Life & Letters

Correspondence

About this Item

Title: Elisa Seaman Leggett to Walt Whitman, 9 October 1880

Date: October 9, 1880

Source: The transcription presented here is derived from Thomas Donaldson, Walt Whitman the Man (New York: Francis P. Harper, 1896), 239–242. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Location: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Whitman Archive ID: loc.04085

Contributors to digital file: Alicia Bones, Courtney Rebecca Lawton, Eder Jaramillo, Nicole Gray, and Stefan Schöberlein




169 East Elizabeth Street, Detroit,
October 9, 1880.

Mr. W. Whitman.
Dear Friend:

Do you know it seems very much out of tune to say Mr. to Walt Whitman?1 and the good old Quaker dignity of addressing one by name alone, I like. I hope you are in good health this lovely day of October. I feel lonely in October since William Cullen Bryant died. Always in this month I used to write to him, just that I might be ahead in my congratulations upon his birthday. I remember the sweet October days in Roslyn, when he and his wife would come over to Hillside, on some soft, dreamy afternoon in the Indian summer; perhaps with a small basket with nice lunch in it and a book, "The Berkshire Jubilee," and he would climb up the hill and get into the woods, always stopping upon the brow of the hill back of the barn, just under a famous great butternut tree, and, turning, take a look upon the harbor and far away Long Island Sound, the Red Mill hid among the willows, the lake under the close Harbor hill, and the busy village. Bryant always loved just this view of the bay. Well, I won't talk now of Bryant, although, when I used to write him from here, I would say: "The month of October I give to memories of Roslyn."

And where are you now to-day? We felt sorry not to have you come to us. All the summer the chair stood for you on our piazza. It stands there yet, with its broad arms waiting for you. All summer the old willows swayed and rippled, and spoke the "various language."2 All summer thousands of sparrows came home at early twilight and talked ever so much, and scolded some, and nestled in the great ivy on the east wall of our home, and Walt Whitman came not to sit beside us. Well, we all felt sorry. When I say all, I mean three generations, a goodly company of old and young, down to the babe of a few days old. It may be the baby felt sorry. If it don't now, it will when it learns of our disappointment, for its mother did. My son3 sent me your picture last week from New York, the one sitting on the rocks, by Sarony. I don't know when it was taken, but it looks younger than the one he sent me three years ago—the one with the large necktie. Did you get the story I wrote you about your "Leaves of Grass"? When the book came back to me, the picture had been taken out. I meant to have asked you, while talking of Roslyn, if you were ever there? Oh! it is so charming in autumn. My husband has just bought me the "Prayer of Columbus," by Walt Whitman. I had never read it before. Why he thought I would be especially interested was this: I believe it would be good to have a universal holyday, and I like to talk about Columbus to my children, and like to stimulate them to feel that the advent of Columbus to the New World would be a grand day to select—not his birthday, but the day on which he fell on his knees and thanked God for the longed-for reality—the truth his soul had believed in. One child says: "Mother, don't you think that the landing of 'The Pilgrim Fathers' was more noble, more than the birth of America as a Nation?" I answer: "The thought of Columbus was for the world; the thought of the others, freedom for a theory. Columbus opened the flood-gates and behold! now the growing Brotherhood of Man." On the 14th day of this month I shall pass the day with my family and a few friends, to read and talk about Columbus and about the far away holyday. I have four children in Heidelberg (Germany). The eldest grandson writes: "Grandma, in 1892, it will be the 400th anniversary of Columbus and of America. Shall we start then?" I say: "No, dear. I'm going to have a little tea party here this year, on the 14th day of October, just to celebrate in advance, for when one gets to be sixty-five, we don't count twelve years—to wait. One wants to go to work and start a point." I always remember just a small event that has occurred in my life. When we came into Detroit, fifteen years ago, there was no place in the streets for a drink of water—no old-fashioned pumps, and no new-fashioned fountains. I knew three editors of daily papers. I said: "It is no wonder that dogs go mad in Detroit. They must run down to the river before they can get a drink. And it's no wonder that the beer saloons flourish, for not even a little boy or poor laboring man can get a cup of cold water." So I talked in season and out to everybody, thinking I might touch the hem of some garment, and virtue would go out from it. So, after a year or more, one morning, there came a nice editorial, advocating fountains, such as they had in Philadelphia: and the City Fathers were moved, and now we have all we want. So now I am going to talk to everybody about Columbus day, and who knows but that some day the world will clasp hands and sing songs of jubilee in concert, and honor itself by a recognition of the event.

I am yours truly,
Elisa Seaman Leggett.


Notes:

1. Elisa Seaman Leggett, grandmother of the artist Percy Ives, corresponded sporadically with Whitman from 1880 until his death. A number of her letters to him are reprinted in Thomas Donaldson's Walt Whitman: The Man (New York: Francis P. Harper, 1896), 239–48. See also Joann P. Krieg, "Walt Whitman's Long Island Friend: Elisa Seaman Leggett," Long Island Historical Journal 9 (Spring 1997), 223–33. [back]

2. This quotation is from William Cullen Bryant's "Thanatopsis." [back]

3. Lewis T. Ives, an artist and the father of Percy Ives. [back]


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