Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, Head-and-Shoulders Portrait of a Woman, Facing Slightly Left


Walt Whitman is generally considered to be the most important American poet of the 19th century. Of English and Dutch ancestry, he was born on May 31, 1819, in West Hills, Long Island, New York, the second of nine children. This daguerreotype by an unidentified photographer dates from around 1855, the year that Whitman published the first edition of his major work, Leaves of Grass, and shows his mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman (1795–1873). Emotionally close to Louisa, Whitman once told a friend: “How much I owe her! It could not be put in a scale—weighed: it could not be measured—be even put in the best words: it can only be apprehended through the intuitions. Leaves of Grass is the flower of her temperament active in me. . . . I wonder what Leaves of Grass would have been if I had been born of some other mother." Mother and son frequently corresponded, and many of Louisa’s letters to Walt survive in U.S. research libraries.

Last updated: October 16, 2012