- Coquetry and Correspondence in Revolutionary-Era ConnecticutReading Elizabeth Whitman’s Letters
In the Baldwin Family Papers at the Huntington Library, fifteen brief letters remain from one side of a correspondence between two Revolutionary-era American poets: Elizabeth Whitman and Joel Barlow. Both writers, Connecticut natives, were in their mid- to late twenties. She was born in 1752, the daughter of Elnathan Whitman, minister of Hartford’s Second Church until his death in 1777, and Abigail Stanley, daughter of a wealthy and influential Connecticut family. Elnathan Whitman was a Yale graduate; his father, Samuel Whitman, had been a trustee of the college, and his maternal grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, was also the grandfather of Jonathan Edwards. Joel Barlow was born in 1754, the youngest son of a prosperous Connecticut farmer, Samuel Barlow, and his second wife, Esther Hull. Barlow had begun his studies at Dartmouth and transferred to Yale after his father’s death. Graduating in 1778, he held the honor of class poet and read his poem “The Prospect of Peace,” a celebration of the Revolutionary effort, at commencement.
All but two of Whitman’s fifteen extant letters to Barlow were written in 1779 and 1780, followed by one in 1781 and one in 1782. The correspondence began shortly after the two met in New Haven in late 1778, when Whitman paid an extended visit to the family of Yale president Ezra Stiles. (Her younger brother, William, would graduate from Yale the following year.) Whitman writes to Barlow mostly from her family home in Hartford, but also from a handful of smaller towns about the state and in Massachusetts where she visited other family and friends; Barlow, though his letters to Whitman are lost, seems to have written primarily from New Haven, where he remained following his graduation and was pursuing a master’s degree.
Aside from the lyrics to a sentimental patriotic song sent in December [End Page 541] 1779, which features lovers separated by war, the existing letters never invoke the Revolution directly, although the first epistolary flurry was obviously disrupted by the British invasion of New Haven in July 1779. Barlow spent part of his exile from New Haven in Hartford with Whitman’s family. After the letters briefly resume in late 1779, they trail off again the next summer, following Barlow’s departure from Connecticut as a chaplain with a Massachusetts regiment. The conclusion of the correspondence, at least as it exists in the archives, may have come less as a result of Barlow’s deployment, though, than as a result of his clandestine marriage to their mutual friend Ruth Baldwin in 1781, and the couple’s eventual decision to settle in Hartford, near the Whitmans, the following year, as the war drew to a close and after the couple had finally announced their marriage to Ruth’s father.1
By the end of the decade, Whitman and Barlow would both acquire a degree of notoriety; their names would appear in American newspapers up and down the Eastern Seaboard, but for very different reasons. In 1787, Barlow published an epic poem on the discovery of America—The Vision of Columbus—with which he joined Timothy Dwight, John Trumbull, and a few others in a self-created pantheon of Revolutionary literary celebrity known to later generations as the Connecticut Wits.2 One magazine crowed jingoistically: “An appeal to the bar of critical taste, to decide whether the Poets now living in Connecticut, are not equal to any which the present age can produce in the English language, may not, perhaps, be deemed to favour of partiality or indiscretion” (“From the Connecticut Magazine”). Subscribers to Barlow’s poem included Washington and Franklin, Lafayette and the king of France, to whom it was dedicated. (He paid for twenty-five copies.) The following year newspapers announced Barlow’s departure for France as a land agent for the Scioto Company; he left hoping to peddle property in the Northwest Territories to French immigrants with Arcadian inclinations, and over the next several years the American press traced his movements, especially in relation to the French Revolution.3
Whitman entered the public prints for a very different reason. Around the...