Wesley Raabe, an assistant professor in the Department of English at Kent State University, has edited the letters of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, mother of the poet Walt Whitman. Her 170 letters and a new introduction have been published under the title “walter dear”: The Letters from Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Her Son Walt on the Walt Whitman Archive, and they are now freely available to scholars and to the general public.
The newly published letters feature digital facsimiles, authoritative transcriptions, dating, and annotation, and integration with Walt’s and other family members’ letters in the Whitman Archive section entitled “Correspondence.” Scholars for the first time will be able to read Walt Whitman’s letters alongside the replies of his mother, who was by far his most frequent correspondent. The edition also includes a new introduction with a biography. The letters and the introduction are online at http://www.whitmanarchive.org/biography/correspondence/index.html.
Walt Whitman described his mother as “illiterate in the formal sense,” but he also proclaimed his masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, to be the “flower of her temperament active in me.” Louisa’s letters illuminate the most important relationship in the poet’s life and offer a rare glimpse into the emotional life of a working-class nineteenth-century American woman. Though she lacked formal education, her letters display verbal power and expressiveness, offering insight into the “family usages” that shaped Walt Whitman’s poetry.
The letters from Louisa Whitman to Walt span the period from just before the outbreak of the Civil War through a week before her death in May 1873. Her letters helped bind the Whitman family together during the disruptive years of the Civil War and early Reconstruction. The letters to Walt treat mundane everyday life and moments of great family sorrow, and they make incisive observations on Walt’s growing critical reputation and offer curt dismissals of lesser writers.