About the Archive

Project and Staff Information

About this Document

Title: From Georgetown University's American Studies Crossroads Project

Author(s): Georgetown University Crossroads Project

Publication information: Crossroads Project 1998. Reproduced with permission.

Whitman Archive ID: anc.00005



What is the scope and purpose of the Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive?

The scope of the project is large. Ultimately, the Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive—the larger project we plan to design—will collect, digitize, encode, and present in a hypertext environment all aspects of Whitman's work, including correspondence, notebooks, prose works, etc. An important early stage of our work has attracted a publisher, Primary Source Media (PSM), an international firm committed to producing high quality CD-ROMs. PSM has asked us to initiate their American Literature Major Authors series with a CD-ROM of Whitman, an exciting product in its own right and one that will advance our larger work in dramatic ways. The connection we have forged with PSM advances our work dramatically. PSM will invest significant resources to produce, with breathtaking speed, the Whitman CD-ROM by April 1997. This CD-ROM will include thousands of scanned images of Whitman manuscripts and notebooks from the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library; it will also include, in freshly keyed form, the twenty-two volumes of The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman (New York University Press). For the first time, students and scholars will have an electronically searchable edition of Whitman.

We seek to produce an extensive and enabling electronic edition designed to have a transformative effect on teaching and studying literature. We plan to make use of both CD-ROM technology and the Internet. While our initial CD-ROM will contain thousands of scanned manuscripts and the entire NYUP Collected Writings, these materials are only a small fraction of the materials that eventually need to be included in the Whitman Hypertext Archive. Even the manuscripts that are included will be available only in facsimile and thus will not be searchable until a later stage of our project when all manuscripts can be transcribed into ASCII form. Also, there are major gaps in the NYUP edition, which does not include Whitman's voluminous journalism nor the manuscript and periodical versions of his poems, materials that are increasingly vital for students, teachers, and scholars who view Whitman's work as a major nineteenth-century example of a creative cultural workshop. Eventually, our project will work to break down the older textual and bibliographic models on which the NYUP Collected Writings was based. By making accessible Whitman's compulsive self-revisions, our project will overcome the print-based imperative to privilege a single text of Whitman and will replace it with a hypertextual model that emphasizes the ways his work was continually a process, always in progress.


How does your site enhance the accessibility of these materials beyond what is available in print?

The major step toward accomplishing this goal will be the designing of an electronic teaching tool that will allow for the creative exploration and teaching of "Song of Myself," the greatest and most complex poem of America's central poet, and a poem widely taught at both the high school and college levels. This innovative tool will allow students, teachers, and scholars to examine the poem in its various manifestations, from manuscript notes through multiple book publications, and to explore the biographical, literary, and cultural contexts that make the poem such an important document in American studies. Unlike the PSM CD-ROM, which sets out to make available a large amount of primary materials for scholars to explore, the proposed "Song of Myself" electronic edition will be crafted instead primarily as a classroom tool, with applications at both secondary and higher education levels. This electronic teaching and learning tool will include vast resources for individualized explorations of "Song of Myself," from Whitman's photographic self-portraits, to photos of 19th-century New York scenes described in the poem, to reproductions of paintings and prints Whitman used as sources, to Whitman's manuscript notebooks, where we can see the poem first gestating. This tool should be a valuable resource for teachers who want students to discover the ways that finished works of literature are always a series of trials and errors and responses and revisions, and a valuable resource for teachers who want their students to understand how great works of literature respond creatively and specifically to the cultural and historical moments in which they are written.

First appearing as the lead poem of Leaves of Grass (1855), "Song of Myself" is commonly referred to as if it were a single, stable entity. Yet this work took various forms and had various titles in the six different editions of Leaves of Grass (following convention, we refer to the poem by its final title). Between 1855 and 1892, Whitman continuously added and deleted lines, phrases, and entire sections; he changed emphases; he altered punctuation in striking ways; and he reconceived the place of this epic undertaking within his overall project (the poem is more than 1300 lines in all printed versions). Whitman also experimented with radically different ways of dividing "Song of Myself" into parts: for example, he presented the poem both without any numbered sections and with as many as 372 sections. Because "Song of Myself" exists in such a rich variety of states (including manuscript and notebook drafts and corrected page proofs), it is better understood in terms of process rather than product, fluidity rather than stability.

