Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman, [25 December 1863]

Date: December 25, 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.00433

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



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Dear Walt1

being its Cristmas i thought i woud write just A very few lines i told mat2 you would have enoughf letter reading for to day in her letter3 it has been long time com[ing?] but has come at last Jeffy4 got home last nig[ht?] but will go away again on monday next to be absent all the week5 i am always sorry when he s gone it has such an affect on matty she gets fretted with things but we all have our spels of good and spels of bad) i must tell you before i forget it i have been quite sick for A day or two only so i took a dose of medicing what i have not done befor in years i dont think it done me any good one or t[w?]o nights i thought my throat was all filled up conceited6 a little i gess then in the morning it wou[ld?] be much better it is nearly well now) well we have had our dinner not turkeys nor geese but pot pie made of mutton matty and hattie7 and all took dinner down here and supper last night so you see i dont eat up stairs very often but i feel just as well satisfied) you know they wont have Jess8 up stairs now so we have the benefit of the children down stairs9 i dont mind the baby10 but i really think hattie is the worst child i ever had any thing to doo with so very ugly with her mischiev[ing?] i think under all circumstances if i can pay a little more rent and can get a place i shall move in the spring this place is cheap but it is too muc[h?] for me to go so far up stai[rs?] i thought some nights when i felt so bad i never could get to the top) but if we live we ll see what spring will bring forth nancy11 and the children is well Jimmy12 has got w[ell?] she goes it [y?]et in the street matty told you i suppose about going there and her being out of things13 she probably was out of some things i had given her that week 1 dol 60 cnts she said she got medicine with the most of it but walt if she d work as i doo she might live very comfortable with her rent paid and so much given to her14 but she dont appear to think she ought [to?] doo any thing but run around and gossip poor Andrew15 he s out the troubles of this world how he did to live as long as he did is a mist[ery?] she has got or had 30 doll[ar?] and the man that got the chest says he will set it up again and give her the proceeds16 they are going to get her a sewing mashine17 but i think it will doo but little good) i got your letter walt about Jesse Jeffy must have wrote very strong about him18 Dr ruggles19 is very much interested in him wel walt jessy is a very great trouble to me to be sure and dont apprece[at?]e what i doo for him but he is no more deranged than he has been for the last 3 years i think it would be very bad for him to be put in the lunatic assiliym20 if he had some light employment but that seems hard to get i could not find it in my heart to put him there withou[t?] i see something that would make it usafe for me too have him he is very passionate almost to frenzy and always was but of cour[se?] his brain is very weak but at the time of his last blow out we had every thing to confuse and irritate we had nanc s children here 2 days and hatty and his going there and seeing Andrew lie dead21 he cried very much every time he heard them speak of him whe[re?] or at the funeral i fixed him all up and he kept georgee22 down [st?]airs untill23 nancy got in the carriage and then he brougth him out to her and got in the carriage i went in the carriage with her and Jeff and matty and Eddy24 in the next) i think Walt what a poor unfortunate creature he has been what a life he has lived that as long as i can get any thing for him to eat i would rather work and take care of him that is as long as i see no danger of hi[m?])

Mrs Cobb Charlee sister25 was to see me the other day she was very clever indeed said charlee wrote to her i had lost a son and she th[oug?]ht she must come [to?] see me our little california26 is splendid she [s?] fatter than ever i hope these lines will find you well

good bie my dear walt


Notes:

1. This letter dates to December 25, 1863. Richard Maurice Bucke, on an accompanying slip of paper held in the Trent Collection (not reproduced here), dated the letter Christmas 1863. No other known letter from Louisa Van Velsor Whitman dates to December 25, so this letter must be the one that Edwin Haviland Miller dated December 25, 1865 (Walt Whitman, The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77], 1:377). Miller's year, 1865, is incorrect, and Bucke's year, 1863, is correct.

In this letter, Louisa refers to a December 21–23, 1863 letter from Martha Mitchell "Mattie" Whitman to Walt Whitman, mentions Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman's recent return to Brooklyn and his forthcoming surveying trip to Albany, and addresses Jeff's December 15, 1863 letter to Walt on Jesse Whitman's vicious outburst after Andrew Jackson Whitman's death. The letter also provides detail about Andrew's funeral, in response to Walt's request. [back]

2. 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]

3. Mattie Whitman's letter was enclosed in the same envelope with Louisa's letter. This brief comment may reveal significant tension in the household because Mattie's letter followed Thomas Jefferson Whitman's report on Jesse Whitman's threatening outburst toward Mattie and daughter Manahatta after Andrew Jackson Whitman's December 3 death (see Jeff's December 15, 1863 letter to Walt Whitman and Mattie's December 21–23, 1863 letter to Walt (Randall H. Waldron, ed., Mattie: The Letters of Martha Mitchell Whitman [New York: New York University Press, 1977], 32–36). Louisa knew that Walt had received Jeff's letter, but her awkwardly standoffish phrasing about Mattie's letter suggests that the contents of Mattie's December 21–23 letter were kept from Louisa even though both letters were enclosed in the same envelope. For her original account of Jesse's outburst, see Louisa's December 4–5, 1863 letter to Walt. [back]

