Providence, 1848. Edgar Allen Poe walks up Benefit Street, entranced by more than its quaint streetlights and artistic feel. It is here that he meets the widowed Sarah Helen Whitman, who becomes the last love of his life and the inspiration for Poe and so many more revered writers of the century to create new worlds and writings out of Providence. Here is the story of Sarah Whitman, the woman behind Providence.
Image courtesy of Poeselskabet
Sarah Helen Whitman was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1803. A bright, beautiful woman, Whitman was a spiritualist, transcendentalist, a poet, and a writer. She had married a man named John Winslow Whitman, whom with she moved to Boston. According to SantaFeKate, a local historian, “There she developed friendships with the leading literary lights of the time and place–Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow among others”.
Sarah discussed ideals of spiritualism and transcendentalism, two of the most widely accepted beliefs at the time. Merriam Webster describes transcendentalism as “a philosophy that emphasizes the a priori conditions of knowledge and experience or the unknowable character of ultimate reality or that emphasizes the transcendent as the fundamental reality”. In short, in order to understand ordinary things in the world, one must understand everything in their life from a deep, spiritual perspective. Both Emerson and Thoreau became close with Sarah Helen Whitman, and both men went to Providence to give lectures on transcendentalism.
In 1833, her husband passed away. Grieving, she spent most of her time writing, reading, and practicing four different languages that she soon became fluent in. By the time she met Edgar Allen Poe in 1848, SantaFeKate states that “she was considered the best woman poet in America”.
Her relationship with Poe was passionate. He would frequently wait for her outside her door, until Whitman’s mother banished him from the grounds. They would meet at the recently built Athenaeum, pictured below, and at Swan Point Cemetery. The two soon fell in love and, pressed by Poe, became engaged.
Image courtesy of CestChristine
Misfortune fell upon the happy couple one day when Sarah was with some friends at the Athenaeum. According to SantaFeKate, “Someone handed her a note saying that they had seen Poe drinking the night prior”. Sarah knew that Poe had a problem, and drinking was something she did not tolerate with him.
SantaFeKate goes on to say “Sarah called off the wedding, fled down the street to her house, breathed a little ether (her drug of choice), and was swooning on the sofa when Edgar caught up with her. They never saw each other again, and he would be dead within 10 months”. People say that Poe’s ghost still haunts Benefit Street, and that he can be seen outside of Sarah’s home, which still stands today.
Images courtesy of Wikipedia and FacultyMDC
Sarah lived another 30 years, and inspired many writers, like Poe and Emerson. H.P. Lovecraft had his photo taken outside of her home, showing that her legacy transcends time.