Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Whitman, Nancy
Author:
Whitt, Jan
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Criticized both for her financial irresponsibility and her neglect of her children, Nancy Whitman was married to the poet's brother, Andrew Jackson Whitman. The couple had two children. On 3 December 1863 Andrew Whitman died of alcoholism and tuberculosis of the throat. According to the Whitman family, his wife was drunk at the time of his death. Furthermore, hours before Andrew died, his siblings had tried to take him to his mother's home (at his request), but his wife had prevented it.

Nancy is called a "streetwalker" and "prostitute" by Walt Whitman's biographers, and little is known about her life. An alcoholic, she is alleged to have been a poor mother, sending her children out onto city streets to beg. In 1868 her five-year-old son was run over by a brewery wagon and killed.

Martha Mitchell Whitman, wife of the poet's brother Thomas Jefferson ("Jeff") Whitman, told Walt on 21 December 1863 that when she saw Nancy earlier that month, Nancy had only a crust of bread. Martha gave her a dollar, explaining that it was all she had at the time. Jeff then wrote on 28 December that Andrew's death had left Nancy destitute. He said that, as usual, she "seems to have no idea of getting along" (91).

While married to Nancy, Andrew visited his mother often, taking food home for his wife and children. Although Walt's mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, wrote Walt regularly complaining about his sister-in-law's lack of personal hygiene and parenting skills, the poet remained generous, often sending her kind greetings. Louisa, however, blamed Nancy for the couple's quarrels and for her son's drinking and early death.

The dates of Nancy Whitman's birth and death are not known, although she was still alive in 1888 when Whitman apportioned her fifty dollars in his will.

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.


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