Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Whitman (Heyde), Hannah Louisa (d. 1908)
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.

Hannah Louisa Whitman was the younger sister of Walt Whitman, and she was the single family member who seemed to understand Whitman's writing. She attended the Hempstead Female Seminary and taught school prior to her marriage in March 1852 to Charles L. Heyde, a landscape artist to whom Whitman had introduced her. She moved with Heyde to Rutland, Vermont, where they lived a tumultuous, impoverished life together.

Named for her paternal grandmother, Hannah Brush Whitman, and her mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, Hannah Whitman appears to have been Whitman's favorite sister, and they shared a love of literature. Hannah Whitman appears in Whitman's story "My Boys and Girls" (1844) as a fair and delicate youth.

Throughout her married life, Hannah and Walt exchanged many letters; in fact, in the last two years of his life Whitman wrote almost forty letters to her. She speaks favorably of his writing in her early letters, particularly admiring Leaves of Grass (1855). Her husband, Charles Heyde, grew uncomfortable around Whitman, even leaving when Whitman would visit, and he had a particular dislike of Leaves.

Having visited his sister in Vermont, and having seen the conditions in which she was living, with his letters Whitman often sent the Heydes money for clothes and furnishings. Hannah and Charles also received money from neighbors in spite of the fact that many of them witnessed violent fights between the two.

Later in life, Hannah became reclusive and hypochondriacal, and her letters reveal a neurotic tendency to overstate the family's wealth and social position. In his first will Whitman left Hannah one gold ring; in his final will, however, he left her one thousand dollars.

Charles Heyde died in an insane asylum in 1892, and Hannah Whitman Heyde died sixteen years later in 1908. She is buried in the Whitman mausoleum in Harleigh Cemetery (Camden, New Jersey), as the poet had planned.

Walt Whitman's sister Hannah appears to have been an important figure in his life. Not only did he care for her financially, but he was close to her. She seems to have been the one favorable connection between his family and his writing, since she read and enjoyed her brother's work.

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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