By the 1830s, Whitman had already settled into the eccentric style of dress and speech that a friend, Sarah S. Jacobs, describes thus: "deep-set eyes that gazed over and beyond, but never at you ...her movements were very rapid, and she seemed to flutter like a bird. … Her spell was on you from the moment she appeared… when she spoke, her empire was assured. She was wise, she was witty … her quick, generous sympathy, her sweet, unworldly nature, her ready recognition of whatever feeble talent, or inferior worth another person possessed" She had also been blessed with, "a succession of adorers." Of her style, Ticknor tells us further, "[S]he loved silken draperies, lace scarves and floating veils … always shod in dainty slippers … [she] always carried a fan to shield her eyes from glare. Her rooms were always dimly lit."(??)
The latter-day figure of Isadora Duncan comes to mind in this description, not surprisingly. Sarah Helen identified with Athena, so it was only natural that she should don the goddess' helmet for an occasional party. Poe biographers have made sport of Helen's appearance, describing how friends trailed her on the street, retrieving for her the various scarves and parts of her costume that always seemed to be falling off. Helen's pagan garb was pretty daring in a very conventional city.
Although, with the publication of the non-Poe articles in this volume, as well as the publication of Whitman's poems, and some of her letters, we can now perceive her as a keen observer of letters and politics and a friend of artists, suffragists, spiritualists, poets and musicians. She was keen in her enthusiasms, yet reticent to lend her name to outlandish ideas and claims. Despite this, the prevailing impression of her is that of Poe's literary widow, as exemplified by this passage from Thomas Wentworth Higginson:
I like best to think of Poe as associated with his gifted betrothed, Sarah Helen Whitman, whom I saw sometimes in her later years. She had outlived her early friends and loves and hopes, and perhaps her literary fame, such as it was; she had certainly outlived her recognized toes with Poe, and all but his memory. There she dwelt in her little suite of rooms, bearing youth still in her heart and her voice, and on her hair also, and in her dress. Her dimly-lighted parlor was always decked, here and there, with scarlet; and she sat, robed in white, her back always to the light, with a discreetly-tinted shadow over her still thoughtful and noble face. She seemed a person embalmed while still alive; it was as if she might swell forever there, prolonging into an indefinite future the tradition of a poet's love; and when we remembered that she had been Poe's betrothed, that his kisses had touched her lips, that she still believed in him and was his defender, all criticism might well, for her sake, be disarmed, and her saintly life atone for his stormy and sad career.
For many years, Whitman's parlor was home for "The Phalanstery," a circle of artists, writers and musicians who were the Bohemia of Providence. Enlivening this circle of friends were the many visitors, from literary lions to dilettantes, who craved admission into this charmed circle in an otherwise drab and disapproving city. No literary person in Providence, then or since, has achieved a similar esteem and centrality.
After Mrs. Power's death in 1858, Helen and her sister purchased another house, which was moved in the 20th century from its original location on Benevolent Street to 140 Power Street. The home was Sarah Helen's literary salon, séance parlor and sanitarium for her sister. Susan Anna Power — who seems to have drifted, like her forebear Jemima Wilkinson, into religious mania — lived until December 8, 1877. Sarah Helen Whitman fell ill shortly after her sister's death, and was moved to the home of friends on Bowen Street, where she died June 27, 1878. Providence had lost its Muse.
Break Every Bond: Sarah Helen Whitman In Providence, will be available in November 2018.
Picture: St John's Churchyard, behind Sarah Helen Whitman's home of the 1840s.