Wilkins Updike

Born in North Kingstown, Rhode Island on January 8, 1784, Updike was one of the last generations of Rhode Island men known as “old fashioned.” He was well educated, respected, and liked by all who knew him. Updike was not only a lawyer but a lawmaker, taking part in legislation that included the Married Woman’s Act and the System of Public Schools. He was a proponent of Temperance, a member of the Rhode Island Historical Society, and a writer of some importance. He published “Memoirs of the Rhode Island Bar” in 1842 and “History of the Episcopal Church in Narragansett, Rhode Island” in 1847. Updike was a role model to all Rhode Islanders, but especially to his twelve children that he had with his wife, Abby Watson, between the years 1809 and 1826. Sadly, Abby passed away in 1843, and it’s in the subsequent years that Updike began his quest for a new wife, seeking the hand of Sarah Helen Whitman. In 1845, Updike met Whitman through mutual friends and immediately became enamored by her. He expressed his fervent desire to marry her, however, she was quite content in being nothing more than platonic friends. Unsatisfied by this, Updike persisted. He wrote to her in April 1845 regarding her rejection to his proposal: “I ask myself why it cannot be so in reality. I feel as if it will one day be so and must be. I don’t know but that I am too sanguine and confident, but can all my aspirations be defeated? I feel as if I could not live without you—The impression my dear Sarah has made cannot be obliterated.” He continues: “It is necessary to my existence to be in your presence. I want to talk everything over. I cannot be made to believe that all your objections cannot be removed.” Updike closes the letter: “I am here alone and the enjoyment of the consummation supports me. You will be with me. It will be so.” 

Whitman was not a woman to be persuaded so easily by any gentleman, and she had expressed her disinterest in Updike to the same mutual friends that brought them together. When Updike caught wind of Whitman’s sentiments, he would write to her again, begging her to change her mind. This did nothing to sway her. Whitman maintained a friendship with Updike despite his intense romantic pursuit. She visited his home in Kingston on a few occasions, where they would go riding down to the beaches. In July 1845 (ironically the same time Poe had first laid eyes on Whitman in her garden during his first visit to Providence), Updike had invited Whitman to his home, figuring the cool ocean air would give respite to her ill-health during the intense heat of that summer, but she had declined his offer. 

Eventually, Updike gave up on his perusal, and he and Whitman continued their friendship in the following years. We can only imagine Updike’s frustration when, in 1847, Whitman became engaged to Edgar Allan Poe (not without a persistence from Poe as tenacious as Updike’s). Of course that union never came to be either, but Poe was the closest to having Whitman’s hand as any other man after the death of her husband, John Winslow Whitman.

Updike died at his home in Kingston on January 14, 1867 at the age of 83. He’s buried in Saint Paul-Updike Cemetery in North Kingstown, Rhode Island.