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Walt Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, 4 April [1873]

Dearest mother1,

I rec'd your letter to-day, and I also rec'd your letter of Tuesday, (as I wrote Wednesday)—I will write a few lines to Lillie,2 (mostly for Aunt Sally Mead)3

I got a good letter from Jeff4 yesterday5—Mother, Jeff is evidently feeling composed & well—of course he feels Matty's6 death very seriously, but I think he has recovered from the shock, and attends to his business as well as ever—They seem to be well situated at the Buckley's—Jeff writes quite a good deal about you—he writes about Mat's death—about her wishing to see us before she died—

I am writing this seated at my desk in the office—I come over to the office about 12—I do not feel very well, most of the time, but have spells when I feel much better, generally evening—I think the sun affects me—

Mother, we—I and the doctor—have talked much of the electric battery treatment7—but as long as the head is affected, (the brain & nerves) they say it must not be applied, for it will do more harm than good, might cause convulsions—My doctor, Dr. Drinkard, says he will use it as soon as he feels it will do good—but the time has not come yet—I believe I told you I am taking iron, strychnia & quinine to give strength—

I wrote to Jeff yesterday—I send you Harper's Weekly8, to-day, mother, it is quite interesting—I still hold my mind about getting a house here & shall certainly do so9—At present my great hope is to get well, to get so I can walk, & have some use of my limbs—I can write, pretty well, and my mind is clear, but I cannot walk a block, & have no power to do any thing, in lifting or moving any thing in my room, or at my desk—Still I keep good spirits, better far than I would have supposed myself, knowing that I shall get all right in time—I know how much worse things might be in my situation than they are, & feel thankful enough that they are as well as they are—Mother, I was glad to get your letter of Tuesday, April 1. I have been reading the wreck of the Atlantic April 1st10—I think it the saddest thing I ever read—

Well, mama dear, I will close—I hope you will have a pleasant Sunday—Love to you, dear mother, & to all—it is now about ½ past 1 Friday afternoon—I wrote to you Wednesday 2d April, which I suppose you got.



  • 1. Louisa Van Velsor Whitman (1795–1873) married Walter Whitman, Sr., in 1816; together they had nine children, of whom Walt was the second. The close relationship between Louisa and her son Walt contributed to his liberal view of gender representation and his sense of comradeship. For more information on Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, see Sherry Ceniza, "Whitman, Louisa Van Velsor (1795–1873)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 2. Lillie Townsend was, like Priscilla Townsend (see Whitman's April 21, 1873 letter to his mother), presumably a cousin of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman. [back]
  • 3. Sarah Mead was Walt Whitman's maternal grandmother's sister. Mead was at the time over ninety years old. [back]
  • 4. Thomas Jefferson Whitman (1833–1890), known as "Jeff," was Walt Whitman's favorite brother. As a civil engineer, Jeff eventually became Superintendent of Water Works in St. Louis and a nationally recognized name. Whitman probably had his brother in mind when he praised the marvels of civil engineering in poems like "Passage to India." Though their correspondence slowed in the middle of their lives, the brothers were brought together again by the deaths of Jeff's wife Martha (known as Mattie) in 1873 and his daughter Manahatta in 1886. Jeff's death in 1890 caused Walt to reminisce in his obituary, "how we loved each other—how many jovial good times we had!" For more on Thomas Jefferson Whitman, see Randall Waldron, "Whitman, Thomas Jefferson (1833–1890)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 5. Here Walt Whitman summarized Jeff's letter of March 30, 1873. [back]
  • 6. Martha Mitchell Whitman (d. 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 experienced a throat ailment that would lead to her death in 1873. For more information on Mattie, see Randall Waldron, "Whitman, Martha ("Mattie") Mitchell (1836–1873)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 7. At the request of Ellen O'Connor, his sister-in-law, Dr. Channing sent to Walt Whitman on March 19, 1873, a copy of his 1849 treatise on medical electricity, but warned against premature use of electric shock: "In a word electricity must not be used while there is existing lesion of the brain or nerve centres. . . . premature use of electricity . . . may induce congestion, apoplexy or convulsions." [back]
  • 8. Harper's Monthly Magazine (sometimes Harper's New Monthly Magazine or simply Harper's) was established in 1850 by Henry J. Raymond and Fletcher Harper. The magazine published several of Walt Whitman's poems, including "Song of the Redwood-Tree" and "Prayer of Columbus." In 1857, Fletcher Harper founded Harper's Weekly (subtitled "A Journal of Civilization"), which gained its fame for its coverage of the Civil War and its publication of cartoonist Thomas Nast's (1840–1902) work. For Whitman's relationship with these two publications, see "Harper's Monthly Magazine" and "Harper's Weekly Magazine." [back]
  • 9. Walt Whitman also referred to the possibility of purchasing a house in Washington; see his March 1, 1873 letter to Mannahatta Whitman and his February 23 and March 28, 1873 letters to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman. [back]
  • 10. The first reports of the sinking of the steamship Atlantic spoke of the loss of 700 lives. On April 3, 1873, the New York Times noted that the number was 546. Later a board of inquiry attributed the disaster to dereliction of duty on the part of the captain. [back]
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