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Memorialized in a late poem as “the ideal woman, practical, spiritual, of all of earth, life, love, to me the best” (LG, p. 497), Louisa Van Velsor Whitman was born on September 22, 1795, near Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island. Little is known of her rural youth beyond such fragmentary descriptions as Whitman provides in poems, in Specimen Days, in an obscure early “Fact-Romance,” and in the notebooks which served as sources for his writing.[4] In one of these notebook entries, he recalls how her father gallantly defied the British during the American Revolution. When a raiding party invaded his stable, Major “Kell” held his ground. Eighteen-year-old Cornelius was acting as a private citizen; the title, bestowed later, was honorific. “As usual,” Whitman wrote, “great courage, will, and coolness, stood him in hand. The swords flourished and flashed around his head—the women were in tears, expect'g he would be killed; but he held on to the mare, and the upshot of it was, the British rode away without her” (NUPM 1:19). After this inspiring beginning, “Kell” settled down to an unremarkable career as a farmer whose passion was horse breeding. The heroic beginning was not fulfilled and Walt Whitman bore the burden, transmitted to him by his mother, of exemplifying the great courage, will, and coolness exhibited by her father in his only notable moment of glory.[5] This, then, was manliness: courage, will, and coolness. But was it his mother or his father who exhibited these characteristics? Louisa, remember, could “impersonate.”

Whitman's maternal grandmother Amy Van Velsor presided efficiently over the family hearth, welcoming visitors and then generally receding into the background of a hospitable home. Probably she is the prototype of the elderly woman in “The Sleepers,” who carefully darns her grandson's

stockings, while sitting “low” in a straw-bottomed chair (LG 1855, p. 108). Humble, serviceable Grandmother Amy might have been a Quaker, had she not married out of the faith. She was Quakerish in her style of dress, or at least in the style of her cap. Accounts vary.[6] Grandmother Amy is also a likely model for Whitman's nostalgic portrait of “The justified mother of men!” which he uses to conclude the turbulent 1855 poem “Faces.” “Behold a woman!” the speaker commands, averting his gaze from more disturbingly modern sights,

She looks out from her quaker cap. … her face is clearer and more beautiful than the sky.

She sits in an armchair under the shaded porch of the farmhouse, The sun just shines on her old white head.

Her ample gown is of creamhued linen, Her grandsons raised the flax, and her granddaughters spun it with the distaff and the wheel.

The Melodious character of the earth! The finish beyond which philosophy cannot go and does not wish to go! The justified mother of men!

(LG 1855, pp. 127–28)[7]

Using his grandmother Amy Van Velsor to repair the ravages of a later time, Whitman shows us a “clear” face unmarked by history. But this optimistic portrait of a woman at peace with herself and her surroundings has no depth. The emphasis is on costume, as though all the figures were intent on impersonating a happy family.[8]

Grandmother Amy as the “Faces” Quakeress leads the peaceful life that Whitman wished could have been his own mother's—a life in which no stoically philosophizing son would need to justify the maternal presence. However, we encounter a significantly less tranquil image of the Van Velsors together in a piece of ephemeral journalism published when Whitman was in his mid-twenties. The story beginning “When my mother was a girl” first appeared in the Aristidean in December 1845. As editor, Whitman reprinted it in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in December 1846, under the title “An Incident on Long Island Forty Years Ago.” Here an older Cornelius Van Velsor is depicted as insensitive to the fears of his wife and daughter and as more concerned with his horse than with their well-being. As the slyly humorous narrative ends, his wife almost chokes him to death “in good earnest” (EPF 325–26). The story initially pivots on Kell's untimely absence from home. Whitman labeled it a “FactRomance,

” while mocking anyone who might purport to be “an authentic biographer.”

The domestic confrontation of the “Incident” repeats an underlying motif of the notebook entry describing “Major Kell” as a fearless if minor hero of the American Revolution. In both episodes, Kell alarms the women in his family, but in the earlier episode, the anxiety he causes is justified. The civilian sketch presents a coarsened Kell—he is described as red-faced, laughing, and bluff-voiced. The Revolutionary Kell arouses pride as well as fear, but the civilian Kell is a lout. In both episodes, Cornelius Van Velsor makes women feel anxious, and Grandmother Amy makes Grandfather Kell feel—but how does he feel? At this point Whitman's 1845–46 story ends and the notebook entry written in the 1860s does not attempt to probe Kell's inner life. In both episodes, the women are invested in Kell; they care enough to cry about him. In the “Incident,” however, this care is not reciprocated and Kell's favorite horse is called “Dandy—a creature he loved next to his wife and children—he rode away to attend to it.”

The story reworks a number of urgent family themes, including the anger shared by Whitman and his mother at his grandfather's untimely death. For the historical rather than the fantasized Cornelius Van Velsor seems to have been a stabilizing influence in Walt's uncertain youth and an obvious contrast to Walt's hard luck father. Then, too, hospitable and useful Grandmother Amy died when Walt was about seven and Louisa about thirty. From their mutual perspective, the replacement stepgrandmother was not “a very good investment” (NUPM 1:7 n. 30). Relations between the two families were less close after that time. The Major died in 1838 before Walt was twenty and so far as we can tell the Whitmans inherited nothing from his estate.[9] Memorializing him late in his own life, Whitman presents Cornelius Van Velsor as a “solid” role model. But there is a disquieting conclusion when he describes the trips they often took together up and down the Island. Despite their physical proximity, no words are exchanged, no feelings acknowledged. In this account, Kell's old-fashioned “ease” once again did not translate into sensitivity to the disease of others.

