Selected Criticism

Whitman, Jesse (brother) (1818–1870)
Rietz, John
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The oldest of Whitman's eight siblings, Jesse Whitman was born on 2 April 1818 and died, unmarried and childless, on 21 March 1870. Named for his paternal grandfather, Jesse seems to have inherited elements of his father's moody, unstable temperament, as well. Less is known about Jesse than any of the other Whitman children who lived to adulthood—virtually nothing, in fact, aside from a few uncertain details about his troubled personality and its effects on the family.

As a young man Jesse went to sea on a merchant vessel, and by 1861 he was working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard preparing provisions for Union ships while living in his mother's house (along with his brothers Walt and Jeff and Jeff's family). About this time, his fragile disposition began to deteriorate; he became given to violent outbursts, particularly upon waking in the night, and he often vomited his meals. These problems were so severe that he was no longer able to hold a job, and the family began to fear for their safety, particularly that of Jeff's wife and children, at whom Jesse frequently raged. Jeff and Walt (who for part of the time was living in Washington and keeping abreast of the situation through the mail) favored hospitalizing him, but their mother resisted. When Jesse threatened to strike her with a chair, however, Walt committed him to the Kings County Lunatic Asylum on 5 December 1864; he died there of a burst aneurysm in 1870 and was buried, without family present, on the hospital grounds.

The cause of Jesse's problem is obscure. His mother claimed that he had always been "passionate almost to frenzy" (qtd. in Allen 308); the record of his admission to the asylum notes that he had injured his head in a fall about sixteen years earlier; and his niece reported that he had been "attacked by thugs and hit on the head with brass knuckles . . . he was considered to have the best mind of any of the children, until this happened" (Molinoff 19). All of that may be true, but Jeff's explanation seems best to fit Jesse's symptoms and course of deterioration: he had contracted syphilis from an "Irish whore" with whom he had lived (Whitman, Thomas Jefferson 85).

Horace Traubel notes that Whitman never discussed Jesse and even deflected a natural opportunity to do so. To varying degrees, he seems to have suppressed (or even repressed) the stories of the family's darker, more troubled members—Jesse, Andrew, Edward, their father—perhaps fearing that part of his own psychic inheritance. Certainly Jesse's story is the darkest and most thoroughly suppressed, and it helped to form the fearful background of mental and physical decay from which Whitman asserted the perfect health and equanimity of his poetic persona.


Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Gohdes, Clarence, and Rollo Silver, eds. Faint Clews & Indirections: Manuscripts of Whitman and His Family. Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1949.

Molinoff, Katherine. Some Notes on Whitman's Family. Brooklyn: Comet, 1941.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906.

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.


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