The Walt Whitman Archive – Price 4
4What other issues or questions relating to The Walt Whitman Archive most intrigue you?
Kenneth M. Price
Co-Director, The Walt Whitman Archive Hillegass University Professor of American Literature – University of Nebraska-Lincoln
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 At the Whitman Archive we recently have focused on two aspects of Whitman’s work: 1) what we call his scribal documents—the letters Whitman copied or drafted for others and the notes and summaries he drafted as a clerk in federal government offices; 2) Whitman’s crossing of international boundaries as seen in translations and in the remaking of “Whitman” as his work is absorbed into other cultural, literary, and political traditions. In what follows I discuss these new developments to illustrate how the Whitman Archive continues to unfold to reveal new layers for development. After more than fifteen years, the Whitman Archive still intrigues me daily—whether it is Whitman’s writings, the people and processes which bring these texts to the public, the way we make them available, or what we (and others) may be able to do with them in the future. I conclude with a consideration of the long-term viability of our project and the crucial matters of funding and open access.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 For the past two years I have been studying Whitman’s scribal documents and his time in Washington, DC (1863-1873) during and following the Civil War. Whitman worked for the Army Paymaster’s office, for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (part of the Department of the Interior), and for the Attorney General’s office. When I first went to Washington to look for documents in Whitman’s handwriting that might have been preserved in the records of these offices, I hoped to find perhaps a half dozen items in the National Archives; seven trips later, I have found close to 3,000.[ref]This research was prompted in part by the Whitman Archive’s recent grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Historical Publications and Records Commissions to edit Whitman’s literary works and correspondence from the Civil War and Reconstruction era. These documents are now being transcribed and should be fully available within the next two years.[/ref] Thus far, all of the items are from the Attorney General’s Office. These scribal documents are crucial for understanding Whitman’s Washington years, his position in this particular office, and the influence of this work upon his literary development.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The stationery might suggest that these are notes Whitman made to himself about work in the Attorney General’s office. But are they, and how can we know? Perhaps they are notes about issues Whitman wanted to consider as he was composing “Democratic Vistas.” After all, anyone who has worked with Whitman manuscripts knows that many of his letters and literary manuscripts were written on this type of office stationery and other repurposed pieces of paper. I draw attention to this document not because it is the most powerful of the scribal documents (if it is one[ref]It may be significant that this document was not found where most of the scribal documents have been discovered, in the National Archives, but instead in the Charles E. Feinberg collection at the Library of Congress.[/ref]). I highlight it, in fact, because of its liminal status: we can not determine whether this is a literary or a scribal document, a document written for Whitman’s own purposes or for the purposes of others. As such, it challenges in a useful way the boundaries between literary and scribal documents.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Imagining a firm wall dividing these areas of life for Whitman is misleading. At times, Whitman used his office address as his literary postal address, and he worked in the office at night (the heat and lighting were important benefits). Moreover he first gained his clerkship with the help of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who recommended him on literary and patriotic grounds.[ref]See the letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Salmon P. Chase, 10 January 1863 available at http://whitmanarchive.org/biography/correspondence/cw/tei/nar.00002.html[/ref] And it was because Whitman’s Blue Book (his personal and very heavily revised copy of the third edition of Leaves of Grass) was found at his government desk that he lost his job at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. James Harlan, Secretary of the Interior, judged the book to be immoral, though Whitman’s allies staunchly defended it and helped him to secure a new post in the Attorney General’s office. During his Washington years, Whitman’s literary and clerical lives regularly occurred in the same physical locations and no doubt out of related emotional and psychological circumstances.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 One of the challenges in studying the scribal documents is to figure out what impact Whitman’s work in a series of low-level government positions had on his creative life. To date, critics have almost entirely ignored his ten years of labor in Washington offices. How should we understand and treat the scribal documents? In most cases Whitman acted not as author but as a conduit for the words and thoughts of others. Thus, it could be argued that these documents should not be featured in an archive centrally concerned with Whitman’s writings. If his intellectual contributions to scribal documents are unclear and likely minimal, perhaps these documents should be excluded altogether from the Whitman Archive, or at least not prioritized.[ref]It is not clear yet—we need more time to study this trove of documents—how exactly the Attorney General’s office functioned. Did Whitman merely transcribe a clean copy from a draft written by someone else? Did he sometimes generate the letter based on an outline of points provided by another, or based on comments made in conversation to him? Certainly some of those who supervised him recognized his intellectual capacities. James Speed, for example, sought Whitman’s aid when he prepared an oration dedicating a bust of Abraham Lincoln.[/ref] It could be further argued that we should concentrate our finite time on making available additional known Whitman-authored documents (e.g., his journalism or short stories or novel, Franklin Evans). On the other hand, the scribal documents are potentially more revealing to scholars than such Whitman-authored documents, both because of the quantity of information and because the scribal documents were previously altogether unknown. Scholars may lack perfect access to Whitman’s journalism, short stories, and novel, but they do have reasonably good access for the time being. The same is not true for the scribal documents, and, if the Whitman Archive does not work on these materials, they are likely to remain buried, unavailable to enrich future biographical and critical studies.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Whitman’s experiences in Washington offices have rich implications. In Washington, Whitman was an actor near the epicenter of government efforts to reshape the nation in the aftermath of war. [ref]Rosemary Graham mistakenly argues that “for the most part . . . Whitman spent these postwar years as an observer.” See “Attorney General’s Office, United States,” in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland, 1998).