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Welcome Remarks for Whitman in Washington: Becoming the National Poet in the Federal City

Greetings from the National Archives. I’m David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, and it's my pleasure to welcome you to tonight’s special program with Kenneth M. Price, about his new book, Whitman in Washington: Becoming the National Poet in the Federal City.

Before we begin, though, I’d like to tell you about two upcoming programs you can view on our YouTube channel.

On Thursday, January 21, at 3 p.m., Michael Bellesiles will discuss his new book, Inventing Equality: Reconstructing the Constitution in the Aftermath of the Civil War. Bellesiles traces the evolution of the battle for true equality from the Revolution through the late 19th century and explores the ways in which equality and inequality waxed and waned over the decades.

And on Wednesday, January 27, at noon, we invite you to tune in for a talk by Deborah Willis on The Black Civil War Soldier: A Visual History of Conflict and Citizenship. In this book, Willis analyzes the importance of African American communities in the development and prosecution of the Civil War and shows how photography unearths the hidden histories of black Civil War soldiers.

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In December 1862, Washington, DC, was the capital of a nation at war. Enemy territory was just a river’s width away, and the city was filling up with soldiers and war workers. The great American poet Walt Whitman arrived in the city that month, drawn by news that his brother had been wounded in battle. He stayed in the capital until 1873, and in that time, Whitman visited soldiers in dozens of hospitals, wrote letters for them, and earned his wages as a clerk for the Army, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the U.S. Attorney General’s office.

Ken Price recounts this decade of Whitman’s life in Whitman in Washington. Some of the documentation of this period comes from the nearly 3,000 documents he discovered in the National Archives 10 years ago. In Ken’s words:

“Whitman in Washington benefits from newly available correspondence, journalism, and nearly 3,000 documents I identified in the National Archives as being in the hand of Whitman.  These scribal documents from his work as a clerk in the attorney general’s office allow us to pinpoint to the exact day when he encountered certain issues during the early years of Reconstruction.  Some documents in his hand concern routine administrative matters, while others treat civil rights, war crimes, treason, western expansion, the rise of white vigilantism, and a host of international incidents…This study underscores the significance of the scribal documents and establishes connections between his life in bureaucracy and his poetry of democracy.”    

Since 2008, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, part of the National Archives, has supported the Whitman Archive and its efforts to provide digital access to Whitman’s work. By collecting and publishing these documents, the Archive provides a more complete picture of Whitman’s life and the influences on his art, allowing us to come to a greater understanding of one of America’s greatest writers.

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Now it is my pleasure to welcome tonight’s speakers.

Kenneth M. Price, Hillegass University Professor at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, has co-directed the Walt Whitman Archive since 1995. He has edited books on Literary Studies in the Digital Age, James Weldon Johnson, George Santayana, and 19th-century periodical literature. He is best known, however, as a Whitman scholar. He is the author of Whitman in Tradition: The Poet in His Century and To Walt Whitman, America, and co-author with Ed Folsom of Re-Scripting Walt Whitman.

 Our moderator is Caterina Bernardini, who is a contributing editor at the Walt Whitman Archive and a lecturer in the English Department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her interests include 19th-century and early modernist American poetry, comparative literature, and translation studies. She has published articles in scholarly periodicals and essay collections, and her book, Transnational Modernity and the Italian Reinvention of Walt Whitman, 1870–1945, is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press.

Now let’s hear from Ken Price and Caterina Bernardini. Thank you for joining us today.