Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Gilchrist, Anne Burrows (1828-1885)
Author:
Alcaro, Marion Walker
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Anne Burrows Gilchrist was born in London, the daughter of a prominent solicitor and, through her mother, the descendant of an old and distinguished family in Essex. A brilliant student, after completing the courses at a school for girls, she continued her education on her own, reading widely in science and philosophy. During the ten years of her marriage to Alexander Gilchrist, a young writer, in addition to having four children and acting as her husband's critic and amanuensis, she published five scientific essays and a book for children. After Alexander's death in 1861, with the help of his friends William Michael and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Anne finished his biography of Blake, still a standard reference. 

Anne Gilchrist is best known in American literature as the Englishwoman who fell passionately in love with Walt Whitman when she read Leaves of Grass, lent to her by William Rossetti in 1869. Undaunted by words and subject matter that shocked most Victorians, she recognized that this was a great work of art. Privately, she also responded to the poems by falling in love with the poet. She wrote a series of enthusiastic letters to Rossetti, who, realizing that this was exactly the kind of appreciative criticism that Whitman desperately needed, persuaded her to rewrite them for publication. "A Woman's Estimate of Walt Whitman" (changed to "An Englishwoman's Estimate of Walt Whitman" in 1887 by Herbert Gilchrist) was published anonymously in Boston in 1870. This brilliantly analytical essay, with its unqualified defense of Whitman, established Anne Gilchrist as one of the first great critics of Leaves of Grass

To Anne's disappointment, Whitman sent his thanks to the anonymous writer through Rossetti. After a year, she wrote a long letter directly to the poet: introducing herself, confessing her love and her conviction that she was the ideal mate whom she believed "the tenderest lover" was seeking; and telling him that, when circumstances permitted, she planned to go to America to be near him. Walt's reply was cautious but kind. For six years they exchanged letters. Hers were frequent and ardent, his less frequent and friendly. However, Anne's belief that once they met Walt would return her love with equal ardor never waned. In 1876, although Walt tried to dissuade her, Anne came to Philadelphia bringing with her three of her children and her furniture, pictures, china, silver, and books. 

Anne and Walt met in the hotel where the Gilchrists were staying until they found a house. For both, the meeting had an unexpected outcome. If Walt had been uneasy about meeting the woman who had wooed him for six years, his fears vanished when he met Anne Gilchrist. He was instantly taken with the charming Englishwoman and her attractive children, and felt wonderfully comfortable with them. For Anne, the encounter was both a blow and a revelation. From their first handclasp, it was clear that, although the poet was genuinely glad to see her, the responding fervor that she had hoped for was not there and never would be. It was the end of her romantic fantasy, but the beginning of a loving friendship that lasted all their lives. 

The two years that the Gilchrists lived in Philadelphia was a happy period for Walt. He was an almost daily visitor at their house on North 22nd Street, entertaining his friends as freely as if it were his own, and sometimes living there in a room that was always kept ready for him. He was devoted to Anne's children: Beatrice, a medical student; Herbert, an artist; and Grace, who studied singing. For the only time in his life, Walt was the father figure in a family that included children and was presided over by, in his words, "a true wife & mother" (Whitman 91). What delighted him most, however, was the sparkle and depth of his conversations with Anne. They discussed art, science, literature, philosophy, politics, and personalities—always with spirit, if not always in agreement. "The best of her was her talk," Walt would tell Traubel in one of his tender reminiscences (Traubel 268). And to William Sloane Kennedy he wrote that with Anne "you did not have to abate the wing of your thought downward at all, in deference to any feminine narrowness of mind" (qtd. in Alcaro 178). 

The Gilchrists left Philadelphia in April, 1878, and spent the following year in Concord, Boston, and New York. Anne became a celebrity. Wherever she went, the gracious friend of the Carlyles, Tennysons, Rossettis, and the Pre-Raphaelites—with her "fine presence" that Horace Scudder recalled with admiration (qtd. in Alcaro 195)—was lionized in literary circles. Anne and Walt met briefly in New York before the Gilchrists left America in 1879. Their parting was deeply emotional. After her return to England, Anne wrote "A Confession of Faith," a second essay on Leaves of Grass; edited a second edition of the Life of Blake; and wrote a biography of Mary Lamb, still in print. Walt remained a focal point in her life. Her letters—no longer passionate but reflecting a loving companionship—were frequent, and she worked tirelessly to raise funds for him. Anne died in 1885. Whitman's "Going Somewhere" was written for her: "My science-friend, my noblest woman-friend, / (Now buried in an English grave—and this a memory-leaf for her dear sake . . . )."   

Bibliography 

Alcaro, Marion Walker. Walt Whitman's Mrs. G: A Biography of Anne Gilchrist. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1991. 

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. 1906. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 1961. 

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1961. 


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