National Archives News

National Archives Celebrates Walt Whitman’s 200th Birthday

“The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.”
– Walt Whitman, preface to Leaves of Grass, 1855

By Keith Donohue | National Archives News

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Portrait of Walt Whitman taken at Mathew Brady s studio in Washington, D.C. between 1865 and 1867. (111-B-2245)

WASHINGTON, May 31, 2019 — Perhaps no poet captured the exuberance of the American experience than Walt Whitman. Born 200 years ago on May 31, 1819, Whitman remains a fixture in the nation’s literary canon, and his major work, Leaves of Grass, is an American epic that is read and taught and loved to this day.

The National Archives has several unexpected connections to this great poet. Some of the most iconic images of Whitman are from the Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes in the Records of the War Department, Office of the Chief Signal Officer. No surprise that Whitman is included in this collection, for he lived and worked in Washington for over a dozen years.

He first came to the city in 1862 to volunteer as a nurse in the Army hospitals during the Civil War. Not only did he provide small gifts and emotional comfort and support, he also wrote letters for soldiers too injured or shell-shocked to write their own. Some of these letters survive, marked by the simple note: “Written by Walt Whitman, a friend.”

In 1865, he secured the first of a series of clerical jobs with the Federal Government, and it is through these posts that another connection between Whitman and the National Archives becomes clear. In April 2011, the Archives announced that it had identified nearly 3,000 documents in Whitman’s hand from the records of the Office of the Attorney General.

At the time, Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero remarked, “Although Whitman is not the official author of these documents, in most cases, they definitely passed through his mind and his fingertips. They shed light on Whitman’s postwar poetry and his cultural criticism.” Kenneth Price of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln explained how these documents provide fresh insights into Whitman’s life and art in his article “Whitman, Walt, Clerk.”

The records of Whitman’s stint as a Federal Government worker have become part of the Walt Whitman Archive, co-edited by Dr. Price and Ed Folsom at the University of Iowa. The aim of the Whitman Archive is to make Whitman's vast writings freely and conveniently accessible to scholars, students, and general readers.

Through its grants program, administered by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), the National Archives has a further connection to the great American poet. Since 2008, the Commission has supported the Whitman Archive’s project to collect, annotate, and provide access to Whitman’s trove of correspondence.

Christopher Eck, Executive Director of the NHPRC, said, "As a born-digital edition, the Whitman Archive has been a pioneer in how people access primary source historical documents. The NHPRC proudly supports we expect the next generation of digital historical editions to apply its groundbreaking techniques and methods."  

The most recent grant, awarded at the Commission’s May meeting, will go to publish the entirety of Whitman’s correspondence from 1888 to 1892, the final four years of the poet’s life. A complete list of grants from the May meeting is available on Archives.gov.

In 1855 Whitman wrote that "the proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it." On the 200th anniversary of his birth, we bid him affectionate and happy returns of the day.

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In this letter, Walt Whitman, writing from Brooklyn, New York, asked for two weeks leave for sickness from the heat.

 

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