Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, mother of nine children, eight of whom lived to adulthood, is best known, of course, for her birthing of her second child, Walt, born when Louisa was twenty-four years old. It has turned out that this second son not only is known for his innovative poetry, but he is also the child whom Louisa came to cherish and depend on more than any of her other children. Walt returned the love and the emotional connection, saying to his friend Horace Traubel, "How much I owe her! It could not be put in a scale—weighed: it could not be measured—be even put in the best words: it can only be apprehended through the intuitions. Leaves of Grass is the flower of her temperament active in me. . . . I wonder what Leaves of Grass would have been if I had been born of some other mother" (Traubel 113–114).
Louisa's letters to Walt are filled with news about the family, which Walt desired, but also with her observations on the political events of the day. The letters contain, as well, Louisa's repeated words of thanks and appreciation for Walt's generosity; not only did he consistently send her money, but he also sent her books, newspapers, almanacs, and articles. She, in turn, spoke frequently to him about critical reviews of his work which she had read, astutely assessing, at the time of its appearance, the value of Anne Gilchrist's 1870 "A Woman's Estimate of Walt Whitman," appearing in the Boston Radical.
Louisa's own style of writing merits attention. Louisa, often described as being "illiterate," did not use standard punctuation. She rarely capitalized letters; she frequently misspelled words, and sometimes did not observe what is to contemporary readers correct grammar. She was not "literate" in the written sense, but she read; she was intelligent and aware of her world, the public as well as her own private world. Reading Louisa's letters, a person soon becomes aware of learning to read in a new way—of following the rhythm of Louisa's prose, of actively creating the sentence breaks. Louisa's prose encourages active reading and also rewards the reader with a recognition of Louisa's unique sense of storytelling. A careful reader of her letters soon senses the import of Whitman's recognition of her own writing/thinking skills. "I favor her," Whitman said to Traubel, "'favor' they call it up on Long Island—a curious word so used, yet a word of great suggestiveness. Often people would say—men, women, children, would say—'You are a Whitman: I know you.' When I asked how they knew they would up with a finger at me: 'By your features, your gait, your voice: they are your mother's.' I think all that was, is, true: I could see it in myself" (280).
In addition to contributing to the formation of her son's style, Louisa's effect on her son can be seen in Whitman's representation of gender. Louisa's own strength contributed to Walt's sense of gender fluidity. Accordingly, in one of his notebooks, Whitman wrote: "Could we imagine such a thing—let us suggest that before a manchild or womanchild was born it should be suggested that a human being could be born" (Uncollected 2:76). Though Whitman certainly was at times caught in his culture's ideology, and in this regard at times essentializes women and men, there is a more pervasive move in his thinking, a move towards what is now called social construction. That is, Whitman could see the role society played in formulating a person's view of self and of others. Thus, he wished to inscribe in his poetry and prose a view of democracy much more idealized than the actuality in which he lived, outside his home.
Louisa also contributed to Walt's evolving understanding of the concept of "comradeship." This concept came to take on a progressively more inclusive meaning for Whitman, especially as a result of the Civil War. The war caused Whitman to fear the possible failure of democracy in the United States. He frequently revised in order to inscribe into his poetry more and more the ethic of care. "Comradeship" became an inclusive term for Whitman, not narrowed by gender, age, sexual orientation, or relationship. Though the strong individual was ever a concern for Whitman, he came to fear the excess of unthinking individualism, resulting in the fracturing of his country. Thus, the image of the Mother of All, representing comradeship, became intensified, post Civil War. Certainly, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman served as a model for Whitman for this Mother of All image.
Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.
Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 2. 1908. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961.
Whitman, Louisa Van Velsor. The largest collection of Louisa's letters to Walt is held in the Trent Collection at the Duke University Library. Also see her letters in the Hanley Collection, held in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin, Texas, and her letters to Helen Price held in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City. Helen Price's letters to Louisa are held in the Trent Collection. Letters to Louisa from various friends and relatives are found in the Whitman-Feinberg Collection, Library of Congress.
Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Vols. 1–2. New York: New York UP, 1961.
____. The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman. Ed. Emory Holloway. 2 vols. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1921.