Whitman, Sarah Helen (Power)

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WHITMAN, Sarah Helen (Power)

Born 19 January 1803, Providence, Rhode Island; died 27 June 1878, Providence, Rhode Island

Also wrote under: Helen

Daughter of Nicholas and Anna Marsh Power; married John W. Whitman, 1828 (died 1833)

Both of Sarah Helen Whitman's parents were from old Rhode Island families. Her father was absent from home for many years when, after being captured at sea by the British in 1813, he chose to continue his seafaring career until 1832. Whitman was educated, for brief periods, at private schools in Providence and at a Quaker school in Jamaica, Long Island, where she lived with an aunt. Although a taste for poetry and novels was thought pernicious, she preferred them to lessons and read the classics and French and German literature in the library of another aunt in Providence. She lived in Boston with her husband, an attorney, editor, and writer, but returned to Providence after his death in 1833. She traveled in Europe in 1857.

Whitman's first published poem was "Retrospection," signed "Helen" (American Ladies Magazine, 1829). The editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, encouraged further contributions. Whitman wrote scholarly essays on Goethe, Shelley, and Emerson and served as a correspondent for the New York Tribune and the Providence Journal.

Whitman was an advocate of educational reforms, divorce, the prevention of cruelty to animals, the liberal ethics of Fourier, women's rights, and universal suffrage. Opposing the materialism of the Protestant churches, she subscribed to the intellectual and spiritual idealism of the Transcendentalists. She was also noted for her belief in prenatal influences and occult and psychic phenomena.

A woman of unusual intelligence and charm, Whitman knew many prominent people, but today she is best known as a friend of Edgar Allan Poe. Following their first meeting on 2 September 1848, exchanges of poems, and a romantic correspondence, they were engaged to be married by the end of the year, but the engagement was broken at the time the banns were to be published. After Poe's death in 1849, Whitman cherished his memory and worked to exonerate the maligned author when, in many circles, it was not considered respectable to have been associated with him. She searched for and located materials and lent valuable items in her possession, and as the Poe controversy became international, she answered all inquiries about him.

Whitman's one volume of verse, Hours of Life, and Other Poems (1853), is more carefully composed than the work of most women who were her contemporaries, but it is too genteel and restrained to be of moment by comparison with rougher, more original writers. The subjects are typical for the period: dreams and memories of love, the reality of death, visions of paradise, and the comforts of serene religious faith. Her voice is subdued or languorous; her eyes are sensitive to light and color; her heart is tender. Sixteen poems are the record of her love for Poe; they constitute a structure of illusions for reconciling the "orient phantasies," the experience of mundane and rather ugly stresses, the shame and guilt, the grief, and what she calls the "silent eyes of destiny." The reconciliation freed her for the most radical writing of her career, Edgar Poe and His Critics (1860).

Having witnessed a decade of what she calls "remorseless violation" to the memory of Poe, Whitman wished her vindication of him to be impersonal and authoritative. She refrains from discussing her troubled romance with Poe but does take advantage of having known him, of long familiarity with what he wrote, and a scrupulous reading of all that had been written about him. She draws legitimately on the recollections of others who knew him and her own trenchant knowledge of literature and familiarity with the national scene.

Finally, taking into account Poe's mental desolation and periodic insanity, Whitman views his "unappeased and restless soul" in relation to an era when a prevailing skepticism and "divine dissatisfaction everywhere present" showed that the age was moving feverishly through processes of transition and development, "yet gave no idea of where they were leading us." Poe was, for Whitman, one of the men of "electric temperament and prophetic genius" who anticipate those latent ideas about to unfold themselves to humanity. Nothing would have been gained, she observes, had he been another Wordsworth or Longfellow. Whitman was a woman of courage, independent mind, tact, and dignity—and one of the most impressive of American literary critics of the 19th century.


Harrison, I. A., ed., The Last Letters of Edgar Allan Poe to Sarah Helen Whitman (1909). Miller, J. C., Building Poe Biography (1977). Miller, J. C., Poe's Helen Remembers (1979). Osgood, F. S., Poems (1849). Ostrom, J. W., ed., The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (1966). Robertson, J. W., Edgar A. Poe: A Psychopathic Study (1923). Ticknor, Caroline, Poe's Helen (1916).

Reference works:

American Female Poets (1849). NAW (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).


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