Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Whitman, Thomas Jefferson [1833-1890]
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.

Walt Whitman's favorite brother, "Jeff," was the only one with whom he had much in common by way of interests and sensibility and the only one to achieve distinction in life beyond being kin to the famous poet. In Jeff's youth, Walt helped him learn to read, played games with him, and stimulated his love of music. In 1848, when Walt left Brooklyn to edit the New Orleans Crescent, Jeff went along, working as office boy at the paper and writing newsy letters to the family back home. Later, Walt helped make the connections that would lead Jeff into the civil engineering career in which he became, as Superintendent of Water Works in St. Louis, a nationally recognized figure in his field. 

Without suggesting any actual sexual intimacy, Dennis Berthold and Kenneth Price (editors of Jeff's letters) argue convincingly that Walt Whitman's love for Jeff may have been the earliest manifestation of the brother-son-beloved-comrade relationships he formed throughout his life and celebrated in his work. Perhaps an indicator of the nature and intensity of the poet's feeling for Jeff is that it was profoundly shaken and altered by the latter's marriage in 1859—though Jeff's wife Martha ("Mattie") was herself to become an object of Walt's deep affection. It would be a mistake, however, to suggest that the two brothers were drawn together only by the pull of strong emotion, for they had interests and traits of personality in common as well. Their many letters to one another testify to shared enthusiasms for music (especially opera), politics, and other subjects. Jeff worked assiduously to raise money for Walt's hospital work and—alone among the Whitmans—took fervent interest in his literary career. For his part, undoubtedly with pride in Jeff's accomplishments in mind, Walt praised the great achievements of modern engineering in his poems, most notably in "Passage to India" (1871), where such marvels of the day as the Suez Canal and the Atlantic Cable figure as transcendent symbols for the coming together of all people, nations, and cultures in universal oneness. Ironically, while the poet's imagination was thus stirred by the great feats of his brother's profession, Jeff's own advancement in the field may have had some chilling effect on their relationship. As Berthold and Price point out, communication between Jeff and Walt dropped off radically in 1869, possibly because the younger man's success and self-sufficiency had put him outside the sphere of dependency which nourished Walt's affections. Though perhaps driven somewhat apart in this way, they were drawn together powerfully in feeling when Mattie died in 1873, and in the winter of 1879-1880 Walt spent several months in St. Louis with Jeff and his daughters, Manahatta and Jessie Louisa. During the next ten years the brothers saw one another only occasionally, when Jeff was in the East on business, but the warmth between them was again rekindled, sadly enough, by the sudden death of Manahatta in 1886 and by Walt's illness and progressive weakening. 

When Jeff Whitman died in 1890, numerous obituaries, including several in major engineering journals, testified to his stature as a professional and public figure. One of these, written by Walt for the Engineering Record, added to that testimony while also recalling the intimate and exuberant affection in which the poet held the most beloved of his brother-comrades: "how we loved each other—how many jovial good times we had!" (Prose Works 2:693). 

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. 

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). 

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 Vols. New York: New York UP, 1963-1964.


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