Life & Letters


About this Item

Title: Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman, [17? May–12? June 1870]

Date: May 17?–June 12?, 1870

Whitman Archive ID: duk.00600

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, "about aug. 1870," is in the hand of Richard Maurice Bucke.

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

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My dear walt1

i2 received your letter yesterday i was very anxious to hear from you i was in hopes your thumb had got nearly or quite well but i suppose the least little thing irritates it and puts it back but if you can only come through without any bad effect or any stifness you must be content and thankful its very tedious to have it so long sore but if it comes out all safe at last3

i got the 2 radicals4 one i got one day and the other the next i set right down and read it that Lady5 seems to understand your writing better than ever any one did before as if she could see right through you she must be a highly educated woman

i got a few lines from heyde6 he says han7 aint very well that she has a swelling on the side of her face and ear has been three weeks that it pains her the doctor dident say what he thought it was but gave her something to rub it with i wrote her a letter last week telling her the reason of your not writing to her heyd says she is better off there as she has every thing conveinent i got a letter from matty8 about a week ago she was quite well she said mr Lane9 was there visiting them) i suppose walt you havent taken possession of your new room yet)10 i felt real bad to have you go away when you was so lame but i suppose you got along i hope when i hear again it will be better i suppose you showed it to doctor


1. This letter dates to between May 17, 1870 and June 12, 1870, and it more likely dates to early June. The letter has no date in Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's hand. Richard Maurice Bucke conjectured August 1870, but his month is incorrect. Edwin Haviland Miller conjectured June? 1870 (Walt Whitman, The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77], 2:98, n. 20; 2:368), and Miller's date is corroborated partially by Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's receipt and response to Anne Gilchrist's "A Woman's Estimate of Walt Whitman." However, a number of contextual factors allow the letter to date as early as May 17, 1870 and no later than June 12, 1870.

Walt Whitman traveled to Brooklyn in late April or early May, and from there he made a request to William D. O'Connor in Washington D.C.: "If the 'Radical' has come, send me a copy immediately" (see Walt's May 11, 1870 letter to O'Connor). Walt also informed O'Connor that he expected to return to Washington "next Monday" (May 16). Louisa may have received O'Connor's forwarded copy of the Radical just before or after Walt's return to Washington, but it is more probable that Walt sent a copy of Gilchrist's article to his mother after his return. Walt also forwarded a copy of Gilchrist's article to his brother-in-law Charles Heyde, and Heyde responded in a June 13, 1870 letter to Walt. The date of Louisa's receipt of Gilchrist's article and the date of Heyde's letter establish the outer range of possible dates for this letter. Another detail that may narrow the range of dates is that Heyde wrote of wife Hannah (Whitman) Heyde that a "swelling in her neck has subsided," and in this letter Louisa relays Heyde's report from a letter (not extant) that Hannah "has a swelling on the side of her face and ear has been three weeks that it pains her." Though the calendar dates during which Hannah suffered the pain in her neck and face cannot be established with certainty, Louisa's letter must precede Heyde's June 13 response to Gilchrist's article. Louisa's letter also indicates that she received a letter from Heyde in response to the one that she "wrote [Hannah] last week," and Heyde may acknowledge receipt of that same letter.

The earliest possible date for this letter is the second day after Walt's May 16 departure: because Louisa has received copies of Gilchrist's article two days in succession, May 17, 1870 is the earliest possible date. The letter dates no later than a day before Heyde responded to Gilchrist's article, June 12, 1870. [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. Walt Whitman cut his thumb in late April or early May 1870, and it became infected. He referred to the injury in two letters from Brooklyn, a May 11, 1870 letter to Walbridge A. Field and a second May 11, 1870 letter to William D. O'Connor. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman inquired about or expressed concern for Walt's thumb in this and five other letters to Walt from May or June to July 1870: June 1, 1870, June 8, 1870, June 22, 1870, June 29, 1870, and July 20, 1870[back]

4. Walt Whitman and his friend William D. O'Connor played an active role in the publication of "A Woman's Estimate of Walt Whitman," Radical 7 (May 1870), 345–359. The Boston Radical was a Unitarian periodical edited by Sidney H. Morse (1833–1903). Gilchrist's "Woman's Estimate" was based on letters that Gilchrist wrote to William Michael Rossetti after he edited for publication Poems by Walt Whitman (London: Hotten, 1868). According to Jerome M. Loving, Rossetti encouraged Gilchrist to have her enthusiastic letters published and forwarded them to William D. O'Connor. O'Connor initially contacted William C. Church and Francis P. Church, editors of the Galaxy. After they rejected Gilchrist's piece, O'Connor submitted it to the Radical (see Walt Whitman's Champion [College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1978], 92–93). [back]

5. Anne Gilchrist's "A Woman's Estimate of Walt Whitman" was published anonymously. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman immediately recognized Gilchrist's analysis—she "seems to understand your writing better than ever any one did before"—as one of the first great critical readings of Whitman's work. For more on Gilchrist, see "Gilchrist, Anne Burrows (1828–1885)." [back]

6. Charles Louis Heyde (1822–1892), a French-born landscape painter, married Hannah Louisa Whitman (1823–1908), Walt Whitman's sister, and they lived in Burlington, Vermont. Charles Heyde was infamous among the Whitmans for his often offensive letters and poor treatment of Hannah. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman often spoke disparagingly of Heyde in her letters to Walt: "i had a letter or package from charley hay three sheets of foolscap paper and a fool wrote on them" (see her March 24, 1868 to Walt). [back]

7. Hannah Louisa (Whitman) Heyde (1823–1908), the youngest daughter of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and Walter Whitman, Sr., resided in Burlington, Vermont, with husband Charles L. Heyde. [back]

8. Martha Mitchell Whitman (1836–1873), known as "Mattie," was the wife of Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman, Walt Whitman's brother. She and Jeff had two daughters, Manahatta and Jessie Louisa. In 1868, Mattie and her daughters moved to St. Louis to join Jeff, who had moved there in 1867 to assume the position of Superintendent of Water Works. Mattie suffered a throat ailment that would lead to her death in 1873. For more on Mattie, see Randall H. Waldron, "Whitman, Martha ("Mattie") Mitchell (1836–1873)," ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). See also Randall H. Waldron, ed., Mattie: The Letters of Martha Mitchell Whitman (New York: New York University Press, 1977), 1–26. [back]

9. Moses Lane (1823–82) served as chief engineer of the Brooklyn Water Works from 1862 to May 1, 1869. After his resignation from Brooklyn, Lane worked in Chicago and contributed to the design of the Pittsburgh Water Works. Lane later designed and constructed the Milwaukee Water Works and served there as city engineer ("Moses Lane," Proceedings of the American Society of Civil Engineers [February 1882], 58). [back]

10. Walt Whitman seems to have ended his boarding arrangement with Mr. and Mrs. Newton Benedict at 472 M Street South with his departure from Washington after suffering the injury to his thumb in late April or early May 1871. Based on this letter, he did not return to the Benedict household during July. Whatever arrangement Walt made was short-term: he returned to Brooklyn in late July for a furlough that would extend through mid-October. [back]


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