The complicated textual history of Whitman's poetry makes it ideally suited to hypertext. By "hypertext" we mean an electronic document characterized by links that allow readers to experience the text in various sequences as they choose to follow different avenues of information via connecting points. The Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive has the great advantage of being able to distribute, in digital form, large amounts of material at low cost and thus to make rare Whitman items—once restricted to those able to undertake expensive travel—available to a broad audience. This project will give an enormous range of students access to archival materials, encouraging them to undertake primary research in the humanities—something that typically has been confined to the limited number of students lucky enough to attend universities with large research libraries. Working with these materials enables students to understand the complexity of the artistic process (ideally illustrated by the multiplicity of Whitman materials and his habit of process writing). It will also help bridge the current gap between text-based and computer-based instruction, making computer work integral to the literature classroom.

"Song of Myself," in various ways, recasts the author-reader hierarchy as it moves from its first word "I" to its final word "you." In a different and perhaps more profound way, hypertext, too, changes the author-reader relationship. It involves the reader in a less univocal process and avoids the rigidity of a simple linear model of learning. When used in a classroom setting, hypertext leads us to move beyond a knowledge-bestower to knowledge-receiver educational model. Hypertext encourages lively, even aggressive reading because it calls for active participation. Hypertext is akin to the kind of text encountered in scholarly and scientific writing. Such writing encourages readers to move away from a single thread of knowledge to consider also footnotes, appendices, charts, and other material. A hypertext edition puts a considerable amount of control in the hands of readers who can make their own decisions about how best to juxtapose texts and related information as they creatively construct their own structures of knowledge. Because hypertext will be new to some students and teachers, we are now developing parallel explanatory tools: "An Introduction for Teachers," "An Introduction for Students," and "An Introduction for Researchers." Through the use of introductory "tours," we will guide users to a familiarity with the Archive and strive to offset fears some may have of information overload.

As the Perseus project and other comparable educational systems have shown, hypertext changes the culture of learning. Hypertext also changes the relationship between the editor (formerly regarded as a kind of ultimate authority) and the reader. The Whitman Archive proceeds on assumptions very different from those underlying previous editions of Whitman's work, all of which attempt to establish a single definitive text. Such a goal inevitably misrepresents a poet so concerned with revision, hides his complex composition process, and loses sight of the fluid nature of his poetry. In contrast, for the "Song of Myself" hypertext, we will include all the printed versions of the poem, all the manuscript notes that led to the poem, and all of Whitman's recastings of the poem on proof sheets and in his personal copies of his books.

The Whitman Hypertext Archive will be a powerful pedagogical tool. In a class in an English department (or any course using the interdisciplinary approaches known as the History of the Book), the Archive will provoke fundamental questions. What is it that we mean by the text? Through what manner of presentation ought it to mean? And how does presentation itself affect meaning? Whitman, having worked as a printer and editor, was unusual among American Renaissance writers in not accepting the division of the writing, editing, and publishing functions. His multifaceted involvement in the design of his books makes it imperative to have both traditional notes and explanatory material and digitized color facsimiles of his writings. He personally set some of the type for the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, selected typeface for other editions, and designed page layouts and covers; he even wrote some anonymous reviews of his poetry. In short, he was involved in literary production (and reception) at many levels. Recent theoretical work rightly stresses the social construction of the text, the way a text results not from a single author but from a complicated process involving a writer, editors, compositors, proofreaders, and others. To understand "Song of Myself" as part of one of Whitman's books in the fullest sense we need to go beyond the verbal code presented by the NYUP edition. We need to represent more completely the bibliographic code, including typeface, layout, margins, binding, and illustrations. Fortunately, an extraordinary amount of information about the book as object can be conveyed with stunning accuracy and clarity in digital form. Just as fortunately, the electronic text can be used endlessly without damage, in stark contrast to the fragile original objects that can withstand only limited actual use.

A literature class could use the Archive in a wide variety of ways that dramatically illustrate the power of an electronic archive as a tool for storing, organizing, and finding information. The Archive will make possible probing analyses of the transformation of Whitman's style, his changing attitudes on race, or his increasing reticence about sexuality. A student working individually at a keyboard or a professor projecting the Archive could chart change over time, performing studies that have been done heretofore only inexactly and with enormous difficulty.