Major Van Velsor was a good specimen of a hearty, solid, fat old gentleman, on good terms with the world, and who liked his ease.—For over forty years, he drove a stage and market wagon from his farm to Brooklyn ferry, where he used to put up at Smith & Wood's old tavern on the west side of the street, near Fulton ferry.—He was wonderfully regular in these weekly trips; and

in those old fashioned times, people could almost tell the time of day, by his stage passing along the road—so punctual was he.—I have been up and down with him many times: I well remember how sick the smell of the lampblack and oil with which the canvass covering of the stage was painted, would make me. (NUPM 1:6–7)

Weaving memories of his childhood and personal and family fortunes in and out of his published and unpublished poetry and prose, Whitman returned again and again to the woman he idealized as a model of familial steadiness and domestic self-control. After her death, he wrote about the “calm benignant face fresh and beautiful still,” but this was the face, too, that drew him into “the coffin” of convulsive, sexualized feelings he could not control. Whitman lived beyond the morbidity of his 1881 “monumental line,” but he continued to turn to thoughts of “the divine blending, maternity” to fuse his various irreconcilable moods (LG, p. 497). This process of idealistic fusion, abetted by culturally encouraged images of mother-worship, had begun early. So too had the inevitable counter-response, the movement away from the coffin out into the sunlight, away from convulsive kisses and toward a more artfully individuated masculine self. In the Long Island “Incident” of 1845, with its undercurrent of free-floating malice, Whitman characteristically describes Louisa as doing her best to soothe her frightened mother, and her cheerfulness is a consistent theme in his various accounts of her reassuring nature. Others found her less cheerful, especially once old age and loneliness had begun to depress her. But whether or not she was always calm and compassionate, stoical and capable, generous and loving—whether or not she was the consistently noble and flowering mother of the Whitman myth—Louisa Van Velsor Whitman was an unusually dependable worker in a world where much was undependable. In this, she was like her father with his market wagon: the wagon that for Whitman served to isolate as well as to provide.

Physically active and proud of her physical and mental endurance, Louisa was generally able to suppress whatever anger she felt toward the men in her life, including the husband who was less steady emotionally than she. At least, there is no record of any mock-murderous outburst on her part such as Whitman attributes to Grandmother Amy after she had been deserted and humiliated by Grandfather Kell. When provoked, however, Louisa was tart-tongued, and one of the ways in which she defended herself against outrageous fortune was by treating young Walt as her confidant. “In the observation of the drama of human nature,” he later wrote, in one of his fabulous self-reviews, “if, indeed, ‘all the world's

a stage’—Walt Whitman has had rare advantages as auditor, from the beginning” (UPP 2:58–59). “My dear mother possessed the story-telling faculty,” he recalled more simply, “whenever she had been anywhere she could describe it, tell me all about it.” Despite her “happy-tending natural disposition” (Corr 3:366), which Walt at times claimed to have inherited, in later years Louisa's outspoken catalogue of complaints, however erratically spelled and punctuated, was weighty and long.

In a photograph taken in 1855, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman's mobile expression is difficult to decode. She is simply dressed. The strings of her white ruffled cap hanging down Quaker style, her deepset eyes do not quite meet the camera's gaze. Looking slightly to one side, she appears alternately grim and amused. Either she is smiling slightly, her thin-lipped mouth closed, or she isn't. Her straight, darkish hair is mostly covered by her cap. She looks strong, intelligent, self-possessed, but there is little trace of the physical beauty Walt proudly ascribed to her. Probably the photograph is unflattering, as is the single portrait we have of her husband, in which he looks angry and desperately unkempt. With her athletic body—like all the Whitmans except Eddy she was “good-sized”—Louisa was able to do more housework than many other women. And while Walt's brother Jeff complained of her stinginess at table, Walt adored her cooking. Louisa was tall for a woman of her time, and when he was searching for mother-surrogates to pull him out of his unusually prolonged depression in the 1870s—a depression precipitated by ill health and by feelings of repressed hostility toward the lost mother he had consciously adored—he took pleasure in the company of Susan Stafford, a “good-sized” farm woman whose welcoming home at Timber Creek helped to turn him back from death toward life. “Shape-first, face afterward,” he explained jocularly to her son Harry, Harry himself being part of the cure (Corr 3:361).

Meeting Walt's mother in November 1855, Bronson Alcott described Louisa Whitman as “a stately sensible matron, believing in Walter absolutely and telling us how good he was and wise as a boy, how his four brothers and two sisters loved him, and how they take counsel of the great man he is grown to be now.”[10] But the numbers don't add up. Jesse (b. 1818), Walt (b. 1819), Mary (b. 1821), Hannah (b. 1823), Andrew (b. 1827), George (b. 1829), Jeff (b. 1833), Eddy (b. 1835). Including Walt, there were six Whitman brothers. Assuming Alcott remembered correctly, which one of her sons was Louisa eliminating? Her oldest, Jesse, irritable and unstable, who wouldn't listen to Walt? Or her youngest, Ed, mentally feeble and physically lame? Did Walt learn from her his

ability to fold disturbing particulars into a larger, nobler scheme? Is that one of the ways in which “Leaves of Grass is the flower of her temperament active in me?” And to what extent did this proud habit encourage self-isolation, rather than producing the desired sociable effect? John Burroughs, meeting Walt's mother in 1868, called her a “spry, vivacious, handsome old lady.”[11] Like other members of the Whitman circle, he accepted her uncritically as the fond mother of a fond son. “My mother was a Van Velsor,” Whitman subsequently explained to Traubel. “I favor her: ‘favor’ they call it up on Long Island—a curious word so used, yet a word of great suggestiveness” (WWWC 2:280). On Long Island, where they remembered her as a young woman, people commented on the similarity of their features, their gait, their voice.

