The third member of Rhode Island’s early nineteenth-century group of famous literary women (Catherine Williams and Frances Whipple) was Sarah Helen (Power) Whitman. She was born in Providence on January 19, 1803, the daughter of the former Anna was Sarah Helen (Power) Whitman, joining Marsh and Providence merchant and sea captain Nicholas Power. Helen’s father (she preferred to be called Helen) was a descendant of the Nicholas Power who had arrived in Providence from Ireland during the 1640s. His progeny included Hope Power, the mother of the famed Brown brothers of Providence. John Brown built his splendid mansion in 1786 on Power Street, just south of Helen’s home (the mansion is now a house museum owned by the Rhode Island Historical Society). Helen’s father was not as fortunate financially as some other members of the clan but was ruined by the commercial restrictions imposed on American commerce prior to the War of 1812. He was captured at sea by the British after the outbreak of war, and when he was released in 1815, he continued his maritime ventures and did not return to Providence until the early 1830s. Perhaps this abandonment is why Helen seldom used her maiden name.
Deprived of the financial and moral support of her father at the age of ten, Helen was sent to live with an aunt in Jamaica, Long Island, and attended a Quaker school there. Upon her return to Providence in her teens, she enrolled at a private school, where she learned to read French, German and Italian and began to develop her skills as a poetess.
On one of her trips to partake of the rich cultural atmosphere of Boston, she met John Winslow Whitman, a well-to-do and highly literate Boston lawyer, whom she wed in 1828, when she was twenty-five. John Whitman, more a writer than an attorney, was the publisher of two periodicals, the Bachelors’ Journal and the Boston Spectator and Ladies’ Album, to which Helen contributed some poetry.
Unlike the marriages of Catharine Williams and Frances Whipple, the Whitmans had a compatible and presumably happy relationship, but unfortunately it was also short. John Whitman died in 1833, leaving Helen a young widow. She returned to Providence shortly thereafter to live with her mother in the family home at 88 Benefit Street, and she never remarried. By that time, her father had returned from his travels, although the details of his daughter’s reaction to this belated arrival are unknown.
During her stay in Boston, she had become acquainted with many of that vibrant city’s cultural leaders, and her heritage as a Power and the force of her own talent and intellect also allowed her to move among Providence’s cultural elite. From the time of her first published poem in 1829, she steadily placed her verses in various women’s magazines and wrote scholarly articles on modern European literature. She also published critical essays in praise of Goethe, Shelley, Coleridge and American author Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom she came to know.
From the mid-1830s and for more than forty years thereafter, Helen maintained Rhode Island’s foremost literary salon at her home. It was frequented by many prominent non–Rhode Island writers and intellectuals, including Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Sarah Hale, Margaret Fuller, John Hay (when Lincoln’s famous private secretary and biographer was a student at Brown) and, most legendary of all, Edgar Allan Poe.
Much time and attention (perhaps too much) has been devoted to the brief but intense romantic relationship between Helen Whitman and America’s master of the macabre. Her first glimpse of Poe came in 1845 as he strolled along Benefit Street, but they did not meet until 1848, a year after Poe’s wife died. As an ardent admirer of Poe’s work, in February 1848 Whitman addressed an unsigned poetic valentine to him that was subsequently published in the New York Home Journal. This gesture naturally sparked Poe’s interest, and learning Whitman’s identity, he sent her an unsigned poem, which is now known as “To Helen.” The two platonic lovers met in Providence in September 1848. Poe proposed marriage, but she rejected the offer primarily because of Poe’s excessive drinking and the disapproval of her domineering mother, who knew that Poe was a womanizer as well as an alcoholic. This whirlwind on-and-off relationship ended on December 23, 1848, when a dejected Poe left Providence, never to see Helen again. He erratically pursued several other women prior to his death on October 7, 1849, at the age of forty after an orgy of drinking. In 1860, Whitman published a defense of her former suitor’s work entitled Edgar Poe and His Critics.
After her dalliance with Poe, Whitman began to compose articles on spiritualism, the first of which appeared in 1851 in the New York Tribune. She published her first collection of verse, entitled Hours of Life, and Other Poems, in 1853. Although she advocated women’s rights, individual development and perfectibility and educational reform, the genteel Helen Whitman, unlike Catharine Williams or Frances Whipple, did not expound on the currently explosive topics of abolitionism or Rhode Island political reform.
Whitman continued to write her poetry and conduct her salons into her seventies, and as she grew older, she became increasingly interested in mysticism and the occult. She died childless in Providence on June 27, 1878, aged seventy-five, and was laid to rest in Providence’s North Burial Ground. The bulk of her estate was used to publish another volume containing her poetry and that of her sister. Though she had not espoused the cause of abolitionism, she left a substantial sum to the Providence Association for the Benefit of Colored Children.
With Catharine Williams and Frances Whipple, Sarah Helen (Power) Whitman was one of a trio of contemporaneous women writers that has never been replicated in Rhode Island.
Sarah Helen Whitman was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2004.
For additional reading:
The Makers of Modern Rhode Island, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley, History Press, Charleston, SC, 2012.