4. Thomas Jefferson Whitman (1833–1890), known as "Jeff," was the son of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and Walter Whitman, Sr., and Walt Whitman's favorite brother. In early adulthood he worked as a surveyor and topographical engineer. In the 1850s he began working for the Brooklyn Water Works, at which he remained employed through the Civil War. In 1867 Jeff became Superintendent of Water Works in St. Louis and became a nationally recognized name in civil engineering. For more on Jeff, see "Whitman, Thomas Jefferson (1833–1890)." [back]

5. Jeff Whitman was in Springfield, Massachusetts, performing surveys for William Ezra Worthen (see Jeff's December 15, 1863 letter to Walt Whitman). On his next trip to Copake, New York, Jeff would "make some surveys for an Iron Company," which he expected would take him a week to ten days (see his December 28, 1863 letter to Walt). [back]

6. The word "conceited" is in Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's hand, but she may have intended "congested." [back]

7. Manahatta "Hattie" Whitman (1860–1886) was the elder daughter of Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman and Martha Mitchell "Mattie" Whitman. Though Louisa Van Velsor Whitman was frustrated with child care and perhaps eager to defend Jesse Whitman's behavior by placing some of the blame for his outburst on her granddaughter Hattie's behavior, she would in time become especially close to Hattie, who lived most of the first seven years of her life in the same home with Louisa. [back]

8. Jesse Whitman (1818–1870) was the first-born son of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and Walter Whitman, Sr. He suffered from mental illness that included threats of violence for several years. For a short biography of Jesse, see Robert Roper, "Jesse Whitman, Seafarer," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 26:1 (Summer 2008), 35–41. [back]

9. After the family of John Brown moved into the Portland Avenue house, Jeff Whitman and family occupied one upper floor, the Browns occupied another, and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman with sons Edward and (within a month or two) Jesse occupied the basement (see Louisa's May 2–4, 1860 and April, 4, 1860 letters to Walt). Following Jesse's vicious threats toward Mattie and Hattie, Jeff and Mattie decided to keep Jesse out of the living quarters, away from Mattie and the children. See Jeff's December 15, 1863 letter to Walt Whitman, and see Mattie's December 21–23, 1863 letter to Walt (Randall H. Waldron, ed., Mattie: The Letters of Martha Mitchell Whitman [New York: New York University Press, 1977], 33–34). [back]

10. Jessie Louisa Whitman (1863–1957), called "the baby" here and "California" later in the letter, was born the previous June. She was the younger daughter of Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman and Martha Mitchell "Mattie" Whitman. [back]

11. Nancy McClure Whitman was the widowed wife of Walt's brother Andrew Jackson Whitman (1827–1863). 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. It is believed that prostitution was her means of support, largely on the basis of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's statement in this letter that she "goes it [y?]et in the street." For the scholarly consensus on Nancy, see Gay Wilson Allen, The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman, revised edition (New York: New York University Press, 1967), 294, 398. [back]

12. James "Jimmy" and George "Georgy" Whitman were the sons of Andrew Jackson Whitman (1827–1863) and Nancy McClure Whitman. Nancy was pregnant with Andrew, Jr., when her husband Andrew died in 1863. 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]

13. According to Mattie, Nancy McClure Whitman had "nothing but a crust of bread" at the time of Mattie's mid-December visit. Mattie gave Nancy a chicken, a dollar, and a "basket of Provisions" (see her December 21–23, 1863 letter to Walt Whitman, Randall H. Waldron, ed., Mattie: The Letters of Martha Mitchell Whitman [New York: New York University Press, 1977], 35).

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). Nancy was judged an inadequate housekeeper by the standards of Louisa and Mattie, but Louisa's and Jeff's letters provide hints that the combination of Andrew's drinking sprees, his expensive medical treatments (see Jeff Whitman'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 their fears for George Washington Whitman at war may have inured them both to Nancy's suffering. Mattie was a bit more sympathetic to Nancy's trials, but she comforted herself with religious consolation: "the Lord always provides for the Widow and I feel confident that he will provide for her" (see her December 21–23, 1863 letter to Walt, Waldron, 35).  [back]

14. George Washington Whitman's military pay may have been the source to pay for Nancy McClure Whitman's rent. After Andrew Jackson Whitman's death, George wrote, "dont be the least backward in useing [sic] the money for anything you want, and I know, you will do all, that is required for, Andrews family" (see George's December 9, 1863 letter to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman). [back]

15. Andrew Jackson Whitman (1827–1863) was Walter Whitman, Sr., and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's son and Walt Whitman's brother. In the early 1860s, Andrew worked as a carpenter, and he enlisted briefly in the Union Army during the Civil War (see Martin G. Murray, "Bunkum Did Go Sogering," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 10 [Winter 1993], 142–8). He developed a drinking problem that contributed to his early death, on December 3, 1863. [back]

