Life & Letters



Dennis Berthold and Kenneth M. Price

The letters written by Walt Whitman's favorite brother, Thomas Jefferson Whitman, or "Jeff" as he was commonly called, fall naturally into two groups: first, the New Orleans and Brooklyn letters which illuminate the relationship between the two brothers and the nature of the Whitman family as a whole, and second, the St. Louis letters which focus on Jeff's career. The four letters written in 1848 provide key information about the three-month visit of the two brothers to New Orleans, a crucial period in the poet's development. Jeff's fifty-five Brooklyn letters, written from 1860-67, constitute the most vivid record of the Whitman family as a functioning unit, the clearest picture of the personal relationships and circumstances that shaped America's greatest poet. The reamining forty-seven letters, most of them written in St. Louis from 1867-89, paint a full portrait of Jeff as an engineer; they trace in detail the significant career of the only Whitman other than Walt to achieve national renown in his profession.

Walt, Jeff, and the Whitman Family

Walt Whitman was fourteen when Jeff was born in the summer of 1833, and the future poet soon took responsibility for the child: "I...had much care of him for many years afterward, and he did not separate from me. He was a very handsome, healthy, affectionate, smart child, and would sit on my lap or hang on my neck half an hour at a time."1 It was characteristic of Walt to take this parental role: the younger children were often "in his charge"2 and he gradually assumed a greater and greater responsibility for the family finances. The father, Walter Whitman, Sr., suffered numerous financial reverses, and by 1847 it was young Walt who was buying boots for his brothers and who held the title to the family home.3 In the 1840s Walt also explored the surrogate parent role in his fiction. As his brief sketch "My Boys and Girls" indicates, he considered as his "children" sisters Mary and Hannah, and brothers George, Andrew, and Jeff.4 Interestingly, he avoided mentioning Jesse, his only older sibling, and Edward, the youngest Whitman, both of whom already showed signs of mental disorders.

Walt was especially fond of Jeff: "He was of noble nature from the first; very good-natured, very plain, very friendly. O, how we loved each other!" Other family members noted their special intimacy: for example, Hannah once commented on Jeff's "close bond of friendship" with Walt, "Closer as it were than a brother."5 And Walt himself described Jeff as his only "real brother" and "understander."6 In 1848, when Walt was offered a post on the New Orleans Daily Crescent, the fourteen-year-old Jeff accompanied him to serve as office boy on the paper. One imagines that here, over a thousand miles away from home, with Jeff suffering from dysentery and homesickness, the bond between the brothers grew even stronger.

Beyond emotional ties, common tastes linked the brothers. Jeff played the guitar and sang pleasantly, and Walt encouraged such musical inclinations by purchasing a piano for Jeff in 1852.7 About this time Walt introduced his brother to Italian opera and frequently took him across the East River to the new opera houses in New York. Jeff also took a knowledgable and sympathetic interest in Walt's career as both poet and journalist. On April 3, 1860, he wrote to Walt in Boston about the forthcoming edition of Leaves of Grass: "I quite long for it to make its appearance. What jolly times we will have reading the notices of it wont we." He warned his older brother: "you must expect the 'Yam Yam Yam' writer[s] to give you a dig as often as possible but I dont suppose you will mind it any more than you did in the days of your editorship of the B.[rooklyn] Eagle when the Advertiser['s] Lees used to go at you so roughly" (Letter from Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 3 April 1860).8 Later in life, when Walt's relationship with Jeff was less close, the poet exaggerated his family's indifference toward his literary career just as he exaggerated his poor reception in American literary circles: in both cases the poet was shaping the myth of the neglected, misunderstood genius. A fair assessment of the family's attitude would indicate that his mother, George, and Hannah followed Walt's career as a poet. Jeff, on the other hand, took an informed interest in the poety itself.9

Perhaps because of their shared interests, Walt attempted to guide Jeff into career lines that resembled his own, urging him to become a printer. But even in adolescence Jeff seems to have been drawn toward engineering, once remarking in a letter to his parents on the canals and poor drainage of New Orleans (Letter from Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walter Whitman, Sr. and Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, 23 April 1848). Walt's description of Jeff's vocational choice again reveals the paternal role that the older brother had assumed: "he learn'd printing, and work'd awhile at it; but eventually (with my approval) he went to employment at land surveying, and merged in the studies and work of topographical engineer."10

That Walt would support Jeff's decision to pursue engineering is not surprising when one recalls the poet's enthusiastic response to the completion of the Croton Aqueduct in 1842, a water system for New York which had taken five years to build. Walt recognized the thirty-eight-mile-long aqueduct as one of the engineering triumphs of the century, hailing this "performance which all Europe cannot parallel."11 Instead of water polluted by seepage from graveyards and privies, the city now enjoyed pure water; many hoped that New Yorkers would adopt water as the preferred beverage over beer. (Not coincidentally, Walt's temperance novel Franklin Evans was published a month after the opening of the aqueduct.) After Jeff chose engineering as a career and began work for the Brooklyn Water Works in the late 1850s, Walt remained interested in problems of municipal water supply, but now his opinions were buttressed by an insider's knowledge. As editor of the Brooklyn Daily Times he "bent the whole weight of the paper steadily in favor of the McAlpine plan [for the new waterworks], as against a flimsy, cheap and temporary series of works that would have long since broken down, and disgraced the city."12 No doubt, Jeff informed the poet-editor of the superiority of the McAlpine plan and provided information to help Walt write such essays as "A Visit to the Water Works," "A City Sweet and Clean," and "Important Questions in Brooklyn."13

Although Jeff seems to have influenced Walt's journalism in 1858 and 1859, the relationship between the brothers was perhaps not as close as it had been. On February 23, 1859, Jeff married Martha E. Mitchell ("Mat" or "Mattie") and brought her into the family home.14 The poet liked the new bride and later concluded that she was one of the two finest women he had ever known, yet Walt's relationship with Jeff was now fundamentally altered.

