Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
O'Connor (Calder), Ellen ("Nelly") M. Tarr (1830–1913)
Author:
Lott, Deshae E.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman met Ellen O'Connor (later Calder) on 28 December 1862, in Washington, D.C. Calder's first husband, William Douglas O'Connor (married 22 October 1856), invited Whitman to live with them after his trip to the site of the battle of Fredericksburg, where Whitman had visited his brother George, who had been wounded. Whitman's stay at the O'Connor flat lasted over five months, and his stay in Washington lasted ten years, a time in which he regularly visited the O'Connors and the Union and Confederate soldiers hospitalized with war injuries and illnesses. After Whitman's first stroke in 1873, Calder visited the bedridden poet almost daily. Even after distance kept her away, she corresponded with the poet and with Anne and Horace Traubel, who sent her updated bulletins on Whitman's health. Whitman died four days after her second marriage on 22 March 1892 to a Providence businessman named Albert Calder.

As a teenager Calder worked in the Lowell, Massachusetts, mills and attended the Normal School in Newton. In her twenties, she first worked as a governess to the six children of abolitionists Dr. Gamaliel Bailey and Margaret Lucy Shands Bailey and then worked for two newspapers: William Lloyd Garrison's antislavery paper the Liberator and Una, a Providence paper dedicated to women's rights. Both prior to her first marriage and after raising her daughter Jean, Calder actively participated in the woman's rights and abolitionist movements. She was the secretary for the New England Woman's Rights Convention in 1855, and in 1879 she was vice president of the Woman's Rights Washington branch and attended the national convention in Buffalo. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Calder devoted her abolitionist energy to educating the poor. She worked with Myrtilla Miner in her school for free Negro girls, about which she wrote in Myrtilla Miner: A Memoir (1885).

Calder was instrumental in encouraging her first husband's initial interest in and, perhaps, later displeasure with Whitman. Shortly after meeting O'Connor, she introduced him to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, which William Henry Channing had loaned to Calder's sister Mary Jane ("Jeannie"). Years later, after Whitman walked out of one of his and O'Connor's many fervent debates concerning literature, politics, and social issues, Calder defended Whitman. Indignant with them both, O'Connor moved out of the house. He continued to visit his wife and their daughter, Jean, and sent them his paychecks, but kept a separate residence until shortly before his death.

Bibliography

Calder, Ellen M. Tarr O'Connor. Introduction. The Good Gray Poet. By William Douglas O'Connor. Toronto: Henry S. Saunders, 1927. i–ix.

———. Myrtilla Miner: A Memoir. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1885.

———. "Personal Recollections of Walt Whitman." Atlantic Monthly 99 (1907): 825–834.

———. "William O'Connor and Walt Whitman." The Conservator 17 (1906): 42.

Freedman, Florence Bernstein. William Douglas O'Connor: Walt Whitman's Chosen Knight. Athens: Ohio UP, 1985.


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