Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Eyre, Ellen
Author:
Kalnin, Martha A.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

On 25 March 1862 Ellen Eyre wrote Walt Whitman a love letter referring to pleasures experienced the evening before, but indicating that she wanted to conceal her identity. Though he kept her letter, Whitman writes little else about her. In the summer of 1862, Whitman records telling Frank Sweezey "the whole story . . . about Ellen Eyre" (Notebooks 2:488). Also, a photograph Whitman kept at Camden of a young, dark-haired woman, identified as a sweetheart and an actress, might represent her. However, beyond such references, Whitman gives little hint as to the nature or the duration of the relationship.

Because Eyre's letter suggests that Whitman had an affair with a woman, critical efforts focus primarily on identifying Eyre. Most likely, Ellen Grey, an actress, wrote to Whitman as Eyre. In a notebook entry for 1856–1857, Whitman refers to Grey and notes her address, but furnishes no other information. Someone else inscribed "Mrs. Ellen Eyre's" address in Whitman's notebooks; Whitman noted another address underneath it. But no Eyres appear in New York directories between 1859 and 1865. Scholars connect the two mysterious women in light of their similar names. Unfortunately, only conjecture supports assertions that Grey and Eyre are the same woman.

Critics have suggested other identities for Eyre, but unhappily for contemporary scholars, no new evidence clarifies Eyre's identity, and any attempts to do so depend on meager evidence.

Given the contents of Eyre's letter, critics must recognize the possibility of Whitman's bisexuality. However, because of the lack of information Eyre's impact on Whitman's life is uncertain. Since Whitman respected her pseudonym, one cannot conclusively determine the extent of her influence or ascertain more specific details about their relationship.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Hollis, C. Carroll. "Whitman's 'Ellen Eyre.'" Walt Whitman Newsletter 2 (1956): 24–26.

Holloway, Emory. "Whitman Pursued." American Literature 27 (1955): 1–11.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Miller, Edwin Haviland. "Walt Whitman and Ellen Eyre." American Literature 32 (1962): 64–68.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. New York: Appleton, 1906.

Whitman, Walt. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1984.


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