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Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 21 March 1863

Dear brother Walt,

I have not written to you for the last day or two thinking that I would wait till I could send the prints that you wanted,1 and I also wanted to send a large picture of George with them. Harrison2 promised me them to-day and upon calling he told me that he had spoiled the large ones in the printing. However I got a dozen of the kind (I send you a specimen) and I think it's good, dont you  I shall get the large ones by the middle of next week and I will send you one immediately. I wish you could have been home when George was here, 'twas a great pleasure to be with him. I'm sure he enjoyed himself well and I know that we all did. The bundle of shirts &c that you sent to him were first rate and although we had hard work to make him take them all yet I packed them all in his "traps" almost without his knowing it. By the way Walt in regard to those wollen shirts that I sent down to George by you I am real sorry that I did not know that you or he was not using them for I have wanted them pretty bad myself and should have got you to send them to me before. They were all that I had and I had wore them up to the time that you went away. If you do not use them, and you dont think George will want them for the present, (my reason for thinking that George will not want [them] is that we had such hard work to get him to take all that you sent him) I wish you would send them back to me. Understand me Walt, if you do not use them yourself  if you do, why they will do me as much good as if I had them  In regard to moving, I have given up all ideas of building for the present. I had several bids on the plan for a little house that I had made and they wanted 22 & 23. hundred dollars to build it, so I caved. Things go along with me about as usual. Everything in the way of eating and wearing is awful high, but I manage to make enough to keep my head above water yet. I think (am quite confident) that I shall manage to hold on to the lot without trouble and if I do shall be perfectly satisfied. Undoubtedly we shall all live right along just the same as usual, Browns3 and all.

I have been quite often lately to the Opera  Rather queer and expensive for these hard times aint it? But I take a small dose every time (25 or 50¢ worth)  Walt I wish you could hear a man that is singing here by the name of Bellini.4 He plays the same parts that Amodio used to but possesses the (to me) most wonderful voice, with the single exception of Bertina5 (of old) that I ever heard  He is in looks and acting almost a likeness of Bertina [(]the tenor whom we used to admire so much) and indeed his voice is almost the same, just a little lower, but fully having all those wonderful qualities of pathos and feeling  He certianly would carry you back to the old Castle Garden and Bertina singing "Spirit O'Gentil"6  The tenor (Mazzoleni) is excedingly good. An immense quantity of rather an unfa[i]ling voice, with a little overdosing the action, and a constant "tremolo" (rather of the hand organ style) but after all good and following on the heels of Brignoli, who has by not singing when advertised and cutting the work, and lazy action, he has made an immense success in New York  The woman7 is just the same, only a little more so, and they both make an immense point in letting themselves out in all the choruses, more so than I ever heard before. In Verdi's8 music it is wonderfully grand  I most particularly hope you will hear Bellini.9

Monday Morning—At the same time that I mail this I also mail the bundle of Engravings and papers directed as usual.10 We are all well and jolly as usual. We are having glorious spring weather and sissy wants to know if I wont write and tell Uncle Walt to come home and take her out on Fort Green11  I took her out yesterday P. M. and after walking around a while took the car and went over to New York, returning she walked from the ferry all the way home. Good for less than a 3 year old wasn't it? Let me hear from you soon. All send their love,

—Affectionately Brother Jeff


  • 1. On March 18, 1863, Walt had asked Jeff to send "engravings (20 of the large head)." This is probably the engraving that served as the frontispiece for the 1860 Leaves of Grass. [back]
  • 2. Gabriel Harrison was a photographer. [back]
  • 3. See Jeff's letter to Walt dated April 3, 1860. [back]
  • 4. Domenico Bellini joined Francesco Mazzoleni and Josephine (or Guiseppina) Medori as new members of Max Maretzek's opera company for the Spring 1863 season. The three opened in Il Trovatore on March 6, 1863, at the New York Academy of Music. [back]
  • 5. George C. D. Odell's Annals of the New York Stage, 15 vols. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1927–49) lists no Bertina. This may be a slip for "Bettini," formerly a popular singer at the Castle Garden and Walt's favorite tenor. See Jeff's letter to Walt from February 3, 1865. [back]
  • 6. Jeff refers to the period between 1845 and 1854, when Castle Garden (or "The Battery Theater") was a leading New York opera house. In June 1851, Walt heard Bettini as Fernando in Donizetti's La Favorita sing "Spirto Gentil" ("Spirit of Light"), a sorrowful tune that was among the poet's favorites (Faner, 181). [back]
  • 7. Josephine Medori. [back]
  • 8. The operas of Giuseppi Verdi (1813–1901) were immensely popular. The 1862–63 season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music featured Il Trovatore, Ernani, and La Traviata. Since La Traviata was performed on March 19, 1863, and starred Brignoli, Mazzoleni, and Bellini, this is probably the one Jeff had just seen. [back]
  • 9. Walt Whitman readily acknowledged his admiration for Italian opera and stressed its importance to his poetry, even claiming that the method of "A Child's Reminiscence" (1859; later "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking") was "strictly that of the Italian Opera" (Robert D. Faner, Walt Whitman & Opera [Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1951], v). Late in his career he again emphasized this influence in "The Dead Tenor" (1884), a memorial tribute to Pasquale Brignoli: "How much from thee! the revelation of the singing voice from thee!/ ...How through those strains distill'd—how the rapt ears, the soul of me, absorbing / Fernando's heart, Manrico's passionate call, Ernani's, sweet Gennaro's."

    Jeff and Walt often attended operas together, especially during the period between 1854 and 1862. After the poet left Brooklyn for Washington, Jeff continued, in spite of the war conditions and a shortage of funds, to attend the opera "quite often" on his own. He and Walt shared similar tastes, as those composers, operas, and performers that Jeff mentions—Verdi's Il Trovatore, Donizetti's La Favorita, and the singers Amodio, Francesco Mazzoleni, and Josephine Medori—were ones that Walt praised in essays, notebook jottings, and letters. As Jeff's appreciation for the opera grew, he instructed his former teacher by guiding Walt to the latest arrivals on the New York stage and encouraging him to hear them.

  • 10. See Jeff's March 19, 1863, letter to Walt. [back]
  • 11. Walt responded with playful formality: "I would like to have the pleasure of Miss Mannahatta Whitman's company, the first fine forenoon, if it were possible" (Edwin Haviland Miller, ed., The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961], 1:87). Fort Greene stood opposite the Whitman's Portland Avenue home. Walt believed that one of his two finest achievements as a journalist was "the securing to public use of Washington Park (Old Fort Greene,)...against heavy odds, during an editorship of the Brooklyn Eagle" (Miller, Correspondence, 1964, 3:386). For one of Walt's editorials on the subject, see Cleveland Rogers and John Black, ed., The Gathering of the Forces, (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1920), 2:46–50. [back]
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