Unfortunately, no letters that were written by either Walt or Jeff in 1858 or 1859 survive, thus making it nearly impossible to reconstruct how Jeff's marriage might have affected Walt at the time. What seems clear is that the marriage deprived Walt of his ward and companion and changed the poet's understanding of male friendship. As Justin Kaplan has recently argued, when Walt began shifting affection to those who were not kin, manly love lost the sanctions of brotherly love. Significantly, Walt wrote a number of important crisis poems—"Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," the "Calamus" group—about the time of Jeff's marriage.15

Only in 1863, when Walt began to work in the hospitals in Washington tending wounded soldiers, did he again find emotional relationships as fulfilling as the primal relationship with Jeff. Walt himself commented on the nature of his response to the soldiers: he found them "appealing to me most profoundly....Often they seem very near to me, even as my own children or younger brothers. I make no bones of petting them just as if they were."16 Walt's relationship with Jeff might be seen as the prototype for the "Calamus" relationships the poet developed during his work in the hospitals (and indeed for his relationships after the war with Peter Doyle and Harry Stafford).17 Although Jeff's marriage complicated the context of manly love for the poet, Walt still found familial terms for expressing male love: the poet sent soldiers impassioned, ambiguous signals suggesting that he was friend, comrade, and lover while insistently addressing them as "sons" and "brothers."18 Once again Walt assumed the tender, protective, and nurturing role that he had first taken with Jeff. And as in the relationship with Jeff, he seems to have helped a number of the young men he befriended grow to heterosexual maturity and marriage.19

For Walt, the older brother-younger brother relationship eventually became a metaphor that conveyed a sense of love and deep understanding. Late in his career, when Walt wanted to stress his final consanguinity with his literary mentor, he explained that "What made, and ever makes the argument of Emerson, in that walk on the Common, so dear and holy to me, was the personal affectionateness of it, as of an elderly brother to a younger." Separation from and a desired reunion with the brother became for Walt a theme laced with personal emotion. When William Stansberry, a former soldier, wrote Walt and recalled the days in Armory Square Hospital, the poet responded: "I send you my love, & to your dear children & wife the same. As I write, you seem very dear to me too, like some young brother, who has been lost, but now found." Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that when the poet of "Passage to India" contemplates encountering God, the embrace of brothers is the central image:

the aim attain'd
As fill'd with friendship, love complete, the Elder Brother found,
The Younger melts in fondness in his arms.20

In 1863, while George fought as part of the Union army and Walt worked in Washington caring for the nation's wounded, Jeff in Brooklyn concerned himself with the deteriorating health of his other brothers and Hannah. He assumed many of the financial burdens of the household that he, Mattie, and their two daughters shared with Mother Whitman, Jesse, and Edward. At the Portland Avenue home, Jesse, perhaps syphilitic, suffered from bouts of raging insanity in which he threatened his closest relatives (he would be institutionalized a year later). Edward, physically and mentally retarded, remained largely helpless. In his own nearby home in Brooklyn, yet another brother, Andrew, battled without success against alcoholism and a throat disease which would claim his life by the end of the year. The news from farther afield was not cheering either: letters from Vermont, where Hannah had moved when she married Charles Heyde, indicated that she now suffered from stomach illness along with chronic marital problems. And although George was a model of health, his life as a soldier caused anguished concern for the entire clan, including the oldest sister Mary Elizabeth, who lived on Long Island. Not surprisingly, Jeff longed for Walt's opinions during this year of turmoil: "I do so wish that I could see you and have a good talk abt family affairs." And he added, "I think you would see and think as I do" (Letter from Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 15 October 1863 and Letter from Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 24 September 1863).

The thirty-seven letters Jeff wrote to Walt in 1863 shed light on the character of many members of the family, including the mother. Although Jeff loved his mother and admired her stability and strength, he was—unlike Walt—willing to see her failings. Jeff complained of her excessive frugality, what he called her "mistaken notion" of economy (Letter from Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 24 September 1863). He felt that Andrew's health could only be salvaged by moving him into the Portland Avenue home (where Mattie could cook and care for him) and away from Nancy, his slovenly wife. Jeff noted that Jesse, too, was failing rapidly because he lacked nourishing and palatable food: "Mother seems to think that she ought to live without spending any money. Even to day she has 25 or $30 in the house and I will bet that all they have for dinner will be a quart of tomats and a few cucumbers, and then Mother wonders why Jess vomits up his meals" (Letter from Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 5 September 1863).

Poor health, emotional stress, close quarters, shared finances—all these contributed to some fierce family quarrels. Jeff's wife, Mattie, attempted to be a peacemaker: she offered to nurse George if he should return home wounded, and she actually cared for Andrew in his illness, cleaning the blisters on his neck and cooking him rice pudding many nights.21 Despite these efforts, Jeff and Mattie did not find it easy to make their home within the mother's home. There was petty bickering over money and tension over Jeff's children. Although Mother Whitman generally liked Jeff's wife, she grew impatient with the couple's oldest child Manahatta ("Hattie"). Andrew's attitude toward Hattie went beyond impatience to a real threat of violence. Mother Whitman remarked in a letter to Walt (after a series of other complaints), "then add to that i have hattey of coarse and she is very obstropolous and her uncle Andrew says if she was his hed break her neck so you see walt what we go through every day sundays and all."22

