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Walt Whitman and Nineteenth-Century Women Reformers

Walt Whitman and Nineteenth-Century Women Reformers

by Sherry Ceniza

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Ceniza provides a dramatic rereading of Walt Whitman's poetry through the lens of 19th-century feminist culture.

Walt Whitman and 19th-Century Women Reformers documents Whitman's friendships with women during the 1850s, the decade of Whitman's most creative period. The book reveals startling connections between the Þrst three editions of Leaves of


Ceniza provides a dramatic rereading of Walt Whitman's poetry through the lens of 19th-century feminist culture.

Walt Whitman and 19th-Century Women Reformers documents Whitman's friendships with women during the 1850s, the decade of Whitman's most creative period. The book reveals startling connections between the Þrst three editions of Leaves of Grass and the texts generated by the women he knew during this period, many of whom were radical activists in the women's rights movement.

Sherry Ceniza argues that Whitman's editions of Leaves became progressively more radically 'feminist' as he followed the women's rights movement during the 1850s and that he was influenced by what he called the 'true woman of the new aggressive type . . . woman under the new dispensation.' Ceniza documents the progression of the National Woman's Rights movement through the lives and writings of three of its leaders- Abby Hills Price, Paulina Wright Davis, and Ernestine L. Rose. By juxtaposing the texts written by these women with Leaves, Ceniza shows that Whitman used many of the same arguments and rhetorical gestures as his female activist friends.

The book also discusses the influence of women engaged in women's rights outside the National Woman's Rights organization. And Ceniza's opening chapter is devoted to a fresh interpretation of the life and thought of another strong-minded woman who influenced the poet's writing-Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, Walt Whitman's mother.


Editorial Reviews

Documents the US poet's friendships with women during the 1850s, his most creative period. Reveals connections between the first three editions of his and the texts generated by the women he knew at the time, many of whom were radical activists in the women's rights movement. Concludes that a knowledge of women's cultural history is important to in understanding Whitman's ideological and philosophical struggles. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
From the Publisher

"Leaves of Grass is essentially a woman's book: the women do not know it, but every now and then a woman shows that she knows it: it speaks out the necessities, its cry is the cry of the right and wrong of the woman sex- of the woman first of all, of the facts of creation first of all- of the feminine: speaks out loud: warns, encourages, persuades, points the way."—Walt Whitman

"Ceniza has written the premier study of Whitman and the culture of 19th-century feminism."—Ezra Greenspan, University of South Carolina

“Ceniza’s study provides the fullest account yet of Whitman’s relation to the American feminists of midcentury. . . . Ceniza’s book deals with . . . questions from a feminist position that clearly admires Whitman profoundly. She has made excellent use of archival material, uncovering a wealth of private or little-known comments on Whitman’s work by leading American feminists of the mid–nineteenth century. Ultimately a study in social history, Ceniza’s work will enable a significant reappraisal of Whitman and ‘the woman question.’”
American Literature

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Walt Whitman and 19th-Century Women Reformers

By Sherry Ceniza

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1998 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8726-6


Louisa Van Velsor Whitman

In a letter to her son Walt dated 12 January 1872, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman wrote that she was getting a box together, one of a long train of boxes over the years, to send to her daughter Hannah: "i got 10 1/2 yds of muslin and two dresses one a gingam and one delain and a can of peaches and some other things and george will give me 2 dollar to put in." One week later, she wrote Walt again and described once more what had gone into the box: "we sent 2 dresses and lot of muslin and flannel skirts and can of peaches and new years cake and lot of french candy and 2 dollars in money and cotton and sewing silk and linings for the dresses." Louisa Whitman's boxes were compilations important to her. In some essential way, Whitman's poems were to him what Louisa Whitman's boxes were to her.