Literature classes will also be able to study Whitman's reception in the culture because the Archive will present every contemporaneous review of Whitman in its entirety and in electronically searchable form (these reviews refer more often to "Song of Myself" than to any other poem). The section on reviews will contain pedagogical aids directing teachers to the most provocative reviews and illustrating how they can be integrated into class discussions and assignments. This part of the Archive will be a special boon for those interested in reception history. These reviews also help us rethink Whitman back within his cultural context. For instance, throughout his career, nineteenth-century reviewers were united in finding the essence of the poetic in Whitman's apostrophe to the night (section 21 of "Song of Myself"), yet this passage receives little mention in twentieth-century criticism. If we are to rehistoricize Whitman, we need to understand why this highly erotic description of nature so moved readers, many of whom were scathing in their criticism of Whitman's sexual poetry. And, in turn, understanding this apparent inconsistency will teach students about larger social issues and mores of the time. Overall, the reviews make clear that Whitman's works always engendered a swirl of controversy.

For American Studies courses, the links to contextual information can recreate the world of Whitman. Whitman's poetry is so fundamentally absorptive, so immersed in an extraordinary range of cultural material from the popular to the refined, and from the timeless to the evanescent, that he represents a rich resource for the reconstruction of nineteenth-century social history. Through hypertextual links we explore the connections between Whitman's life and works and the society he both lived in and helped define.

The Archive will present an entire gallery of digitized images of Whitman (there are more than 160 extant photos, paintings, and drawings of Whitman made during his lifetime). Whitman's evolving iconography sheds light on his changing poetic practice and purposes in "Song of Myself." Since Whitman was one of the most photographed people of the nineteenth century, students will be provided an avenue into a study of photography—as a business, as a technology, as an art form—through digitized reproductions of the daguerreotypes, steel engravings, and other photographic representations of the poet. Whitman was photographed over a fifty-year period and became one of the first humans to have an extensive record of the changing, aging self. His varying sense of himself, and his conscious adoption of new poses, is an intricate process intimately tied to the evolving sense of self found in "Song of Myself."

The Whitman Hypertext Archive is able to store and present electronic texts and digitized images of all the competing versions of "Song of Myself," so that readers will be able to access multiple texts at once for comparison. The electronic environment has heightened awareness of a truth that print culture discouraged us from acknowledging: that all versions of a text are potentially important depending on what questions one asks and what perspective one takes. The search engines we are building for "Song of Myself" allow us to move beyond simple word-finding: sophisticated markup language enables students to seek out everything from concepts to metonymy. Students and scholars will thus be able to ask questions that were once unthinkable because of the practical impossibility of manually comparing so many texts, including those hidden away in scattered rare book and manuscript collections.

This hypertext edition of "Song of Myself," then, will constitute the most important part of a large, inclusive archive with the potential to encompass all significant Whitman texts and a rich variety of contexts. In contrast with print-based projects, the Whitman Archive is infinitely expandable: closure, in the hypertext environment, will represent a momentary stop rather than an ultimate cessation. Since we are making a hypertext "Song of Myself" available on the Internet, we will continue to make alterations as additional or better information comes to light, thereby avoiding one of the signal limitations of print publication.


How did the Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive originate?

For some time, Ed Folsom and a few other scholars had been noting the need for a hypertext edition of Whitman's works. Still, no one had taken any concrete steps toward its realization. That all changed when Terry Meyers (chair of the English Department at the College of William & Mary) took the graduate students in one of his classes to visit the University of Virginia's IATH, where Jerome McGann is doing groundbreaking work in electronic editing. During the tour, McGann mentioned that Whitman was a natural for hypertext, that the University of Virginia had a great Whitman collection, and that someone ought to take up the challenge of editing electronically Whitman's writings.

After returning from Charlottesville, two students (Charles Green and David Donlon) approached me about the possibility of developing a Walt Whitman archive. I was intrigued by the possibility but also daunted because I recognized the magnitude of the task. I also knew that in some ways the College of William & Mary was ill-suited to undertake it. The College—with its emphasis on strong teaching—might not be able to support the kind of project one more commonly sees at a major research institution; the English Department was losing its M.A. program; and William & Mary was behind the curve technologically. (Because of a lack of connections to the Internet in private offices in the English department, the Whitman Archive has worked out of one networked common room in the department and out of a networked study carrel in the library.)

