About the Archive

Project and Staff Information

About this Document

Title: Whitman Speaks to a New Generation

Author(s): Institute of Museum and Library Services

Publication information: Primary Source (June/July 2005). Reproduced with permission.

Whitman Archive ID: anc.00009

Many of Matthew Cohen's undergraduate English students have never ventured into Duke University's Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, the repository of the valuable Trent Collection of Whitmaniana and other literary collections. Visiting a manuscript or special library collection is something that few undergraduates are empowered to do. Because of preservation and access issues, academic libraries often open their special holdings only to serious scholars at the graduate and postgraduate levels.

For students of Walt Whitman, poetry manuscripts can provide incredible insight into the poet's creative process. Yet with Whitman poetry manuscripts scattered among at least 30 different repositories, scholarship with primary sources, even for graduate students who have access to collections, is a time-consuming and expensive proposition.

A new online integrated finding guide of Whitman's poetry manuscripts now provides item-level descriptions, location information, and collection context, as well as links to digital images of the manuscripts and to encoded transcriptions of the poetry. The unified guide project, a part of the online Walt Whitman Archive begun in 1995, is funded with a 2002 National Leadership Grant for Research and Demonstration and funding from Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation and the University of Nebraska Research Council.

The project promises to change the way students of Whitman approach their subject, opening up new avenues of inquiry and study, and it is leading scholars to fresh discoveries about the works of the American poet. For archivists, scholars, librarians, and technologists, the project serves as a model for working out an effective encoding strategy through institutional partnerships and cross-disciplinary collaborations.

The frontispiece to the 1855 Leaves of Grass shows a three-quarter shot of Whitman with one hand resting on his hip.

July 1854. Steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer of daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison (original daguerreotype lost). Saunders #4. Courtesy of the Bayley Collection, Ohio Wesleyan University. According to the Walt Whitman Archive, "The engraving appeared in the 1855 and 1856 editions of Leaves of Grass, then again in the 1876 and 1881-1882 (and following) editions, as well as—in a cropped version—in William Michael Rossetti's 1868 British edition of Walt Whitman's poems."

Whitman's Dispersed Poetry Manuscripts

Kenneth Price, the Hillegass Professor of American literature at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has worked on Whitman intermittently for at least 25 years. The author of two monographs and editor of two books on the poet, and co-director of the Walt Whitman Archive, Price considers himself "knee deep in Whitman all the time."

Whitman is an author of worldwide significance and presents a subject rewarding to scholars, says Price, because of his complexity and depth. You don't walk away from studying Whitman with the sense that you've mastered the material in its full complexity, he explains. "It's more like understanding one thing unfolds something else and reveals further mysteries that need unraveling."

During his own day, Whitman's six printed editions of Leaves of Grass found their way into the hands of people across the country and around the globe. So too did fiction, prose, journalism, and handwritten letters and other documents. At the time of his death, Whitman's own collection of manuscripts came into the possession of three literary executors, who eventually auctioned them off and dispersed them widely. As a result, there are more than 30 collections of poetry manuscripts at 26 institutions and an unknown number in private collections.

Most of Whitman's writings have been the subject of a massive editing enterprise, the 22-volume The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman. The project was conceived around 1955 and published by the New York University Press by editors who felt they would be finished in about a decade. They spent more than 40 years. Addenda and supplements have been continually added. And yet glaring omissions remain.

Price said, "One of the weird things about these valuable printed editions is that the authors have very nicely completed and meticulously annotated volumes based on some of Whitman's least significant writings. The poetry manuscripts—he's a poet after all—never got treated."

Thus the poetry manuscripts became the focus of the integrated guide.

An image of page 387 of the 1891-92 Leaves of Grass.

In addition to manuscript images, the Walt Whitman Archive provides images of Whitman's published works, a biography, criticism, a gallery of photographic images of the poet, teaching materials, and a rare audio clip of Whitman reciting his 1888 poem, "America," which is included in the image above of page 387 of the 1891-92 version of Leaves of Grass.

Gathering Collection Records and Images

"The unified guide is the dream of anyone who does literary research," said Cohen. "To go to one place when you're working on a poem or a book, search and find all the manuscripts for it, find out where they are all physically, but also be able to look, to have them linked directly to edited images and transcriptions, is what makes the project so difficult. It's a difficult political exercise. It's a difficult technical exercise. It's a difficult interface design exercise. And it's absolutely extraordinary."