Despite her great pride in Walt, and his in her, Louisa's was a hard life, its pleasures far from obvious. Losing her husband in 1855, she continued to yearn for a secure home of her own and was only too dependent on her grown sons, including Walt, for handouts. Here is a letter from her later years, written after she had had too much family company for too long. Her son Jeff, his wife Mattie, and their two young daughters were visiting from St. Louis in the fall of 1868. Mattie arrived in mid-October with the girls, Jeff joined them on November 20, and they left in mid-December. Louisa was seventy-three and complaining as usual about the stinginess of her relatives. “O Walt,” the letter begins, using the plaintive “o” that figures so prominently as an emotive signal in his poems,

haint i had a seige they pretended to live up stairs but the provisions was prepared down … they have never paid a cent of rent nor a cent of gas bill nor give me a dollar when they went away they gave me an allapaca dress when they came and Jeff bought me a little mite of a castor that is all about three weeks ago george [another son] bought 20 lb of butter and they have used out of it ever since and matty borrowed 50 dollars of george but jeffy dident settle it they had plenty of money as Jeffy drawed that out of the bank i really think they had ought to give me some but let everything go but i would ask more than 100 to go through the same again burn this letter[12]

Obviously, Walt did not comply. Louisa's emphasis on pretense is especially interesting given that Walt himself was in Providence, Rhode Island, during part of this time, and writing to Peter Doyle about his success “in the midst of female women” as a “gay deceiver” (Corr 2:62). If Leaves of Grass “is the flower of her temperament active in me,” one element of this temperament was the desire to keep up appropriately gendered

appearances—as Louisa, for all her dissatisfactions as a mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, and hostess, was attempting to do.

To say this is not to deny the genuineness of the compassion that Louisa, like Walt, could feel for others. Louisa could direct pity outward as well as in, but it was Walt who needed to mythologize the constancy of this element of her character. Thus when the besieging and borrowing Mattie died of lung cancer in February 1873, only several months before Louisa's own death, Louisa explained with pity first for her daughter-in-law and then, increasingly, for herself,

poor matt i feel so bad about her i cant keep her out of my mind

(February 27, 1873)

poor dear Matt i think of her day and night but i very seldom mention her name walt matt was a kind daughter to me i have cause to regret her death

(March 21, 1873)

O i think sometimes if i could see matty once more as i used to and tell her all my ups and downs what a comfort it would be to me i never had any one even my own daughters i could tell every thing to as i could her when you get old like me Walt you feel the need of such a friend

(Spring 1873)[13]

This indirect recrimination may not have hurt, since Walt probably accepted the fact that close friendships among women were the norm. An intimate mother-daughter relationship was to be expected, though here too Louisa describes herself as shortchanged. Louisa's letter suggests that confidences are gendered and that she longed for specifically female companionship, for the empathic discourse of a “female world of love and ritual.”[14] Geographically separated from her own daughters, and perhaps emotionally separated as well, Louisa did what she could to cultivate daughter substitutes. One of them, Josephine Barkeloo, wrote to her in October 1872, “it is my bed hour. Good night, you are in your dreams, and I am kissing you in imagination you half awaken and say ‘Is that you—Walter?’ but you are mistaken it was—Yours truly, Joe.”[15] It would be nice to think that close friendships with younger women made Louisa's later life bearable, but Joe Barkeloo suggests that Louisa's primary identification was with “Walter,” the name shared by father and son. In this context, “Walter” is Walt, and “Joe” was right. Although she respected the demands of his career, Louisa preferred to have Walt by her side.

Here is another of Louisa's letters, written in December 1865. George Whitman, a former prisoner of war, had been living at home since the preceding

March, and Louisa, perplexed and depressed by his uncharacteristic stinginess, turned to Walt for emotional and financial relief.

Dear Walt i have got in the habit of writing to you every sunday so i thought i wouldent break through to day) i received your letter yesterday after looking all day for one i was glad to have the letter and glad to have the 2 dollars at noon i hadent one cent and i asked georgee to give me 50 cents and after looking for a considerable time he laid me down 50 cents well Walt i felt so bad and child like i cried because he dident give me more if i had got the 2 dollars [sent by Walt] a little sooner i should not have asked i have got along very well up to about 2 weeks ago and since that time george has been moody and would hardly speak only when i spoke to him well of course you will say mother put the worst construction on it well walt i did not the first few days i thought perhaps something had gone wrong in his business affairs but up to day he has been so different from what he was ever since i have been home but to day he is more like himself well Walt i thought of every thing sometimes i would think maybee he is tired of having me and Edd and then i would think george is too noble a fellow for that to be the cause and i knew that i had not or he had not been to more expence than if he paid his board Jeffy told me to have a talk with george and ask him what made him so but i dident like to i would ask him if he wasent well and so on but i doo hope it will go over i acted just the same as if i did not notice any change but i felt awful bad and what has made him act so god only knows but i believe it runs in the Whitman family to have such spells any how i hope they wont come often. … well walt next sunday when i write maybe it will be more cheerful i wish walt you will send me ten dollars not all at one time but if you can send me 5 at the next writing my shoes is rather bad for cold weather i have some mind to not send this letter now i have wrote it if you write any thing about it put it in a separate peice.

L Whitman

Casting about late in life for a satisfactory myth of origins, Whitman hit on his mother's “Hollandish” and Quaker inheritance. He emphasized her sunny temperament, which shone the brighter in contrast to his father's dour English disposition. Yet there were gaps in the family narrative that genetic or racial discourse was inadequate to explain. If Walt described himself as in certain senses “a stranger in their midst,” Louisa, too, suffered from social isolation. In the letter quoted above, for example, she encodes a double message. On the one hand, she craves sympathy and needs to talk; on the other, her pride prevents her from expressing her hurt to her son George, by whom she feels cruelly rejected. Turning to Jeff for advice, she ignores it. Instead, she carries on as usual, speculating to herself about “what has made him act so,” which has the effect of further isolating both herself and George. Hopelessly, she concludes “god only knows” and fatalistically interprets her son's punishing

silence as a Whitman family trait. To the extent that there is a spiritual dimension to this interaction—for Walt called his ideal woman “spiritual” as well as “practical”—the spirituality consists in turning inward. Louisa turned inward to avoid confrontations she was afraid of losing. The strategy was practical, in that it salvaged what remained of her self-esteem.

