Born to Nicholas and Anna Marsh Power of Benefit Street on January 19, 1803, Sarah Helen Whitman, nee Power, was a prominent cultural figure. From the 1830s onward, Whitman maintained Rhode Island’s preeminent literary salon at her Providence home. New England writers and intellectuals, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Sarah Hale, Margaret Fuller, and John Hay frequented her East Side home. Whitman was also active in the Spiritualist movement that captivated many elite New Englanders. She contended that she could communicate with the dead and held theatrical séances in her house through the 1860s. She created a unique persona that she carefully maintained in public, always wearing her veil, even while she ate. When Edgar Allen Poe first saw Whitman in the 1840s, he described her as “a Pym-like apparition dressed in white, with a thin white shawl or scarf thrown over her head.” Romanced by her haunting appearance, this encounter marked the beginning of their romantic relationship and led to his renowned poem, “To Helen.”
Whitman primarily wrote poetry, but also many essays and articles, including several astute pieces supporting women’s suffrage. She wrote impassioned essays about the merits of then-underappreciated authors such as Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and John Keats, and her book Edgar Poe and His Critics contributed the first serious scholarship on her former fiancé.