After we found ways to work around problems with technological infrastructure, other things quickly fell into place. I gained a joint appointment in the PhD-granting American Studies program at William & Mary, thus giving me access to graduate student assistance. And the response of administrators was uniformly supportive, at times even enthusiastic. Moreover, we were able to overcome some of our technical difficulties by making an alliance with IATH. Taking on this experiment in electronic editing also seemed more possible once Ed Folsom agreed to serve as co-director.


What audience do you hope to reach?

We have multiple audiences in mind: we hope to reach university researchers, the general public, and teachers at all levels from junior high upward.

It is fitting that Whitman, one of America's greatest thinkers about democracy as well as the great poet of democracy, should become one of the figures most freely accessible on the new electronic information open roads. Our goal is to make the hypertext edition of "Song of Myself"—the single most important part of the larger Whitman Archive—freely available on the World Wide Web, permanently accessible, without charge, to all students, teachers, scholars, and curious individuals. And in the process of developing this hypertextual "Song" we will learn how to shape the rest of the gigantic Whitman Hypertext Archive so that all of Whitman's work will be accessible in ways that will energize classrooms as well as research projects.


Do you follow a production schedule?

We don't have a formal production schedule, though we have a clear sense of where we are going. When we began the project, Jerry McGann gave us this good advice: we should concentrate, he said, on doing a small core sample of the Archive, a living part of the whole, that would uncover all the problems we would eventually face.

We chose to begin with "Song of Myself." In some ways, the choice could be questioned because it is such a long and complex poem. But I think it was a sound decision, because—if we do a good job—our work will get plenty of exposure since "Song of Myself" is so often taught and written about.


What are your future plans for the project?

Our long-range plan is to assign parts of the project to field editors once we have fully developed the skeleton structure of the entire Archive and once we are in a position to advance their work. (Early discussions indicate that several scholars are eager to participate.) We feel we can truly guide other editors only after we build the "Song of Myself" section of the Archive ourselves. Some particularly exciting areas of scholarship should soon unfold for Whitman scholars. For example, Whitman's journalism, vitally important in this era of cultural studies, has been neglected: much of it has never been collected, and the authorship of what has been edited has been questioned.


Who are the members of your team?

Vitally important technical and planning assistance has been provided by John Unsworth (Director of IATH) and Jerome McGann (Director of the Rossetti Archive). Additional assistance has been provided by Mark Richmond Gibson and Hoke Perkins, grant writers at IATH.

Since our project currently lacks funding, we have relied heavily on the efforts of one graduate student, Charles Green, whose assistantship is linked to work on the Archive. Two other graduate students have volunteered their own time to work on the Archive, David Donlon and Matt Cohen, as have two undergraduate students, Thomas Lukas and Heather Peltier.

We also have an Advisory Board made up of distinguished scholars: Jerome McGann, University of Virginia; Joel Myerson, University of South Carolina; Martha Nell Smith, University of Maryland; David Reynolds, Baruch College and City University of New York; Susan Belasco Smith, University of Tulsa; Robert A. Gross, College of William & Mary; Walter Grunzweig, University of Dortmund (Germany).

Five high schools have agreed to be test sites for the Archive: the Berkeley-Caroll School, Brooklyn, NY; Hampton Roads Academy, Newport News, VA; Lafayette High School, Williamsburg, VA; McQueen and Reno High Schools, Reno, NV. Talks are in progress with two additional high schools in Iowa City, IA.


What does each member do?

Thus far, I have been involved in general oversight of project, grant writing, and public relations. I am the contact person with the administration at William & Mary, with IATH at University of Virginia, and with our Advisory Board of distinguished scholars. I also contribute design and content ideas to the Archive itself, write notes, seek permissions, etc.

Ed Folsom has taken the lead in development of the CD-ROM phase of the project, handling the correspondence and negotiation with our publisher Primary Source Media. He has also been an important contributor to our grant writing efforts. He has plans to develop an Iowa center for the project to complement the one at William & Mary. He is my key—sometimes daily—intellectual consultant for the project.