Louisa Whitman's care packages serve as images for one side of the polarity that Whitman said exists in us all: "The soul has that measureless pride which consists in never acknowledging any lessons or deductions but its own. But it has sympathy as measureless as its pride, and the one balances the other, and neither can stretch too far while it stretches in company with the other." Though the packages and letters to Hannah might seem to place Louisa Whitman on the sympathy side in her son's equation, she also had the "measureless pride" of which Walt spoke. Indeed, Whitman called his mother "the ideal woman, practical, spiritual, of all of earth, life, love, to me the best." By discovering the details of Louisa Whitman's life andcharacter, then, we may concretize Walt's notion of the ideal female citizen living in American democracy. Knowledge of the details of Louisa's life adds as well to our reading of Whitman's poetry, for Whitman's poetics and his sense of democracy are inextricably fused.

Louisa's "sympathy"—the threads of connection that Louisa established as she involved each one of her children in the lives of the others, as she interacted with her friends, boarders, and neighbors, and as she kept sending Hannah boxes and letters—finds resonance in Whitman. It is woven into a letter he wrote to his friend Abby Price from Washington in which he spoke of his work in the Civil War hospitals, listing in detail the oranges and stamps and gifts of small sums of money he made to the soldiers, a replication of Louisa's own boxes to Hannah. It is woven into his poetics and into his sense of community. Threads connecting Walt and Louisa—indeed Louisa's very ambience—wove themselves into Walt's very being: "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. My mother was illiterate in the formal sense but strangely knowing: she excelled in narrative—had great mimetic power: she could tell stories, impersonate: she was very eloquent in the utterance of noble moral axioms—was very original in her manner, her style.... I wonder what Leaves of Grass would have been if I had been born of some other mother." Whitman speaks here of Louisa's style—her narrative skill, her mimetic power, her ability to take on personae, her eloquence "in the utterance of noble moral axioms," her originality: her style. He speaks of his debt to her style. He stresses here, then, not her gendered role of Mother/Nurturer (with its culturally created corollary, "sympathy") but her own creativity. In his poetry, Whitman often conflates the two: motherhood/creativity. It is criticism, not Whitman's poetry, which has focused on one to the exclusion of the other; it is critics, such as D. H. Lawrence, who see wombs as a negative. Not so Whitman.

Seeing Louisa in the light of her own creativity permits us to interpret her in a new way—new to scholarship, that is. Louisa is part of that long foreground of which Emerson spoke in his 1855 letter to Whitman. In addition to adding insight into this long foreground, seeing Louisa Van Velsor Whitman as an individual, an individual woman, will affect the way we read the images of women and of mothers in Leaves of Grass. Ultimately, it will also affect the way in which we read Whitman's concept of American democracy.

In 1949, Clarence Gohdes and Rollo G. Silver reprinted sixteen of Louisa's letters in their edition of Whitman and Whitman-related manuscripts, Faint Clews and Indirections. They did so because they wanted to add "to existing information on the poet's family and with the idea of illustrating the interest in politics and reading which Mrs. Whitman also shared" and because they felt that a study of Whitman's family helped to account for Whitman's democratic ideas: "The poet was reared in the midst of the greatest democratic institution known to mankind—a large family. The center of it, until he himself took over, was his mother." Though Gohdes and Silver regarded the family as a democratic institution—a view that hardly convinces many readers today—the fact that they saw Louisa's strength and her own intellectual interests distinguishes them as unusual readers of Louisa and sets them off from critics who followed. Twenty years later, for example, Edwin Haviland Miller, in his book Walt Whitman's Poetry, reads Whitman's mother as a negative, even malevolent, force in Whitman's life.

