About the Archive

Project and Staff Information

About this Document

Title: The Walt Whitman Archive: The Body of Work Electric

Author(s): William Pannapacker

Publication information: Resources for American Literary Study 31 (2007), 319-325. Reproduced with permission.

Whitman Archive ID: anc.00238


The Walt Whitman Archive, edited by Ed Folsom (University of Iowa) and Kenneth M. Price (University of Nebraska–Lincoln), is the most ambitious editorial undertaking in the history of Whitman studies. Since the beginning in 1995, the purpose of the Archive has been to make Whitman's enormous oeuvre—poems, essays, letters, journals, jottings, and images, along with biographies, interviews, reviews, and criticism of Whitman—freely available on a Web site that will grow and change as new materials are discovered, edited, and encoded.

"Our aim," according to Price, "is to produce a scholarly edition of Whitman on the Web. We're doing this in part because his work defies the constraints of the book. Whitman's work was always being revised, was always in flux, and fixed forms of print do not adequately capture his incessant revisions" ("Introduction"). The editors of the Archive acknowledge that the site will never be complete; there are always new materials coming to light in addition to the thousands of documents that are not accessible to scholars outside of their repositories.

By the time the Archive is fully realized (and it is already quite substantial), it will complete and improve upon the monumental print edition of Whitman, the Collected Writings, which was published in 22 volumes by New York University Press from 1961 to 1984 and later supplemented by two additional volumes by Peter Lang and one by the University of Iowa Press. The Collected Writings has been indispensable for Whitman scholars, but it does not include Whitman's poetry manuscripts or, remarkably, an edition of the 1855 Leaves of Grass. Moreover, a printed edition could not keep pace with the frequent discovery of new materials without becoming unwieldy, particularly when the original publisher ceased to support it. So, for a long time, serious Whitman scholars—particularly those concerned with the development of the poems and the evolution of Whitman's published work—have had to teravel to far-flung repositories and purchase costly original editions of Leaves in order to fill the gaps in the Collected Writings, which is long out of print, hard to obtain, and expensive. I became interested in Whitman in the early 1990s, and it took more than ten years and at least a thousand dollars to complete my set of the Collected Writings a few volumes at a time from secondhand book dealers. Even many college and university libraries lack complete sets. Ultimately, the Archive will democratize access to the full range of Whitman's work and contemporary reception.

The Walt Whitman Archive is easy to navigate, it generally downloads quickly, and it has a clean, professional appearance. I have used it regularly for about two years; indeed, the site has become indispensable for me, even with a fairly comprehensive collection of materials on Whitman. I have sometimes used the Archive while working on scholarly essays when I am away from my home institution. In this way, the Web site makes an extensive library of Whitman materials portable to anyone with mobile Internet access, and its search function enables one to locate quotations in a fraction of the time it takes to locate them in the published versions.

In addition to pages containing information on the site's supporters, its staff, and guidelines for fair use, the Archive contains ten sections of Whitman materials. the "Introduction" provides visitors with a convenient overview of "Recent Changes and Additions" (updated on April 19, 2006, as of this writing), a helpful "Overview of the Archive," a "History of the Project," answers to "Frequently Asked Questions," a "Technical Summary," "Encoding Guidelines," a collection of "Articles and Interviews about the Archive," and password–protected access to the original version of the Archive, which was online from 1995 to 2000. Beyond this front– and back–matter, the site contains a gathering of extraordinary, unique, and expanding resources ("Manuscripts," "Works," "Criticism," "Images," "Disciples," "Bibliography"), along with a few sections that are helpful to the nonspecialist but appear more like works–in–progress with more potential than content ("Biography," "Audio," "Teaching").

