Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Whitman (Van Nostrand), Mary Elizabeth (b. 1821)
Author:
Garrett, Paula K.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Mary Elizabeth Whitman, the younger sister of Walt Whitman, separated herself from much of the Whitman family decline. In 1840, at the age of nineteen, she married a shipbuilder, Ansel Van Nostrand, and moved to Greenport on the north fork of Long Island. There Mary led a conventional life; her husband was hardworking and successful at shipbuilding, and the Van Nostrands raised five children.

Mary Elizabeth appears in several of Walt Whitman's stories, and she often seems to be the subject of Whitman's inquiries about loss of innocence. She is an unnamed fourteen-year-old in his story "My Boys and Girls" (1844) and is presented as the sweet Sister Mary in his children's story "The Half-Breed: A Tale of the Western Frontier" (1845).

Whitman often visited Mary and Ansel in Greenport, and he delighted in the comfortable life that Mary lived despite her husband's heavy drinking. Their home, a small white house in a small town, represented for Whitman idyllic hearth-and-home living. Mary, unlike many of her siblings, enjoyed an average, normal existence, and she separated herself from the eccentricities of the Whitman family. For Whitman, time spent with Mary in Greenport was peaceful and contented. In his first will, Whitman had arranged to leave a gold ring for Mary, but in his final will he left her two hundred dollars.

Mary Elizabeth was an important influence on Walt Whitman because she represented for him ideals he wanted to believe in. She read about him in newspapers, but she did not follow his literary career carefully. Instead, she seems to have provided a haven for him where he could visit for rest and where he could rediscover his dream for the Whitman family.

Bibliography

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

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

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

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.


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