Edwin Haviland Miller's dislike for Louisa is apparent in his comments about her in his notes in The Correspondence and in Walt Whitman's Poetry: A Psychological Journey. In the book, for example, Miller says of Louisa, "The sea-mother fails to 'gather' her castaway to her breast, just as the egocentric indifference of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman repelled her son but made him hunger for affection" (47). Miller links Walt senior's alcoholism and his failure in business to Louisa's "dominance": "Partly because of his failure but also because of her aggressive nature, Mrs. Whitman dominated the family. (That the father and two sons sought escape in the male society of taverns and that Walt ordinarily depicts passive males are consequences, I suspect, of the mother's emasculating rule of the family)" (48). The language equates Louisa's willingness to think and act for herself negatively; it becomes negative "dominance" and an "aggressive nature" that in its "dominance" runs the males in the family to drink and also renders them "passive," thus "emasculating" them. Miller counters an earlier scholar's conjecture that Whitman left home because he had difficulty dealing with his father: "It is more likely that, though he found the capricious behavior of an alcoholic father difficult, he found equally difficult the matriarchy which Mrs. Whitman had established in the household" (48). He charges Louisa with "nagging querulousness [which is] present in the hundreds of extant letters Mrs. Whitman wrote to her children, which are filled with self-pity and hostility toward anything that disrupted her way of life" (55).

David Cavitch's dislike for Louisa exceeds Miller's. Moreover, Cavitch's accounts contain factual inaccuracies. These accounts appear in his 1985 My Soul and I: The Inner Life of Walt Whitman and in shortened form in the 1985 Walt Whitman: Here and Now, edited by Joann P. Krieg. Cavitch says, for example:

The calm possessiveness of the earth in "This Compost" and the withering complacency of the woman in "Song of the Broad-Axe" reveal Whitman's horrified suspicion that he was betrayed in his deepest trust. He saw from a child's perspective the threatening self-centeredness of his mother to whom he again felt vulnerably exposed. She could allow her sick infant to die; she could exile her oldest child, who would not acquiesce to her denial of the squalor and misery of their life; she overrode her second child's feelings with her own, making him her favorite; she imposed on all her children a dependence and obligation as rankling as Eddie's helpless idiocy, which mirrored their plight; and now she could bury the worn-out and useless husband and father—all while acting as if nothing were seriously amiss. She appeared possibly treacherous, even while they continued to "stick by each other" as long as they lived. [96]

There is no basis for Cavitch's statement that Louisa allowed her infant child to die. As for Jesse, Louisa did not want to put him in an asylum. Louisa wrote to Walt:

i got your letter walt about jesse Jeffey must have wrote very strong about him.... well walt jessy is a very great trouble to me to be sure and dont appreceate what i doo for him but he is no more deranged than he has been for the last 3 years i think it would be very bad for him to be put in the lunatic assiliym if he had some light employment but that seems hard to get i could not find it in my heart to put him there without i see something that would make it unsafe for me to have him he is very passionate almost to frenzy and always was but of course his brain is very weak but at the time of his last blow out we had every thing to confuse and irritate.

Cavitch's statements simply are not true to the facts; they are not borne out by primary documents.

Though by no means her only detractor, Miller is an especially influential one because of his prominence as editor of Whitman's Correspondence, with his explanatory notes and commentary a part of each of the six volumes of the twenty-two-volume Collected Writings of Walt Whitman. The notes and commentary on some level function as interpretation of Louisa and thereby guide readers' views of her. Also, Miller's Freudian study of Whitman's poetry has been influential. Contrary to the view that scholars such as Edwin Haviland Miller and David Cavitch hold about Louisa, I argue that she was a formative figure in Walt's life, offering him a role model that helped him redefine a restricted cultural conception of motherhood and instead valorize the potential strengths of mother [parent] hood. As the United States moved closer and closer to fragmentation in the 1850s—culminating in the Civil War—the need for images of cohesion became more immediate and apparent, and strengths such as those that Louisa possessed provided an obvious template for one of Whitman's most suggestive images for the Union—the cohesive "immortal mother" who would ensure national unity.

Also, Louisa Van Velsor's own writing presented Whitman with a model for the syntactically loose, emotively present voice that he developed in his poetry. The lack of punctuation that readers today find off-putting Whitman perhaps found suggestive. Reading Louisa's letters forces us to pay attention to the rhythm of the syntax, forces us to supply the stops and pauses, since Louisa uses no standard syntactical signs. She was, finally, a more aware and creative person than Whitman scholarship has so far allowed us to see, and her influence on her son, far from being psychologically debilitating, was artistically and politically liberating.