The "Manuscripts" section of the Archives provides easy access to materials that are not readily available elsewhere. Whitman was a compulsive reviser of his poetry, and Leaves of Grass was altered repeatedly between 1855 and 1892. His manuscripts provide an essential resource for understanding his methods of writing and the relation of his work to his biographical and historical context. Some of these manuscripts are available in relatively scarce and expensive books, most notably Walt Whitman's Blue Book, edited by Arthur Golden, which contains the poet's revisions of the third edition of Leaves, and the Walt Whitman Archive, edited by Joel Myerson, which reproduces manuscripts from the Library of Congress, Duke University, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Virginia. Apart from the materials in these hard–to–obtain volumes, Whitman's manuscripts are scattered widely in more than seventy repositories, where they are unevenly catalogued and described. Even for the fortunate few who have access to the published versions of the manuscripts or to a major collection, the online Archive will make it much easier and faster for Whitman Scholars to research their subject. As of this writing the Archive contains one hundred poetry manuscripts fully transcribed and annotated. Several thousand additional facsimile images of manuscripts are available through the "Finding Aids for Manuscripts at Individual Repositories." The site will eventually include all of Whitman's notes—scraps of paper, lists, prose writings, and seemingly randomn jottings—pertaining to every poem in Leaves and Whitman's uncollected poems.

The manuscript images can be enlarged and zoomed into high–resolution images that show fine pencil strokes, light stains, pinholes, and even the grain of the paper. The transcriptions use a color–coded apparatus that makes Whitman's revisions easy to understand, and they are accompanied by searchable notes on the date of the manuscript, its relation to the published works, and its original location. Eventually, the transcriptions and editorial content will make the manuscripts fully searchable using a custom–designed interface (see Barney et al. for a technical description of this project).

The "Manuscripts" section of the Archive also includes "An Integrated Finding Guide to Walt Whitman's Poetry Manuscripts." Although it is still a work–in–progress, the guide includes all of Whitman's published poems, using their familiar titles (generally from the 1891-92 editions of Leaves and the Complete Prose Works of 1892), with the locations of their supporting manuscripts. The entry for "Song of Myself" lists thirty–one manuscripts in three major repositories with other holdings to be added later. Each entry includes the title of the poem, the date, a physical description, and helpful content notes about the purpose and relation of the document to the published work. Once it is completed, the "Finding Guide" will allow one easily to examine all of the available poetry manuscripts—both in facsimile and in transcribed forms—in the repositories of the United States and the United Kingdom. The "Integrated Finding Guide," linked to a "Finding Aide for Manuscripts at Individual Repositories" including some forty collections, lists and describes the poetry manuscripts in each collection and makes it clear how the holdings are organized. In effect, the Archive focuses on Whitman's poetry (and the editors emphasize that the "Integrated Guide" is still a prototype), but, assuming "time, strength, cash, and patience," as Herman Melville put it, the site will eventually include all of the 70,000 known manuscripts, along with the new ones that appear almost every year.

The next major section of the Archive is called "Works," and it includes transcriptions (whole text and individual poems) and facsimiles of the six major American editions of Leaves plus the widely used, "Deathbed Edition" (1855, 1856, 1867, 1871–82, 1891–92), including images of the paratextual elements: binding, endpapers, frontispieces, and so on. The site also includes transcriptions (but not facsimiles) of the two British editions compiled by William Michael Rossetti in the 1868 and Ernest Rhys in 1886. The directors of the Archive have plans to add new printings of Leaves, along with more extensive introductions and textual histories. (For now, the site includes entries on the various editions of Leaves from Walt Whitman: An Encylcopedia [1998], edited by J. R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings.) As Folsom details in Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman, the process of examining all the surviving copies of the 1855 Leaves, including several variant editions, has revealed significant new clues about the composition and meaning of the work—as well as Whitman's self-presentation— that will eventually make their way into the Archive.

Designed for the non–specialist, the "Biography" section of the Archive contains a brisk, 25,000–word overview of Whitman's life, organized into thirty–seven topics, chronologically arranged (e.g., "Opera Lover," "The 1856 Leaves," "Peter Doyle"). Throughout the biography there are links to articles from Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia such as "slavery," "Broson Alcott," and Memoranda during the War. Accompanying the "Biography" is a chronology of Whitman's life, also from the Encyclopedia. Perhaps, at some future point, this section might be expanded to include some of the early biographies of Whitman (e.g. Bliss Perry, John Addington Symonds, Léon Bazalgette, W. C. Rivers) not included under "Disciples" (see below).

