Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman, [2–4 May 1860]

Date: May 2–4, 1860

Whitman Archive ID: duk.00424

Source: The Trent Collection of Whitmaniana, Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library. Transcribed from digital images or a microfilm reproduction of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.

Editorial note: The annotation, "Brooklyn – 3 May 1860," is in the hand of Richard Maurice Bucke.

Contributors to digital file: Felicia Wetzig, Wesley Raabe, and Elizabeth Lorang

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Dear Walter1

i2 have got all your letters and life of john brown3 and all the money and comes real good I can tell you i just about get dreaned4 and that feches me quite right again we thought you would be through this week and should begin to look for you home but your letter says you are not)5 we are all pretty well I am well i had A [p?]ery6 bad cold and coughf when Jeffy7 wrote and had been cleaning house and worked very hard but i am well now Eddy8 is some lame yet he cant doo much I think its the rheumattis9 Andrew10 has got quite well he has been here three days in sucsession he and jim11 I ll tell you walt all about family affairs and then I ll touch on not the figh[t?] nor politicks)12 well we scrach along the same as usual I paid the rent the month of april the 5 you sent me13 and what Georg vannostrand14 paid me but i am in debt to ammerman15 about 10 dollar not lately but when mary16 was here I had to get [so?] many things if that was paid I would feel releived but I cant see any way at present so we ll hope for the best we like the people that has taken the house17 very well A man and wife and one son 17 and one 9 years all but the 9 year one belongs to mr beachers church18 she is a long island woman and very clever they have the back bacement and the next flour through and one bedroom in the attic for 14 dollars per month we are a little crampt in the basement we miss the water but we ll do the best we can they want gass very much but I did not promice it when they hired) George vanno[s?]trand paid me one night and left next morning without any ceremony we expected him aga[in?] left his things here but he has not been) Fred and bob coopper19 was here last sunday staid till toward evening) and Hector Tindale20 was here last week he looks very fat and well and behaved very friendly inde[ed?] talked much of his mother21 says she died of gout in the stomach [illegible] she was not at his house but at her daughters he said he was from home the Doctor said there was no danger when he wen[t?] she died before his return he thought you had forgotten him or you would have sent him a few lines my pen is so bad

good bie Walt


1. This letter dates to between May 2 and May 4, 1860, with the earlier dates having a higher probability. Richard Maurice Bucke dated the letter May 3, 1860, and Edwin Haviland Miller agreed (Walt Whitman, The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77], 1:53, n. 19). Bucke's date cannot be confirmed, but it must be very close.

Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman in his April 16, 1860 letter to Walt Whitman requested a copy of James Redpath's The Public Life of Captain John Brown. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman in this letter acknowledged receiving the book "and all the money,"five dollars to assist with rent according to her March 26–31?, 1860 letter to Walt. Walt in his May 10, 1860 letter to Jeff acknowledged receipt of "Mother's letter." These two facts narrow the range of possible dates for Louisa's letter to between the last few days of April and the first week of May. Multiple factors suggest a more narrow date range, immediately after May 1. The Brown family had begun to settle into the house, and they presumably moved very near May 1, the traditional moving day in Brooklyn. The newspaper coverage of a notable prize fight and the Democratic political convention, both of which Louisa pointedly excluded from her letter, were at their most intense from Saturday, April 28 through Monday, April 30. [back]

2. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman (1795–1873) married Walter Whitman, Sr., in 1816; together they had nine children, of whom Walt Whitman was the second. For more information on Louisa and her letters, see Wesley Raabe, "'walter dear': The Letters from Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Her Son Walt" and Sherry Ceniza, "Whitman, Louisa Van Velsor (1795–1873)." [back]

3. Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman had requested a copy of James Redpath's The Public Life of Captain John Brown (Boston: Thayer & Eldridge, 1860) for his mother (see Jeff's April 16, 1860 letter to Walt Whitman). Walt Whitman traveled to Boston in early March 1860 to oversee printing of the third edition of Leaves of Grass by Thayer & Eldridge. For a detailed account of Whitman's time in Boston, see his May 10, 1860 letter to Jeff Whitman. [back]

4. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's spelling "dreaned" is a common dialect form of "drained." [back]

5. Walt Whitman's reply from Boston to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's March 26–31?, 1860 letter is not extant. Walt in his May 10, 1860 letter to Thomas Jefferson Whitman indicated that he would return to Brooklyn soon, but his return was delayed until later in the month (see his May 1860 draft letter to William Wilde Thayer and Charles W. Eldridge). [back]

6. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman wrote the descender of her letter "p" separately, but the bowl of her "p" is nearly indistinguishable from her letter "v." This similarity led her sometimes to switch the two letters. Here she added a descender to her intended "v," which makes the word "very" appear as "pery." [back]

7. Thomas Jefferson Whitman (1833–1890), known as "Jeff," was the son of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and Walter Whitman, Sr., and Walt Whitman's favorite brother. In early adulthood he worked as a surveyor and topographical engineer. In the 1850s he began working for the Brooklyn Water Works, at which he remained employed through the Civil War. In 1867 Jeff became Superintendent of Water Works in St. Louis and became a nationally recognized name in civil engineering. For more on Jeff, see "Whitman, Thomas Jefferson (1833–1890)." [back]