Initially the project staff had to determine where all of the Whitman collections were held, especially those that might include manuscript drafts and notebook versions of Whitman's roughly 400 Leaves of Grass poems and approximately 125 others. The major collections were known to be at Duke University, University of Virginia, New York Public Library, University of Texas at Austin, and the Library of Congress. Representatives from these institutions (as well as the Research Libraries Group) became partners in this effort, contributing their records to the effort and aiding in the implementation of the Encoded Archival Description (EAD) encoding.

Katherine Walter, chair of Digital Initiatives and Special Collections at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-chair of the IMLS-funded project, directed the effort to request and receive records of Whitman holdings from the repositories. The institutional records ranged from paper catalog form, to HTML versions, to EAD encoded records, the standard for archival description used by this project.

Since most of the records did not describe the materials at the item level, the project staff contacted many repositories to identify any manuscripts that would fall under their broad definition of a poetry manuscript. In some cases, scholars traveled to larger collections to make identifications. And, as an added precaution, the project staff requested digital images.

Somewhat counterintuitively, the unified guide to poetry manuscripts includes some prose items. Price explains why. "As a poet, Whitman frequently wrote on the border of genres, and sometimes it is very hard to tell where prose ends and poetry begins in his writings. Moreover, some prose passages are part of the gestation process of poetry. If a passage appearing as prose uses the same words, the same key images, or even some of same rhythm as a piece of poetry, we would regard such a passage as being a poetry manuscript in our broad definition of the term."

Obtaining the manuscript images helped the project leaders to determine if a piece of writing was to be considered poetry and often enabled them to enhance descriptions of a manuscript's record.

Among the ongoing challenges of the project is obtaining the images. In all, the project aims to produce 6,000 images for roughly 4,300 poetry manuscripts. Guidelines were established and standards set for documenting settings for photography and scanning. Existing images were gathered, permissions secured, and fees paid. When images had to be produced, team members coordinated contract scanning or traveled to the libraries to conduct the photography and scanning.

The effort was further challenged by the fact that much of the Whitman material is fragile and highly restricted by its repositories because of preservation concerns. Whitman often jotted his musings on any material at hand. His writing is preserved on the inside of envelopes, on the back of wallpaper, and on discarded tax forms, for instance. An incessant revisionist, he sometimes edited his work by physically cutting text from one source and pasting it onto another. In other cases a single manuscript leaf bears writing on both sides, requiring two scans. These materials are not only irregular, they are also more than 100 years old, fragile, and of special concern for archivists.

Walter noted, "Most repositories were more than willing to contribute their descriptive information to the effort and to give permission for mounting the digital images. They immediately perceived the importance of identifying Whitman's manuscripts and the potential uses for students, scholars, and the public."

An image of Whitman's manuscript.

The Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. The Walt Whitman Archive provides an editorial note: "This manuscript is a draft of the first two line groups of 'Ashes of Soldiers.' These line groups were added in 1871 to a poem first published as 'Hymn of Dead Soldiers' in Drum-Taps (1865). It was only in 1871 that he added the imagery of ashes to this poem. (Decoration Day was first proclaimed in 1868.)"

EAD: A Collaborative Exercise

One of the greatest values of the unified guide to scholars like Professor Cohen is its usability. He said, "I can go in and search for terms across the entire collection of poetry manuscripts, and get results that allow me to collate and look regardless of place, regardless of the archive." He can organize his searches by poem or by institution. What seems so simple on the surface, however, required a great deal of effort, involving difficult technical decisions and hours of behind-the-scenes tagging and editorial work.

Early in the process the team leaders made the important decision to develop repository-specific finding aids. Descriptions of poetry manuscripts would then be harvested into the single unified guide using encoded tags. EAD was selected for use because it is the standard for encoding archival finding aids using eXtensible Markup Language (XML) tagging. An EAD model for this project was developed jointly by an archivist of the University of Nebraska Libraries, Mary Ellen Ducey, and an English graduate student at Nebraska, Andrew Jewell. The model was reviewed by one of the originators of EAD, Daniel Pitti, at the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. The Nebraska project team of librarians, archivists, and scholars coordinated EAD implementation across collections for interoperability.

Walter said, "EAD has often been used for encoding single finding aids within archives, but it has never previously been used as a means of merging dispersed collection descriptions into a single, item-level guide."

Pitti noted that while many groups had discussed such projects and one group had attempted such an effort, the Whitman project represents the first successful reintegration of collections across institutions and is notable as the first to bring scholars and archivists to the table to work together.

Another key decision was to develop item-level descriptions for the finding aids, even though the vast majority of archival finding aids for such projects have only collection-level descriptions. While scholars prefer having descriptions of individual items in a collection, many archivists do not have the time or staff to produce such guides. In fact, some archives use the guides that were developed by the original creator of the collection, which may be nonstandard and idiosyncratic. The national significance of Whitman's poetry, however, was a strong justification for pursuing the time-intensive item-level descriptions.

