In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sarah Helen Whitman

  • Introduction
  • Secondary Sources on Whitman
  • Discussions of Whitman in Recent Poe Biographies

American Literature Sarah Helen Whitman
by
Andrew Ball
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0242

Introduction

Sarah Helen Whitman, née Power (b. 1804–d. 1878), was a poet, essayist, literary critic, translator, and spiritualist from Providence, Rhode Island. She was a descendent of Nicholas Power, one of the founders of Rhode Island. In 1827, she published her first verses as “Helen,” her preferred first name. In 1828, she married John Winslow Whitman, a Boston lawyer and scion of Plymouth colonists. When he died in 1833, Whitman returned to Providence, where she resided for the rest of her life. Whitman’s poetry regularly appeared in prominent periodicals and annuals of the 1830s and 1840s. Though later relegated to the status of a “minor poet,” Whitman was regarded as one of America’s foremost poets. Whitman was one of the central theorists of American romanticism, particularly with respect to its roots in German philosophy and literature. The essays she wrote in the 1840s form a vital, though often overlooked, chapter in the corpus of Transcendentalism. After Margaret Fuller, she was the leading woman literary critic in antebellum America. As Noelle A. Baker aptly put it, Whitman was ever the “champion of literary blackguards,” writing erudite essays in defense of misunderstood geniuses like Shelley, Byron, Goethe, and most famously, Edgar Allan Poe. After a brief courtship, she and Poe were engaged in 1848 but didn’t marry. In 1860, Whitman published Edgar Poe and His Critics to disprove popular falsehoods about him. In 1853, Whitman published the only collection of her poetry that would appear in her lifetime, Hours of Life and Other Poems. A second collection, Poems (1879), was published posthumously. In the 1850s, Whitman became an early and important proponent of Spiritualism and is featured prominently in Capron’s Modern Spiritualism (1855). Whitman was a prolific contributor to newspapers, primarily the Providence Daily Journal, where she published book reviews, travel correspondence, and essays on topics related to social reform, such as homelessness, poverty, and women’s right to vote and pursue higher education. Throughout her life, Whitman was sought after as a literary mentor and corresponded with many aspiring authors, such as a young John Hay and George William Curtis, who would remain a longtime friend. From the start of her career, Whitman was regarded as an eccentric, an image she cultivated. She often wore veils and flowing, oracular garments. Henry James based the appearance of Juliana Bordereau in The Aspen Papers (1888) on an account of Whitman made by a fellow spiritualist, Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Primary Texts

Though relegated to the status of a “minor poet” in the past, in truth, Whitman was a prodigious talent who made major contributions to American philosophy and literary criticism and was accorded the highest level of esteem by the national intelligentsia. As Caroline May put it, Whitman was perhaps not immensely popular among the American public, but she was held in high regard by the country’s leading artists and thinkers. In addition to being featured in some of the most significant collections of American poetry in the nineteenth century, she published a volume of poetry. A second volume of poetry was partially assembled by the author and published the year after her death. Whitman’s essays of the 1830s and 1840s make up an integral part of the corpus of American romanticism. Whitman was an important early advocate of Spiritualism and remained active in the movement all her life, as is reflected in her late work. Whitman often wrote on matters of social and political concern.

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