[/ref] In his day job as an anonymous clerk, he and others in the office of the Attorney General dealt with postwar experiments with civil rights, war crimes, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, battles over land claims in the west, and an assortment of other matters. He treated closely related matters while revising Leaves of Grass and drafting his probing cultural analysis “Democratic Vistas.” His network of friendships in Washington offices also shaped his ability to get government jobs and to advance his literary career. For example, Whitman sent a copy of his “Proud Music of the Sea-Storm,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1869, to an acquaintance named Julius Bing,[ref]Julius Bing (dates unknown) served as the clerk of the Joint Select Committee on Retrenchment in 1867 and 1868 and ghostwrote the 1868 report “Civil Service of the United States” before being appointed diplomatic agent for Crete later that year. A major advocate for reform of the Civil Service, Bing wrote a series of articles on the civil service for the North American Review and Putnam’s Magazine in 1867-1868. For more on Bing, about whom little is known, see Art Hoogenboom, Outlawing the Spoils: A History of the Civil Service Reform Movement 1865-1883 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1968), especially 40-49.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Although Whitman must have sent at least one letter to Bing, since Bing thanked Whitman for sending a copy of the Atlantic Monthly that included Whitman’s “Proud Music of the Sea-Storm” (the poem was published in the February 1869 issue of the magazine), no additional correspondence between Bing and Whitman has been identified to date.[/ref] a clerk of the Joint Select Committee on Retrenchment in 1867 and 1868. In response, Bing wrote a lengthy letter urging Whitman to write a poem about the Child Crusades. The poem was attempted by Whitman but never realized as such (Whitman’s notes on the topic and trial lines can be found in the Thomas B. Harned Collection of the Library of Congress). To the best of my knowledge, this aborted poem has not received any critical commentary, but I think it is well worth study because it is a rare instance of Whitman, in effect, collaborating on a poem, and it also shows him addressing an international issue of the remote past, but one with continuing resonance in his time and in our own.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 The scribal documents also help shed light on Whitman’s increasing interest in international issues in his later writings—his work in the Attorney General’s office meant that he, quite literally, had his hand in international incidents involving Canada, Mexico, Ireland, France, Britain, Spain, China, and many other countries. The Whitman Archive recently has focused increasingly on international issues in more direct ways, too. Since most people in the world first encounter Whitman in a language other than English we are attempting to better serve that audience. We currently provide translations of Whitman’s work into German, Spanish, and Russian; translations into Ukrainian, Portuguese, and Yiddish are far along in development. In addition, we are in conversation with scholars about expanding our work into Chinese, Polish, Italian and other languages soon. It is fascinating to see what happens to Whitman when he crosses linguistic and cultural borders and becomes absorbed in another milieu. This interaction often illuminates both the hosting cultural tradition as it comes to terms with Whitman as well as the ways that American audiences have interpreted Whitman’s works.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 One of the strengths of the Archive, related to the digital nature of our work, is the ever-evolving team that has built and continues to build the project. The Whitman Archive has become a training ground and laboratory for the next generation of literary scholars and digital humanists. The staff of the Whitman Archive—largely made up of graduate students—get hands-on experience and serve as apprentices of sorts. These graduate students serve as assistant editors and often attain positions of considerable responsibility within the project. I have been delighted by the diverse career paths our “alumni” have taken: one has gained a faculty position in a library; another works at the vice-chancellor level at a major university in an information technology role; some have gained tenure track positions at research-oriented institutions; others are employed at digital centers in various roles. Collectively they have demonstrated a range of ways to succeed professionally; their lives offer hope in a time of difficult job prospects in the humanities.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Although the creation of the Whitman Archive—a vast and still rapidly growing resource—has cost a great deal of money, we are able to make it freely available. One of the strengths of the Archive, then, stems from success in garnering local support from several key institutions, a steady stream of grant support from four different federal agencies, and donations from various individuals and private foundations. These fundraising efforts culminated in the creation of a permanent endowment to support ongoing editorial work. We realize that this ongoing work could potentially reach far into the future, and we strive to make our work reusable for later scholars (so they can improve upon it) by documenting our practices and decisions. Having an endowment obliges us to think in longer terms than is common for scholars: we have the burden and advantage of a project that should continue well beyond the lives of anyone now working on the Whitman Archive.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 For end users a key advantage of the Whitman Archive is that it makes freely available what would otherwise be difficult, costly, or impossible to access. The nature and extent of our audience are changed profoundly because the Whitman Archive is freely available, changes that are all to the good in my view. Instead of working with a small audience of specialist scholars in mind, we now also consider our large, varied, international audience as well. The importance of open access can hardly be overestimated. For us, open access means more than making content freely available for reading and analysis; it means making content freely available for reuse and repurposing. We willingly share files and have people work with them and reuse them in projects as long as those projects also are open, and they cite the Archive.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Despite what the Walt Whitman Archive has accomplished thus far, we recognize that some features are lacking and that other features should be improved. The current search capability of the Archive is fairly limited and fails to take full advantage of our encoding, a key contribution to Whitman scholarship. Upcoming developments make me optimistic about leveraging the Archive’s rich encoding in more sophisticated ways, however, and experiments in indexing and searching the Archive are ongoing. The text base we’ve developed and continue to develop will lend itself to experimentation—by us and others, and we have rightly spent fifteen years developing the corpus so that it can be read, researched, and used by a variety of audiences employing a range of technologies and methodologies. The Whitman Archive also provides for the study of a new scholarly form, thanks to our documentation including encoding guidelines, history, and essays about the Archive. What seems clear is that the Whitman Archive is one of a group of projects that are demonstrating how the print-based monumental scholarly edition can be reimagined and advanced in the form of an electronic archive.