For a task that may typically fall to archivists or librarians alone, this project employed both archivists and scholars to develop the item-level descriptions. A close collaboration was needed to create the detailed descriptions, especially for institutions that had only brief finding aids or none at all. For each item, archivists generally provided the traditional information found in finding aids—creator, physical description, dates, scope and content, location, and institutional title, with information about provenance and knowledge about an item's place in the document collection. Scholars often helped identify a poem in relationship to the deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass, date it more precisely, or provide information about it in the context of Whitman scholarship.

The role of the scholars was particularly important for organizing manuscripts that were related to a particular work. Whitman was always revising, producing multiple manuscripts for a single poem. The poems were often not given the same title, and some were left untitled. The project scholars often determined the relationships among poems and gave poems of a single family a common work ID tag. Based on the convention for Whitman scholarship, the work ID was the title used the last time the poem was published, often in the 1892 deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass. The embedded work ID enables users of the unified guide to produce with a single click a list of all bits of prose or poetry that are related to a single work, virtually organizing original manuscripts from dispersed collections that previously had no known or specified relationship.

Katherine Walter said, "We found that the differing perspectives of the scholars, archivists, and librarians made for a very holistic partnership. The edges of our roles began to blur." She noted that archivists and librarians gained a greater appreciation for the needs of the scholars engaged in deep research, who in turn began to appreciate the intricacies and value of the EAD structure.

A photo of Whitman in profile looking at a butterfly perched on his index finger.

W. Curtis Taylor (Broadbent & Taylor), photographer, "Whitman with butterfly, 1877." Albumen photograph frontispiece in sample proof of Leaves of Grass, 1891 Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.


Ted Genoways has seen the significance of new findings from the manuscripts and how the integrated finding aid is shaping current Whitman scholarship. The editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review at the University of Virginia, Genoways became affiliated with the project as a graduate student at the University of Iowa, where he helped transcribe batches of Civil War manuscripts. He said, "It seems remarkable to me that so much comes out of [our work with the poetry manuscripts]. The major discoveries of recent years it seems to me have been finding things written on the back of manuscripts that no one had ever really paid attention to before."

He describes one of the most important discoveries as coming from the flip side of one of the 1855 manuscripts. Ed Folsom, co-director of the Walt Whitman Archive, discovered the original order of poems from the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. He saw that a list of shorthand titles corresponded to the 12 poems in the original edition and realized he was looking at the original order for the poems, that Whitman changed himself before the book when into print. What has set Whitman scholars abuzz is that the original order would have ended the book with a slave auction scene at the end of the poem now known as "I Sing the Body Electric." While scholars debate whether the change was made for artistic or other reasons, the example shows how valuable access to the poetry manuscripts is.

Genoways, who is finishing a book on Whitman and the Civil War, considers the unified guide an amazing resource. He said, "For one of the poems I've worked on, the Civil War poem, 'A March in the Ranks, Hard-Prest and the Road Unknown,' we finally have a full, or nearly full manuscript. There are three pages in the manuscript that are in three different locations. Up until now no one had ever identified the fact that those three pages run continuous and that they represent a full fair copy of that poem."

Professor Price believes that the unified guide may open up a whole new avenue of scholarship on Whitman as a manuscript poet. He said, "He's been altogether studied as a print poet, as someone who had a background as a printer and who was interested in the way things looked on the page. But he was also someone who left an awful lot of manuscripts, and often it's his manuscripts that are most revealing."

A photo showing the elderly Whitman in his cluttered home.

1891. Dr. William Reeder, Philadelphia. Courtesy Library of Congress. According to the Walt Whitman Archive, the photo was taken in Whitman's upstairs bedroom. It says, "Here the legendary chaos of papers that surrounded Whitman in his last years is visible; he likened the mass to a sea, resisted efforts of his housekeeper and friends to sort it out, and claimed that whatever he needed surfaced eventually."

Vital Statistics:

2002 IMLS National Leadership Grant (Research and Demonstration) $245,723

The editorial work is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Kenneth M. Price, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, kprice2@unl.edu

Katherine Walter, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries, kwalter1@unl.edu



Project Partners:

University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL)

University of Virginia

Project Teams:

Technical Details:

Finding aids were coded in EAD using XML.

XSLT stylesheets are used to harvest information from finding aids.

Transcriptions were encoded with Text Encoding Initiative (TEI).

Manuscript images were 24-bit color TIFF images with a minimum resolution of 600 dpi. Derivative JPEG and thumbnail images were also used on the Web site.


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