National Archives Announces Newly-Identified Papers of Walt Whitman
Press Release · Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Famous poet's writings as a Federal employee shed new light on his life and work
The National Archives today announced the identification of nearly 3,000 Walt Whitman documents written during his service as a Federal government employee. This trove of information--conclusively identified as Whitman's papers for the first time by University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) scholar Kenneth Price--sheds light on the legendary poet's post-war thinking, as well as Whitman's published reflections on the state of the nation that soon followed. Price discusses the significance of this discovery in the National Archives “Inside the Vaults” video short [http://bit.ly/hVc2DI].
"This is just one of many exciting discoveries happening each day in the research rooms of National Archives facilities," said Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero. "Such findings shape the ever changing nature of American history, and I hope researchers continue to share their wonderful finds with us."
"This was an age of high hopes but also big problems, and Walt Whitman was there in the thick of it," said Kenneth Price, Hillegass University Professor of American Literature at UNL, and co-director of the Walt Whitman Archive [www.whitmanarchive.org], who recently uncovered the documents at the National Archives in Washington, DC:
Whitman was not a passive observer; he was participating, on a daily basis, in issues that were shaping what the nation would be like after the war. Whitman's experiences in Washington offices have rich implications. In Washington, Whitman was an actor near the epicenter of government reconstruction efforts. We can now pinpoint to the exact day when he was thinking about certain issues.
Whitman lived in Washington, DC, for a decade from 1863-1873. During this time, he established himself as a great poet of the Civil War with his volume Drum-Taps (1865), later folded into his best-known work, Leaves of Grass. To support himself and to help fund his work aiding soldiers, Whitman secured low-level government work--functioning mainly as a clerk, spending much of his time as a scribe or copyist. He worked in the Army Paymaster's office, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Attorney General's office.
When Whitman began work for the Attorney General, the office had only a handful of employees and had not yet been incorporated into the Department of Justice. This job put Whitman in close proximity to the country's top legal professional and thereby close to the President. In his supporting role, he took on a number of tasks, including sifting through incoming mail, copying outgoing correspondence written by others, drafting some of the outgoing correspondence himself, summarizing cases, indexing vast letter books, and researching a variety of topics, including the question of whether smallpox had been used as an offensive weapon during the Civil War.
Because of Whitman's fame as a writer, a key question is the extent to which he should be credited with the intellectual content of the many letters making up so many of these documents. Comments by Whitman and others suggest that collaboration regularly occurred. The sharing of tasks and overlapping of roles may have reminded Whitman of his early days working in a print shop or his days as an active New York area journalist in the 1840s. The idea of Whitman working collaboratively is almost never discussed in Whitman studies--in part because, as with so many writers, he has been made to fit the model of the individual author, the solitary genius. Both in his long recognized literary work and in his newly identified government documents, solitary creation is a myth.
A common thread joins Whitman's roles during this time: he served as a scribe, drafting letters home for soldiers, drafting reports and correspondence in governmental offices, drafting poetry of the conflict in Drum-Taps, and redrafting Leaves of Grass to take that conflict into account. He gained life experience as a ventriloquist of sorts--throwing his voice to become soldiers themselves as he wrote as and through them to their friends and loved ones, just as he regularly assumed the identity of others as he conducted his work as a government scribe. These experiences of inhabiting another's view--always part of Whitman's poetry, of course, but now acted out quite literally in life--accelerated his developing tendency to write from the perspective of various personae.
This discovery was made possible in part by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), the publishing arm of the National Archives, which provided grant funding to advance research on Whitman's correspondence. NHPRC funding will also provide for the publication of first 2,000 of these newly discovered Whitman documents later this year. The Whitman Archive has also been aided by support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), most recently a scholarly editions grant that will allow for the publication of all of Whitman's Civil War-era poetry, journalism, and prose writings.
Related Featured Document Display - Fort Sumter Surrender Report
Monday, April 18-Sunday, May 1, 2011
National Archives Building East Rotunda Gallery
Rare opportunity to see the original report on the surrender of Ft. Sumter.
About the Walt Whitman Archive
The Walt Whitman Archive is an electronic research and teaching tool that sets out to make Whitman's vast work, for the first time, easily and conveniently accessible to scholars, students, and general readers. Whitman, America's most influential poet and one of the four or five most innovative and significant writers in United States history, is the most challenging of all American authors in terms of the textual difficulties his work presents. He left behind an enormous amount of written material, and his major life work, Leaves of Grass, went through six very different editions, each of which was issued in a number of formats, creating a book that is probably best studied as numerous distinct creations rather than as a single revised work. His many notebooks, manuscript fragments, prose essays, letters, and voluminous journalistic articles all offer key cultural and biographical contexts for his poetry. The Archive sets out to incorporate as much of this material as possible, drawing on the resources of libraries and collections from around the United States and around the world. The Archive is directed by Kenneth M. Price (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) and Ed Folsom (University of Iowa).
About the National Archives
The National Archives and Records Administration, an independent Federal agency, is the nation's record keeper. Founded in 1934, its mission is unique -- to serve American democracy by safeguarding and preserving the records of our Government, ensuring that the people can discover, use, and learn from this documentary heritage. The National Archives ensures continuing access to the essential documentation of the rights of American citizens and the actions of their government. It supports democracy, promotes civic education, and facilitates historical understanding of our national experience. The National Archives meets a wide range of information needs, among them helping people to trace their families' history, making it possible for veterans to prove their entitlement to medical and other benefits, and preserving original White House records. The National Archives carries out its mission through a nationwide network of archives, records centers, and Presidential Libraries, and on the Internet at http://www.archives.gov.
# # #
For Press information, contact the National Archives Public Affairs staff at 202-357-5300.
This page was last reviewed on April 18, 2019.
Contact us with questions or comments.