A month before Louisa died, miserably unhappy living at the home of her son George and her daughter-in-law Lou, she wrote to Walt, "if i was younger i should show some of my dignity." This is a telling line, for it shows her extreme self-awareness and her pride, the quality Whitman saw as necessary to keep a person from being subordinated to another's will. As such, it is an especially poignant remark, since at that time in her life, Louisa clearly knew she had been subjugated.

The theme of Louisa's financial dependence on her sons runs throughout the letters; the theme's persistence, and the change in her tone when she asks Walt for money, become painful. Walt was by far the most giving, the most dependable, and the most nurturing of her children, and Louisa acknowledged these qualities in her letters to him. Still, she was dependent, aware of the threat of the poor-house. She was not an exception in this respect; rather, the exception would have been for a nineteenth-century woman—regardless of class—to be economically independent. Christine Stansell, in City of Women, describes the kind of threat Louisa Whitman felt: "A woman's age, marital status, the number and age of her children and, above all, the presence or absence of male support determined her position in working-class life. Any woman, whether the wife of a prosperous artisan or a day laborer's daughter, was vulnerable to extreme poverty if, for some reason, she lost the support of a man."

Louisa's awareness of her dependency is obvious: "i often think how loth many is to have children and what would become of me if i had none"; "people dont want to have children but i dont know what would become of me in my old days if i had none"; "we ... have got one of the old fashion snow storms ... but i think we have got enoughf to eat to stand through it if it dont last too long thank god and good sons."

The many moves the Whitman family made only heightened Louisa's vulnerability. It had been customary to change houses when Walter senior was alive, and the custom remained after his death. Louisa herself formed the habit, at least by 1860, of renting a brownstone in Brooklyn, subletting the more desirable floors, and leaving the basement or ground floor for the family. Her son Jeff and daughter-in-law Mattie and their children frequently lived with her or at least in the same brownstone. She always made a home for Ed, her youngest son, who had suffered brain damage as a child; her son Jesse, who was eventually committed to a mental hospital, lived with her periodically; and her son Andrew and his children used her home frequently as a base, a necessity, since Andrew himself was financially completely irresponsible, as was his wife, Nancy. Louisa's daughter Mary visited occasionally. Walt himself moved in and out of this protean circle until he went to Washington. Only Hannah, Louisa's other daughter, did not frequent her home. Until Louisa moved to Camden, against her will, Walt always regarded the Brooklyn house as home, whatever its address.

Louisa well knew the power and powerlessness of money. She spoke to Walt of Jeff's and George's stinginess, though she never described it as such. She remarked once that it was odd that every time Jeff sent her money, fate somehow kept it from reaching her. She wryly noted that making a good salary did Jeff and Mattie nogood, since they remained by their own account as short of money as ever: "matty sent me two 25 cent bills," she wrote Walt, "quite a lift wasent it walt." Her frequent assertions that George would never fail to support her betray her fear. More than once she wrote to Walt comments such as "for all that[,] george would never see me want i have too high opinion of him to think he would ever shirk in any way if i was needy." She grew tired of hearing constant talk of money after she moved to Camden: "the more we have the more we want," she said. She saw the difference between her enforced frugality and George and Lou's parsimony.

Her financial dependency created emotional dependency. Louisa felt threatened by George far more than by Jeff or Walt. After the Civil War ended and George returned to Brooklyn to live, he had trouble adjusting to civilian life, and the strain showed in their relationship. Louisa was aware of George's discontent, but perhaps because of her dependence on him, his moodiness exacerbated her own sense of unease over her own space—her fear of possible home-lessness. She spoke to Walt of George's moodiness. Her letter speaks of her abasement:

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 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 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 andwhat has made him act so god only knows but i beleive it runs in the Whitman family to have such spells any how i hope they wont come often.


Excerpted from Walt Whitman and 19th-Century Women Reformers by Sherry Ceniza. Copyright © 1998 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Sherry Ceniza is Associate Professor of English at Texas Tech University.

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