Andrew's death in December 1863 did not end the danger of violence. Jesse, apparently overwrought at his brother's death, became irritated when Hattie pushed a chair, on which a diaper was hanging, across the floor. When Hattie failed to stop on command, Jesse burst into rage and repeated Andrew's threat to break Hattie's "dam'd neck." Naturally, Mattie defended her three-year-old. Jesse then "turned from the child to Mat and swore that he would kill her." When Jeff heard about this he was furious. He waited ten to twelve days before writing Walt, "because I was afraid to think about it":

Probably had I been home he [Jesse] would not have done anything of the kind but if he had, so help me God I would have shot him dead on the spot—And I must confess I felt considerably like it as it was. I love Mat as I love my life—dearer by far—and to have this infernal pup—a perfect hell-drag to his Mother—treat her so—threaten to brain her—call her all the vile things he could think of—is a little more than I will stand He says he dont know any better he lies—he does know better. I wish to God he was ready to put along side of Andrew. (Letter from Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 15 December 1863)

The incandescent anger displayed here has led biographers and editors to characterize Jeff as volatile.23 At first glance, other evidence from the letters seems to support this characterization. For example, after estimating that four hundred people—mostly Irishmen—had died in the New York draft riots of July 1863, Jeff wrote: "The only feeling I have is that I fear that they did not kill enough of 'em Walt. I'm perfectly rabid on an Irishman" (Letter from Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 19 July 1863). In letters to the poet, Jeff voices the darkest impulses of his nature, impulses which he never seems to have acted upon. It is as if he purged his bile by writing to Walt. Some of Jeff's letters are volatile, but as his St. Louis career will show, the public Jeff always remained a poised, controlled, politically astute engineer.

Even in 1863 when Jeff's emotions were in turmoil because of both family and national crises, he still managed to control his external life. Beyond maintaining his employment at the Brooklyn Water Works, he helped sustain Walt's work in the hospitals by channelling a steady stream of money toward his brother (at least thirty-six installments totalling over $326.00 and perhaps much more).24 So far as can be determined, Jeff and his dear friends at the Brooklyn Water Works began before and continued after other contributors to Walt's work. From January 12, 1863, until at least December 24, 1866, Walt served as the unofficial and only agent of what Jeff called "The B. Watr Works soldiers Aid society" (Letter from Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 6 April 1863).

Jeff's capacity to involve himself imaginatively in the welfare of strangers, demonstrated first by his support of the hospital work, surfaces again in a letter he wrote shortly after moving to St. Louis. Here Jeff displays his gentler side:

On the street to-day I saw a very interesting yet somewhat painful sight—twas that of a family moving in from the plains—An old woman—I shoud judge all of eighty—another woman of about 35—a young man and his wife abt 25 a boy of 12 two children 8 and 6 and a little babe—all but the young man and his wife were in the wagon drawn by 4 oxen—the wagon covered with dirty white canvass—The boy had leading with a rope a fine old cow—a young cow and calf were alongside—under the wagon was a large white dog and inside by the old woman was a small black terrier—They had met with an accident in the way of b[r]eaking one of the hind wheels and were therefore hard up—The faces of all were a study—but particularly of the young man and his wife—neither of them was at all handsome but yet I shall remember their faces for a long time—The old woman had that peculiar look of crazy stupidity that you can hardly tell whether they are really stupid or thinking of by-gone life. (Letter from Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 2 August 1867)
There are rudiments of literary power in this passage, and one is struck by the similarities between this and the poet's own portrayal of "A Specimen Tramp Family," written thirteen years later:
We pass'd quite a number of tramps, singly or in couples—one squad, a family in a rickety one-horse wagon, with some baskets evidently their work and trade—the man seated on a low board, in front, driving—the gauntish woman by his side, with a baby well bundled in her arms, its little red feet and lower legs sticking out right towards us as we pass'd—and in the wagon behind, we saw two (or three) crouching little children. It was a queer, taking, rather sad picture....But on our return nearly two hours afterward, we found them a ways further along the same road....The freed horse was not far off, quietly cropping the grass. The man was busy at the wagon, the boy had gather'd some dry wood, and was making a fire—and as we went a little further we met the woman afoot....Eyes, voice and manner were those of a corpse, animated by electricity. She was quite young—the man she was traveling with, middle-aged. Poor woman—what story was it, out of her fortunes, to account for that inexpressibly scared way, those glassy eyes, and that hollow voice?25
Each brother presents a catalogue of individuals which begins with adults and proceeds to children, conveys the sympathy felt in the presence of a sad scene, and expresses a final desire to understand the death-in-life of these women. The parallel passages evidence a mental affinity between the brothers, a common ground of sensibility such as Walt shared with no other sibling.

Jeff's Professional Career

When Jeff was offered a post in St. Louis in 1867, Walt responded enthusiastically: it is "a great work—a noble position—& will give you a good big field."26 Jeff's appointment as chief engineer of the Board of Water Commissioners testifies to the value of his training in Brooklyn. In the antebellum days of engineering, few schools offered more than one or two courses in surveying and topography, and except for the military institutes, only six colleges had organized programs in civil engineering.27 Many civil engineers, including experts in the profession with whom Jeff worked—James P. Kirkwood and Julius W. Adams, for example—learned their profession without benefit of a college education, coming up through the ranks as laborers, apprentices, and surveyors, usually attached to the military or the railroads. Although no record exists for the earliest part of Jeff's career, we do know that he first worked as a land surveyor and then became an assistant to a Lewis L. Bartlett who was engaged in harbor improvements for New York City.28 In 1856 or 1857 he became an assistant engineer on the construction of the Brooklyn Water Works under Kirkwood, who had just completed five years as chief engineer of the Missouri Pacific Railroad. With Kirkwood, Jeff helped build the first scientifically engineered system of coordinated sewer and waterworks in the country. In 1863 Jeff was appointed chief assistant engineer under Moses Lane, who had succeeded Kirkwood in 1862. Soon Jeff was supplementing his income by running surveys in upstate New York and Massachusetts, including one in Springfield for W. E. Worthen, a leading hydraulic engineer and a future president of the American Society of Civil Engineers (1887).29 Experiences and contacts like these placed Jeff at the center of the developing profession of civil engineering. The Brooklyn Water Works was a virtual training ground for the nation's future hydraulic and sanitary engineers, a school perhaps more valuable than any academic institute of the time.

