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Title: Projecting Whitman: The Evolution and Remediation of The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman

Author(s): Ed Folsom

Publication information: First published on the Whitman Archive. This paper was originally delivered at the 2001 Joint International Conference of the Association for Computers and the Humanities and the Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing.

Whitman Archive ID: anc.00003

I would like to begin by briefly telling a long story, an all too familiar one, a story of American literary scholarship over the last half century, a story of how changing technologies have gradually altered the very way we think about creating monumental editions of our major authors' works. It's a story that—in the case of Walt Whitman and many others—begins in the late 1940s and early 1950s, as the post-World II growth in colleges and universities spurred first by the GI Bill, and later by those GIs' boom of babies reaching college age in the 1960s, produced a scholarly infrastructure in this country that made thinkable career-long editing projects. Just as one of the major social challenges during Whitman's lifetime was the "return of the veterans," the national challenge to turn young Civil War soldiers into agricultural pioneers, to give up their arms for farms, so in the 1950s the challenge was first to turn soldiers into students, then to build an educational infrastructure that could handle the vast new generation spawned in the late 40s and early 50s. The Western land-boom in the mid-nineteenth century was matched by the education-boom in the mid-twentieth century. There were more and more universities, and more and more graduate students, and more and more professors, and, often lost amidst the vast number of changes such growth brought is the fact that the nature of scholarship itself changed to accommodate a suddenly swollen mass of scholars, who were in the 1950s still working on basically the same small canon of writers that had supported the previous fifty years of scholarship (only in the late 60s and early 70s would the canon itself explode to provide an increasingly broad and diverse scholarly enterprise that began to match and even to produce the broader and more diverse group of scholars).

So in the mid-1950s a relatively young group of twelve scholars joined together to devote a major part of their professional lives to a multi-volume, multi-year project named the Collected Writings of Walt Whitman. They thought, just as Ken Price and I foolishly thought when we began the Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive, that they'd be done with the project in a few years. These scholars came from established prestigious institutions like NYU, Duke, Virginia, and the Sorbonne, as well as the newly emergent regional colleges like Southwest Texas State and growing urban institutions like Wayne State and CUNY. In the first flush of their enthusiasm, these academics—sharing the optimism of countless monumental single-author projects that began around the same times—announced that the massive edition, to be published by New York University Press, would be complete by the early 1960s. Today, nearly a half-century after those announcements, the Whitman Collected Writings, like virtually every other monumental edition begun back in the 1950s, remains incomplete, and even the finished individual volumes have turned out not to be nearly as finished as everyone back then assumed they would be.

No one realized then the toll such a project would take on scholars, some of whom to this day face the terror of putting their work to press, for fear that the work is not complete, for fear there are letters or manuscripts or early poems or stories missing, yet to be discovered, that no doubt will turn up within days of publication, rendering the book an anachronism, obsolete, outdated, in need of revision or supplementing as soon as it appears. These kinds of volumes don't go to second editions, so there's a one-shot chance at accuracy, and corrections get lost in obscure bibliographical journals. Edwin Miller's magisterial five-volume edition of Whitman's correspondence appeared over an eight-year period in the 1960s, and by the time volume five came out, it already contained an "Addenda" of 65 letters discovered during the eight years the earlier volumes had been appearing; they were now forever out of order, out of chronology, stuck at the back of set, a permanent mar on the collection. Nine years later, NYU Press issued a slim sixth volume of correspondence, this time called a "Supplement," with a hundred more letters. Fourteen years later, the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review published a hundred-page "second supplement" with nearly fifty more. Professor Miller is now unable to work further on the correspondence, and Ted Genoways has just published a "third supplement" of nearly eighty letters with the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, and he's already putting together a fourth supplement of forty more.

I could repeat this story across the range of the materials the Collected Writings set out to collect: poetry, prose essays, autobiography, fiction, notebooks, prose manuscripts, poetry manuscripts, journalism. In all cases, Whitman remains, as he once described himself, "garrulous to the very last"; it's as if he continues to generate letters and prose and manuscripts at the same rate today that he did when he was alive. It's such a mass and scatter of new material that any monumental print edition is doomed to become increasingly incomplete, patched-together, more difficult to use, eventually as chaotic as the materials it set out to organize, as those materials become scattered out of sequence or are left uncollected and as indices become outdated or never created.

The Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive sets out to make Whitman's vast work, for the first time, easily and conveniently accessible to scholars, students, and general readers. Our relationship to the 23-volume Collected Writings is a problematic one: on the one hand, we have a half-century of editorial work collected there; on the other hand, it is locked in a clumsy print format that makes it a trial to use. Still, it is the standard edition, the edition cited by American literary scholarship over the past few decades. But, then again, most of the work needs done again, and the presentation needs to be entirely re-conceptualized.