8. Edward Whitman (1835–1892), called "Eddy" or "Edd," was the youngest son of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and Walter Whitman, Sr. He required lifelong assistance for significant physical and mental disabilities, and he remained in the care of his mother until her death. During Louisa's final illness, Eddy was taken under the care of George Washington Whitman and his wife, Louisa Orr Haslam Whitman, with financial support from Walt Whitman. [back]

9. Rheumatism or arthritic rheumatism, which Louisa Van Velsor Whitman also spells "rheumattis" or "rhumatis," is joint pain, which was attributed to dry joints. See Health at Home, or Hall's Family Doctor (Hartford: J. A. S. Betts, 1873), 704. [back]

10. Andrew Jackson Whitman (1827–1863) was Walter Whitman, Sr., and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's son, and Walt Whitman's brother. Andrew developed a drinking problem that contributed to his early death, leaving behind his wife Nancy McClure Whitman, who was pregnant with son Andrew, Jr., and their two sons, George "Georgy" and James "Jimmy." For more on Andrew, see Martin G. Murray, "Bunkum Did Go Sogering," Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 10:3 (1993), 142–148. [back]

11. James "Jimmy" Whitman was the son of Walt Whitman's brother Andrew Jackson Whitman (1827–1863) and Andrew's wife Nancy McClure Whitman. For more on Andrew's family, see Jerome M. Loving, ed., "Introduction," Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1975), 13–14. [back]

12. The "fight" was an April 17, 1860 bare-knuckle boxing match between American John C. Heenan and Englishman Tom Sayers. Lasting over two hours and counted at 37 (or 42) rounds, but inconclusive because it was broken up by police, the match is considered the first international boxing championship (see "The Great Prize Fight," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 28, 1860, 2; "The Great Fight," New York Times, April 30, 1860, 8; and Elliot J. Gorn, The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America, updated edition [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986], 148–159). Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's "politicks" is the Charleston Democratic Convention, which began on April 23, 1860 and adjourned on May 3, 1860. Despite a walkout by pro-slavery southern delegates after the adoption of a moderate pro-slavery platform, Stephen A. Douglas (1813–1861) was unable to achieve the necessary two-thirds vote to secure the nomination. Newspapers provided daily convention coverage and commentary. [back]

13. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman had requested $5 in her March 26–31?, 1860 letter to Walt Whitman. [back]

14. George Van Nostrand was Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's grandson, the eldest child of Mary Elizabeth (Whitman) Van Nostrand and her husband Ansel. [back]

15. Nicholas Amerman had a grocery store on Myrtle Avenue. See Thomas Jefferson Whitman's September 5, 1863 letter to Walt Whitman. [back]

16. Mary Elizabeth (Whitman) Van Nostrand (1821–1899) was the oldest daughter of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and Walter Whitman, Sr., and Walt Whitman's younger sister. She married Ansel Van Nostrand, a shipwright, in 1840, and they subsequently moved to Greenport, Long Island. They raised five children: George, Fanny, Louisa, Ansel, Jr., and Mary Isadore "Minnie." See Jerome M. Loving, ed., "Introduction," Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1975), 10–11. [back]

17. According to Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman's April 3, 1860 letter, the Brown family rented the "lower part" of the house. Louisa describes the portion of the house rented by the Browns later in this letter. John Brown, a tailor, and his family remained in the house for five years, but the relationship between the Browns and Jeff Whitman's family was often strained. Though Louisa too became frustrated with the Browns, she maintained cordial relations with them after Jeff and family departed for St. Louis. [back]

18. The church is Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Church. Beecher (1813–1887), Congregational clergyman and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, accepted the pastorate of the Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, in 1847. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's son Edward attended Beecher's church. [back]

19. Fred B. Vaughan (b. 1837) was a stage driver, and Robert "Bob" Cooper was Vaughan's roommate. See Fred Vaughan's April 9, 1860 letter to Walt Whitman. Vaughan was one of Walt's most important relationships from the Pfaff's period. Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price associate Vaughan with "the sequence of homoerotic love poems Whitman called 'Live Oak, with Moss'" (Re-Scripting Walt Whitman: An Introduction to His Life and Work [Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell, 2005], 62). For more on Vaughan, see Charley Shively, ed., Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman's Working-Class Camerados (San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press, 1987), 14, 16, 36–50. [back]

20. Hector Tyndale (1821–1880), son of Sarah Tyndale and Robinson Tyndale, was a Philadelphia merchant and importer like his father. During the Civil War, he played a significant role at the Battle of Antietam and rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Union Army. Whitman described a meeting with him on February 25, 1857 (The Complete Writings of Walt Whitman [New York: G. P. Putnam, 1902], 9:154–155). Louisa Van Velsor Whitman apparently made an impression on Tyndale. Whitman wrote to his mother that Tyndale "has been to see me again—always talks about you" (see Whitman's June 29, 1866, letter to Louisa). [back]

21. Hector's mother Sarah Thorn Tyndale (1792–1859) was an abolitionist from Philadelphia who met Walt Whitman during Amos Bronson Alcott and Henry David Thoreau's visit to Whitman. For more information on Sarah Tyndale, see "Tyndale, Sarah Thorn [1792–1859]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]


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