- The Letters of Elizabeth Whitman to Joel and Ruth Barlow, 1779–1783
Fifteen letters from Elizabeth Whitman to Joel and Ruth Baldwin Barlow survive in the Baldwin Family Papers at the Henry E. Huntington Library. The Baldwin collection, made up largely of Barlow letters and the correspondence of Joel’s sister-in-law, Clara Baldwin Bomford, came to the Huntington in 1956, having been stored for generations in a portable writing desk Joel Barlow had taken with him to Europe during his diplomatic missions in the early nineteenth century. In 1936, three letters from Mary Wollstonecraft and one from Helen Maria Williams, all to Joel Barlow’s wife, Ruth, were removed from this collection without the owner’s knowledge, donated to the library at UC-Berkeley, and published by a Berkeley professor and the graduate student who had stumbled upon them. The owner secured the remaining papers in a bank vault until 1955, when Barlow’s biographer, James Woodress, tracked them down and helped bring them to the Huntington.1 Nearly seventy-five years earlier, the Whitman letters had been loaned by Ruth Bomford Paine (Ruth Barlow’s niece) to the novelist and reformer Caroline Wells Healey Dall, who published bowdlerized versions of some of them in her 1875 book The Romance of the Association; or, One Last Glimpse of Charlotte Temple and Eliza Wharton. Dall apparently had more letters in her possession than are currently in the Huntington’s collection, since she excerpts some that are not in the Baldwin Family Papers. For roughly a decade after Dall published The Romance of the Association, she stalled every time Ruth Bomford Paine asked her to return them. Dall feared that the literary executor of one of the writers represented in the family collection intended to have much of it burned.2 Fearing she would lose the letters eventually, Dall hired someone to copy several of them into a notebook that now is housed with her papers at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Once Dall had supposedly returned [End Page 565] everything to Paine, the collection passed through two more generations before it made its way to California in 1911, packed inside Barlow’s desk.
Fourteen of the extant Whitman letters are addressed to Joel Barlow; the final one is addressed to Ruth. Whitman met both Joel and Ruth in late 1778 in New Haven, where she stayed with the family of Yale’s president, Ezra Stiles. The exchange seems to have ended when the Barlows settled near Whitman’s family in Hartford in 1782. Not much is known of the interactions between the Barlows and Whitman from 1783 to 1788, when Joel departed for Europe on business and Whitman fled Hartford for Massachusetts, where she gave birth to a stillborn child while hiding in a country tavern, only to die a few weeks after. Her story was publicized in newspapers and memorialized a decade later in Hannah Webster Foster’s steadily selling novel, The Coquette.
If Caroline Dall’s valiant preservation of parts of the Baldwin Papers suggests she valued historical transparency, her editing of the letters in Romance of the Association indicates otherwise. She wrote her book about Whitman primarily to argue that, contrary to the plot of Foster’s novel, Whitman had secretly been married when she arrived, quite pregnant, at the Bell Tavern in Danvers, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1788. For some reason, Dall believed, Whitman’s secret spouse had neither arrived before her child was born, nor cleared the air when, after her death, she was routinely framed as a coquette or a victim of seduction. Dall marshals Whitman’s letters to the Barlows in support of this case, but only after editing out much of their flirtatious content and explaining away some peculiar features she couldn’t easily omit.
Perhaps even more problematic from an editorial standpoint, Dall printed selections from some letters that no longer exist in the original, and in one case she inserted whole paragraphs that do not appear in the letter’s manuscript original, making these portions of her text particularly unreliable.3 In spite of the very clear evidence that Dall freely altered the letters...