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Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 23 May 1867

Dear Brother Walt

Yours I received yesterday  I also had a lettr from Mat to-day2  As you can imagine I am very glad to get news from home—I was glad you sent me Mothers letter—

In regard to the house I think too that it is far better to do as you propose and build on George's lot—twill be a home and a good one too I think for Mother3—I see from Matts letter that they are going to be turned out from their place there—that Olmstead4 and all the rest are a mean set of cusses as ever lived—there is no need of their wanting the house

I hav'nt written to Kingsly5 yet—am thinking of perhaps some other way of raising the money—anyway I am pretty sure—indeed am sure that it can be had—how soon will you want it? write me about it—

I am glad you went home6  I guess it did Mother and all of them a great deal of good—Mat writes that she is going out to hire rooms as soon as she can  It seems to me d—m mean that they manage to want the whole of that big house  It looks more like being a little ugly than anything else—I wish Mattie would be a little stiff with them—the Bullards7 I mean the people that are going to move in—the d—m cusses shant have my water pipe unless the[y] behave decent—yet I suppose the Park people are mean enough to prevent my taking it up—

Matters are beginning to get into shape with me—I am in need of Davis8 very much—I have been urging him to come as soon as possible but received a letter to-day saying that he could not possibly get here before the 15th of June if then—I hope however that he will certainly get here by that time.

Mr Kirkwood9 left me this morning—he has been here since Saturday—The Board of Commis[sio]ners I like very much—they do just whatever I ask—at once—indeed almost too much so.10 I begin to feel as if I should get along if I have decent luck—Yet it is hard to say what will turn up—

I manage to get the N. York papers pretty regularly now. I had the Times of Friday while eating my Breakfast on Sunday—that is pretty well isnt it. The weather is quite cool—but nevertheless vegetation is getting forward fast—and just out side the city—where we are to build part of our new works, matters look perfectly beautiful. I hope you will be able to come on here and make me a visit if I stay here long—I begin to like the city better—Yet it dont come up to B[rooklyn] by a long chalk—

Give my regards to Mr and Mrs O'Connor11—write me as often as you can

Affectionately Jeff


  • 1. In his previous letter to Walt, Jeff indicated that everything was "going abt as usual," an innocuous phrase which hid the frustrations of his life. His career had stagnated, money was short, and he was still living at home. His mother thought he looked "bad" and needed "a month of leave from all cares and anxieties"; she noted, too, that he suffered "nervous spells sometimes and is quite moody" (Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman, June 7, 1866, and January 17, 1867 [Trent Collection, William R. Perkins Library, Duke University]). Jeff's depression must have worsened on March 15, 1867, when he attended the funeral of his good friend Dr. Edward Ruggles, whose absence he would long lament (see Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 12 July 1868).

    In the month following this low point, Jeff's life changed abruptly. On March 26, James P. Kirkwood, his former boss in Brooklyn, recommended that Jeff replace him as chief engineer of the new St. Louis Water Works, a system Kirkwood had designed for the state Board of Water Commissioners and the city council. By April an offer had been made and Jeff discussed it with William Douglas O'Connor. O'Connor quickly relayed this information to Walt who urged his brother "to accept the offer, & go, by all means" (Edwin Haviland Miller, ed., The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961-77], 1:326).

    Jeff reported for work in St. Louis on May 7, 1867. He was initially uncertain whether this would be a permanent move: he left Mattie and the children in the East and asked Walt to visit only "if I stay here long." But he liked the energetic young city, the companionship of prominent men like Henry Flad, the excitement of a large project, and the improved salary—in Brooklyn he made two hundred dollars per month, in St. Louis three hundred and thirty. Quickly he assumed the responsibilities that would dominate the next twenty years of his life, the task of building and supervising a waterworks as extensive as that in Brooklyn.

    The plans called for drawing muddy water from the Mississippi, allowing it to settle in reservoirs, and then pumping it into a sprawling distribution system. Partly because the city council had rejected Kirkwood's original location for the works and insisted on a less expensive site nearer the city, Jeff was plagued with such problems as poor soil for foundations and periodic flooding from the river. By drawing freely on the expertise of his old friend Joseph P. Davis and the government publications sent him by William Douglas O'Connor, he overcame these obstacles and completed the job on schedule in 1871.

  • 2. Walt Whitman's letter of about May 21 and Mattie's letter of about May 22 are not extant. [back]
  • 3. Once Jeff left Brooklyn Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's domestic arrangements became a matter of concern. The long-range plan was for George to build her a home. [back]
  • 4. Unidentified. [back]
  • 5. See Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 28 December 1863. [back]
  • 6. Walt Whitman returned home on May 4 mainly, it appears, to calm Louisa Van Velsor Whitman who was alarmed over George's health (a case of malignant erysipelas) and Mattie's impulsive decision to sell furniture and spend the money on clothes (Correspondence, I, 328). [back]
  • 7. Unidentified. [back]
  • 8. See Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 22 September 1863. [back]
  • 9. See Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 16 April 1860. [back]
  • 10. On May 17 Jeff had urged the Board of Water Commissioners to construct a temporary reservoir on Gamble Street to store water while sediment was removed from the main reservoir on Benton Street. This plan was immediately adopted. [back]
  • 11. See Thomas Jefferson Whitman to William Douglas O'Connor, 16 March 1865. [back]
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