The sentimental value of these letters from Walt Whitman to his mother is increased by our knowledge of her influence upon the poet and his poetry. This influence, emotional and not intellectual, was one of the most important forces of his life.
Born in 1793, Louisa Van Velsor, the daughter of a Long Island farmer and his Welsh wife, grew up, as Perry says, almost illiterate. In 1816, Louisa married Walter Whitman, an itinerant carpenter, and settled In West Hills for a while. The next twenty years, spent in various parts of Long Island, the Whitmans devoted to raising their nine children, the greater burden falling on the mother. After the death of her husband in 1853, Mrs. Whitman lived in Brooklyn and Camden for eighteen years, living to see the time when George was wounded in the Civil War, when Andrew died, when Hannah’s husband, Charles Heyde, attempted to ruin his wife’s family, when Jeff was in St. Louis, when Walt lived in Washington. These few facts of her life are without significance except that in their unity of purpose Whitman found some of the ideas for ‘Leaves of Grass’. For in his own home, he found the typical American family; in his own home he found the ‘perfect mother’. During the last years of her life Whitman desired nothing more than for them to live together. Their letters constantly discuss the plan, and only finances prevented its realization. How Walt must have admired the even temper, good sense, and cheerfulness which Bucke says Mrs. Whitman possessed!
These are the same qualities which come out in her son’s letters. The occasional touches of humor (which many think cannot be found in Whitman), the bits of friendly gossip—’snack talk’ Walt calls it, all the homely business of Walt’s life. In the following pages, we have the privilege of seeing Whitman’s exquisite respect for his mother, his gentleness, his kindness, and his efforts to make her final years peaceful.—Rollo G. Silver