Brother Walt surely admired such self-education, a remarkable family example of the opportunities available to diligent young Americans of practical scientific bents. Perhaps under the tutelage of Lane, Jeff cast a wide net for engineering information and asked Walt to send him useful government publications to futher his professional development. Displaying that desire for new ideas and broad vistas that Walt admired in the national character, Jeff showed particular interest in the West. He was especially eager to read the twelve lavish valumes of the Reports of Explorations and Surveys... for a Railroad From the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean (1855-60). 30 He also wanted the Report on the Construction of a Military Road From Fort Walla-Walla to Fort Benton (1863) by Captain John Mullan,31 a pioneering military surveyor whom Walt knew and admired. Both Walt and his friend William Douglas O'Connor encouraged Jeff's pursuit of knowledge by sending him the books and pamphlets he requested, some of which were expensive technical publications representing the latest developments and newest information in the field. Jeff considered using his knowledge to gain a position on the Pacific Railroad: "I've no doubt but I could get a place at once on it, yet I think that in the end I will make more by staying where I am but its rather pleasant to have that to fall back on" (Letter from Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 22 October 1863).

Jeff was right. His years in Brooklyn had prepared him for far larger responsibilities than he could have assumed as a railroad surveyor. By maintaining contact with Lane and the influential professionals at the Brooklyn Water Works, he would later be in a perfect position to "make more" by moving to the "Future Great City of the World," a city touted as the next capital of the United States, St. Louis.32 In May 1867, his former boss and mentor Kirkwood recommended him for the position of chief engineer of the Board of the Water Commissioners, a body created in 1863 by the Missouri State Legislature to construct a modern waterworks for St. Louis. Kirkwood, who had drawn up plans for the project, thought enough of Jeff's ability to entrust him with primary responsibility for constructing a much-needed waterworks for a city of nearly 300,000 inhabitants. For the next twenty years, Jeff would oversee the water supply of the nation's fastest-growing large city.

The demands of the job were great, and Jeff met them well. He was paid a good annual salary, perhaps as much as four thousand dollars, and was considered the resident expert on municipal water supply.33 As one of his initial tasks, Jeff composed an eight-thousand-word manuscript history of the waterworks from 1829 to 1868, giving a detailed report of his first year on the job and explaining his professional view of the new system.34 To help build the waterworks Jeff brought his old friend Joseph P. Davis down from Brooklyn and made him principal assistant engineer. (Davis, a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, later became city engineer of Boston in 1880 and chief engineer of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in 1900.)35 Jeff completed the waterworks in 1871 and supervised numerous additions to it over the next sixteen years, including the 190-foot granite and red brick water tower which he discussed with Walt (Letter from Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 23 February 1885). This water tower and another one designed as a Corinthian column which Jeff built in 1871 sitll mark the city skyline and stand as fitting monuments to this pioneering era in municipal water supply.

While working in St. Louis, Jeff also developed a busy consulting practice. During the 1870s and 1880s he contributed plans for waterworks in Kansas City (Missouri), Leavenworth, St. Joseph, Little Rock, and Galveston. For a time (1875-77) he worked as a consulting engineer in Henry Flad's firm, a leading engineering company in St. Louis. After concluding his career as water commissioner in 1887, Jeff set up his own business speciailizing in "Designing and Superintendence of Water Works." As an independent consultant he played a major role in planning the Milwaukee sewer system, incorporating the designs E. S. Chesbrough had developed for Chicago which safely and efficiently coordinated sewage disposal and water consumption in lakefront cities. And in 1888 Jeff was appointed chief engineer of the Memphis Water Works, a progressive system of deriving municipal water supplies from artesian wells instead of rivers.

Unlike any other Whitman, Jeff gradually advanced into the new technocratic and managerial class that developed after the Civil War. In St. Louis, he became a strong advocate of the movement to professionalize engineering in the United States, and was among the earliest members of the American Society of Civil Engineers. Though founded in 1852, the society did not prosper until it was reorganized under its second president, James P. Kirkwood, in October 1867.36 Jeff joined the revitalized organization about as early as anyone, on January 29, 1868, and remained a member for the rest of his life. He attended many national meetings (perhaps giving him opportunitites to see George and Walt), officially invited the society to meet in St. Louis in 1880, sat on the local arrangements committee, and served one year as national vice-president (1885).37 Jeff was the friend and colleague of some of the most important civil engineers of the day and moved in the mainstream of those professional, political, and economic groups that were transforming the nation.

Among Jeff's closest associates in St. Louis was an energetic German immigrant and civil engineer named Henry Flad. An early photograph shows a jaunty Jeff posing with Flad in a local beer garden, and several of Mattie's letters to Mother Whitman recount visits between the Flads and Jefferson Whitmans.38 Although Jeff only mentions Henry Flad once in the correspondence (Letter from Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 14 July 1888), it is clear that from Jeff's first days in St. Louis he was close to this important local figure. Flad had assisted Kirkwood in planning the waterworks and had met with widespread public approbation for his contribution in building the Eads Bridge. (This structure captured the imagination of Walt Whitman on his visit to St. Louis in 1879.)39 It was probably Flad who, as a member of the Board of Water Commissioners, invited Jeff on a Mississippi River cruise attended by such local dignitaries as Carl Schurz, who was soon to be elected United States senator from Missouri (1869-75). It was probably Flad, too, who helped Jeff survive the tumultuous shift to home rule in St. Louis in 1877, since by this time Jeff was a consulting engineer in Flad's firm.40 When Jeff's position at the waterworks was suddenly abolished in July, he feared he might be passed over for appointment to the newly created city Board of Public Improvements; Henry Flad, however, was the mayor's and the municipal assembly's choice for president of the board; surely Jeff's appointment in August as the board's water commissioner owed something to Flad's influence and position.

