Sarah Helen Power Whitman
Dates: January 19, 1803 - June 27, 1878
Occupation: poet, essayist
Known for: Transcendentalist, Spiritualist; romantic interest of Edgar Allen Poe
Known as: Sarah Power Whitman, Sarah Whitman, Sarah Helen Power Whitman
About Sarah Whitman
Sarah Helen Power Whitman was born in Providence, Rhode Island. Her father was a prosperous merchant, but went bankrupt in the War of 1812. On a trip to the West Indies, he was captured by the British and, although he was released, chose not to return to his family for another 19 years.
Reading from an early age, Sarah was given a Quaker education and later a typical education for a young lady: posture and etiquette along with French, German and Italian literature. She began writing poetry while at school.
In 1824, she became engaged to the poet and writer John Winslow Whitman. Co-editor of the Boston Spectator and Ladies' Album, where Sarah first published some of her poetry using the name "Helen." They married in 1828 and moved to Boston, where he died in 1833. They had no children.
Her husband had introduced her to the Boston circle of writers and critics including Sara Josepha Hale and the Transcendentalists. She began publishing essays defending Romantic and Transcendentalist writers including Goethe, Shelley and Emerson. Sarah Whitman continued publishing poetry, often in ladies' magazines of the day. And she became involved in many of the causes of the New England activists: progressive education, woman's rights, universal manhood suffrage, Fourierism, Unitarianism.
Sarah Whitman also became interested in spiritualism and other metaphysical sciences popular at the time. She became known for her involvement in both spiritualism and "mesmerism" (an approach to hypnosis).
In 1848 Sarah Whitman addressed a Valentine's Day poem to the poet Edgar Allen Poe. He returned the honor by sending her his poem, "To Helen." They found similar literary and metaphysical interests, and became engaged. Sarah insisted on a condition: that he stop drinking.
Why they never actually married is complex. Both were, for their own reasons, reluctant to wed. Sarah's mother, understandably considering her own abandonment by Sarah's father, helped persuade Sarah to insist on an agreement to turn over her (Sarah's) property to her mother, presumably to protect it from Poe. "Friends" and others told Sarah "scandalous" stories about Poe. Poe apparently attempted suicide in the middle of all this, and returned, at least once, to drinking. She called off the wedding; Poe blamed her family. (Less than a year later, after Poe attempted another marriage, this time to Sarah Elmira Royster, he was found unconscious in Baltimore and died in the hospital.)
Sarah Whitman continued to write and publish poetry and essays until the end of her life, often assuming a mentor's role with younger and newer writers. In 1853, she published her collected verse in Hours of Life, revised and enlarged in 1879. She was active in the woman suffrage movement in Rhode Island as well as in other efforts at social reform.
She became involved in a literary defense of Edgar Allen Poe, publishing Edgar Poe and His Critics in 1860.
She also continued her involvement with spiritualism, holding seances and writing about the subject. She gradually moved from acceptance of the phenomena of spiritualism to supporting investigations into the claims.
When she died, she remembered her causes in her will, leaving sums to the Proficence Association for the Benefit of Colored Children and to the Rhode Island Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
- Edgar Poe and His Critics: Sarah H. Whitman. Trade Paperback.
- Edgar Poe and His Critics: Sarah H. Whitman. Hardcover.
- The Last Letters of Edgar Allan Poe to Sarah Helen Whitman: Sarah H. Whitman.
- Last Flowers: The Romance Poems of Edgar Allan Poe & Sarah Helen Whitman. Brett Rutherford, editor.
- Poe's Helen: Caroline Ticknor.
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Text copyright 1999-2006 © Jone Johnson Lewis.