The "Criticism" section includes the contents of Price's edited collection, Walt Whitman: The Contemporary Reviews, along with several reviews that were too long for the book or have since been discovered, making the Archive the most complete compilation of Whitman's contemporary reception. New reviews will be added as they are found. The reviews are not yet searchable, but they are organized by the title of the work by Whitman to which they refer (e.g., Franklin Evans, the six major editions of Leaves, November Boughs). The accompanying section on "Selected Current Criticism" cannot be comprehensive because of copyright restrictions, but it does contain Folsom and Price's book, Re-Scripting Walt Whitman: An Introduction to His Life and Work and Folsom's Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman, several essays on Whitman's poetry by Alan Helms, Martin G. Murray, and Hershel Parker, and some eighty entries from Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. The editors plan to add the text of Leaves of Grass: The Sesquicentennial Essays, a collection of papers from a 2005 conference, along with all of the back issues of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, which is difficult to find outside of university libraries.

Whitman was the most photographed American author of the nineteenth century, and one of the more fascinating sections of the Archive is "Images," which includes every known photograph of Whitman. Each image can be clicked to reveal information about the date, place, and circumstances under which the image was originally made, the type of image (i.e., Daguerreotype, Carte–de–visite), along with Whitman's remarks about it, if there are any, and the location of the original. The images are searchable by keyword, photographer, place, and date. Visitors to teh site can even browse all of the images at once, seeing the development of Whitman's persona over more than forty years, showing how the poet crafted his appearance to support the persona portrayed in his verse. One can easily imagine that the site may one day include the many engravings, paintings, sculptures, and advertising materials that have represented or responded to Whitman as well.

The "Audio" section of the Archive includes one item: a remarkable MP3 version of a thirty–six–second wax cylindar recording of what might be Whitman reading from his poem "America" in 1889. It is unlikely that new recordings of Whitman will surface, but I can attest to the impact this recording has in the classroom, and I am sure many other teachers are delighted to have it so readily available. The editors do not hint at the future of this section of the site either, but if the legal obstacles can be overcome, I expect "Audio" might eventually include other recorded materials, such as famous readings of Whitman (e.g., Ed Begley and Orson Welles), recorded lectures by Whitman scholars (e.g., Gay Wilson Allen's recordings for the Library of Congress), and a selection from the vast quantity of music inspired by Whitman (e.g., the settings of Charles Ives and Ralph Vaughan Williams).

A section on "Disciples" provides biographical information and writings produced by four of the most active supporters of Whitman during his lifetime—Richard Maurice Bucke, John Burroughs, William Douglas O'Connor, and Horace Traubel—each of whom has a biographical sketch from Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. The site also includes the texts of Burroughs's Notes on Walt Whitman as a Poet and a Person (1867), O'Connor's The Good Gray Poet (1865) and "The Carpenter," a short story based on Whitman. Most notably, the site will eventually include Traubel's nine–volume series, With Walt Whitman in Camden (1906-96), some volumes of which are scarce and inadequately indexed. The Traubel e–texts, prepared and introduced by Matt Cohen of Duke University, will be fully searchable and will include facsimiles of the ephemera that were reproduced in the original editions. At present, volumes 1, 4, 5, 8, and 9 are available online, and one can view the entire text or portions of the text organized by the date of Traubel's many conversations with Whitman.

The "Teaching" section of the Archive contains to syllabi; one by Folsom for his undergraduate class on Whitman and Dickinson, another by Price for his graduate seminar on Whitman. There are no future plans indicated for this section, but, at some point, it would be interesting and useful to have syllabi from many other teachers, past and present, on the site. Also included in this section is a link to a separate project called The Classroom Electric: Dickinson, Whitman, and American Culture, which contains a gathering of electronic resources by Whitman scholars for students and teachers on such topics as "Whitman and Slavery," "Whitman and the City," and "Masculinity in Whitman's Civil War."

