Sarah Helen Whitman, 1803-1878, was born Sarah Helen Power. Her father was a prosperous Providence merchant. As a child, Sarah lived with an aunt in Jamaica, Long Island while she attended a Quaker school there. On returning to Providence she was placed in a private school where she learned to read French, German, and Italian and began to write poetry.
In 1828, Sarah married John Winslow Whitman, a prominent Boston lawyer and writer, and lived in Boston with him until his early death in 1833. As a widow, she moved back to the family home at 88 Benefit Street in Providence and lived there for the rest of her life.
From the publication of her first poem in 1829, Sarah steadily placed her verses in various women’s magazines. She also wrote critical essays in praise of Emerson, Goethe, and Shelley as well as scholarly articles on religion and European literature. Her later writings on spiritualism, appearing in New York Tribune in 1851, were influential in promulgating that movement.
For upward of forty years Whitman maintained a literary salon at her home frequented by many prominent writers and intellectuals including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Sarah Hale, John Hay, and Edgar Allan Poe, with whom she had a brief romantic relationship in 1848, just prior to his death. Eventually she wrote a scholarly and perceptive defense of Poe’s work and career entitled Edgar Poe and His Critics.