Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman, 7 December [1869]

Date: December 7, 1869

Whitman Archive ID: duk.00586

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 notes: The annotation, "'69 ?," is in the hand of Richard Maurice Bucke. The annotation, "from dear mother," is in the hand of Walt Whitman. An image of the verso of the second leaf is not currently available. The verso is blank.

Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Alex Kinnaman, Cathy Tisch, Felicia Wetzig, Wesley Raabe, and Caterina Bernardini

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December 71

My dear Walt

i got your letter yesterday morning2 it come real quick i was quite astonished to see it was wrote sunday afternoon George has been home and left yesterday in a tremendous snow storm he went to new york to send you 200 dollrs by express3 i suppos walter you have got it all right he sent some to Jeff also)4 well walt we have stood it through the storm it was a very bad storm indeed

i am about the same as usual feel pretty well your aunt becca5 is better old mrs man is back from mobeal6 walt the clapp7 i wrote abo[ut?] is the one hellen price8 spoke to you about being to the falanks Jersey)9

poor mr Beecher gets it right and left10

walt when you write again tell all you gain about the new attorney Ge11 George12 dont think he will be to camden all winter as he thinks the brooklyn board13 will stop having pipe made if he staid for the new york board he would lose his place on the brooklyn)

good bie walter dear i looked for mr Oconor14 monday and tuesday

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)."


1. This letter dates to December 7, 1869. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman dated the letter "December 7," and Richard Maurice Bucke assigned the year 1869. Edwin Haviland Miller cited Bucke's date (Walt Whitman, The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77], 2:367). The concurrence of familial, social, and public matters provides assurance that the year is correct. Henry Clapp, Walt Whitman's friend from Pfaff's Beer Cellar, had resumed contact with Abby and Helen Price earlier in the year. George Washington Whitman had begun repaying loans to both of his brothers, Walt Whitman and Thomas Jefferson Whitman, though his employment as a pipe inspector for the Brooklyn Water Works was somewhat unsettled since the appointment of a new Water Board. Also, the expected appointment of a new attorney general is almost certainly that of Ebenezer R. Hoar. The brief mention of Henry Ward Beecher refers to his involvement in a public scandal known as the Richardson-McFarland affair. In addition, December 7 fell on Tuesday, and that day of the week is consistent with Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's surprise that Walt's letter, which she received on Monday morning, was sent on Sunday. Weekend overnight mail delivery from Washington, D.C. to Brooklyn, New York, was unusual but was shocking to Louisa only because the letter was written Sunday afternoon. [back]

2. Walt Whitman's December 5, 1869 letter to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman is not extant (Walt Whitman, The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77], 2:362). [back]

3. Adams Express, a packet delivery service, was noted for its fast delivery, trustworthiness, and its guarantee of privacy for shippers. The Whitmans used Adams Express to transfer larger sums of money both during and after the war, but Walt Whitman generally sent his mother smaller sums via the postal service. George Washington Whitman was repaying in installments a loan that Walt had made to him when George was struggling financially in his speculative housebuilding business. For Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's account of George's loans from Walt and from his brother Thomas Jefferson Whitman, see her June 23, 1869 letter to Walt. For more on Adams Express, see Hollis Robbins, "Fugitive Mail: The Deliverance of Henry 'Box' Brown and Antebellum Postal Politics," American Studies 50:1/2 (2009), 12–13. [back]

4. 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]

5. A memorial stone for a Rebecca Denton Van Velsor (1791?–1871) is present in Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery, and the woman identified by Louisa Van Velsor Whitman as "Aunt Becca" may be a great aunt or other distant relative of Walt Whitman. Aunt Becca is mentioned also Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's letters of April 13, 1867 and November 16, 1868[back]

6. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's phonetic spelling "mobeal" refers to Mobile, Alabama. The woman named "old mrs man" is the mother of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's former downstairs neighbor at the 1194 Atlantic Street, Mary E. Mann. Mary Mann sent for her mother (the "old lady") in Mobile, Alabama, shortly after the death of her young son Charley Mann (see Louisa's November 2 or 3?, 1868 and November 16, 1868 letters to Walt Whitman). Also see Mary E. Mann's March 9, 1873 letter to Louisa (Library of Congress). [back]

7. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman refers to Henry Clapp, Jr. (1814–1875), one of Walt Whitman's close friends and a leading figure among the bohemians with whom Whitman gathered at the Pfaff's restaurant and beer cellar in lower Manhattan. Clapp was the editor of a short-lived but influential literary weekly, the New-York Saturday Press. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman had reported earlier in the year, according to Helen Price, that Clapp "was tipsey nearly all the time" (see Louisa's May 30, 1869 letter to Walt). For a profile of Clapp, see Vault at Pfaffs: An Archive of Art and Literature by New York City's Nineteenth-Century Bohemians, ed., Edward Whitley ( [back]