Both Jeff and Flad helped create the Engineers' Club of St. Louis, a local professional society that remains active today. They were charter members and cofounders, with Flad serving as the first president (1868-80) and Jeff as the second president (1881, when one-year terms began). This large group of young engineering professionals met bimonthly to read and discuss technical papers. Although we have no record of Jeff's having presented a paper to the group, we know that meetings were frequently held in his office and that, in addition to his year as president, he served one year as secretary and three years as vice-president. Selected papers from the "Transactions" of the club were published along with similar material from other regional groups in the Journal of the Association of Engineering Societies. Jeff's name appears regularly in the published material as a proposer, discussant, and occasional speaker (for example, his eulogy of his colleague Charles Pfeiffer on February 28, 1883).41

Jeff's career was not entirely smooth. A continuing frustration for him and for civil engineers in general was the often corrupt political systems with which they had to work. As early as April 16, 1860, Jeff wrote Walt about the state legislature's interference with appointments at the Brooklyn Water works: "I think it will be a dark day for the B. W. W. if he [Welles, a local contractor] suceeds, but I suppose to the victor belongs the spoils. I know I ain't going to worry, if it does go through." This philosophical attitude toward the realities of the "spoils system" contributed as much to Jeff's success in St. Louis as did his technical training at the Brooklyn Water Works. His original appointment in St. Louis was at least partly the product of petty political squabbling between the city council and the state Board of Water Commissioners. Kirkwood, acting for the board, had recommended that the new waterworks be located at the Chain of Rocks, a site on the Mississippi River about 12 miles north of city hall; the council preferred a less costly location at Bissell's Point, only 3½ miles upstream. When Jeff arrived in St. Louis, he saw that Kirkwood was correct; but, perceiving the controversial nature of the issue and powerless to change the council's mind, he did his best to satisfy the conflicting demands of politics and his profession while proceeding with the Bissell's Point project.42 Perhaps better than technical planners like Kirkwood, Jeff understood the practical politics that municipal engineers had to master in order to survive. That he headed the waterworks longer than any previous administrator testifies to his political acumen.

Even a person as competent as Jeff could not last forever in such a demanding and controversial position. As the city grew, the Bissell's Point works proved inadequate, just as Kirkwood had predicted. Furthermore, river water was becoming inreasingly polluted with city sewage, causing periodic outbreaks of typhoid to which Jeff himself was exposed (Letter from Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 27 October 1878). Althogh Jeff continued to argue for an extension at the Chain of Rocks, the municipal assembly viewed his efforts as self-aggrandizing and refused to heed his pleas. The lower house of the assembly even passed a resolution condemning the quality of the water and held Jeff personally responsible. When Jeff came up for his third term as water commissioner in 1887, he was passed over in favor of M. L. Holman, one of his young assistants and a fellow member of the Engineers' Club.43 Shortly after Jeff left office, the assembly approved the Chain of Rocks extension, and today St. Louis still draws much of its water from this location.

The other difficulties besetting Jeff in St. Louis came from the same source as they had for so many other Whitmans—the family. Mattie's death in February 1873, after a long and painful illness, left him with two daughters, thirteen and ten, needing more attention and time than a person in his position could offer. He gave up the private home the family had lived in for four years and moved into a boarding house where he remained until 1878. It was fortunate he could afford to send his daughters to school in the East, yet separation from them must have made him lonely. He had pleaded with his mother to visit St. Louis, but she died just three months after Mattie without ever seeing her son's professional accomplishments. He made similar pleas with Walt during the late 1860s and 1870s. The poet finally visited him for three months in the winter of 1879-80, and Jeff saw him during his own trips east. When Jeff read newspaper accounts of Walt's illnesses and brushes with death, he sent hurried telegrams inquiring about his brother's condition and wrote letters expressing deep concern (Letter from Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 29 October 1882 and Letter from Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 9 November 1886). Jeff's most heartbreaking personal loss in these later years must have been the sudden death of his older daughter, Hattie, in early September 1886. Such experiences help to explain the occasional signs of loneliness and depression in his later correspondence. Nonetheless, while enduring a rugged snowstorm in Milwaukee, he expressed a characteristic family belief in the importance of a positive outlook: "I hope, dear Walt, that you will keep in good spirits during the bad weather....I often think that the only fellow that knows how to live is the wild-goose He makes the world his own and follows the climate he likes—and no question of business can keep him either (Letter from Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 11 December 1887).

Contributing to Jeff's melancholy was the gradual weakening of his ties with Walt. In 1863 Jeff had written the poet more than three letters per month. But after April 5, 1869, Jeff wrote to Walt infrequently, averaging less than one letter a year; during the same period Walt averaged slightly over one letter per year to Jeff. Why the correspondence declined remains unclear. One explanation may be that Walt was at his best with those who were emotionally dependent; but by the late 1860s Jeff was strong and progressing well on his own. Also there may have been friction because Walt regularly paid for Edward's board while both George and Jeff were making more money than the poet. Further, Jeff had gained the recognition of his peers at a time when Walt remained only partially accepted. The poet was too large-minded to begrudge his brother's success, but Walt may have been discomfited by this shift in roles. If Walt felt such tensions, one way to reduce them would be to write Jeff fewer letters and refuse to visit him.

