Selected Criticism

Davis, Mary Oakes (1837 or 1838–1908)
Singley, Carol J.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Mary Oakes Davis was Walt Whitman's housekeeper at 328 Mickle Street in Camden, New Jersey, from 1885 until the poet's death in 1892. Davis is known for her steadfast, patient service to Whitman, who grew increasingly infirm, kept irregular habits, and often frustrated Davis's efforts to impose order on the household. She worked for him without pay and after his death successfully sued his estate for lost wages.

Mary Oakes had a long history of nursing the ill and elderly. In Camden, she cared for a dying schoolmate and her husband, and took charge of their two children. She married a sea captain named Davis, but was soon widowed. Whitman became acquainted with her in 1884, when he brought her clothes to mend and ate meals at her house at 412 West Street. After he purchased his Mickle Street house, he proposed that—since he owned a home but no furniture and she owned furniture but paid rent—they combine households. She moved into the house on 24 February 1885, with no formal agreement, bringing with her several pets and an orphan girl she cared for. Whitman left her one thousand dollars in a revised will of 1891; he left his house to his brother Edward.

Critics agree that Whitman—crippled and increasingly dependent—greatly benefited from Davis's services. Horace Traubel leaves no doubt of her attentive care, especially as the poet's health declined. The fairness of Whitman's bargain with the housekeeper is less clear. The arrangement apparently favored Whitman: Davis received no wages for her work and, as Gay Wilson Allen notes, claimed after Whitman's death that she had paid most of the grocery bills. David Reynolds notes that Whitman kept a careful eye on his pocketbook; however, Davis, accustomed to self-sacrifice, may have allowed his financial impositions. The precise nature of Whitman and Davis's relationship is also a matter of speculation. Emory Holloway wonders whether Davis had romantic feelings that Whitman did not return; Henry Seidel Canby suggests that he viewed her as a mother substitute. Davis's strongest defender is Whitman's nurse, Elizabeth Leavitt Keller, who portrays Davis as selflessly devoted to Whitman and subject to his manipulations as well as to neighbors' gossip about an unmarried couple living together. Whitman's arrangement with Davis required mutual accommodation: she rendered loyal service but little understood the poet's idiosyncrasies or genius; he acknowledged her care but may have underestimated its value.


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

Canby, Henry Seidel. Walt Whitman: An American. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943.

Holloway, Emory. Whitman: An Interpretation in Narrative. New York: Knopf, 1926.

Keller, Elizabeth Leavitt. Walt Whitman in Mickle Street. New York: Kennerley, 1921.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. 9 vols. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906; Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908; Vol. 3. New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914; Vol. 4. Ed. Sculley Bradley. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1953; Vol. 5. Ed. Gertrude Traubel. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1964; Vol. 6. Ed. Gertrude Traubel and William White. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1982; Vol. 7. Ed. Jeanne Chapman and Robert Maclssac. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1992; Vols. 8–9. Ed. Jeanne Chapman and Robert MacIsaac. Oregon House, Calif.: W.L. Bentley, 1996.


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