Whitman, Sarah Helen (1803–1878)

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Whitman, Sarah Helen (1803–1878)

American transcendentalist, essayist, and journalist . Name variations: Sarah Power; Mrs. Whitman. Born Sarah Helen Power on January 19, 1803, in Providence, Rhode Island; died on June 27, 1878, in Providence; daughter of Nicholas Power and Anna (Marsh) Power; married John Winslow Whitman (a poet and editor), on July 10, 1828 (died 1833); no children.

Sarah Power Whitman enjoyed a long career as a journalist and poet, and for many years was an important figure in American literary circles. Born in 1803, the daughter of a merchant, Whitman was raised in comfortable surroundings in Rhode Island, until her father went bankrupt during the War of 1812. He was then captured by the British and after his release did not return to his family for nearly two decades. This left her mother in dire financial straits, and Sarah and her sister were sent to an aunt's home in Long Island. Sarah attended a Quaker school and became an avid reader of Gothic literature and poetry. She attended finishing school on her return to Providence and began writing poetry herself. At age 21, she became engaged to John Winslow Whitman, a poet and magazine editor of Boston. He published some of her verses in the Boston Spectator under the name "Helen." After their marriage in 1828, the couple lived in Boston, where they became part of the city's literary elite and Sarah made the personal friendships which would further her writing career in later years.

John Whitman died in 1833, and his widow returned to her family home in Providence. She continued to publish, always under a pseudonym. Through her essays in magazines, she took part in the literary debates over the works of authors such as Percy Shelley and Johann von Goethe. She also formed literary societies in the New England area. Whitman, who had by this time adopted Transcendentalist philosophy, became an outspoken advocate and practitioner of metaphysical science and spirituality, movements which were then growing in popularity across the United States. She read widely about mysticism, mesmerism, and the occult, and believed she developed the power to communicate with the dead. Whitman held séances and consulted with the leaders of the spiritualist movement. She also became actively involved in a range of progressive causes, including utopianism, women's rights, and new ideas in education. All the while her poetry, from humorous to romantic to spiritual, appeared regularly in literary and women's magazines.

It was in 1848 that Whitman published an anonymous valentine poem in Home Journal for the poet and novelist Edgar Allan Poe. He responded with a poem entitled "To Helen," and soon they met in person. In November, believing they were destined by a spiritual affinity to be together, they agreed to marry. However, a month later Whitman's mother and other friends convinced them to break off the engagement; Poe died the following year. Whitman composed a series of poems which found a wide readership on this strange and brief relationship.

In 1853, by now widely regarded as an important literary figure, Whitman published her first book, a collection of poems entitled Hours of Life, and Other Poems. Her work, both verse and prose, continued to appear in national newspapers and magazines until her last years. She concerned herself with social and political issues as well as literary ones, but now also wrote widely in defense of the life and work of Poe; her 1860 essay Edgar Poe and His Critics was a widely read, scholarly analysis praising Poe's literary style. Through this and other essays Whitman became one of the most important sources of information on the poet for his critics and biographers.

In 1868, Whitman became an officer in the Rhode Island woman suffrage organization, a cause she had championed for many years. She died ten years later, at age 75, in Providence after an illness. Showing her lifelong concern for social welfare, she left sizable bequests to organizations for African-American children in her will.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Edgar Allan Poe. NY: Scribner, 1992.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

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Whitman, Sarah Helen (1803–1878)

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