Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman, [21 April–3 May? 1873]

Date: April 21–May 3?, 1873

Editorial note: The annotation, "Spring of 1873," 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.00629

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



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walter dear1

you dident write how you was partecularly that you was abou[t?] the same2 but i3 want to hear all about if you can walk any better and if your leg is any stronger and if you are well enoughf to write any in the office and if you go to the ristorant to your meals so dear walt you can answer all or none just as you feel disposed

o i think sometimes if i could see matty4 once more as i used to and tell her all my ups and downs what a comfort it would be to me i never had any one even my own daughters i could tell every thing to as i could her) when you get old like me walt you feel the need of such a friend

george s house5 is progressing they are putting up the brick wall and he is full of business) Lou6 is come down in the parlor to day her aunt7 remains here and waits and wont let her hardly move arount i wouldent be very sorry if aunty wasent here but i think she expects to stay a long while)

walt if you should have any thing to write to me that you dont want the others to see write it on a small peece of paper as the letter man brings the letters but walt doo write as often as you can

give my love to mrs oconor8 and remember me to peter Doyl9

we saw the news of the modoc massacre last sunday but thought maybee it wasent true till we got the herald10


Notes:

1. This letter dates to between April 21 and May 3, 1873. Richard Maurice Bucke dated this letter only to spring 1873, and it is not clear whether Edwin Haviland Miller assigned it a date (Walt Whitman, The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77], 2:370). The letter indicates that Louisa Van Velsor Whitman wrote on a Monday, and it dates to late April or to early May 1873. The earliest possible date, though unlikely, is after April 13, 1873 (Sunday), the day on which news of the so-called "Modoc Massacre," the assassination of General Edward R. S. Canby and Reverend Eleazer Thomas, was published in the New York Herald. Louisa refers to having learned of those events "last" Sunday from the Herald. Her phrase may mean either the most recent Sunday (April 13) or the one following, so the letter could also date after April 21, 1873 (Monday). However, another phrase, if in echo of an extant letter from Walt Whitman, could date the letter even later. Louisa wrote, "you dident write how you was particularly that you was abou[t?] the same." The phrase, a familiar refrain in both Walt's and Louisa's letters, echoes Walt's April 30, 1873 letter: "I am about the same." In sum, Louisa's letter is near certain to date to no earlier than April 21, the Monday a week after news of the Modoc Massacre was first reported on April 13, 1873. However, Louisa's phrase "abou[t?] the same"—unless in echo of a non-extant earlier letter—is likely to follow Walt's April 30, 1873 letter. As both a non-extant letter from Walt with a familiar phrase and confusion about how many Sundays have passed since a widely covered story was first reported are quite possible, the letter is assigned a range from April 21 to May 3, 1873. [back]

2. Walt Whitman after his paralytic stroke in late January 1873 promised his mother to provide regular updates about his condition. This remark appears to echo Walt's April 30, 1873 letter to Louisa, "I am about the same." [back]

3. 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]

4. 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. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and son Edward had shared the Brooklyn residence with Jeff and Mattie's family until Jeff departed for St. Louis. Mattie died on February 19, 1873 (see Jeff's February 24, 1873 letter to Louisa in Dennis Berthold and Kenneth M. Price, ed., Dear Brother Walt: The Letters of Thomas Jefferson Whitman [Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1984], 158). The letters after Mattie's death show that emotional acceptance of the fact was difficult for Louisa. 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]

5. George Washington Whitman was building a house on a corner lot at 431 Stevens Street in Camden, New Jersey (see Jerome M. Loving, ed., "Introduction," Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman [Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1975], 31). For an extended description of George's planned house, see Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's April 8, 1873 letter to Walt Whitman.

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 also took a position as inspector of pipes in Brooklyn and Camden, and he married Louisa Orr Haslam in spring 1871. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and son Edward moved from Brooklyn to reside with them in Camden in August 1872. For more information on George, see "Whitman, George Washington." [back]

6. Louisa Orr Haslam (1842–1892), called "Lou" or "Loo," married George Washington Whitman in spring 1871, and they were soon living at 322 Stevens Street in Camden, New Jersey. At the insistence of George and his brother Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and son Edward departed from Brooklyn to live with George and Lou in the Stevens Street house in August 1872, with Walt Whitman responsible for Edward's board. Louisa Orr in April 1873 was believed pregnant, and she began to spend entire days upstairs without descending (see Louis Van Velsor Whitman's April 8, 1873 letter to Walt). Her health in decline, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman was displeased with the living arrangement and confided many frustrations, often directed at Lou, in her letters to Walt. She never developed the close companionship with Lou that she had with Jeff's wife Martha Mitchell "Mattie" Whitman. [back]

7. The "aunt" who was engaged to assist Louisa Orr Haslam Whitman, George Washington Whitman's wife, has not been identified but is probably named Elizabeth. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman described her daughter-in-law Louisa Orr's aunt as English and was not fond of the aunt's company. She is named "aunt Lib" and "aunt Libby" in Louisa's April 10–15, 1873 and April 21, 1873 letters to Walt. [back]

8. For a time Walt Whitman lived with William D. and Ellen M. "Nelly" O'Connor (1830–1913), who, with Charles Eldridge and later John Burroughs, were to be his close associates during the Washington years. Before marrying William O'Connor, Ellen Tarr was active in the antislavery movement as a contributor to the Liberator and in the women's rights movements as a contributor to Una. Nelly had a close personal relationship with Whitman, and correspondence between Whitman and Nelly is almost as voluminous as the poet's correspondence with William. Nelly also helped nurse Whitman after his paralytic stroke in January 1873. For more on Whitman's relationship with the O'Connors, see "O'Connor, William Douglas (1832–1889)." [back]

9. Walt befriended Peter Doyle (1843–1907), a horsecar conductor in Washington, around 1865. Though Whitman informed Doyle of his flirtations with women in their correspondence, Martin G. Murray affirms that "Whitman and Doyle were 'lovers' in the contemporary sense of the word." Doyle assisted in caring for Whitman after his stroke in January 1873. See Murray, "Pete the Great: A Biography of Peter Doyle." [back]

10. In the view of newspapers of the day, the "Modoc Massacre" was the unprovoked assassination of General Edward R. S. Canby and Reverend Eleazer Thomas and the wounding of Oregon Indian Superintendent Alfred Meacham during negotiation between the United States Army and the Modoc tribe led by Kientpoos (?–1873), known as "Captain Jack." Canby sought the return of the Modoc people to a reservation occupied by the Klamath people, an historical enemy of the Modocs. Protected in their stronghold of the Lava Beds, Kientpoos and his fellow Modocs sought to remain near Lost River. Canby and Thomas, part of a Peace Commission that Ulysses S. Grant formed in an effort to end the standoff, went to the peace negotiation with the Modocs unarmed. They were killed on April 11, 1873. For the initial report that Louisa Van Velsor Whitman cites, see "Massacre," New York Herald, April 13, 1873, 8. Also see Erwin N. Thompson, The Modoc War: Its Military History and Topography (Sacramento: Argus Books, 1971). [back]


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