Several months before he received the tearful letter quoted above, Whitman, who was visiting in Brooklyn, had written to Nelly O'Connor about his mother's “splendid condition” (Corr 1:270). Undoubtedly Louisa was more splendid because Walt was in the house, but he had always tried to protect her and did his best, even as a child, not to burden her with his troubles. “He was a very good, but very strange boy,” Mrs. Whitman explained to a chance visitor, after her son had become famous.[16] Did she mean that he was always studying or that he so rarely asked anything for himself, especially since some of the others were so much more demanding? The myth that Whitman was an idler during his youth is just that. As Sandra Tomc has suggested in her analysis of “literary leisure,” writers other than Whitman “insisted on their exemption from the modern rhythms of labor and accumulation.” She traces the deployment of an “idleness ethic from the early republican to the antebellum periods,” using Nathaniel Parker Willis as her prime example of a conflicted relationship to the middle-class marketplace.[17] Whitman, too, sought to uncouple the relationship between class status and the aristocratic fantasy of leisure. But we should not be fooled. During his youth, Walter Whitman Junior, like his mother, was notably hardworking. Louisa recognized as much and was not one of those persons who called him “lazy.”

In any event, the conflicted psychological community formed by Whitman and his mother was written into the fiction published by Walter Whitman Junior in the 1840s. At this time Walter Senior, with his “sound strong body heredity,” was still working and well,[18] but Whitman most memorably represents his fictional mother as a widow, and he represents himself as her only son. At some level this exclusionary fantasy would have been gratifying to Louisa. At some level, too, Whitman's transformative narratives expressed their shared, mutually reinforcing ambivalence not only toward Walt's father, but toward some of his brothers. For example, both Louisa and Walt had to contend with the firstborn Jesse, who, in addition to being highly intelligent, was passionate from birth and subject to violent outbursts. Jesse's lack of self-control reinforced the young Whitman's tendency to withdraw into himself; he was never known as a glib talker.[19]


Walt and Louisa were probably both relieved when as a teenager Jesse ran away to sea, but he suffered a severe head injury in an accident or brawl during the late 1840s, which ended his life as a merchant marine. He drifted during the 1850s, still thinking of the sea, and, according to Jeff, living with an Irish whore.[20] By March 1860, he was working in the Brooklyn Navy Yard “again” and wanted to come home “again,” as he seems to have done in the recent past. But Louisa, having rented out part of the house, explained to Walt, “I told him he would have to hire board somewhere as I had hired out so much of the house I had no place for him to sleep” (March 30, 1860). Jesse continued to work at the Navy Yard, and in the summer of 1861 he was working there every day (Corr 1:56). However, when Walt committed Jesse to the Kings County Lunatic Asylum in December 1864, the record of admission stated, “He has been considered somewhat insane by his friends [that is, family] for the last four years.”[21] This opinion was shared by Louisa, who in 1863 considered him “deranged,” but no more so than he had been for the last three years. Much about Jesse's “dissipated” history is vague, but at some point after April 29, 1860, when Fred Vaughan visited the Whitmans in Brooklyn, Louisa had “again” found room for Jesse in her crowded home.[22] More constantly, she was burdened by her youngest, Ed, who was lame and “weak brained” and institutionalized only after her death.[23] The aging Louisa was faced with “two [cases] of grown helplessness,” as Walt called them, and during the Civil War he wrote that her bravery was “beyond the heroisms of men” (Corr 1:183). So why should we expect Louisa to be a stranger to jealousy and bitterness? Given the limited control she had over her life, she had a great deal to be jealous and bitter about. In the many letters she sent Walt during her later years (1863–73), Louisa Van Velsor Whitman represented herself as chronically impoverished. When she had five hundred dollars in her bank account she was afraid to use it, since her children supported her and she experienced her lack of financial independence as infantilizing. While Jeff, for one, thought she exaggerated her poverty, it is easy to understand why she felt forced to hoard and scrimp and save, and to charge her grown children board money when they wanted to come visit—even if those visits were rare, and even if the occasion was a wedding. “When I get desperate I write[,] commit it to paper[,] as you literary folk say,” she explained in November 1863, shortly before describing the heartrending “particulars of Andrew's death.”[24] (Her son Andrew died of tuberculosis

complicated by alcoholism at the age of thirty-six.) Walt, by then living in Washington, D.C., was her “good old standby.” Such a role took its toll on him; he suffered a nervous breakdown when his mother died in May 1873. This followed his stroke in January, from which he had only just begun to recover. “My only torment,” he explained to Emerson when he first arrived in Washington, in December 1862, “family matters” (Corr 1:60).

As we have seen, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman was semiliterate; she could read and write, but her formal schooling was extremely limited. Time permitting, in later years she enjoyed reading newspapers and magazines and reading and writing letters. She followed the ups and downs of Walt's literary career with great interest and once wrote him that she read a little in his Drum-Taps every night before going to sleep.[25] She also enjoyed his poems “Whispers of Heavenly Death” and “Proud Music of the Storm.” As a literary critic, she was strong on family loyalty, commenting to her untalkative, unimaginative son George in 1855 that if Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha was poetry, then maybe so was Leaves of Grass.[26]

According to Walt, Louisa was a daring and spirited rider in her youth, of which no further accomplishments have been noted.[27] On June 8, 1816, when she was twenty, she married Walter Whitman Senior, six years older than she, whose family lived only several miles away. They moved into a nearby house that her husband had built. He earned a meager living as a carpenter, building houses and barns when he could get the work.[28] Their promising first child, Jesse, who disappointed them all, was born about March 2, 1818. Some fifteen months later, “on the last day of May 1819,” Walt was born, as he tells us in “Who Learns My Lesson Complete?”—the 1855 poem that alludes to his mother's womb as the source of his identity, while omitting any mention of his father's role in this presumably immaculate conception. After Walt's birth, there was a child almost every other year, including a male infant who died still unnamed in 1825. The last child, Edward, born in 1835 when Louisa was forty, was, as I mentioned earlier, lame and mildly retarded.

