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Walt Whitman to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, 16 May [1873]

Dearest Mother1,

I am sitting in my room waiting for the doctor—Mother, you are in my mind most of the time—I do hope as I write this you are feeling better—dear mother, do not get discouraged—there is so much in keeping good heart, (if one only can)—I think that is what has kept me up, & is bringing me through—I think I am still on the gain, though it is very slow—my breakfast is brought up yet, has been this morning—I don't go out till about noon—then I hitch over to the office, & stay there for a couple of hours—then I hitch out & get in the cars & take quite a long ride, (sometimes jolting pretty lively, as the track is bad—but I don't mind it much)—I don't eat any dinner, only a light lunch, as I find it is much better for me—I certainly don't get behindhand any, that's pretty clear, & I count on time bringing me all right—the only thing I think of now is you, dear mother, & about your getting well and strong as usual—

I got your letter yesterday (Thursday)—I suppose you got mine yesterday—I sent Hattie2 a late "Graphic,"3 & one to Han4 also—(the same as the last one I sent to you)—

It is singular how much nervous disease there is—and many cases of paralysis & apoplexy—I think there is something in the air, for a year past, last summer, especially—Fortunately, it seems as if most people got over it—

Friday afternoon—1 oclock

I am over at the office—Have got a letter from Sister Lou5 written Thursday morning,6 which gives me great relief, as it says that Sunday was your worst day, & that you have got relief now—Dear, dear mother, I hope you are still getting better—you must try to feel good courage—I shall come on soon, probably about the 1st of June—

I have got a letter from John Burroughs this morning7—he & wife are both a little homesick, for Washington—they had got a nice home here—but he is going to sell it—& settle up there—he does better there—but he was doing well enough here, & was very comfortable—My head troubles me to-day, but I am over here at my desk, at office—Mother, if convenient write me a line Sunday, so I will get it Monday—


Lou writes a very good, feeling, letter, about you—was very unhappy Sunday8


  • 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. Manahatta Whitman (1860–1886), known as "Hattie," was the daughter of Thomas Jefferson ("Jeff") and Martha ("Mattie") Whitman, Walt Whitman's brother and sister-in-law. Hattie and her sister Jessie were both favorites of their uncle Walt. [back]
  • 3. "Warble for Lilac-Time" was printed in the Graphic on May 12, 1873. It had originally appeared in the Galaxy on May 9, 1870, after Whitman sent it to William C. Church and Francis P. Church on February 8, 1870. [back]
  • 4. Hannah Louisa (Whitman) Heyde (1823–1908), youngest sister of Walt Whitman, married Charles Louis Heyde (ca. 1820–1892), a Pennsylvania-born landscape painter. Charles Heyde was infamous among the Whitmans for his offensive letters and poor treatment of Hannah. Hannah and Charles Heyde lived in Burlington, Vermont. For more, see Paula K. Garrett, "Whitman (Heyde), Hannah Louisa (d. 1908)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 5. Louisa Orr Haslam Whitman (1842–1892), called "Loo" or "Lou," married Whitman's brother George Whitman on April 14, 1871. Their son, Walter Orr Whitman, was born in 1875 but died the following year. A second son was stillborn. Whitman lived in Camden, New Jersey, with George and Louisa from 1873 until 1884, when George and Louisa moved to a farm outside of Camden and Whitman decided to stay in the city. Louisa and Whitman had a warm relationship during the poet's final decades. For more, see Karen Wolfe, "Whitman, Louisa Orr Haslam (Mrs. George) (1842–1892)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 6. In a postscript to this letter Whitman's mother added: "dont come till you can walk good and without injury to your getting fully recovered" (Texas). [back]
  • 7. Burroughs wrote on May 14, 1873. [back]
  • 8.

    About May 17, 1873, Louisa wrote: "my dearly beloved walter thank god i feel better this morning" (The Trent Collection of Whitmaniana, Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library). But this was a false recovery. Walt Whitman went to Camden on May 20, 1873, and three days later his mother died. Her "last lines" reveal her affection for her favorite son: "farewell my beloved sons farewell. i have lived beyond all comfort in this world. dont mourn for me my beloved sons and daughters. farewell my dear beloved walter."

    In the New York Evening Post on May 31, 1919, Helen E. Price recalled that at Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's funeral about thirty persons had been present. "On taking my seat among them, I noticed a curious thumping at intervals that made the floor vibrate beneath my feet. I was so absorbed in my own grief that at first I was hardly conscious of it. I finally left my chair, and going to the back of the room where we were sitting, I noticed a half-opened door leading to another room. Glancing in, I saw the poet all alone by the side of his mother's coffin. He was bent over his cane, both hands clasped upon it, and from time to time he would lift it and bring it down with a heavy thud on the floor. His sister-in-law told me that he had sat there all through the previous night."

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