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Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman, [23 May 1866]

 tex.00175.001.jpg Dear Walt1

i2 will just write to let you know i have received your letter with 3 dollars in3 and that you think of coming to brooklyn we will try to squeese you in somewhere being your small matty4 has a bedroom on the back of the entry if she dont get a girl to work we will doo quite well you must sent word Walt when or before you come so we will be all prepared) i feel quite smart now but it does tire me so to work to go up and down stairs the children is well and a world of trouble poor little jim5 i think about him often little andrew6 is a good looking litle boy but i suppose they will get along through the dirt mr davis7 has gone to pensylvania for a day or so to the foundry he gets the same salary as Jeff)8 perbasco9 lives there has bought a house he is in the water works employ he was discharged for one the hot concern10


george11 is pretty well he has been troubled with boils on his arm he has had two on one arm but they seem12 better now the weather is cold here for the time of year but we must take it as it comes

good bie Louisa Whitman


Mailed N.Y. "24 May"


  • 1.

    This letter dates to May 23, 1866. Richard Maurice Bucke dated the letter's mailing to May 24, 1866, and Edwin Haviland Miller did not include the letter in his calendar of letters (Walt Whitman, The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77], 1:377). Bucke's date may be derived from the envelope in which the letter was enclosed. The second page of the letter has the note "wensday" in Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's hand. That note may date the letter's composition to May 23, 1866, which fell on Wednesday in 1866.

    As the information in the letter is otherwise scant, some support for year 1866 is provided by eliminating the previous and subsequent years according to contextual hints. The years 1864 and 1865 can be excluded because George Washington Whitman's army concerns would have been present in a letter of those years. The years 1867 and 1868 can be excluded also. If the former, it would be unusual for Louisa not to mention Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman's recent departure for St. Louis, which raised housing concerns for Louisa in May 1867. The latter year (1868) can be eliminated based on Louisa's expressed hopes for a visit from Walt Whitman. She would not have expected a visit in 1868 because Walt on April 23, 1868 promised a visit to Brooklyn, a visit that extended from May 4 to May 17. On the other hand, Louisa's mentions of Brooklyn Water Works engineers Joseph Phineas Davis and Louis Probasco and her references to the family of her deceased son Andrew Jackson Whitman are consistent with the year 1866—and probably consistent with a Water Works public relations disaster in early May 1866.

  • 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's May 20–23?, 1866 letter to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman is not extant. Edwin Haviland Miller did not list this lost letter from Walt (Walt Whitman, The Correspondence [New York: New York University Press, 1961–77], 1:369). Walt took an extended vacation to Brooklyn in August, but he may have visited shortly after his mother and Thomas Jefferson Whitman's family moved to 840 Pacific Street in early May 1866. [back]
  • 4. 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]
  • 5. James "Jimmy" Whitman, Louisa's "little Jim," was the son of Walt Whitman's brother Andrew Jackson Whitman (1827–1863) and Andrew's wife Nancy McClure Whitman. For more on Andrew's family, see Jerome M. Loving, ed., "Introduction," Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1975), 13–14. [back]
  • 6. Andrew Whitman, Jr. (1864–1868), the son of Walt Whitman's brother Andrew Jackson Whitman (1827–1863) and Andrew's wife Nancy McClure Whitman, was born after his father's death. Andrew died in 1868 after he was struck in the street by a brewery wagon. For Walt's response to the death of Andrew, Jr., see his September 7, 1868 letter to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman. [back]
  • 7. Joseph Phineas Davis (1837–1917) took a degree in civil engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1856 and then helped build the Brooklyn Water Works until 1861. He was a topographical engineer in Peru from 1861 to 1865, after which he returned to Brooklyn. Davis, a lifelong friend of Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman, shared the Pacific Street house with Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, son Edward, and Jeff Whitman's family before Jeff departed for St. Louis, and he visited Louisa while serving as an engineer in Lowell, Massachusetts. Davis also served briefly as the chief engineer for Prospect Park, near the Pacific Street house in Brooklyn (see Louisa's May 31, 1866 letter to Walt Whitman). For Davis's work with Jeff Whitman in St. Louis, see Jeff's May 23, 1867, January 21, 1869, and March 25, 1869 letters to Walt Whitman. Davis eventually became city engineer of Boston (1871–1880) and later served as chief engineer of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (1880–1908). For Davis's career, see Francis P. Stearns and Edward W. Howe, "Joseph Phineas Davis," Journal of the Boston Society of Civil Engineers 4 (December 1917), 437–442. [back]
  • 8. Thomas Jefferson Whitman (1833–1890), known as "Jeff," was the son of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and Walter Whitman, Sr., and Walt Whitman's favorite brother. In early adulthood he worked as a surveyor and topographical engineer. In the 1850s he began working for the Brooklyn Water Works, at which he remained employed through the Civil War. In 1867 Jeff became Superintendent of Water Works in St. Louis and became a nationally recognized name in civil engineering. For more on Jeff, see "Whitman, Thomas Jefferson (1833–1890)." [back]
  • 9. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's spelling "perbasco" probably refers to Louis Probasco, an employee at the Brooklyn Water Works (see Thomas Jefferson "Jeff" Whitman's January 16, 1863 letter to Walt Whitman). The Whitmans had two other acquaintances named Probasco—Samuel R. Probasco (1833–1910), an employee at the Brooklyn Water Works from 1856 to 1868 and an assistant engineer in the Department of City Works, and Joe Probasco, a soldier mentioned both in Jeff's September 24, 1863 letter to Walt and in Walt's April 28, 1864 letter to Louisa. [back]
  • 10. The line is not clear but probably reads "for one the hot concern." During a tour of the Brooklyn Water Works in early May 1866, commissioners witnessed outdoor toilets and drainage ditches that discharged into the Ridgewood Reservoir, which supplied drinking water. If Probasco lost his position, he may have been removed because of public complaint about the "hot concern" ("The Ridgewood Water," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 5, 1866, 4). This surmise remains speculative as the transcription is questionable, and no external source confirms Probasco's discharge. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman may report rumors from the Water Works engineers. [back]
  • 11. George Washington Whitman (1829–1901) was the sixth child of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman and Walter Whitman, Sr., and ten years Walt Whitman's junior. George enlisted in the Union Army in 1861 and remained on active duty until the end of the Civil War. He was wounded in the First Battle of Fredericksburg (December 1862) and was taken prisoner during the Battle of Poplar Grove (September 1864). After the war, George returned to Brooklyn and began building houses on speculation, with a partner named Smith and later a mason named French. George eventually took up a position as inspector of pipes in Brooklyn and Camden. For more information on George, see "Whitman, George Washington." [back]
  • 12. Only the first three letters of the word "seem" are visible in the image or page. The letter is pasted into a manuscript book, and the final letters on the edge closest to the binding in the page image are often obscured. Most of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman manuscript letters in the bound volume entitled Walt Whitman: A Series of Thirteen Letters from His Mother to Her Son, held at the Harry Ransom Center, have obscured text on at least one page. Text from this page was recorded based on an examination of the physical volume, which allowed more text to be recovered. [back]
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