Married for thirty-nine years but virtually silent in her letters on the subject of her feelings about her husband, Louisa was increasingly de-pendent on her growing children both for material and for emotional support. Two of them, Jeff and Walt, plainly adored her, though Jeff commented ruefully, “Work and worry she will and I dont think the power of man can prevent it.”[29] Work also emerges as a central issue in the

short but powerful “fact-romance” in the 1855 Leaves of Grass, which presents itself as the story of Louisa's young womanhood as told to Walt, and as told by him to us:

Now I tell what my mother told me today as we sat at dinner together, Of when she was a nearly grown girl living home with her parents on the old homestead.

A red squaw came one breakfasttime to the old homestead, On her back she carried a bundle of rushes for rushbottoming chairs; Her hair straight shiny coarse black and profuse halfenveloped her face, Her step was free and elastic. … her voice sounded exquisitely as she spoke.

My mother looked in delight and amazement at the stranger, She looked at the beauty of her tallborne face and full and pliant limbs, The more she looked upon her she loved her, Never before had she seen such wonderful beauty and purity; She made her sit on a bench by the jamb of the fireplace. … she cooked food for her, She had no work to give her but she gave her remembrance and fondness.

The red squaw staid all the forenoon, and toward the middle of the afternoon she went away; O my mother was loth to have her go away, All the week she thought of her. … she watched for her many a month, She remembered her many a winter and many a summer, But the red squaw never came nor was heard of there again.

(LG 1855, pp. 110–11)

Whether or not this episode ever happened we shall probably never know. There were remnants of native peoples living on Long Island in Louisa's youth; some of them were itinerant weavers and we have already seen Whitman's reference to his grandmother Amy's straw-bottomed chair—like the one Whitman himself eventually occupied during his paralytic days. But whether or not it happened, this beautiful and disturbing episode presents a strong-willed Louisa for whom the past is more real than the present. The Indian woman by whom Louisa is permanently captivated comes to her looking for work and leaves her looking for work elsewhere. Though her step is described as “free and elastic,” and though “her voice sounded exquisitely as she spoke,” the beautiful stranger cannot accept “remembrance and fondness” for pay. As her letters amply demonstrate, Louisa herself was not satisfied with emotion as remuneration. In a particularly self-expressive letter, she complained to Walt, “i think sometimes i wish i was a hundred miles off.”[30] Ironically, in “The Sleepers” the vanishing Indian woman represents the physical

and social mobility the white woman covets. Romantic racialism? Yes. But the point is not that the historical Louisa envied an impoverished Indian squaw. Rather, as romanticized by her poet-son, Louisa held firm to the dreams of her young womanhood, idealized the beautiful stranger, and did not willingly let her go. Writing as his mother's biographer, Whitman fuses his story with hers. There is forbidden same-sex love, an unremitting search for remunerated work, and the appeal of the open road. Why should we doubt that like her Dutch ancestor, “Old Salt Kossabone,” Louisa often yearned to be “free—[to be] on her destination” (LG, p. 522)? Despite her oppressively domestic context, she successfully transmitted this love of freedom to her poet-son. Whatever else she accomplished, she accomplished this.

And what of George Washington, the father of his country, whose story precedes Louisa's in “The Sleepers”? What binds “Washington” to Louisa? Nothing, it seems, except the poet's imagination. In Whitman's account, both Washington and Louisa are reluctant to let go of the past and both are defined through a combined logic of fact and romance. In repeating the homosocial elements of Washington's well-known story in Louisa's unofficial homoerotic narrative, however, Whitman heightens the effect. And he has made no attempt to represent himself as Washington's intimate. Instead, he has located the official male tradition further back in time and in public places. Thus the speaker has no privileged access to Washington's history, as he had to his mother's. As befits the sentimental mode, Whitman's Washington weeps copiously. His feelings are expressed through his body. While he encourages physical expressiveness in others, the importance of conversation is correspondingly diminished.

The same at last and at last when peace is declared, He stands in the room of the old tavern. … the wellbeloved soldiers all pass through.

The officers speechless and slow draw near in their turns, The chief encircles their necks with his arm and kisses them on the cheek, He kisses lightly the wet cheeks one after another. … he shakes hands and bids goodbye to the army.

(LG 1855, p. 110)[31]

In describing both “the defeat at Brooklyn” and Washington's farewell to his men at Fraunces Tavern, the poet emphasizes that even the father of his country is unable to preserve the intense homosocial bonds generated by war. Similarly, Louisa is unable to preserve the female world of love and ritual associated with a romantic and racialized peace. Following his mother's story, to which he does not respond, there is a violent

break in narrative structure, and the speaker describes himself as “Lucifer's sorrowful terrible heir.” That is, he does the structural equivalent of getting up and leaving the table since his identification with his mother's erotic defeat has made him deeply anxious. To control this anxiety, he initiates a heterosexual romance. Now, however, the Luciferian Whitman has no one to kiss or weep with, as did Washington, and no son to feed with tales of her lost loves, as did Louisa. Instead, the “confused … pastreading” speaker has a clearly designated antagonist, a traitorous Judas figure who “informs against my brother and sister and takes pay for their blood.” This stage villain “laughs when I look down the bend after the steamboat that carries away my woman” (LG 1855, p. 111). Impersonating an enraged slave, Whitman melodramatically links the heterosexual present with other oppressions and martyrdoms, drawing as well on the background of Shakespearean revenge tragedy, as in Hamlet's “How all occasions do inform against me” (III, iv). The poem's coherence is strained to the breaking point in this episode, which links slavery and heterosexual desire. But it now appears that romance constitutes subjectivity and that the failure of romance, for whatever reason, destroys the man and creates the beast. Do we believe the speaker, whoever he is? Is he serious, or camping?

