraph continues up the right margin of the page. [back]

24. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman probably enclosed a letter from George Washington Whitman with this letter, but she may refer to an enclosure with her previous letter. See George's September 7, 1863 letter to Louisa. [back]


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