Item #2751 Albumen Photograph Given to Mary O. Davis. WALT WHITMAN.
Albumen Photograph Given to Mary O. Davis

Albumen Photograph Given to Mary O. Davis

Walt Whitman Albumen Photograph by Napoleon Sarony given to his caregiver and house mate Mary O. Davis. Signed by Davis.

To call Mary O. Davis, Walt Whitman’s housekeeper is akin to calling a parent its child’s babysitter. Perhaps history has undermined Ms. Davis’ role simply because the English language lacks the proper word to describe their relationship. Nurse? Roommate? Modern-Family? Rather than finding a catchall word, let’s try to briefly describe their relationship.

It began in 1884 when Whitman brought clothing to Ms. Davis’ rented home for mending. Soon enough, he began taking his meals with Ms. Davis. And soon after, Whitman purchased his first home–yes, it took until 1884, when the poet was 64 years old, for him to finally own a home.

But what is a home without a family, Whitman may have thought. He had no wife of course, no children. So he asked Ms. Davis if she would like to join him in his new home. In some ways the relationship began as practical, transactional even. He proposed they combine houses as he owned a home, but no furniture and she owned furniture but paid rent. She agreed and moved in in February of 1885 with an orphan girl and numerous pets and rescue animals. Clearly, Mary Davis was a woman with a tender heart.

Seven years later, when Whitman’s life ended, it was Mary Davis who sat beside him and closed his eyes. As Whitman’s health deteriorated, Mary believed that “if she didn’t look after him, no one else would.” Mary’s concern for Whitman was ever-consuming, “when the poor old man was not in sight, he was so much upon my mind I couldn’t pass one peaceful hour.” (15). Whitman, in turn, left his dear friend Mary $1000 in his will (over $33,000 today).

The photo offered here is signed and inscribed by Davis: ”O! Take any hand”, Walt Whitman” / Mary O. Davis.

There is also a date on the front in pencil, “May 10, 1898” but the date is likely not in Davis’s hand. (Whitman died on March 26, 1892.) There is writing on the back in an early unknown hand giving the history of the photo. (“From WW House Camden given by Mrs. Mary O. Davis to Dr. Bell [?] - and acquired by Mrs. Sprague [??] - most of the Dr. Bell Whitman Collection was given by Whitman to his faithful, devoted housekeeper Mary O. Davis / has her rare signature.”) There is then text debating the date the photograph - namely if the it was taken in 1880 (61 years ) or 1884 (65 years). Despite this speculation, the photo matches others associated with the popular American photographer Napoleon Sarony (1821-1896) and other evidence indicates it is likely from 1878-79.

Walt Whitman Albumen Photograph. Albumen measures 4" x 6" and is mounted to an overall size of 6.25" x 8.5". There is a notation on the mount by Whitman's housekeeper Mary O. Davis, "'O! Take my hand,' Walt Whitman, Mary O. Davis. May 10, 1898." With a lengthy pencil annotation on the verso giving a history of the photo, including that it was "given by Whitman to his faithful, devoted housekeeper Mary O. Davis."

Condition: A closed tear to the right of the mount has been reinforced with old paper tape on the verso. Corners bumped; a light horizontal fold line is evident through the facial area but barely noticeable except in raking light. Extreme right corner with unusual triangular piece that appears integral to the photo and is possibly from the negative. Housed in custom presentation display folder.


Price: $6,500 .

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