There are many things missing from the Collected Writings, but the glaring absence, the inexplicable one, is the failure to include Whitman's revelatory poetry manuscripts. The three-volume Variorum Edition of Leaves of Grass, part of the Collected Writings, was originally slated to record all the manuscripts, periodical publications, and book publications of Whitman's poems, but it ended up dealing only with the book publications, leaving the important manuscript origins and early periodical versions unavailable to scholars and students. A projected second Variorum Edition, dealing with materials the first Variorum failed to take account of, has never materialized; it has now been over two decades since it was announced.

This is an astonishing fact of textual scholarship. We have Whitman's laundry lists in print; we have the business cards of his sidewalk repairman in print, but we don't have the manuscripts of "Song of Myself" in print. The reasons for this are complex, and we could spend the rest of the session talking about them, but suffice it to say now that the Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive project has begun to identify, electronically scan, transcribe, organize, and make available to scholars and students all of Whitman's poetry manuscripts and all of the periodical printings of his poetry. Our project will demonstrate, for the first time, just how extensive and illuminating Whitman's manifold revisions were. His poetry manuscripts and periodical publications reveal, among other surprising things, a Whitman who devoted extraordinary time and care to the creation of a poetry that appeared to be quick and spontaneous; his manuscripts expose an artist whose casual, loafing persona was in fact the result of intensive and obsessive artistic labor.

We are in the process now, with the help of an NEH grant, of locating and identifying all Whitman poetry manuscripts, housed largely in six or seven collections, but with some manuscripts dispersed in more than a hundred institutional and private collections. We are entering the negotiating processes now, trying to gain access to some manuscripts that are no longer supposed to be handled, seeking permission to scan or digitally photograph them, so that every poetry manuscript can be transcribed, coded, and linked to a high-quality facsimile that will allow users to find their way to any stage of Whitman's composition process, and, once there, to challenge the transcription we offer by examining the extraordinarily complex manuscripts themselves. One healthy aspect of electronic scholarship, of course, is that criticism of our work becomes therapeutic rather than purely judgmental: if a review of a book edition points out errors in transcription or errors of omission, there's nothing to do but cringe; if a reviewer of an electronic edition points out problems, we've just identified a new collaborator.

What the first generation of monumental edition editors learned, gradually, was mortality. The young and energetic group of Whitman scholars grew old, went blind, got Alzheimer's, and died. Only one member of the General Editors and Editorial Advisory Board of The Collected Writings is still alive. NYU Press considers the project over, even if some of the elderly editors do not. Those of us working on the Hypertext Archive, even with the high expectations of electronic scholarship speeding things up, have discovered that we too age. What we seek to accomplish, then, is the creation of an electronic infrastructure that can make available the best of what we have to offer now while inviting endless revision and additions. We see the Whitman Hypertext Archive as a monumental process rather than as a scholarly monument. The number of its collaborators should grow over the years as its ambitions continue to grow. When the current group of editors discovers its own mortality, younger groups should be carrying on, something that the sheer bulk and materiality of paper editing made virtually impossible. With book technology, again, there was a hesitation to put the monumental editions to press for fear that the published version would have to stand forever, and thus its errors and omissions would become more and more glaring even while stemming further growth. To look at the Collected Writings of Walt Whitman today is to get a partial, stunted, idiosyncratic impression of Whitman's work and of what the term "collected writings" even means.

Still, those books are the basis of what we know about Whitman, and they are embedded now in the last half-century's commentary on Whitman: we are learning from their mistakes and making many of our own, but in the process of re-mediating the collected writings, we are working hard to make our mistakes correctable. So much of the labor of book-editions of Collected Writings were devoted to the process of turning materials—manuscripts, various editions, letters—into typeface and printable symbols, creating a complex virtual world where, with great labor, one might be able to re-construct a particular version of a poem. We are working now not so much with hypertext as with hypotext, the invisible coding beneath our poetic texts, so that things can be found and linked and identified. But the key for a hypertext archive, it seems to me, is that finally it makes available a true facsimile of each edition of a poem, each version, each manuscript, so that the user becomes a co-creator, a co-editor, every time he or she comes to the archive, informed by our work while challenging it, knowing that good arguments, sharper eyes, keener insights, can have a dramatic and immediate effect on the very archive that spawned the insight in the first place. All users are potential co-editors.


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Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.