Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Whitman, Martha ("Mattie") Mitchell (1836–1873)
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.

Next to his mother, whom Walt Whitman loved above all other persons, the woman for whom he appears to have had the deepest affection was his "Sister Matty," wife of his favorite brother, Thomas Jefferson. The poet had more in common with Mattie (as her familiar name was spelled by all but himself) than with his two natural sisters, and apparently felt more deeply about her as well. She and his mother, he wrote, were "the two best and sweetest women I have ever seen or known" (Correspondence 2:240).

Very little is known of Martha Mitchell's life before she married into the Whitman family. Her death certificate indicates she was born in New York (no city or town is given), and her daughter Jessie reported that she was an orphan whose stepmother had vanished with Martha's money upon learning of her intention to marry Jeff Whitman. When the newly married couple moved into the Whitman household, Mattie became an integral part of the family. She was industrious (making shirt-fronts at home for a local manufacturer) and energetic, and got along well with everyone except the emotionally unstable and sometimes violent oldest brother, Jesse. Mattie and her mother-in-law, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, formed an unusually close bond, though occasional tensions did arise between the two strong-willed women. George Whitman believed, no doubt rightly, that Walt was drawn to Mattie because she was so good to his mother, but there were other reasons as well. Like him, she was gregarious, affectionate, sociable, and they shared interests in common, most notably music. Addressing her in a letter to his mother from Washington, Walt fondly remembered their going together to hear Guerrabella and having an oyster supper afterwards.

Only one of Walt Whitman's letters to Mattie survives, but hers to him and to his mother indicate that he wrote her a number of others, mostly after 1868, when she and her two daughters joined Jeff in St. Louis, where he had recently become superintendent of water works. By that time Mattie had begun to suffer acutely from the throat and respiratory disease (probably cancer) that would cause her death five years later. As her letters show, she endured her long and finally agonizing illness with a courage and cheerfulness that undoubtedly further endeared her to Walt. She was evidently much on his mind in her final months, for her last letter to him, in October 1872, acknowledges "a good many letters and books" he had sent her (Whitman, Martha 83).

The early months of 1873 were devastating ones for Walt Whitman. In late January he suffered a stroke that left him permanently weakened and disabled. The paralyzing early effects of that stroke prevented him from traveling to see his dear Sister Matty before she died in mid-February. Three months later, his beloved mother was also dead. In swift succession he had lost the bodily health and vitality he so much prized, and "the two best and sweetest women" he had ever known.

Bibliography

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

Whitman, Martha Mitchell. Mattie: The Letters of Martha Mitchell Whitman. Ed. Randall H. Waldron. New York: New York UP, 1977.

Whitman, Thomas Jefferson. Dear Brother Walt: The Letters of Thomas Jefferson Whitman. Ed. Dennis Berthold and Kenneth M. Price. Kent, Ohio: Kent State UP, 1984.

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


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