Despite the stylistic breaks in the poem's structure, which are intended to open the door to the future, the compulsions of the past linger on. The most emphatic of these breaks occurs as the speaker turns to “an amour of the light and air,” representing himself as both “jealous and overwhelmed with friendliness” (LG 1855, pp. 111–12; italics mine). Normally, these emotions are incompatible, though the word “overwhelmed” rationalizes their union. “Friendliness” is a quality we may feel or receive; Whitman's language does not distinguish between being overwhelmed by his own desire and being overwhelmed by someone else's. This fusion of subject and object is a problem for the poet who possesses a sympathetic imagination and for an actual self in the feeling world. “Friendliness” is also oddly paired with love, though “an amour of the light and air” may provide exactly the kind of inconsequential diversion he needs if he is to extricate himself from the identity confusions that haunt both his waking and his sleeping hours. Finally, the speaker continues to fear too much of a good thing, the good thing identified at the poem's conclusion as a symbolization of maternal presence. Following a diversionary passage, in which all sufferings and sicknesses are charmingly relieved but in which no one speaks to anyone else, the poet expresses his wariness of the night, which he equates with

the unconscious and with the chaotic feminine element in his psyche. “Why should I be afraid to trust myself to you?” he asks. But now, we understand. Still looking for that perfect place where “The father holds his grown or ungrown son in his arms with measureless love. … and the son holds the father in his arms with measureless love,” where “The white hair of the mother shines on the white wrist of the daughter,” but in which no mother tells heartrending tales to her son, Whitman has not clarified his gender sympathies and confusions (LG 1855, p. 114). Though he has affirmed the value of love between men, love between women, and love between men and women, he has not settled on a “fact-romance” for himself. An “amour of the light and air” sounds good. But what will it mean?

In analyzing “The Sleepers” from the perspective of Whitman as a psychologically attentive and internally conflicted poet and son, I have suggested that there were times during his youth and subsequently when Whitman viewed both of his parents as heroic victims of circumstance, though in the end he sat down at the table with his mother, while his father remained somehow isolated on a high hill and beyond the lines. Louisa, whose official and unofficial story it is possible to follow in greater detail, may have wished to preserve her ties to the past, but her own mother died when Louisa was little more than thirty and the step-grandmother, as we have seen, was not a “good investment.” For most of her married life, therefore, Louisa was unable to depend on a traditional kinship network. She was also unsustained by a religious community or the power of religious belief—though she occasionally uses the word “god” in her letters. Thus at the time of the death of her son Andrew in 1863, she wrote Walt, “i am composed and calm would not wish him back to suffer poor soul i hope he is at rest.” There is no suggestion of an afterlife for the third son of whom she had recently written to Walt, “you know Andrew always was testy and jelous” (November 1863). “he died like any one going to sleep without a struggle sensible to the last,” Louisa wrote. “just before he died he turned his head and looked at your and georges pictures for some time and then shut his eyes god grant i may never witness another” (December 18, 1863). “i pity Andrew very much,” she wrote, “but i think sometimes how much more those poor wounded and sick soldiers suffer with so much patience poor souls i think much about them and always glad to hear you speak of them i dont think walt after you being amongst them so long you could content yourself from them it becomes a kind of fasination and you get attached to so many of the poor young men” (November 1863). Meanwhile,

Jesse was raging, but she quelled him with a word. “i said jesse your brother lies up stairs dead he calmed down immediately and is very good natured.”[32]

Faulknerian in its intensity of family distress, as young children provoke and as brother turns insanely against brother—Andrew himself had threatened to break his niece's neck—Louisa's unsentimental narrative is framed by requests for and complaints about money. Throughout her life, her physical and social aspirations were chronically compounded by her lack of financial independence, which, as we have seen, to a woman of her high spirit was galling indeed. Notably, too, there is only one place in her letters where she appears to be quoting Leaves of Grass. In June 1867, she suggested to Walt that George, the ex-soldier, tired by an overly long walk to and from work and handicapped by lameness in his legs, felt as if “he would like to loaf and live at his ease,” a phrase which echoes the famous opening of “Song of Myself” (“I loafe and invite my soul / I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass”).[33] As Louisa was quick to point out, George refused to take her advice, returning to work earlier in the afternoon than she deemed necessary. Thus, though she describes herself as having “to work so very hard i feel when i lie down at night as if i should not be able to get up in the morning,” she was judgmental about the hard work of others, including her daughter-in-law Mattie, whose “working on the [sewing] machine so steady hurt her.”

There are many widely dispersed sources for Walt's “lazy” poetic persona, including his own “Sun-Down Papers from the Desk of a School-master” (1840), in which he asserts, mock humorously, “All the old philosophers were loafers,” and “For my part, I have had serious thoughts of getting up a regular ticket for President and Congress and Governor and so on, for the loafer community in general. I think we loafers should organize” (UPP 1:44, 45).[34] But surely one source of Walt's loaferish bachelor persona—his sexy dreamer, his “rough” of leisure—was his identification with a mother who, despite her surface cheerfulness (“i feel quite smart considering i have to work so very hard”), was a chronic struggler for success in the form of physical comfort, which she felt had eluded her. Anticipating yet another move in her early seventies, “well Walt,” she wrote, “here we are yet in the same old place but i doo want to get out of it very much indeed there is so many children and not the best i ever see but a continual traveling up and down from morning till night one good thing their dog is dead he filled the house with fleas so maybe we shall get clear of them now.”[35]


Whatever the difficulties of recovering the “original” and “strangely knowing” Louisa who “excelled in narrative” and had “great mimetic power,” who loved to tell stories, impersonate, and circulate noble advice, the blooming Louisa whose self-confidence in some measure inspired Leaves of Grass and who inspired the poet's lifelong devotion, it is even more difficult to recapture the voice of Whitman's all-but-silenced father. For example, there are no letters from any period that enable us to piece together the “minute particulars” of Walter Senior's life story as told by himself. Instead, there are stray tags filtered through others, which comprise the barest outlines of a life full of struggle and flux, but not without ambition, however imperfectly realized, and not without goodness. “Good luck to you walter dear,” Louisa wrote wistfully to Walt on February 17, 1868. “Dont you remember your poor old father always wished that wish to every one.” But luck was precisely what Walter Senior did not have.

