Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman, [20 to 22 December 1870]

Date: December 20 to 22, 1870

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.00602

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



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Walter dear1

i2 have received your letter3 and envelopes this wensday morning the last day of autumn4 i also got the books you spoke of and have read them both through i was glad you directed those envelopes to matty5 and hanna6 i will endeavor to write to both of them although they neither write to me but seldom) i have expected to hear from matt as she talked of coming on here this winter but i have not had any word as yet)

Mrs Oconor7 was here yesterday tuesday 2[1?]8 she and jennie and a lady from rhodeisland9 who going to stop in brooklyn till after the holidays she took down our address and said she should call here again) i was sorry i dident think to offer mrs Oconor a lunch for her journey to day i dident think of it till they were gone as they only staid a short time and wouldent have any refreshments whatever i was feeling quite well yesterday some days i am very lame indeed i take the sleeping drought only once in a great while when i have extreme pains in my limbs and it seems to lull the pain and i go to sleep) i think george10 will be home this saturday he did not come on thanksgiving glad to hear walter dear you are well that is the gre[t?]est of blessings we can have) got the radicals11 all safe i couldent think12 of the name of it

i think jennie Oconor13 is beautiful[l?] and mrs Oconor too looks so young


Notes:

1. This letter dates to between December 20 and December 22, 1870. Richard Maurice Bucke dated the letter November 30, 1870 on an accompanying slip of paper held in the Trent Collection (not reproduced here). Bucke's month and date are unlikely to be correct because Louisa acknowledges receiving a letter from Walt "this wensday morning the last day of autumn." Bucke's year, 1870, however, is corroborated by other matters in the letter: a visit to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman by Ellen M. O'Connor and her daughter Jean; the presence of Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman's family in St. Louis; Louisa's receipt of copies of the Boston Radical, presumably copies with a printing of Anne Gilchrist's "A Woman's Estimate of Walt Whitman" from May of that year; and the absence of son George Washington Whitman from Brooklyn with the expectation that he will visit the coming weekend.

In the letter, Louisa writes that "Ellen M. O'Connor "was here yesterday tuesday 2[1?]." Edwin Haviland Miller's date for the letter of December 22, 1870 presumably follows from this information (see Walt Whitman, The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77], 2:368). But if the year is 1870, Louisa's phrase to describe the day on which she wrote as "wensday last day of autumn" does not correspond with the fact that the last day of autumn fell on Tuesday, December 20 (Wednesday, December 21, 1870 being the first day or winter). As no date in December 1870 can be consistent both with Wednesday and with the "last day of autumn," it is likely that either her reference to the day of the week or to the last day of autumn is incorrect. The presumed date for the letter is the Wednesday morning that fell closest to the winter solstice, December 21, 1870. Another detail that supports the week before Christmas as the probable date is Louisa's expectation that George, who did not visit on Thanksgiving, is expected in Brooklyn on Saturday, Christmas Eve. The reference to the last day of autumn and the expectation that George will visit on Christmas support the week before Christmas in 1870 as the date of this letter. The most probable day of writing is Wednesday, December 21, with the assumption that Louisa is mistaken on the intersection of season designation and the solstice. But given the inconsistency between calendar date and solstice, the letter can only be assigned a range from December 20 to December 22, 1870. [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. Neither Walt's December 18–21?, 1870 letter to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman nor "the books you spoke of" are known. Edwin Haviland Miller dated Whitman's missing letter December 20?, 1870 (Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77], 2:362). [back]

4. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman regularly consulted almanacs, so she may be invoking the date in a strict sense. The winter solstice, traditionally the first day of winter, fell in the early morning on December 21, 1870, a Wednesday. Tuesday, December 20, 1870 was the last day of autumn, and Wednesday was the first day of winter. She may, technically, be writing early Wednesday morning before the exact hour and minute of the solstice and so be writing on a Wednesday but still during autumn because preceding the winter solstice, but that seems unlikely as she tended to rise early. The winter solstice fell December 21, 1870 at 1:42 am (Political Manual and Annual Register for the State of New Hampshire [Concord: McFarland and Jenks, 1869], [2]). [back]

5. 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]

6. Hannah Louisa (Whitman) Heyde (1823–1908) was the youngest daughter of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and Walter Whitman, Sr. She lived in Burlington, Vermont with her husband Charles L. Heyde (1822–1892), a landscape painter. Charles Heyde was infamous among the Whitmans for his often offensive letters and poor treatment of Hannah. [back]

7. Ellen M. "Nelly" O'Connor (1830–1910) was the wife of William D. O'Connor. Nelly O'Connor, whose marital strife with William had led to a separation in 1870 and resulted in divorce, wrote an admiring letter to Walt Whitman from Providence, Rhode Island, shortly before this visit to Brooklyn (see Nelly's November 20, 1870 letter to Walt; and see Florence B. Freedman, William Douglas O'Connor: Walt Whitman's Chosen Knight [Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985], 246). For a time Walt Whitman lived with the O'Connors, who, with Charles Eldridge and later John Burroughs, were to be his close associates during the early Washington years. The correspondence between Walt Whitman 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]

8. The number is most likely a "1," but the character also resembles "7" or "9." Of these choices, only December 27, 1870 fell on a Tuesday. However, the "last day of autumn" (see note above) in the year 1870 was Tuesday, December 20. If the letter refers to the change of seasons at the winter solstice, "1" is the most probable number. [back]

9. Walt Whitman dined frequently with William D. and Ellen M. O'Connor during his Washington years, and he spoke often in his letters of their daughter Jean, also known as "Jenny" or "Jeannie." The woman accompanying Ellen and daughter Jean may be her sister Mary Jane "Jeannie" Tarr Channing (1828–1897). Walt Whitman visited with Mary Jane and her husband Dr. William Ellery Channing during his October 1868 visit to Providence, Rhode Island (see Walt's October 17, 1868 letter to Peter Doyle). [back]

10. 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]

11. The Boston Radical was a Unitarian periodical edited by Sidney H. Morse (1833–1903). The copies that Walt Whitman sent are most likely from an earlier issue that year, which included Anne Gilchrist's "A Woman's Estimate of Walt Whitman," Radical 7 (May 1870), 345–359. For Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's opinion of Gilchrist's article, see her May 17? to June 11?, 1870 letter to Walt. For more on Gilchrist, see "Gilchrist, Anne Burrows (1828–1885)."."  [back]

12. The letter continues in the right margin of the page. [back]

13. Jean O'Connor (1858–1883), known as "Jeannie" or Jenny," was the daughter of Ellen M. and William D. O'Connor. The postscript is inverted in the top margin of the first page. [back]


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