The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, edited by Folsom, has maintained a current bibliography of articles, books, chapters, and poems about Whitman for more than two decades. Utilizing that project and additional compilations to extend the Quarterly Review's records back to 1975, the "Bibliography" section of the Archive assembles more than five thousand annotated entries, all of which are searchable by keyword, title, author, publisher, year, and annotation. The database is now in the process of adding the entries and annotations from the Whitman bibliography compiled by Donald Kummings, covering 1940–75, and, in the near future, it will also include the annotated bibliography compiled by Scott Giantvalley, covering 1838–1939. When this is accomplished, the Archive will have a complete, comprehensive, and current database of everything known to have been written about Whitman.

As a whole, the Walt Whitman Archive is an extraordinary and indispensable contribution to Whitman scholarship and literary studies, and it will be more important as time passes and the site continues to grow and incorporate new features. Susan Belasco at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln is developing a section presenting 150 appearances of Whitman's poetry in more than forty periodicals, enabling scholars to see how these poems looked in the context of the original place of publication. Bretty Barney, also at the University of Nebraska, is developing a section that includes about fifty interviews with Whitman, most of which were published in newspapers that are now scarce outside of major university libraries. Price is working with a team to create interactive maps of Whitman–related locations, starting with Washington, DC, during the Civil War. Incorporating census records, health data, police reports, and other materials, these interactive maps will provide an unprecedented degree of precision in historical reconstruction of the urban scene as experienced by Whitman. There are plans to create a comprehensive, up–to–date collection of Whitman letters, including those that were sent to him, allowing readers readily to examine both sides of his correspondence for the first time. Eventually, the Archive will provide digital images and transciptions for all of Whitman's documents, including not just the poetry manuscripts, published works, correspondence, and images, but all of the notebooks, daybooks, and prose writings.

All in all, the Walt Whitman Archive is the culmination of many generations of scholarly work, although editors acknowledge that it is a multi-generational project that may never be absolutely complete. According to Price, "The magnitude of the entire undertaking is so vast that we known that we can at best hope to achieve a first pass through the material" ("Introduction").

Recently, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln received a $500,000 "We the People" NEH challenge grant (2005-9) with a 3–to–1 matching requirement, which requires the recipients to raise $1.5 million dollars in order to receive the grant that will establish an endowment for the site. One can only hope the directors of the Archive has become an essential resource—and it only promise to become even more useful with time—it is hard to imagine Whitman studies without it. If it can be sustained financially, the Walt Whitman Archive represents the future of authoritative editions of major writers, and it is an indispensable resource not just for scholars but for teachers, students, and general readers who want to know more about an American poet whose inclusive vision extends to the entire world.


Works Cited

Barney, Brett, Mary Ellen Ducey, Andrew Jewell, Kenneth M. Price, Brian Pytlik Zillig, and Katherine L. Walter. "Ordering Chaos: An Integrated Guide and Online Archive of Walt Whitman's Poetry Manuscripts," Literary and Linguistic Computing. 20 (2005): 205–17.

Folsom, Ed. Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary. Iowa City: Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, 2005.

Folsom, Ed. and Kenneth M. Price. Re-Scripting Walt Whitman: An Introduction to His Life and Work. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005.

Giantvalley, Scott. Walt Whitman, 1838–1939: A Reference Guide. Boston: Hall, 1981.

Kummings, Donald D. Walt Whitman, 1910–1975: A Reference Guide. Boston: Hall, 1982.

LeMaster, J. R., and Donald D. Kummings, eds. Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1998.

Price, Kenneth M. "Introduction to the Walt Whitman Archive. Dec. 2, 2006 <http://www.iath.virginia.edu/whitman/introduction/>.

———., ed. Walt Whitman: The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.

Whitman, Walt. Collected Writings. 22 vols. New York UP, 1961–84; 2 vols. Peter Lang, 1998–2003; 1 vol. U of Iowa P, 2004.

———. The Walt Whitman Archive. Ed. Joel Myerson. 3 vols. New York: Garland, 1993.

———.Walt Whitman's Blue Book: The 1860–61 "Leaves of Grass" Containing His Manuscript Additions and Revisions. Ed. Arthur Golden. 2 vols. New York: New York Public Lib., 1968.


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