As Louisa reported and as Walt duly noted, this skilled craftsman “would sometimes lay awake all night planning out some unusually difficult plan in his building arrangements” (NUPM 1:24). Yet despite his “extraordinary ability as a natural mechanic, [who was] noted for the strength and symmetry of his work,” Walter Senior was a poor businessman, and late in life Walt was still angry at the conniving Methodist elder, a consummate hypocrite, who had nearly swindled his “poor straightforward father … out of his boots” (WWWC 1:256).[36]“My old daddy used to say it's some comfort to a man if he must be an ass anyhow to be his own kind of an ass,” Whitman reported to Traubel (WWWC 2:41). But some comfort turned out to be not enough, and it was “in the Whitman breed” to take disappointment hard (WWWC 4:473).

To Traubel, Whitman recalled his father's humor as sardonic and self-deprecating. “My father used to say, a good time to pay your debts is when you have the money. And I can't suggest an improvement over that” (WWWC 7:439). “My father used to say to me in his funny way, ‘Always pay your small debts, whatever you do with your large!’” (WWWC 7:57). Self-deprecating or not, Walter Senior had it in him to assert himself forcefully, as a loner would. Thus, after meeting a “hunted & tormented” soldier from Tennessee in a hospital in 1863, a Union soldier ostracized by his Confederate neighbors who had spent ten months in Southern prisons and who had “suffered every thing but death,” Whitman explained to Louisa, “He is a large, slow, good natured man (somehow made me often think of father), shrewd, very little to say—wouldn't

talk to any body but me.” The soldier “had stuck to his convictions like a hero,” even though he had been “hung up by the heels, head downwards” (Corr 1:107, 147). In this revealing comparison, Walter Senior, who could be stubborn and uncommunicative, reemerges as a man of principle, “firm as a rock,” while Walt is transformed at one remove into his intimate, as he had never been in life: “Wouldn't talk to any body but me.” But “what has made him act so god only knows,” Louisa commented about one of her son George's punishing silences, in a memorable passage already quoted: “i believe it runs in the Whitman family to have such spells” (December 1865).

As he continued to describe his interaction with the soldier, Whitman suggested to Louisa that there was a fanatical quality to the Tennessee Unionist's resistance, and that his rigidity could be viewed as self-destructive and malevolent:

I asked him once very gravely why he didn't take the southern oath & get his liberty—if he didn't think it was foolish to be so stiff &c—I never saw such a look as he gave me, he thought I was in earnest—the old devil himself couldn't have had put a worse look in his eyes—(Corr 1:147)

Shrewd and good natured or foolish and stiff? Where should we place the emphasis? Did Whitman conclude that he was questioning the old devil himself or a rock-firm hero? He could never be sure.

In a later and equally revealing comparison, Whitman identified his father with Elias Hicks, the incendiary Quaker preacher, whose biography he hoped to write but was never able to complete. In November Boughs (1888), Whitman therefore included the following anecdote.

Though it is sixty years ago—and I was a little boy at the time in Brooklyn, New York—I can remember my father coming home toward sunset from his day's work as carpenter, and saying briefly, as he throws down his armful of kindling-blocks with a bounce on the kitchen floor, “Come, mother, Elias preaches tonight.” Then my mother, hastening the supper and the table-cleaning afterward, gets a neighboring young woman, a friend of the family, to step in and keep house for an hour or so—puts the two little ones to bed—and as I had been behaving well that day, as a special reward I was allow'd to go also.[37]

Hicks was famous and Walter Senior obscure, but both men had been raised on rural Long Island farms and both had been carpenters' apprentices. Both men were fighting a rearguard action against changing economic times. Both were married, both had sons. Here the analogy breaks off, however, since as a young man Hicks experienced a “moral and mental and emotional change,” after which, as he wrote in his autobiography,

“light broke forth out of obscurity, and my darkness became as the noon-day.”[38] Walter Senior experienced no such emotional resolution to the anxieties he faced, and despite the possibly manic energy that kept him up all night planning for new buildings, he was prone to depression. That, at least, is the legend that has come down to us: there was a “disheartened” father who took his “emotional entities hard” (Corr 1:72 n, WWWC 4:473).

There is some question as to whether Whitman's “Come, mother” anecdote reflects a fact or a “fact-romance,” but in any event Walter Senior was not usually able to facilitate his son's entry into the swanky interior of a Morrison's Hotel, where Hicks was speaking, in a “large, cheerful, gay-color'd room, with glass chandeliers bearing myriads of sparkling pendants, plenty of settees and chairs, and a sort of velvet divan running all round the side-walls,” “a handsome ball-room … used for the most genteel concerts, balls, and assemblies.”[39] Walt's father was born in the simple West Hills farmhouse near Huntington, Long Island, where “his and his and his were born and lived” (WWWC 7:108), where “books were scarce,” and where “the annual copy of the almanac was a treat” (SD 695). He spent his early youth “near enough to the sea to be-hold it from high places, and to hear in still hours the roar of the surf.” On one side of the farmhouse in West Hills, with its “great heavy timbers, low ceilings, upper chambers,” and “long kitchen,” there was a “beautiful grove of black-walnuts” and “locusts,” and “in the rear a small peach orchard.” Unfortunately, when Walt visited as a little boy summer after summer, “All was in great neglect” (NUPM 1:21). Grandfather Jesse Whitman was long since dead and grandmother Hannah Brush Whitman, despite her “great solidity of mind” (SD 695), could not prosper without him.

