Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman, [24 March 1873]

Date: March 24, 1873

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.00619

Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Cathy Tisch, Felicia Wetzig, Wesley Raabe, Natalie Raabe, and Nicole Gray



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monday afternoon1

My dear walt

as i2 am here in the sellen or dining room as its called as i am alone3 and no one to talk to i thought i would write to you as i am scant of paper i will write on two scraps i have picked up i received your letter this forenoon4 i dont get hardly any letters except yours i suppose i should get quite a corresspondence if i answered all the letters i have got since you have been sick)5 and i have received several concerning poor mattys death6 i got a letter the other day that frighened me it was from st louis i opened it and the first words i saw was dear madam dont be surprised at b[e?]ing addressed by a stranger7 the first thought i had was that jeff or the children8 had been attacked with that desease that has been so fatal in st louis the spinal disease but it proved to be a letter from one of mattees dear freends she spoke much of the children she said hattie9 was a very remarkable child and little Jessee10 was very fat and well and said how much matty talked about me and a very nice letter it was indeed


Notes:

1. This letter dates to March 24, 1873. Edwin Haviland Miller dated this letter March 23?, 1873 (Walt Whitman, The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77], 2:370). However, the word "monday" is in Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's hand, and March 23, 1873 fell on a Sunday. Louisa wrote that she had received a letter (not extant) from "one of mattees dear freends." Louisa also wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman on March 22–24?, 1873 (not extant) upon receipt of the letter from Mattie's friend, and Jeff with his March 26, 1873 reply acknowledged Louisa's letter and included a cryptic note about Mattie's friend, who was named "Mrs. O'Rielly [sic]" (see Jeff Whitman's March 26, 1873 letter to Louisa Whitman in Dennis Berthold and Kenneth M. Price, ed., Dear Brother Walt: The Letters of Thomas Jefferson Whitman [Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1984], 164; 164, n. 2). Because Louisa dated the letter "monday" and March 24 was the only Monday that fell between the letter from Mrs. O'Reilly to Louisa and Jeff's March 26 reply to Louisa's letter, this letter must date to March 24, 1873. [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. Louisa Orr Haslam Whitman, George Washington Whitman's wife, had made a trip to Philadelphia, and George had traveled to Brooklyn to seek a job inspecting pipe (see Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's March 17?, 1873 letter to Walt Whitman).  [back]

4. The letter that Louisa Van Velsor Whitman has received from Walt Whitman is not his March 21, 1873 letter, to which Louisa responded directly in her March 23?, 1873 letter to Walt. Therefore, Walt Whitman's March 22 or 23?, 1873 letter to Louisa is not extant but was not noted by Miller (Walt Whitman, The Correspondence, ed. Edwin Haviland Miller [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77], 2:363).  [back]

5. Walt Whitman in January 1873 suffered a paralytic stroke that initially confined him to bed: it took weeks before he could resume walking. He first reported the stroke to his mother in his January 26, 1873 letter and continued regularly to report his condition in subsequent letters. Helen Price inquired anxiously about Walt's health and wrote that his illness had been reported in the papers (see her January 31, 1873 letter to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, Trent Collection, Duke University). Anna Van Wyck's February 20, 1873 letter to Louisa also noted that Walt's stroke was reported in the New York Herald (Library of Congress, Feinberg Collection). Anna Van Wycke 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. [back]

6. Martha Mitchell "Mattie" Whitman (1836–1873) died on February 19, 1873 from complications associated with a throat ailment that had first been noted by her husband Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman in February 1863. Mattie 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. The letters after Mattie's death show that emotional acceptance of the fact was difficult for Louisa Van Velsor Whitman. 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. Waldron reports that a physician identified the cause of death as cancer (3). Robert Roper has speculated that Mattie's accompanying bronchial symptoms may have been associated with tuberculosis (Now the Drum of War [New York: Walker, 2008], 78–79). [back]

7. Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman's effort to explain the letter that Louisa Van Velsor Whitman had received from a "stranger" caused him considerable unease. In his reply to this letter, Jeff referred to the "stranger" as "Mrs. O'Rielly [sic]" and explained who she was—or, rather, explained not explaining who she was in his letter—with a cryptic remark: "in regard to this I must say to you that though I cannot tell you in a letter in regard to why the letters are silent in regard to her I can and will explain the matter." Jeff's odd repetition of "regard" led editors Dennis Berthold and Kenneth M. Price to conjecture that he "clearly intends to hide something" (see Jeff's March 26, 1873 letter to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman in Berthold and Price, ed., Dear Brother Walt: The Letters of Thomas Jefferson Whitman [Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1984], 164; 164, n. 2). For more on Mrs. O'Reilly and for additional insistence that Louisa keep the matter of her letter quiet, see Jeff Whitman's April 24, 1873 letter to Louisa (Berthold and Price, 166–167; 167, n. 3). [back]

8. 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. He married wife Martha Mitchell (1836–1873), known as "Mattie," in 1859, and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman had shared their Brooklyn residence until Jeff departed for St. Louis. Mattie and her two daughters, Manahatta and Jessie Louisa, joined Jeff in St. Louis in early 1868. For more on Jeff, see "Whitman, Thomas Jefferson (1833–1890)." [back]

9. Manahatta Whitman (1860–1886), known as "Hattie," was the daughter of Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman and Martha Mitchell "Mattie" Whitman, Walt Whitman's brother and sister-in-law. Hattie, who lived most of the first seven years of her life in the same home with Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, was especially close to her grandmother. Hattie and her younger sister Jessie Louisa (1863–1957) were both favorites of their uncle Walt. [back]

10. Jessie Louisa "Sis" Whitman (1863–1957) was the younger daughter of Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman, Walt Whitman's brother, and his wife Martha Mitchell "Mattie" Whitman. Jessie Louisa inherited the nickname "Sis" after older sister Manahatta became "Hattie" and was sometimes called "Duty," but Walt often called her by the nickname "California."  [back]


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