In 2002, Ken Price was interviewed about the Walt Whitman Archive. His answers provide an informal history of the project.
In the mid 1990s, some scholars (especially Ed Folsom) began talking about the need for a hypertext edition of Whitman's works. At the time, I was teaching at the College of William & Mary, and one of my graduate students, Charles Green, was keenly interested in the new developments in electronic editing and the new digital archives that were only then beginning to appear. Green and I arranged to travel to the University of Virginia to meet John Unsworth, director of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, and Jerome McGann, director of the Rossetti Archive. At our meeting, I became enthusiastic about attempting to produce an electronic edition of Whitman despite the magnitude of the undertaking and the inevitable difficulties we would encounter. Still I recognized that a fortuitous set of circumstances was at hand: the University of Virginia has one of the great collections of Whitman manuscripts; I was located relatively near Charlottesville; and leading people in humanities computing were offering to lend assistance. When Ed Folsom agreed to serve as co-director of the Whitman Archive another crucial element fell into place.
Our aim 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. Moreover, the economics of print publication have led previous editors to privilege one edition or another of Whitman's writings—usually the first or last version of Leaves of Grass. Our goal is to create a dynamic site that will grow and change over the years. We are currently in the process of putting online both facsimile and e-text versions of all the editions of Leaves of Grass; some editions are already available. Also available is an extended biography of Whitman that Ed Folsom and I wrote; eventually, this biography will contain links to photos, maps of Whitman-related locations, and short essays about Whitman's friends and associates. All contemporary reviews of Whitman's work are currently available, as are all known photographs of Whitman, complete with annotations. Introductions to each edition of Leaves, reprinted from Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, edited by J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, are available through an agreement with Garland Publishing Company. And, in conjunction with the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, we offer an up-to-date bibliography of books, essays, notes, and reviews about Whitman; this is the only comprehensive current bibliography of work about Whitman.
Whitman scholarship is thriving: he remains one of the most discussed figures in American literary and cultural studies. Despite his prominence it has been difficult to study the evolving nature of his work because several of the important editions of Leaves of Grass have been inaccessible unless you happen to teach at a research library with a strong rare book room.
Curiously, scholarship has largely ignored Whitman's poetry manuscripts in part because of related problems of access. The manuscripts are scattered widely at over sixty different libraries. Our work on the manuscripts, once completed, ought to significantly alter the conversation about the nature of Whitman's creative process, his compositional practices, and the meaning of some of his key poems.
The next large addition to the Archive will be facsimiles and e-text of Whitman's poetry manuscripts, which have never before been systematically collected and edited. This work is supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities ($175,000 for 2000-2003). We currently have online some sample manuscripts, including Whitman's drafts of "Live Oak, with Moss," the sequence of poems that forms the core of his "Calamus" cluster. We also provide links to Whitman's recently recovered notebooks from the 1850s and 1860s housed at the Library of Congress. Eventually, we plan to present all of Whitman's manuscript notes toward and versions of every poem in Leaves of Grass.
The Archive makes life much easier for scholars. For example, no library—not the British Museum nor Harvard University nor Yale--has all of the Whitman reviews in their collection. Now anyone with access to the net can quickly gain a sense of how Whitman was read and understood in his own time. Nineteenth-century reviewers held no punches, so these reviews make fascinating reading. And of course we also include several reviews of Leaves of Grass written by Whitman himself! The Archive also displays all of the known photographs of Whitman. This is a resource that is already very much enjoyed by our users as their comments indicate.
Most libraries and other institutions have been supportive and at times quite enthusiastic about our undertaking. They tend to be proud of their rare holdings and want people to know about them. Many librarians see the web as a wonderful opportunity to share knowledge and to bring together virtually disparate collections. Many libraries see the scanning of documents as an important aspect of preservation. A couple of well-funded private libraries are resistant to having parts of their collections displayed on the web. They are working on a more proprietary and protective model. I'm guardedly hopeful we can gain their cooperation over time.
Typically, scholarship in the humanities takes the form of a solitary individual writing articles or a book. I have always enjoyed collaborations. Some of my deepest and best friendships have been gained through work on this project. Recently via the archive response button we received this message:
Comments from a WWW reader: bless you... what a great site...walt is our Dante thanks for the care for his legacy
A comment like that from an utter stranger—short, direct, and appreciative—is deeply rewarding.