Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman, [13, 20, or 27? March 1868]

Date: March 13, 20, or 27, 1868

Editorial note: The annotation, "13 March 68," is in the hand of Richard Maurice Bucke.

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.00520

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



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friday afternoon1

Dear Walt

i2 have just got your letter with 2 dol and the paper3 i have not read it yet but shall this afternoon i had to write to tell you what i had done i couldent feel contented till i did well i havent committed any crime but i have spent the money order you sent me for something i have always wanted but never was able to get well i have got a lounge it was quite cheap and good hair cloth but after i got it i though[t?] i hadent ought to spent the money but now i have told you i shall feel better but i have got a little money left besides the 2 dolrs you sent me to day i thought i would be saving and george4 was gone so i would [g?]et it so walt i can get along if you send me about 2 dollars next week5

i am glad you are going to have new cloths i dont see how you doo to make your cloths last so long georg is getting somethin[gs?] every month) i gess this is the last peice of furniture i shall get i always wanted a lounge now i have got one i had a letter from Jeff6 i beleeve i told you Davis was here tuesday evening and he and [Baynton?] his partner in Jersey is to come here this afternoon7 that is the cause of my not reading the paper

i have been baking some bread and cake as davis goes away to night so i thought he would probably stay to tea i seem to have quite a number call to see me among the number was Ellen vanwyck she says she liked you and would like to see you she is quite out of health she stayed and had a cup of tea) ann vanwyk sister Ester i dont think you ever saw her she married a man by the name of J baylis8 he had a farm when they were married but drinked and sported it all away and they now live here in great poverty he has been in the hospitall he got drunk and was took to the station house and he tryed to cut his throat but dident succeed

John vanwy helps her9 i beleeve but so it is every one has their troubles) you go i see walt to mrs Borroughs10 yet how does mrs Oconor11 and she get along mrs Oconor thought they would not perhaps i told her she must doo like mrs black12 when the woman up stairs said she woulden live with children mrs black told her they would get along nicely)

george and i was talking about if the impeachment13 was carried if it would make any change with you we thought speed would be the one that would take the place of stansbury)14 doo you know walt i have always felt a kind of sadness whe[n?] i read the articles of impe[ac?] not but15 what i always thought he was bad but there is so many things to be considered) i sent and got the sun to see how the election went16

my love to mrs and mr Oconor and mrs and mr Borroughs


Notes:

1. March 20, 1868 is the most likely date for this letter; however, March 13 and March 27, 1868 are also possible. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman dated the letter only "friday afternoon." The letter may date to March 13, 1868, as suggested by Richard Maurice Bucke. Clarence Gohdes and Rollo G. Silver assigned the same date (Faint Clews & Indirections: Manuscripts of Walt Whitman and His Family [Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1949], 194), and Edwin Haviland Miller cited Gohdes and Silver's date (Walt Whitman, The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77], 2:365). The evidence for dating the letter to March 13, 1868 is indirect, and the letter more probably dates to a week or two later.

Attorney General Richard Stanberry resigned his office on March 12, 1868 to serve as legal counsel during Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial. Walt Whitman served as a clerk in the office of the attorney general, and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman conveyed her discussion with son George Washington Whitman about Walt's prospects after Stanberry was replaced. March 12, 1868, a Friday, is therefore the earliest possible date for the letter. The letter, however, mentions a recent letter from Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman, and Louisa had also acknowledged a previous letter from Jeff in her March 11, 1868 letter to Walt. If both of Louisa's letters refer to the same letter from Jeff, March 13, 1868 is the correct date. But since Louisa conveyed no news from Jeff nor from Martha Mitchell "Mattie" Whitman (Jeff's wife), the letter presumably acknowledges a later but non-extant letter from Jeff. Because Jeff was overwhelmed with work, it is unlikely that he wrote two letters to his mother within the span of three days; therefore, March 20, 1868 is a more probable date for this letter. [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. Edwin Haviland Miller dated this lost letter from Walt Whitman to March 12, 1868 ((Walt Whitman, The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77], 2:360). If the present letter dates to March 20 or March 27, 1868, which is more likely than March 13, Walt's lost letter would also date a week or two later. [back]

4. George Washington Whitman (1829–1901) was the sixth child of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and Walter Whitman, Sr., and ten years Walt Whitman's junior. George enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 and remained on active duty until the end of the Civil War. He was wounded in the First Battle of Fredericksburg (December 1862) and was taken prisoner during the Battle of Poplar Grove (September 1864). After the war, George returned to Brooklyn and began building houses on speculation, with a partner named Smith and later a mason named French. George eventually took up a position as inspector of pipes in Brooklyn and Camden. For more information on George, see "Whitman, George Washington." [back]

5. Walt Whitman's mid- or late March 1868 letter to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman is not extant. [back]

6. 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]

