Title: Elisa Seaman Leggett to Walt Whitman, 22 June 1881
Date: June 22, 1881
Source: The transcription presented here is derived from Thomas Donaldson, Walt Whitman the Man (New York: Francis P. Harper, 1896), 242–246. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.
Location: New York Historical Society
Whitman Archive ID: nyh.00004
Contributors to digital file: Kirsten Clawson, Stefan Schöberlein, Nima Najafi Kianfar, and Nicole Gray
June 22, 1881.
Let me thank you for papers sent, which gave me great pleasure.
I wonder if you know anything about Sojourner Truth, an old col'd woman, known to be 100 years of age. She remembers the soldiers of our Revolutionary War, going to see them and their wounded legs; tells incidents, when she was a "pretty big girl," of the events of the Revolution. Her father's mother was a squaw. Sojourner was a slave in New York State, on the Hudson, until she was forty years. After her freedom she became a seeker for the truth; hence she gave up her slave name of Isabella and took the one she has, saying "she would be a sojourner on the earth, seeking for truth." She is a majestic, tall, thin person, with an eye fevery at times, at others, tender and pitiful. She can neither read or write, but she has a powerful voice and, like her eye, at times, sweet, and filled with human love. Soon after her emancipation, she heard of Matthias. Do you remember him, in New York? You were a little boy then, but he represented himself as Christ, and a follower of his called himself John the Baptist. There was a "Kingdom of Heaven" established up the North River, with many disciples. Sojourner's imagination was fired by this, and she thought she had found the truth, lived among them and discovered great sins and corruption. A sudden death came in the "Kingdom" and Matthias was arrested. Sojourner knew him to be innocent, took care of him in prison, testified as to his innocence,—a long story,—but she got him clear. Then she got on Long Island, and after a while joined the Adventists at Northampton, Mass., saw their mistakes, and threw herself into a servant of truth, meant to help the Lord. She worked in the anti-slavery cause; was intimate with Garrison, Phillips, Gerritt Smith, and Lucretia Mott; was well known and honored in the houses of all these; worked in the woman's cause, and was a hard worker in the war; went to Washington and saw President Lincoln, had a good talk with him, told him "she had come to help him." He said: "Go and teach your race the meaning of liberty." Stayed there a year working. Then she went to a water cure to study the laws of health. She has lectured in all of our Northern States and many of the Middle ones; in every good cause, and on temperance, in our political campaigns she has been most efficient; she spent one winter with Theodore Tilton, and knew the Beechers well, old Lyman Beecher and Mrs. Stowe as well; she has been upon the platform with our best men and women, and knew them intimately, Theodore Parker and all who worked in reform causes; she will not have the Bible read to her except by children; and says: "If it was the Word of God he will make it plain to her." She talks with God as though he was beside her, and asks him many questions, sometimes advises a little. She don't see anything useful in the new translation of the New Testament; says that the history belongs to past ages. We have outgrown the history, but the truths that Christ gave can't die. Thinks there ought to be Scriptures written of what God has done ever since the times of the early creation and Moses—Scriptures telling of railroads, and telephones and the Atlantic cable. She sees God in a steam engine and electricity. Well, I have told you all this, just to tell you of an anecdote connected with yourself. In 1864 she visited me in Detroit. I used to read your "Leaves of Grass" to my children. It has formed a large part of their education. Once with my back to the door entering the parlor, in a large chair, my children before me on the sofa, I noticed while I read they looked up. I said: "Pay attention, or I can't read to you." So they were quiet, and I continued. Presently I was surprised to hear Sojourner, in a loud voice, exclaim, "Who wrote that?" I turned, and there in the doorway she stood, her tall figure, with a white turban on her head, her figure and every feature full of expression. Immediately, she added: "Never mind the man's name. It was God who wrote it. He chose the man to give his message." After that I often read it to her. Her great brain accepts the highest truths. She is here now. I took her last week to hear a lecture upon Raphael's School of Athens. The teacher talked of the old philosophers, Plato, Socrates, and others. Sojourner gave great attention, occasionally uttering, when something was explained: "Eh, who said it? 'Tis God, 'Tis God! How good, how simple!" I wonder if you care for all this. She is still marvelous. Mr. Iver and his son, Percy,1 the little fellow that loves you so well, are both painting her portrait. If I can get a photo, I will send you one.
Last year Sojourner went to Kansas and worked faithfully among the refugees, and lectures yet. Her concern now is to emancipate the minds of people from the old superstitions of religious teaching and that the Kingdom of God is in the hearts of his children, and telling the people to save their labor about sending missionaries to the heathen, but to take care of the heathen in our own country. Her voice is still powerful.
I am, with sincere good will, your friend,
ELISA SEAMAN LEGGETT.
1. In Donaldson's transcription, the last name of Leggett's son in law, Lewis T. Ives, is misspelled. Lewis and his son Percy were both artists. In a notation late in 1880 Whitman referred to Percy, "age 16, a student, intends to be an artist . . . Academy of Fine Arts" (Whitman's Commonplace Book, Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.). On December 21, 1881, Percy made several pencil sketches of Whitman, and in his letter to his grandmother on December 25, he drew a sketch for her of the picture which was "in a promising condition" (Detroit Public Library). His oil painting of Whitman is now in the Feinberg Collection. See also Leggett's letter to Whitman on July 19, 1880. [back]