Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Daybooks and Notebooks (1978)
Author:
Renner, Dennis K.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Literary authorship was a developing profession in the United States during Walt Whitman's lifetime, and its business was sometimes primitive—in Whitman's case, operated from a trunk where he kept records of copies of Leaves of Grass sold, correspondence with publishers, and payments received. Whitman called the journals in which he kept track of business details "Daybooks." They have been included, along with assorted notebooks and a diary from his visit to Canada, in the three-volume Daybooks and Notebooks (1978), part of the New York University Press series Collected Writings of Walt Whitman.

The first two volumes display typed transcriptions of Whitman's hand-written business accounts, begun when orders were brisk for the ten dollar Centennial reprinting of his poems and prose. The fifteen small notebooks in volume three, mostly from the 1850s, reveal the poet's thinking about language, politics, and poetry; they also contain experimental lines of poems for the early editions of Leaves of Grass. Such notebooks are planning documents for authorship, recording a poet's strategies and rationale for trying to invent new forms of poetry for New World readers.

The daybooks are business records, not a diary, but when sales of the Centennial reprinting declined, Whitman began adding brief personal notes that kept the account pages going. He recorded payment of utility bills, other household details, and some family notes. Brief descriptions of the weather and his health also appear—"depress'd condition," he writes 29 November 1891, four months before his death; "bad all thro Nov" (2:605).

When newspapers published articles about Whitman, he obtained copies and sent them to a dozen or more friends and supporters, carefully listed in the daybooks, an effort that may reveal the isolation experienced by a nineteenth-century author. The clippings were assurance that Whitman mattered to the rest of the world.

The routine business entries—"sent Old age's voices to H M Alden [Harper's editor]," followed by a postscript, "sent back to me rejected," and "David McKay paid me $88.56 for royalty &c," for example (2:535)—are the necessary records for someone who needs income from many separate transactions that have to be monitored carefully, not forgotten. Longfellow, who also managed the promotion of his own poetry during the same period, kept similar records, which William Charvat used in a 1944 article, illustrating the economic underpinnings of nineteenth-century literary history in the United States.

The very informality of this new literary business—cultivating the patronage not of royalty or a coterie but of citizen-consumers who could be reached only through newspapers, magazines, and distribution offices of small regional publishers—has consigned most such accounting records to trash collection or, at best, to manuscript holdings of major libraries. The New York University volumes, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities and edited by William White, whose notes identify most individuals mentioned in the daybooks, placed primary materials within reach of undergraduate and graduate students.

This is especially important for the details of publishing. Whitman's notebooks and diary entries, which provide grist for perennial Whitman critical debates and reveal the political and literary agenda of a poet-in-the-making, have always been more accessible than his business records. Biographers and editors of collections of Whitman's work have quoted heavily or published extensive passages from his notebooks, but not from the daybooks.

The Canada diary in volume three displays Whitman in the full power of observation at age sixty-one, capable of extensive train and ferry excursions despite his partial paralysis from a stroke, and as excitable about the world as he ever was.

Daybooks and Notebooks—while not as substantive as materials published in the six volumes of Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts in the Collected Writings series—would have been sufficient evidence for Charvat to have drawn more parallels between Whitman and Longfellow as public poets than he was able to draw without having examined Whitman's records. Still, Charvat's 1960s study of literary authorship in the United States is the most illuminating perspective for approaching Whitman's Daybooks and Notebooks.

Bibliography

Asselineau, Roger. "Walt Whitman—Daybooks and Notebooks." Études Anglaises 32 (1979): 106.

Charvat, William. "Longfellow's Income from His Writings, 1840–1852." The Profession of Authorship in America, 1800–1879. Ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli. New York: Columbia UP, 1992. 155–167.

Loving, Jerome. "Walt Whitman: Daybooks and Notebooks." Modern Philology 76 (1979): 420–424.

Whitman, Walt. Daybooks and Notebooks. Ed. William White. 3 vols. New York: New York UP, 1978.

Zweig, Paul. "Walt Whitman: Daybooks and Notebooks." The New York Times Book Review 16 April 1978: 9, 28, 29.


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