Charles Green has been the dynamic force responsible for getting much of the Archive built. His technical know-how—and sheer excitement about the project—has been critical to our success thus far. He is helping to map out the work, and to coordinate others who have contributed their efforts to the Archive. He is currently also learning SGML.


Is the collaboration all on-site or is it electronic across distance or both? If both, what is the mix of face-to-face and electronic across distance?

I work closely with graduate students at William & Mary both through personal contact and e-mail exchanges. Ed Folsom and I communicate through telephone calls and e-mail, though some personal contact (averaging so far about twice a year) has also proven fruitful.

Our collaboration with IATH has been through a combination of e-mail and personal visits. Because of the proximity of William & Mary and the University of Virginia, I have been able to make perhaps eight visits to the University of Virginia and Charles Green around twenty visits. Ed Folsom joined me on a visit to the University of Virginia when the project was first undertaken.


How does electronic communication change the nature of collaboration?

Collaboration between faculty members is eased but not fundamentally changed because of electronic communication. That is, the fundamental characteristics of collaboration—working together, sharing, building trust, experiencing together disappointments and triumphs—remain the same. Collaboration with graduate students, is, however, significantly different because they regularly contribute as much—and often know more about technical matters—than faculty members. This produces a different power dynamic.


How does the project fit into your professional life?

The project has become central to my scholarly life (in that it has become the most time consuming and important of my projects). The amount of time on the Archive fluctuates, but I would guess that it averages about eighteen hours per week.


Describe your relationship(s) with your sponsor(s).

We don't have a sponsor per se. We have a publisher, Primary Source Media for an initial CD-ROM (and Primary Source Media may be interested in also marketing our work on the Web). Primary Source Media has specific ideas about what should be on the initial CD-ROM since it will be a model of sorts, the initiating work in the Major American Authors series. But within overall guidelines they have been flexible. Fortunately, their goals dovetail nicely with the major purposes of the Whitman Archive.


What kind of on-campus support do you receive? Off-campus support? How did you go about enlisting help from on campus support personnel?

Both Terry Meyers, Chair of the English Department, and Bob Gross, Director of the American Studies Program at William & Mary, have been enthusiastic supporters of the Whitman Archive. Terry Meyers in particular was helpful in getting the Whitman Archive vitally needed equipment at an early stage of the project.

William & Mary has been quick to recognize the significance of the Archive as a teaching tool. The Roy R. Charles Center for Interdisciplinary Studies granted me a University Fellowship (summer 1996) for curriculum development specifically in connection with the Hypertext Archive. William & Mary also granted me an academic leave to work on this archive in 1996-97 and has provided further support in the form of a part-time administrative assistant, office space in the main library (Swem), two Gateway 486 computers (approximately $3,400), an HP scanner and Scanjet printer ($1300) and funding for two visits for lectures and consultation (Ed Folsom and IATH networked associate fellow Martha Nell Smith). Talks are currently underway at William & Mary to provide the Whitman Archive with an expense budget.

This project has generated a high level of excitement at William & Mary. Several graduate students in the American Studies program have seized the opportunity to work in this pioneering field of research. Nancy Marshall, Dean of the Library, has granted space for the project in Swem Library, a building fully networked and possessing state-of-the-art computer equipment. Berna Heyman, the Assistant Dean of University Libraries, is developing a system to create hotlinks from bibliographic records in Swem Library's cataloging system to the Whitman Web pages. Kay Domine, Margaret Cook, and Susan Riggs of Special Collections have provided access to three rare editions of Whitman's works suitable for color facsimile reproduction in digital form. The project has also been enthusiastically endorsed by key administrators at William & Mary, including the Director of the American Studies program (Robert A. Gross), the chair of the English Department (Terry L. Meyers), the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (Robert Archibald), and the Provost of the College (Gillian T. Cell).


Any other comments you would like to make? Lessons learned? Advice to others undertaking similar projects?

I've much enjoyed working on this project. Still I may be able to offer some advice or warnings to someone contemplating a similar venture. This type of project can take over your life, so make sure whatever you're undertaking is something you want to devote yourself to. Most of these types of projects have significant financial costs associated with them, so be prepared to invest time in grant writing. Those contemplating big electronic projects should also face the uncertainty about earthly rewards: at least at the moment, tenure and promotion and salary committees are ill at ease evaluating electronic projects.


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