During his final three years of life Jeff worked mainly as a consultant, and while he must have enjoyed the prestige associated with his wide-ranging practice, he complained to Walt of "spending about 1/3 of my time on Rail Road trains" (Letter from Thomas Jefferson Whitman to Walt Whitman, 11 December 1887). Fatigue may have contributed to his early death from typhoid pneumonia in St. Louis on November 25, 1890. The reaction of friends and colleagues to this unexpected loss underscored his prominence in the engineering profession and his popularity as a person. On November 28, M. L. Holman, water commissioner of St. Louis and one of Jeff's protégés, introduced a resolution honoring Jeff at a meeting of the Board of Public Improvements. That same afternoon, the entire board, several leading citizens, and representatives from the Engineer's Club and the American Society of Civil Engineers attended the funeral at Jeff's home on 2437 Second Carondelet Avenue. Although a newspaper account maintained that Jeff "never received full credit for all he has accomplished,"44 at least seven obituaries of Jeff were published, including five in national engineering journals. Contributors included Henry Flad, Horace Traubel (see Appendix B), and Walt. The poet also supplied E. D. Meier, president of the St. Louis Engineers' Club, with information for a eulogy Meier presented before the club and later had printed in the Journal of the Association of Engineering Societies (see Appendix A).

One might argue that Walt's eulogy was, in a way, unnecessary. Two decades earlier in "Passage to India" he gave lasting expression to his feelings about Jeff and engineering. In this poem Walt praises "the strong light works of engineers": the trans-Atlantic cable, the Suez Canal, and the transcontinental railroad. These modern accomplishments are linked to the pioneering spirit, to the driving force that led men westward, and finally to the quest for God. We commented above on this poem's image of embracing brothers and it seems nearly certain that Walt was thinking of Jeff while composing this work. Jeff, as an engineer in the West who had asked Walt for publications concerning the transcontinental railroad, embodied the poem's ideals. And yet, despite Walt's praise of engineering, he insists on the greater importance of his own profession: the poet, not the engineer, stands as "the true son of God."

When Jeff's daughter Jessie died in 1957, she also recognized her father's professional expertise with a $72,764 bequest to Washington University in St. Louis that established "The Thomas J. Whitman Engineering Library Fund."45 The University Library still purchases engineering books with these monies and places a bookplate bearing Jeff's picture (see frontispiece) in each volume. However, Jeff's detailed correspondence and contributions to engineering constitute his most important legacy. Alone among the Whitmans, he made a name for himself in his own right, apart from the fame of Walt. It seems appropriate, then, that Jeff should have escaped the poet's final assertion of an encompassing ego. Though eight family members lie within the Harleigh Cemetery vault bearing only the name WALT WHITMAN, Jeff rests apart with his wife and children in the Bellefontaine Cemetary, St. Louis.

Editorial Note

In general, we follow the practices of other editors of the Whitman family letters by remaining as unobtrusive as possible and presenting an inclusive text representing as nearly as possible the writer's final intentions. We have not recorded cancellations, noted author's insertions, or attempted to duplicate the appearance of the original holographs, and we have silently eliminated the few internal addresses Jeff added. Since most of the letters were written on office stationery, we have also omitted letterheads. We have standardized the placement of salutations, signatures, and postscripts. Because Jeff frequently omitted terminal punctuation, rather than interpolating the missing mark we have simply left an extra space where a pause improves readability. Walt apparently marked several letters: we have silently omitted the annotation "brother Jeff" from eleven letters of 1863, but have mentioned the other markings—usually parentheses—in the footnotes. Those parentheses without a footnote, of course, are Jeff's.

Ambiguous cases of transcription inevitably arise. Because Jeff's prose is reasonably grammatical and sometimes quite sophisticated, we give him the benefit of the doubt in such cases and choose the more correct reading. For example, he frequently indicates the terminal letters of familiar words with a hasty single line, thus seeming to omit an s, an e, or an ly. We would misrepresent him if we bracketed every such ending as an editorial correction, when in fact his meaning and intended spelling are clear. On the other hand, we have retained obvious misspellings, omissions, repetitions, and grammatical errors, using sic as sparingly as possible to avoid unnecessary clutter. Where a confusing error or omission occurs, we supply clarifying information in brackets; when a word is illegible, we supply a reading in brackets with a question mark. In those few cases where no cogent reading suggests itself, we place a question mark along in brackets.

Beyond supplying information necessary to a proper reading of the letters, our annotations serve two main purposes: to demonstrate Jeff's important position within the family, especially with respect to Walt, and to reveal Jeff's deep concern with local and national politics, the engineering profession, and the broader social and cultural questions of the period that also engaged his brother Walt. Instead of glossing the names of family members, we refer the reader to our Introduction and to the Genealogical Data for the Whitman Family preceding the first letter. We identify other persons when they are first mentioned and subsequently identify them with a cross-reference to the letter in which they first appear. In a few cases we have incorporated necessary information in a headnote, particularly where a major transition occurs. Abbreviations for those sources which are frequently cited in the notes—usually standard works on the Whitman family—can be found in the list of abbreviations preceding the Introduction. We generally do not cite our historical sources because we have relied on standard works concerning the Civil War and the development of engineering.