Walter Senior was barely into his teens when his own father died. He was then apprenticed to a cousin as a carpenter, an apprenticeship completed in New York City when he was about fifteen (NUPM 1:23).[40] He spent the next three years boarding in the city and working at his trade, before returning to Long Island. M. Wynn Thomas explains,

The urban artisan class was that section of the American population which, during Whitman's formative years, was most dramatically affected by the transition to a new stage of capitalism, and especially by the far-reaching social and political consequences of this transition. … Whitman's father was fairly typical of the disoriented artisan of this period, struggling to adjust to the new capitalist conditions. By turns a small-scale employer and a wage earner, he worked only fitfully while alternating between the kind of morose sense of

isolation that drove many of his class to drink and the “rudimentary class awareness and sense of solidarity” that produced the working-class movements of the late twenties and early thirties, stimulating the passion for education and self-improvement that was evident in his young son.[41]

Walt Whitman was proud of his father's “democratic and heretical tendencies” (NUPM 1:6)—his enthusiasm for Hicks; his subscription to the Free Enquirer, a newspaper edited by the utopian socialists Robert Dale Owen and Frances Wright; perhaps even his affinity for Constantin Volney's The Ruins, or Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires, an anticlerical work on which Whitman took copious notes (NUPM 5:2024–27) and on which, as he explained to the agnostic Traubel, “I may be said to have been raised” (WWWC 2:445).[42] Whitman was also proud of his father's mechanical intelligence and physical strength. For much of his adult life, however, Walter Whitman was haunted by the specter of economic disaster. For part of it, he was “addicted to alcohol,” and according to one account, Whitman wondered whether this addiction might have been responsible for the physical and mental defects of his youngest brother, Eddy.[43] He was often morose and cynical. His youthful dreams, he felt, had not been realized.

Because of the family's precarious economic circumstances, none of the Whitman children had much formal schooling. Walt, after spending six years in the absurdly overcrowded and rigidly regimented Brooklyn public schools, went to work as an office boy for two prominent lawyers when he was eleven.[44] Fortunately, the Clarkes, father and son, interested themselves in furthering his education. Edward Clarke, the son, helped him with his handwriting and composition and subscribed to a circulating library for him, so that Whitman was able to revel in “romance-reading of all kinds,” including the patriotic romances of Sir Walter Scott, which he devoured “one after another, and his poetry” (SD 699). This “Arabian Nights” abundance was short lived, for after an intervening stint in a doctor's office of unknown duration, the twelve-year-old Whitman found himself employed in the printing office of the Long Island Patriot, to which his father subscribed. “There,” according to Gay Wilson Allen, “he became interested in journalism, which in turn aroused literary ambitions.”[45]

Perhaps in the summer of 1831, the precocious Whitman began to contribute “sentimental bits,” now lost, to the Patriot. And there too, he learned to set type from the venerable William Hartshorne, whom Whitman subsequently immortalized in his Brooklyniana essays of 1861–

62 as the “veteran printer of the United States” and as an ideal, perhaps the ideal, father surrogate. “He remembered well,” Whitman wrote of Hartshorne, “and has many a time described to the writer hereof (who listened with a boy's ardent soul and eager ears,) … the personal appearance and demeanor of Washington, Jefferson, and other of the great historical names of our early national days” (UPP 2:246–47). Even more than his maternal grandfather Major Van Velsor, Hartshorne seemed to Whitman an important link to a heroic past. On the verge of his teens, he was already beginning to glimpse the possibility of substituting a national family romance for a less glamorous private inheritance. Along with several other apprentices, Whitman boarded with Hartshorne's granddaughter; his parents and brothers and sisters lived some ten or eleven blocks away.[46]

While Whitman was learning the printer's trade in Brooklyn and New York City, his father continued to pursue his trade as carpenter and builder, “with varying fortune” (SD 700). He built heavily mortgaged houses, and the Whitmans continued to move.[47] During some or most of this unsettled period, Walt was living in boarding houses, an arrangement that freed him from his parents' control but which he subsequently described as injurious to young apprentices such as himself. By May 1833, Walter Whitman had moved his family back to the region of West Hills, and by 1834, after another move, the family was living at Norwich. Louisa Whitman, pregnant with the grandly named Thomas Jefferson, was “very ill for a long time” (SD 700). As an apprentice printer and then as a journeyman, Walt continued to publish occasional pieces, now lost, in the local newspapers, and to benefit from access to his employers' circulating libraries. He also got free theater tickets and was an insatiable playgoer. “At first, I remember [he wrote, using the family pseudonym Velsor Brush], I used to go with other boys, my pals; but I afterward preferred to go alone, I was so absorbed in the performance, and disliked anyone to distract my attention.”[48] These teenage “Illusions of youth! Dreams of a child of the Bowery!” were curtailed in the spring of 1836 when an out-of-work Whitman—he turned seventeen in May—was forced to join his family in Hempstead, where his father was farming on land that he did not own.[49]

Moving from the city to the country apparently felt like a terrible defeat, and Whitman later recorded his reaction to this involuntary rustication in the semiautobiographical story “The Shadow and the Light of

a Young Man's Soul.” “When the young Archibald Dean went from the city,” Whitman wrote,

(living out of which he had so often said was no living at all)—went down into the country to take charge of a little district school, he felt as though the last float-plank which buoyed him up on hope and happiness, was sinking, and he with it. But poverty is as stern, if not as sure, as death and taxes, which Franklin called the surest things of the modern age. And poverty compelled Archie Dean. (EPF 327)

In the country, “pent up … among a set of beings to whom grace and refinement [were] unknown,” Archie Dean consoles himself by writing long confessional letters, “outpourings of spleen,” to his widowed mother, who, “strange as it may seem to most men, … was also his confidential friend” (EPF 328). But we have no record of correspondence between Whitman and Louisa, who was busy with her growing family.[50] Instead, we see an irritable Walter Junior struggling to maintain his equanimity on the edge of other people's lives and to establish some kind of career.[51] He was physically large—misleadingly so, he thought, since his emotional life remained cramped and undeveloped—and he was intellectually ambitious. But as he explained to a young friend many years later, “The time of my boyhood was a very restless and unhappy one: I did not know what to do.”[52]

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