Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Whitman, Edward (1835–1892)
Author:
Waldron, Randall
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Though there is some uncertainty about details, virtually all the evidence indicates that this youngest of Walt Whitman's siblings was from early childhood, if not indeed from birth, significantly retarded mentally, epileptic, and physically handicapped. Consequently, Whitman's relationship with "Eddy" was a special one. These two matters—the fact of Edward's disabilities, complicated by questions about their nature and extent; and the poet's responding attachment to the afflicted brother—are of continuing interest to Whitman studies.

Clara Barrus reports that Walt Whitman, attributing his brother's condition to their father's alcoholism, declared that Edward had been stunted almost from the first and had virtually no mental life. Persons who knew Edward in middle age described him as severely retarded, crippled in one hand and leg, and racked by frequent violent seizures. However, references in various Whitman family letters make clear that during much of his life he was capable of being out in the city streets unattended, of doing simple errands, and of attending church with interest. In 1939, Whitman's niece, Jessie Louisa Whitman—vehemently denying any insanity in the family—insisted that Edward had been normal until his mind was affected by scarlet fever at age three and his limbs by infantile paralysis a few years later. She also maintained that he had been trusted to take her and her sister out for pushcart excursions in Brooklyn when they were little girls in the 1860s. Such long-distance memories, however, from a woman determined to put the family in the best light, must be viewed with caution.

While the specifics of Edward's incapacities are thus somewhat blurred, there is little question regarding the closeness of the relationship between him and his brother Walt. In the mid-1850s the two shared a bed in the attic of their mother's house in Brooklyn. Referring to entries in the poet's notebooks of that time, Paul Zweig suggests that Whitman's feelings for Edward may have been complicated by guilt-producing eroticism. Such is not unlikely but remains unverifiable; what appears certain is the bond of affection that lasted throughout their lives. In 1888, days after Walt Whitman had suffered a series of debilitating strokes, Eddy, on the way to enter the asylum at Blackwood, New Jersey, where he would spend his last four years, was brought to see the aging poet. According to Horace Traubel, the two exchanged a few words, then sat for a long time in silence, Walt holding Eddy's hand. In the intervening decades Whitman had not only contributed generously to Eddy's support and seen to it that he was well cared for, but had treated him with a humane respect and brotherly affection not forthcoming from the other Whitman brothers. He made Edward the principal beneficiary of his will, though the largesse was unnecessary, for Eddy lived only eight months longer than Walt.

Along with the oldest Whitman brother, Jesse (who also died in an asylum), Edward raises questions about the issue of mental aberration in the troubled family that produced perhaps America's greatest poet. Further, he illuminates in a unique way those qualities of tender affection, compassion, and comradely brotherhood—perhaps never quite separable from homoeroticism—that are so central to Walt Whitman's character and work.

Bibliography

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

Barrus, Clara. Whitman and Burroughs, Comrades. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931.

Molinoff, Katherine. Some Notes on Whitman's Family. Brooklyn: Comet, 1941.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908.

Waldron, Randall. "Jessie Louisa Whitman: Memories of Uncle Walt, et al., 1939–1943." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 7 (1989): 15–27.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 Vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977 (with a Second Supplement published by the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, 1991).

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.


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