16. Milgate, a friend of Andrew Jackson Whitman from his work at the U.S. Navy Yard, held a raffle for Andrew's tools and gave Andrew's wife Nancy $30 (see Martha Mitchell "Mattie" Whitman's December 21–23, 1863 letter to Walt Whitman, Randall H. Waldron, ed., Mattie: The Letters of Martha Mitchell Whitman [New York: New York University Press, 1977], 35). [back]

17. James H. Cornwell, a friend of Andrew Jackson Whitman from his work at the U.S. Navy Yard, intends to buy Nancy McClure a sewing machine. Thomas Jefferson Whitman, sent by his wife Martha to review the desperate condition in Nancy's house, decided against offering additional assistance after seeing that Nancy had received the money from the sale of Andrew's tools, the provisions that Mattie had provided, and Cornwell's plan to purchase her a sewing machine (see Martha Mitchell "Mattie" Whitman's December 21–23, 1863 letter to Walt, Randall H. Waldron, ed., Mattie: The Letters of Martha Mitchell Whitman [New York: New York University Press, 1977], 35). [back]

18. See Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman's December 15, 1863 letter to Walt. Walt sent a letter to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman about institutionalizing Jesse after he received Jeff's letter. The letter from Walt, which Louisa received on or about December 23, 1863, is not extant (see Martha Mitchell "Mattie" Whitman's December 21–23, 1863 letter to Walt, Randall H. Waldron, ed., Mattie: The Letters of Martha Mitchell Whitman [New York: New York University Press, 1977], 36). [back]

19. The Brooklyn physician Edward Ruggles (1817?–1867) befriended the Whitman family and became especially close to Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman and his wife. After consulting Ruggles, Jeff wrote to Walt Whitman the doctor's opinion of treatment for Jesse Whitman in an asylum—that "there might be such a thing as it curing him.—helping him anyway" (see Jeff's December 28, 1863 letter to Walt). [back]

20. Walt Whitman presumably agreed with Jeff Whitman's recommendation that Jesse Whitman should be institutionalized, but Louisa Van Velsor Whitman resisted institutionalizing her son. Martha Mitchell "Mattie" Whitman wrote to Walt, "untill mother get[s] worse I dont think you could pursuade her to send him" (see Mattie's December 21–23, 1863 letter to Walt, Randall H. Waldron, ed., Mattie: The Letters of Martha Mitchell Whitman [New York: New York University Press, 1977], 36). Jesse was committed to Kings County Lunatic Asylum about a year later, in December 1864.  [back]

21. This rationalization of Jesse Whitman's vicious outburst and threats toward Mattie Whitman and her daughter Hattie after Andrew Whitman's death is an abbreviated version. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman again blames Jesse's behavior on his seeing Andrew's body (compare her December 4–5, 1863 letter to Walt). For corresponding details, also see Thomas Jefferson Whitman's December 15, 1863 letter to Walt. Mattie, in a letter enclosed with this one to Walt, notes that Louisa resisted institutionalizing Jesse (see Mattie's December 21, 1873 letter to Walt, Randall H. Waldron, ed., Mattie: The Letters of Martha Mitchell Whitman [New York: New York University Press, 1977], 33). [back]

22. George "Georgy" Whitman, the son of Nancy McClure Whitman and Andrew Jackson Whitman. [back]

23. The second "l" is on the next line. Louisa used four techniques to cram words into smaller spaces: she omitted ending letters, turned the end of a word downward to squinch it into the available space, continued the remainder of the word interlined above, or continued on the subsequent line. It was unusual for her to place a single letter on the subsequent line. [back]

24. Edward Whitman (1835–1892), called "Eddy" or "Edd," was the youngest son of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and Walter Whitman, Sr. He required lifelong assistance for significant physical and mental disabilities, and he remained in the care of his mother until her death. During Louisa's final illness, Eddy was taken under the care of George Washington Whitman and his wife, Louisa Orr Haslam Whitman, with financial support from Walt Whitman. [back]

25. A Charles Cobb (1810–) appears on census registers from the 1830s to 1870s, but he is not listed in the Brooklyn Directory for 1863 or 1864. His sister cannot be identified. Whether Charles Cobb or his sister were related to Lucy Livingston Cobb is not known (see Walt Whitman's June 26, 1866 letter to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman). [back]

26. "California" was a nickname for Jessie Louisa Whitman (1863–1957), the younger daughter of Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman and Martha Mitchell "Mattie" Whitman. Though Louisa Van Velsor Whitman referred most often to her granddaughter as "Sis"—a nickname that Jessie Louisa inherited when her older sister Manahatta became "Hattie"—Walt Whitman apparently bestowed the private nickname "California" on Jessie Louisa shortly after her birth (see his December 15, 1863 letter), and it was Walt's preferred nickname for his niece. Another source for the nickname's origin may be the adaptation of a slang term for money—"california it is full of tents"—from an exclamation that Louisa made upon seeing soldiers gathered on Fort Greene in Brooklyn (see her August 31 or September 2, 1863 letter to Walt). [back]


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