1.  Floyd Stovall, ed., Walt Whitman: Prose Works 1892, (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1963-64), Vol. II, 693.  (Back)

2.  "Notes from Conversations with George W. Whitman, 1893," In Re Walt Whitman, ed. Horace L. Traubel et al. (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1893), p. 38.  (Back)

3.  Charles E. Feinberg, "A Whitman Collector Destroys a Whitman Myth," The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 52 (1958), 75, 77.  (Back)

4.  Walt Whitman: The Early Poems and Fiction, ed. Thomas L. Brasher (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1963), p. 249. For brief sketches of the various members of the Whitman family, see Jerome M. Loving, ed., Civil War Letters of George Washington Whitman, (Durham, N.C., Duke Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 8-17, and Randall H. Waldron, ed., Mattie: The Letters of Martha Mitchell Whitman (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1977), pp. 6-16.  (Back)

5.  For Walt Whitman's comment, see Prose Works 1892, II, 693; for Hannah's, see the letter from Charles L. Heyde to Walt Whitman, December 3, 1890 (Trent Collection, William R. Perkins Library, Duke University).  (Back)

6.  See Traubel, III, 541, and Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: A Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980), p. 235.  (Back)

7.  Hannah to Louisa Van Velsor Whitman (Louisa Van Velsor Whitman), October [1858?] (Heyde, Hannah [Whitman] Collection, Library of Congress).  (Back)

8.  The 1840s in American journalism were notorious for the scurrilous manner in which competing editors attacked one another. For example, in an editorial in the Brooklyn Daily Advertiser of November 4, 1846, Henry A. Lees apparently responded to Walt Whitman's characterization of him as "an English cockney of fifty-sixth mental calibre" by accusing the future poet of "bad grammar." See Thomas L. Brasher, Whitman as Editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 33-34.  (Back)

9.  Walt Whitman once commented that "A man's family is the people who love him. You know for the most part I have always been isolated from my people—in certain senses have been a stranger in their midst....Who of my family has gone along with me? Who? Do you know? Not one of them" (Traubel, III, 525). Although none of the family understood Walt Whitman as deeply as he wished, there was widespread family pride and interest in his work. When "Personalism" was published in The Galaxy, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman wrote to the poet: "george has got the galaxy just come with it walt i suppose you see that little peice in thursdays times about your being the only American poet i cut it out and was going to send it to Jeff if you haven't seen it i will send it to you" (April 25, 1868 [Trent]).  (Back)

10.  Prose Works 1892, II, 693.  (Back)

11.  Quoted in Kaplan, p. 112.  (Back)

12.  Edwin Haviland Miller, ed., Walt Whitman: The Correspondence, (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1961-77), Vol. III, 386.  (Back)

13.  The first two pieces are reprinted in Walt Whitman, I Sit and Look Out: Essays from the Brooklyn Daily Times, ed. Emory Holloway and Vernolian Schwarz (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1932), pp. 140, 144-45. The manuscript pages of "Important Questions in Brooklyn" can be found in the Alderman Library at the University of Virginia. This essay advocates what Walt Whitman called "a grand system of Sewerage" for Brooklyn. Walt Whitman develops a detailed and sensible argument for a more expensive "permanent close brick conduit" rather than "a temporary open ditch or earthen canal."  (Back)


Biographers of Walt Whitman have thought that Jeff and Mattie had a place of their own in 1859 because Lain's Brooklyn Directory for 1858/59 lists a "Whitman, J city surveyor" with a home on Fifth Avenue near Twelfth Street (Gay Wilson Allen, The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman (New York: Macmillan, 1955; rev. ed., New York Univ. Press, 1967), p. 216; Kaplan, p. 236). However, an examination of the directories from the preceding and following years reveals this J. Whitman to be Jarvis rather than Jefferson Whitman.

Recently, Randall Waldron has noted that Mattie's life "prior to 1859 remains almost entirely a mystery" (Waldron, p. 1). Fortunately, on October 18, 1939, Garrett Newkirk interviewed Mattie's daughter, Jessie, who explained: "Her full name before marriage was Martha Emma Mitchell. She was an orphan, her father who had married a second time being dead. Her stepmother was her guardian and while mother was a minor, had charge of her money, which amounted to several thousand dollars. [When] Mother announced to her, her intentions of marrying father after she came of age...the stepmother skipped out with all the funds, simply vanished, and mother was left penniless. She and father were terribly hard-up for years" (Fansler Collection, Northwestern Univ.).


15.  Throughout this paragraph we are indebted to Kaplan, esp. pp. 235-36.  (Back)

16.  Correspondence, I, 125.  (Back)

17.  Edwin Haviland Miller comments on the nature of Walt Whitman's relationships: "These young men were...emotionally insecure, and desirous of establishing a dependent relationship with an older man. Whitman instinctively understood them....He was both father and mother. This bisexual role, safely removed from the threats of literal paternity and of mature sexuality, he fulfilled in 'Calamus' friendships, the only relationships that were emotionally satisying to him or for that matter possible" (Correspondence, III, 3-4).  (Back)

18.  See, for example, Correspondence, I, 93, 94, 106, 120, 139, 149, 160, 186.  (Back)

19.  The emotional cost of this was high. Walt Whitman had to struggle to accept the marriages of the young men he befriended. As late as 1890, he still pointed to Jeff's marriage as a transforming event in their relationship: Jeff "was very much with me in his childhood & as big boy. [We were] greatly attached to each other till he got married." Walt Whitman seems to have had a similarly negative response to the marriage of Benton Wilson, a former soldier. On January 27, 1867, Wilson observed, "I wrote to you a year and more ago that I was married but did not receive any reply, so I did not know but you was displeased with it." And in 1884, when Walt Whitman's comrade Harry Stafford mentioned his marriage plans to the poet, Whitman ignored these plans in his return letter. See Correspondence, V, 123; I, 322-23, n. 63; III, 371, n. 40.  (Back)

20.  See Correspondence, III, 285; II, 299,; and Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition, ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1965), pp. 419-20.  (Back)

21.  Letter from Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman, October 21, 1863 (Trent).  (Back)

22.  October 30 (?), 1863 (Trent).  (Back)

23.  See, for example, Allen, p. 307, and Correspondence, I, 189, n. 75.  (Back)


The specific amounts given by Jeff and his associates in thirty-one known instances total $281.20. No record survives of the amounts given for the five additional contributions mentioned; assuming the $9.00 average for these instances gives the figure of $326.00.

