The Walt Whitman Archive – Whitley 1
1What are the strengths of this archive? How would you use or refer to this site in your own work?
Associate Professor of English and Director of American Studies – Lehigh University
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 From my perspective as a scholar, the greatest strength of the Whitman Archive is that it provides free and open access to the essential texts for studying the life and work of Walt Whitman. I’ve consulted the Whitman Archive every time I’ve ever written about Whitman, whether it’s to check the precise wording of a text, to follow the life cycle of a poem as it moves from manuscript to print and on through the various editions of Leaves of Grass, to identify the location of a primary document in a brick-and-mortar archive, to read nineteenth-century reviews of Whitman’s writing, or to search the Archive’s exhaustive database of Whitman scholarship. Using the Whitman Archive is like having immediate access to shelves and shelves worth of valuable (and often expensive) books.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 When I was a graduate student I burned through a toner cartridge printing out page images of the antebellum editions of Leaves of Grass from the Whitman Archive. The poems in these early editions went through radical revisions from one edition of Leaves of Grass to the next, and I really needed to get to know these poems in order to make the argument I was making in my dissertation about Whitman’s antebellum period. Being able to access these poems in various states gave me a much better sense of Whitman’s pre-Civil War career than the variorum of Leaves of Grass—with its decontextualized snippets from the antebellum editions—was able to give me.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 I’ve also recently learned that the Whitman Archive is more than just a repository of raw materials that scholars can mine for the resources we need to tell our stories about Whitman’s life and work; rather, the Archive is a storyteller in its own right. Here’s an example: With Walt Whitman in Camden, the multi-volume collection of Whitman’s conversations with his friend Horace Trauble, was not yet available on the Archive when I was writing an essay a few years ago about Elizabeth Porter Gould, the editor of a gift-book edition of Whitman’s poems called Gems from Walt Whitman (1889). Without the benefit of a searchable, digital edition of With Walt Whitman in Camden I had to find references to Gould the old-fashioned way: cribbing from Ed Folsom’s footnotes—and, of course, slogging through the poorly indexed volumes themselves. Since I published the essay, however, I’ve had the opportunity to search for Gould in the Archive’s edition of With Walt Whitman in Camden, and the effect of having the Archive’s search engine generate a list of these references had a remarkable impact on me. The essay that I had written demanded a certain amount of focus in order to make the argument about gender and authorship that I wanted to make, and I was always left with a touch of regret that I never had the chance to unfold the fascinating relationship between Whitman and Gould as fully as I would have liked. Opening up different tabs in my browser to read each of these references on the Whitman Archive, however, allowed me to track the progress of their relationship as they negotiated their competing goals for what Gems from Walt Whitman should be. I’m proud of the story that I was able to tell about Whitman and Gould, but I’m also glad to know that the Whitman Archive can tell that story another way.
The idea of the database as storyteller is very interesting to me, particularly how it plays into the scholarly tension that has arisen over the field of digital humanities. Part of the momentum behind digital scholarship comes from the perceived inculcation of quantitative rigor into humanities work; in other words, the reinterpretation of “stories” into “data.” And yet, as you observe here, researchers who use the Archive as a source are tapping into something more than just data; the way they access the information often presents a story in its own right.