Selected Criticism

Collected Writings of Walt Whitman, The (1961–1984)
Graham, Rosemary
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

In 1955, as Whitman scholars around the world were celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Leaves of Grass, New York University Press announced plans to publish the most ambitious collection of Whitman's work to date. Under the general editorship of Gay Wilson Allen, who would be joined at a later date by Sculley Bradley, the initial idea was "to print everything, so that the Collected Writings could be called absolutely complete" (Allen 11). However, as the project progressed, the editors had to modify their original intent. Nearly thirty years after it was begun, falling short of while in some ways exceeding what had been envisioned, New York University Press deemed the Collected Writings project complete.

In a 1963 article Allen described the project as "probably the most difficult, gigantic, and problem-haunted undertaking in the whole field of American letters" (7). Many factors contributed to the complexity of the project. To begin with, all but two of the nine versions of Leaves of Grass published in Whitman's lifetime were published by Whitman himself. This meant, Allen explained, that acting as his own publisher, Whitman "kept extra sheets of each printing, and frequently had batches of these bound up for special distribution. It was easy, therefore, for him to vary the contents of these small batches, and how many 'issues,' or variants, exist for some editions is still not definitively known" (Allen 8).

Further complicating matters was the fact that what remained of Whitman's notebooks, correspondence, and other papers at the time of his death had been divided up among his three literary executors, Richard Maurice Bucke, Thomas Harned, and Horace Traubel, who then published parts of their portions in varying formats. Traubel quoted much of Whitman's correspondence in With Walt Whitman in Camden. Whole letters were published by Bucke in Calamus, which contains Whitman's letters to Peter Doyle, and in The Wound Dresser, a collection of letters and newspaper articles Whitman wrote while working in the hospitals around Washington, D.C, and in Harned's Letters Written by Walt Whitman to his Mother from 1866 to 1872. Bucke also published a collection of Whitman's notebook jottings in Notes and Fragments. All of this "uncollected" material was then gathered by the three executors and included in their ten-volume Complete Writings of Walt Whitman, published in 1902 by G.P. Putnam's Sons. Although this ten-volume set offered a great resource to Whitman scholars, it was never "complete," nor had it been prepared by professional scholars.

After publishing from their portions of Whitman's legacy, Bucke, Harned, and Traubel further divided much of it among others who sold or gave it away, resulting in the widespread scattering of Whitman's literary remains among private collections and libraries. In the years that followed the publication of Complete Writings, more of Whitman's uncollected writings—notes, letters, and journalism—continued to emerge in editions that varied widely in terms of organization and editorial standards.

When Allen and the advisory editorial board of Collected Writings took on this "most difficult, problem-haunted" project in 1955, they hoped to bring together as much of this scattered material as was possible and to present it in a format consistent with the exacting standards of modern scholarship. Collector Charles E. Feinberg, who had devoted his career (and considerable financial resources) to acquiring all he could of Whitman's letters, manuscripts, and notebooks, made his private collection available for the project. Some additional eighteen hundred manuscripts were tracked down by sending out letters to fifteen hundred libraries and private collections. This, and the fact that there was no single agency or institution providing the necessary financial support, meant that the collection emerged much more slowly and much less systematically than the editors had initially imagined.

As it now stands, The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman comprises twenty-two volumes grouped under seven titles. Each set begins with an introduction by the editor(s), explaining the arrangement of the material and the methodology used in collecting it and suggesting how Whitman students and scholars might use the material. All of the sets are characterized by thorough, detailed annotations offering biographical information and cross references to the poetry or other published work where relevant. Each set reprints a standardized "Chronology of Whitman's Life and Work" as an appendix.

The Correspondence, edited by Edwin Haviland Miller, consists of six volumes, the first five of which are arranged chronologically. The sixth, published eight years after what was thought to be the "final" fifth volume, contains letters that surfaced in the intervening years as well as an index to the whole.

The Early Poems and the Fiction, edited by Thomas L. Brasher, consists of one volume and contains all of Whitman's "pre-Leaves verse and...tales" (xv) published in newspapers and literary magazines in the 1840s, as well as the complete text of Whitman's temperance novel, Franklin Evans.

Prose Works 1892, edited by Floyd Stovall, consists of two volumes, containing "all (except the juvenilia) of the contents of Whitman's final edition of his Complete Prose Works in 1892" (1:vii). Included in the two volumes are Specimen Days & Collect, November Boughs, and the prose portions of Good-Bye My Fancy. Since all of the material in Whitman's 1892 edition had been published previously, Stovall's task was "to record the evolution of the printed text" (1:ix). Notes provide information about the origin of each piece, and each volume concludes with a section containing "Prefaces and Notes Not Included in Complete Prose Works 1892," which provides a fuller context for those excerpts and fragments Whitman cut and pasted together in order to create the original collections. Through the textual notes and appendix Stovall provides "every variant reading of every earlier printed text which Whitman used, in whole or in part, in the 1892 Complete Prose" (1:ix).

Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition, edited by Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley, consists of one volume. The poems are arranged exactly as Whitman indicated he wanted the final version of Leaves of Grass to appear in his note to the 1892 edition. The Comprehensive Reader's Edition also includes Whitman's "uncollected" and "excluded" poems—those which were at one time or other part of Leaves of Grass, but left out of the 1892 edition—as well as the prefaces and "annexes" ("A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads," "Old Age Echoes"). Some manuscript fragments are also included. The Norton Critical Edition of Leaves of Grass is based on the Comprehensive Reader's Edition.

Daybooks and Notebooks, edited by William White, consists of three volumes. The first two contain the complete text of two "Daybooks" Whitman kept between 1876 and 1889, in which for the most part he recorded the names and addresses of people to whom he sent copies of his books, and made notes of letters written and received, money spent and money earned. White explains that "Whitman never really made up his mind what he wanted [the "Daybook"] to be" (1:xxii). For in between the minutiae of his business dealings, Whitman also recorded literary and social activities, notes about "his friendships, his habits, his health, the weather" (1:xii). These books also contain lists of the names of young men (often followed by brief descriptions of their appearance or occupation), which biographers have noted with interest. The third volume edited by White contains the complete text of a diary Whitman kept during a trip to Canada to visit Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke in the summer of 1880, some miscellaneous journals and "autobiographical notes," the entirety of the clippings and notes he made on the English (and sometimes the French) language, and a transcription of the manuscript notes that were edited and published by Horace Traubel in 1904 as An American Primer. This third volume also provides an index to the Daybooks.

Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems, edited by Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White, consists of three volumes. In their preface the editors explain that the Comprehensive Reader's Edition and the Textual Variorum "are complementary volumes." "The Comprehensive Reader's Edition honors the poet's preference" for the 1892 edition. The work of the Textual Variorum "makes explicit the poet's indefatigable struggle to achieve that preference" by enabling the reader to see "a record of how Leaves of Grass developed over the separate editions and impressions spanning thirty-seven years" (1:ix). The editors present each poem in the chronological order in which it first appeared in Leaves of Grass, regardless of its placement in or exclusion from the final edition. The text of each poem, however, is "the poem's latest form in an edition—presumably Whitman's final choice." Notes containing textual variants are "given in strict chronological order from the earliest edition to the last" (1:xix–xx). The editors' introduction recounts the publication history of Leaves and explains the confusion surrounding the number of editions and the status of the "annexes" and "supplements." The Variorum also provides a listing of the chronological order of the poems, a list of all collated editions, supplements, and impressions consulted, and an essay and table tracing the evolution of the cluster arrangements in Leaves of Grass. The title pages and tables of contents from all collated editions, supplements, and imprints are included as illustrations.

The final title in the NYU Collected Writings is the six-volume Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, edited by Edward F. Grier. The manuscripts and notebooks could not be arranged either in "a strict chronological order" or a strictly topical one. Instead, Grier used a combination of these. Part 1, volumes 1–3, "contains material more or less biographical" and is arranged in "loosely chronological" order (1:xix). Part 2, volumes 4–6, "is arranged according to more sharply defined topics, such as Projected Poems, Oratory, Politics, Explanations, and Words, with a considerable chronological range in each category" (1:xix).

Plans for an eighth title bringing together all of Whitman's journalistic writings, edited by Herbert Bergman, were postponed. As Allen explained in 1963, this aspect of the project was perhaps the "most baffling" of all, because of the difficulty of authenticating unsigned editorials and newspaper articles. A good number of these, from the Brooklyn Eagle and the Brooklyn Times, have been published and attributed to Whitman, since they appeared while he was editor at those papers. Bergman's task was to find "some objective means of identifying Whitman's work" (11). At this time, the first two volumes of a projected five are scheduled for publication by Peter Lang Press. These volumes will be bound and printed in the same manner as the New York University editions and published under the auspices of the advisory board of the Collected Writings.


Allen, Gay Wilson. "Editing the Writings of Walt Whitman: A Million Dollar Project Without a Million Dollars." Arts and Sciences 1.2 (1963): 7–12.

Folsom, Ed. "The Whitman Project: A Review Essay." Philological Quarterly 61 (1982): 369–394.

Myerson, Joel, ed. Walt Whitman: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1993.

Whitman, Walt. The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman. Gen. ed. Gay Wilson Allen and Sculley Bradley. 22 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1984.

____. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.

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

____. The Early Poems and the Fiction. Ed. Thomas L. Brasher. New York: New York UP, 1963.

____. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.

____. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. 3 vols. New York: New York UP, 1980.

____. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1984.

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.


Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

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