College of Liberal Arts

Department of English

 

 

Noelle A. Baker

"This Slender Foundation . . . Made Me Immortal:
Sarah Helen Whitman vs. Poe's Helen"


This essay explores and reassesses the literary reputation of Sarah Helen Whitman (1803-78). Whitman, a poet and literary critic from Providence, Rhode Island, is most widely recognized for her relationship with Poe at the end of his life. She published sentimental verse about this romance, defended Poe through her literary criticism, and provided critical aid to Poe's early biographer John Henry Ingram. Their famous relationship has thereby provided fertile material for important scholarly examinations of Whitman's verse and her affectionate support of Poe. Ironically, however, scholars' interest in this aspect of Whitman's professional and personal life has obscured her literary criticism and life apart from Poe. Whitman not only dedicated herself to the task of vindicating Poe from his detractors but also wrote in defense of social causes and other literary figures, such as Shelley, Goethe, Emerson, Byron, and Alcott. Furthermore, her response to Poe shifted subtly with time and with her varied professional and personal objectives. Whitman, considered both as the loving defender of Poe and as a woman writer with other interests, suggests the complexities surrounding the profession of authorship, canon formation, and personal celebrity.

     

     

     

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