No doubt, this total estimate is low because some of the Whitman family correspondence from this period is lost and because promised payments (e.g., Moses Lane's indication that he would contribute $5.00 per month for an unspecified period of time) are not included.


25.  Prose Works 1892, I, 168-69.  (Back)

26.  Correspondence, I, 326.  (Back)

27.  J. Elfreth Watkins, "The Beginnings of Engineering" (1891; rpt. The Civil Engineer: His Origins [New York: American Society of Civil Engineers, 1970]), p. 76.  (Back)

28.  Robert Moore and Henry Flad, "Thomas Jefferson Whitman, M. Am. Soc. C. E.," Proceedings of the American Society of Civil Engineers, 18 (April 1892), 103.  (Back)

29.  For information on Worthen, consult A Biographical Dicctionary of American Civil Engineers (New York: American Society of Civil Engineers, 1972), pp. 131-32.  (Back)

30.  U.S. War Department, prepared under the supervision of the U.S. Engineer Department, Topographical Bureau, 12 vols. (Washington, D.C.: A. O. P. Nicholson, 1855-60). Jeff received the later, quarto edition of this important publication with the supplementary twelfth volume added in 1860.  (Back)

31.  U.S. Topographical Bureau (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1863).  (Back)

32.  The city's most enthusiastic promoter was L. U. Reavis who, during the 1870s, wrote several speeches, pamphlets, and books with the title St. Louis: The Future Great City of the World. See esp. the 3rd ed. (St. Louis: The St. Louis City Council, 1871).  (Back)

33.  J. T. Scharf, History of St. Louis City and County (Philadelphia: Everts & Co., 1883), p. 783, lists Jeff's annual salary in 1867 as $4,000.00. The more reliable and precise Journal of the City Council, April 27, 1877, lists his salary as $312.50 per month, or $3,750.00 annually. This was a nationally competitive salary during this period.  (Back)

34.  Thos. J. Whitman, "A History of the Water Works of St. Louis from Their Inception in the Year 1829 to the Year 1868," ed. Thos. E. Flaherty, in the Water Commissioner's Report (St. Louis, 1924), pp. 209-34. A separately bound copy of this work is located in the Missouri Historical Society. A longer and more recent account which incorporates much of Jeff's material is John C. Pritchard, "The Saint Louis Water Works: Being a History of a Century of Service," TS, Missouri Historical Society (St. Louis, 1933).  (Back)

35.  The National Cyclopedia of American Biography (New York: James T. White & Co., 1878-), XXV, 51.  (Back)

36.  Watkins, p. 77.  (Back)

37.  Jeff's activities are mentioned in the following volumes of the Proceedings of the American Society of Civil Engineers: 4 (1878), 45; 5 (1879), 46; 6 (1880), 46; 8 (1882), 112; 11 (1885), 5-6, 32; 13 (1887), 112; 15 (1889), 37.  (Back)

38.  Waldron, pp. 49, 61, 64.  (Back)

39.  Walter H. Eitner, Walt Whitman's Western Jaunt (Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1981), pp. 76-77.  (Back)

40.  For an account of these difficulties, see Thomas S. Barclay, The St. Louis Home Rule Charter of 1876: Its Framing and Adoption (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1968).  (Back)

41.  For the published "Proceedings of the Engineers' Club of St. Louis," see the Journal of the Association of Engineering Societies, 1 (1881/82) to 6 (1886/87), passim. After January 1886, Jeff's activities with the club diminished considerably. In March 1888, he was nominated to a three-man committee to prepare an obituary for a member, but when the brief notice appeared a month later, his name was not among the signers. In February 1888, he had begun meeting with the "St. Louis Association of Members of the American Society of Civil Engineers," apparently a short-lived rival group ("Minutes," Missouri Historical Society), and on December 4, 1889, he submitted his resignation to the Engineers' Club. Although his declining interest in the club may have simply been a product of his frequent absence from St. Louis on consulting trips, other members with similar obligations maintained their memberships. Some political controversy stemming from his failure to be reappointed as water commissioner in 1887 may have led to his resignation from the club.  (Back)

42.  The story of city council opposition to a first-rate waterworks is recorded in many contemporary versions, most of them defensive and apologetic. A reasonably fair and concise account that acknowledges Jeff's widom and foresight is in James Cox, Old and New St. Louis (St. Louis: Central Biographical Pub. Co., 1894), pp. 108-10.  (Back)

43.  The reasons that Jeff was not reappointed are obscure. He may simply have been tired of the job and declined reappointment, desiring to devote more time to his consulting; or, he may have been ill and wanted to escape the political pressures of the position. It seems likely, however, that he had become such a controversial figure that Mayor David R. Francis decided to appoint a new water commissioner to avoid a confrontation with the municipal assembly, whose support was crucial if the waterworks was to be expanded. According to E. D. Meier, M. L. Holman was "one of T. J. W's boys" (letter to Walt Whitman, December 19, 1890 [Feinberg]).  (Back)

44.  St. Louis Republican, November 29, 1890.  (Back)

45.  News Release, Washington University [in St. Louis] News Bureau, August 18, 1958.  (Back)

This article originally appeared in Dennis BertholdKenneth M. Price, ed., Dear Brother Walt: The Letters of Thomas Jefferson Whitman, Kent State University Press, 1984, . Reproduced with permission.


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