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Title: Duke Houses One of the Nation's Top Whitman Collections

Author(s): Paul Bonner

Publication information: The Herald-Sun 8 February 2006. Reproduced with permission.

Whitman Archive ID: anc.00010


DURHAM—In what might be called the 19th-century version of a celebrity reality show, Walt Whitman isn't dealing well with clutter.

A neighbor stops by Whitman's house in Camden, N.J., praises his book November Boughs and asks to buy six more copies.

The poet apologizes and says he's fresh out and will get more from the publisher.

Horace Traubel, Whitman's young literary disciple, searches through the 2-foot-deep piles of papers and books covering the floor of an upstairs room. He comes up with not six copies of the book but a dozen.

And Traubel tattles on his mentor's packrat habits, which he encouraged and to which he contributed. Traubel's almost videographic jottings of four years' worth of Whitman's daily sayings and doings—including that anecdote—eventually filled nine volumes.

Whitman scholars have faced a similar dilemma ever since: how to winnow through the mountains of primary materials by and about the poet. They've been hampered by a lack of subject indexing even of much of Traubel's biography.

That's where Duke University's Trent Collection of Whitman manuscripts and books comes in, along with the Walt Whitman Archive, a free online compendium developed by a university consortium that includes Duke.

The core of the Trent Collection was given by Duke family scion Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans and her first husband, Dr. Josiah Trent, and has been augmented by Duke since then.

It contains 650 manuscripts and books, including two complete sets of Traubel's biography—a rarity, since the first volume was printed in 1906 and the last only in 1996, 77 years after Traubel's death.

It also contains three copies of the first edition of Whitman's best-known work, the poetry collection Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855 but extensively revised and added to by the poet throughout his life.

Other items include correspondence, drafts of poems and books in whose margins he scribbled notes.

Along with the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library, Duke is considered one of the top three repositories of Whitman materials, said Andrew Armacost, collection development librarian in the Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library.

The collection has been invaluable for building the Whitman Archive, said Matt Cohen, a Duke professor of English overseeing the Traubel project.

Four volumes are available now (http://www.whitmanarchive.org/disciples/), and the rest—totaling 5,000 pages—should be done by September, Cohen said. Digitizing the biography online makes it much more usable and widely available, he said.

Cohen spoke by telephone from Chicago, where he is researching the history of books and their construction—another fertile field for Whitman scholars, since Whitman, a former printer, took a hand in his books' design.

As a Duke student, Semans said, she was inspired by a professor to appreciate Whitman's poems.

The collection started with a Leaves of Grass first edition soon after Semans and Trent were married and were living in Detroit. She bought it as a birthday present for him from an antique bookseller's kiosk near the hospital where Trent, a surgeon, worked.

"In those days, things like that were fairly reasonable," Semans said.

Upon the Trents' request, the bookseller, Henry Schuman, kept an eye out for other Whitman books and manuscripts, and the collection grew. In the mid-1940s, the couple donated it to the university in honor of their children. Poet Carl Sandburg spoke at its dedication.

Online publishing is at an analogous stage to when Whitman was finding his voice as a poet and self-published the first edition of Leaves of Grass.

"I would definitely think we're back in a moment like Whitman was in, in the early 19th century, in which self-publishing is a very real thing, but it's increasingly requiring a level of skill that not everybody can attain," Cohen said.

Whitman exploited his age's publishing advances to reach as wide a readership as possible, Cohen said.

"He would have loved the Internet," he said. "He would have been thrilled about cell phones. . . . He would have found the interpolative capabilities of technology, the way it can bring you into conversations you never thought you'd be in, would be a fascinating subject not just for writing poems about, but writing poems through."


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