8. Helen Price was the daughter of Abby and Edmund Price. Abby Price and her family, especially her daughter Helen, were friends with Walt Whitman and his mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman. Abby H. Price (1814–1878) was active in various social-reform movements. Price's husband, Edmund, operated a pickle factory in Brooklyn, and the couple had four children—Arthur, Helen, Emily, and Henry (who died in 1852, at 2 years of age). In 1860, the Price family began to save Walt's letters. Helen's reminiscences of Whitman were included in Richard Maurice Bucke's biography, Walt Whitman (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1883), and she printed for the first time some of Whitman's letters to her mother ("Letters of Walt Whitman to his Mother and an Old Friend," Putnam's Monthly 5 [1908], 163–169). [back]

9. The phrase "falanks Jersey" is difficult to decipher. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman in her May 30, 1869 letter to Walt Whitman said that Henry Clapp, Jr., was to "put up at lessey[?] farlands." The quizzical phrase "lessey farlands" in that letter may refer to same place as "falanks" in this letter. She may refer to a boarding house, or the phrase may be yet another alternate spelling for Florence, New Jersey, also the site of an R. D. Wood foundry at which George Washington Whitman inspected pipe. [back]

10. Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887), Congregational clergyman and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, accepted the pastorate of the Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, in 1847, and he became one of America's most influential ministers. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's son Edward Whitman attended Beecher's church regularly. Louisa may be paraphrasing a short newspaper article, which remarked that Beecher was "getting it all around" ("The News," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, December 6, 1869, 2). This late-1869 scandal, known as the Richardson-McFarland matter, targeted Beecher because he had performed a deathbed marriage ceremony for the prominent New York Tribune correspondent Albert Richardson. Richardson was shot in the Tribune office by Daniel McFarland, the ex-husband of Abby Sage McFarland, an actress who was reported to be Richardson's lover. Abby McFarland had moved to Indiana, with Richardson's assistance, to secure a divorce. Upon his ex-wife's return from Indiana with divorce papers, Daniel McFarland shot Richardson. The ensuing public scandal targeted Beecher: he was accused of endorsing bigamy because "Indiana divorces were not recognized in New York State" (see Debby Applegate, The Most Famous Man in America [New York: Doubleday, 1996], 388). Beecher's own extramarital relationships with married women including Chloe Beach and Elizabeth Tilton were fodder for Brooklyn gossip, and Beecher's shaky standing on marriage was a frequent part of the scandal coverage in the New York Sun and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (see Applegate, 365–70; 388). Louisa Van Velsor Whitman probably followed the Richardson-McFarland scandal in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (see "Mr. Beecher at the Bedside," December 1, 1869, 2; "The Shooting Cases," December 4, 1869, 2). [back]

11. The new attorney general, who had not been announced, would be Ebenezer R. Hoar (1816–1895). President Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885) appointed Hoar to the office on December 15, 1869 (see Mark Grossman, Encyclopedia of the United States Cabinet [Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2000], 1:79–80). Hoar replaced William M. Evarts, and as attorney general he presided over the office in which Walt Whitman served as a clerk. [back]

12. George Washington Whitman (1829–1901) was the sixth child of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and Walter Whitman, Sr., and ten years Walt Whitman's junior. George enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 and remained on active duty until the end of the Civil War. He was wounded in the First Battle of Fredericksburg (December 1862) and was taken prisoner during the Battle of Poplar Grove (September 1864). After the war, George returned to Brooklyn and began building houses on speculation, with a partner named Smith and later a mason named French. George eventually took up a position as inspector of pipes in Brooklyn and Camden. For more information on George, see "Whitman, George Washington." [back]

13. George Washington Whitman's position as an inspector for the Brooklyn Water Works became more tenuous after the April 1869 reorganization of the Brooklyn Board of Water Commissioners. Moses Lane, chief engineer of the Brooklyn Water Works, resigned shortly after the new board was seated. For details on the new water board and the anxiety that it provoked in Lane, see Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's April 7, 1869 letter to Walt Whitman. [back]

14. For a time Walt Whitman lived with William D. and Ellen M. "Nelly" O'Connor, who, with Charles Eldridge and later John Burroughs, were to be his close associates during the Washington years. William Douglas O'Connor (1832–1889) was the author of the pro-Whitman pamphlet "The Good Gray Poet" in 1866. Nelly O'Connor had a close personal relationship with Whitman, and the correspondence between Walt and Nelly is almost as voluminous as the poet's correspondence with William. For more on Whitman's relationship with the O'Connors, see "O'Connor, William Douglas (1832–1889)." [back]


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