7. Joseph Phineas Davis (1837–1917) took a degree in civil engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1856 and then helped build the Brooklyn Water Works until 1861. He was a topographical engineer in Peru from 1861 to 1865, after which he returned to Brooklyn. Davis, a lifelong friend of Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman, shared the Pacific Street house with Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, son Edward, and Jeff Whitman's family before Jeff departed for St. Louis, and he visited Louisa while serving as an engineer in Lowell, Massachusetts. Davis also served briefly as the chief engineer for Prospect Park, near the Pacific Street house in Brooklyn (see Louisa's May 31, 1866 letter to Walt Whitman). For Davis's work with Jeff Whitman in St. Louis, see Jeff's May 23, 1867, January 21, 1869, and March 25, 1869 letters to Walt Whitman. Davis eventually became city engineer of Boston (1871–1880) and later served as chief engineer of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (1880–1908). For Davis's career, see Francis P. Stearns and Edward W. Howe, "Joseph Phineas Davis," Journal of the Boston Society of Civil Engineers 4 (December 1917), 437–442. [back]

8. Ann (or Anna) and Esther Van Wyck (also spelled "Van Wycke") were sisters. Ellen Van Wyck was an in-law. Anna Van Wyck had boarded with the Whitmans in Brooklyn, and the Van Wyck family farm was near Colyer farm, which had belonged to Jesse Whitman, Walt Whitman's paternal grandfather. See Bertha H. Funnel, Whitman on Long Island (Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, 1971), 78. John Robbins Baylis (1838–1882?) married Esther Van Wycke (1838–1913) on October 1, 1857 (http://www.longislandsurnames.com). [back]

9. Clarence Gohdes and Rollo G. Silver transcribed the name as "Varny" (Faint Clews & Indirections: Manuscripts of Walt Whitman and His Family [Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1949], 195), but Louisa Van Velsor Whitman probably wrote "John vanwy," a shortened spelling of Van Wyck (or Van Wycke). John Van Wyck has not been identified, but he was probably a relative of Anna or Esther Van Wyck. [back]

10. Ursula North (1836–1917) married John Burroughs in 1857 and became a friend to Walt Whitman, a frequent guest in the Burroughs household. The marriage faltered over matters of sexual incompatibility, and Whitman sided with Ursula against John's sexual "wantonness" and eventual infidelity. John Burroughs traveled a great deal for his job as a bank examiner, and Ursula and Whitman visited frequently, with Ursula visiting the poet after his stroke in 1873. For more on Whitman's relationship with the Burroughses, see "Burroughs, John [1837–1921] and Ursula [1836–1917]." [back]

11. For a time Walt Whitman lived with William D. and Ellen M. "Nelly" O'Connor, who, with Charles Eldridge and later John Burroughs, were to be his close associates during the Washington years. William Douglas O'Connor (1832–1889) was the author of the pro-Whitman pamphlet "The Good Gray Poet" in 1866. Nelly O'Connor had a close personal relationship with Whitman, and the correspondence between Walt and Nelly is almost as voluminous as the poet's correspondence with William. For more on Whitman's relationship with the O'Connors, see "O'Connor, William Douglas (1832–1889)." [back]

12. Mrs. Black was a neighbor of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman. She is also mentioned in Louisa's March 11, 1868 and March 16, 1870 letters to Walt. [back]

13. The United States House of Representatives voted to bring articles of impeachment against President Andrew Johnson on February 24, 1868. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman commented on the House speeches prior to the vote in her February 25, 1868 letter to Walt. [back]

14. James Speed (1812–1887), attorney general under Abraham Lincoln, continued to serve under President Andrew Johnson but resigned in July 1866 over Reconstruction policies. Henry Stanbery (1803–1881) succeeded Speed, and he resigned on March 12, 1868, the month of this letter, to serve as President Johnson's counsel during the impeachment trial. Walt Whitman had served as clerk in the office of the attorney general under Speed and Stanbery. He continued to serve under Orville Browning (1806–1881), a temporary stand-in after Stanbery resigned, and under William M. Evarts (1818–1901), who succeeded Browning. For Whitman's assessment of his prospects during this unsettled period, including concern that James Harlan, who had fired him previously, might be reappointed, see his April 10, 1868 letter to Abby H. Price. [back]

15. The first six or so letters of the word "impeachment" are inserted above the words "not but"; however, no mark indicates the place of insertion. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman presumably intended to write "articles of impeachment," inadvertently omitted the word "impeachment," and inserted the partial word in the available space. [back]

16. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman likely refers to the Baltimore Sun, which was known for its political coverage, but it is not known which election she was following. In March 1868 the Sun reported election results in Maryland (March 7), New Hampshire (March 10 and 16), Kentucky (March 10), Alabama (March 11), Louisiana (March 13), Florida (March 16), and Connecticut (March 18). [back]


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