Selected Criticism

Collectors and Collections, Whitman
Birney, Alice L.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman's work habits ensured that gathering his personal papers would occupy many future generations of collectors and curators. He habitually scribbled on odd scraps of paper, on backs of poetry drafts or envelopes. He kept perhaps hundreds of handmade notebooks containing random thoughts, jotted ideas, or drafts of poetry. He was so involved in the printing, binding, and sales of his volumes that his proofs often bear important holographic corrections, and unique issues of his books might include bound-in manuscript pages or printing plates left over from other editions. He was an avid letter writer, and his vast network of correspondents across the United States, England, and throughout Europe saved thousands of his personal writings. Though most of the papers have been collected and placed in public repositories, many are privately held, or are still surfacing after more than a century.

Collectors, then, begin with Whitman himself—who was photographed in his last years surrounded by his manuscripts scattered over every surface of his bedroom in Camden, New Jersey. He was, however, generous during his lifetime and often handed a manuscript page to a visiting friend, or enclosed one in a letter. By dividing his legacy of literary and personal papers among three different heirs, Whitman almost assured a complex future for his manuscripts, with the involvement of multiple collectors thereafter. In 1892 the books and papers were shared out among the three literary executors: Richard Maurice Bucke, Thomas B. Harned, and Horace L. Traubel. Of these three only the Harned share remains relatively intact. Dr. Bucke's share changed hands several times and was partially dispersed at auction in 1935, but a large portion of it ended up in the Trent Collection at Duke University. Traubel continued to collect, and his share was partially reassembled by Charles E. Feinberg, who arranged for his Whitman collection and the Traubel papers to join the Harned group in the Library of Congress.

Some other early collectors of note were John Burroughs, William W. Cohen, B. Thomas Donaldson, H. Buxton Forman, William F. Gable, Alfred F. Goldsmith, William Sloane Kennedy, Thomas Bird Mosher, John Quinn, William M. Rossetti, Edmund C. Stedman, Gertrude Traubel, Carolyn Wells, and George M. Williamson. The next generations of collectors featured Charles E. Feinberg, Oscar Lion, Harriet Chapman Sprague, and Leonard Levine, among many others all over the world. Each year, new collectors emerge and unknown or long-lost items come to public notice.

A list of the major public repositories of manuscripts, letters, and related papers follows.

1. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540–4780. The largest Whitman repository was begun by Thomas Biggs Harned in 1918 when he deposited his share of the Whitman papers in the capital city where the poet had spent ten important years. The Harned collection numbers approximately three thousand manuscript items alone, including twenty-five notebooks, major sets of correspondence with Anne Gilchrist, James R. Osgood, and T.W.H. Rolleston, and a group of Lincolniana. By the time of a 1955 exhibit at the Library of Congress, the Whitman manuscript holdings had grown to include twenty-seven additional collections, including those of John Burroughs, Charles N. Elliot, George S. Hellman, Hannah Whitman Heyde, Carolyn Wells Houghton, Helen Price, and the Whitman family.

The gift/purchase acquisition of the Charles E. Feinberg collection (approximately twenty-two thousand manuscript items) between 1969 and 1979 gave the Library of Congress the largest Whitman collection in the world. Feinberg donated the famous letter from Emerson to Whitman (1855), the only extant manuscript page from the 1855 Leaves of Grass, as well as commonplace books, notebooks, family and general correspondence, drafts and proofs of prose and poetry, memorabilia, and the papers for early major works about Whitman. The Horace and Anne Montgomery Traubel Papers (including Horace's original diary notes for With Walt Whitman in Camden) and the Gustave Wiksell Papers (largely on the Whitman Fellowship) expand coverage from primary manuscript materials to Whitman friends and followers.

2. Duke University Library, Durham, NC 27706. The Trent Collection features much of Dr. Bucke's share of Whitman's manuscripts which was auctioned in London in 1935. Dr. and Mrs. Josiah C. Trent donated the collection in 1942 and later augmented it to a total of some 650 manuscript items. It includes drafts of and ideas for poems, experiments in prose, notes for essays and lectures, records of literary and cultural studies, autobiographical and travel notes, Whitman letters to friends and associates (including an especially rich William Sloane Kennedy file), letters to the poet from friends and family, manuscripts and drafts of Dr. Bucke's biography of Whitman, and a group of clippings annotated by the poet. The professional papers of Whitman scholar Gay Wilson Allen are in the Jay B. Hubbell Center for American Literary Historiography; dated from 1801 to 1988, they consist of roughly fifty-five hundred items.

3. Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Box 7219, Austin, TX 78712. Among the 575 items of manuscripts, notebooks, correspondence, and other documents are marked proofs for "By the Roadside."

4. New York Public Library, 5th Ave. and 42nd St., New York, NY 10018. In the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature and in the Oscar Lion Collection are approximately 550 manuscripts, letters, and documents, including the poet's famous "Blue Book" copy of the third edition of LG.

5. Special Collections/Manuscripts, Alderman Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22903. Some 322 manuscripts of poems, essays, letters, biographical sketches, and notes are in the Barrett collection. The most notable item is the manuscript for the 1860 edition of LG (microfilmed as M–568).

6. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520. The Van Sinderen collection includes manuscripts formerly in the Donaldson Collection and lists over two hundred items. These include diaries and notebooks as well as correspondence with John Burroughs, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, and others, as well as poetry and other prose.

7. Other significant collections include: John Carter Brown Library, Brown University, Providence, R.I.; Henry E. Huntington Library and Museum, San Marino, Calif.; Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, N.Y.; Charles Patterson Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pa.; William Sloane Kennedy Memorial Collection, Rollins College, Winter Park, Fla.: Ohio Wesleyan University, Delaware, Ohio.

To quote for publication from unpublished manuscripts, permission of the copyright holder is required if the rights have not been clearly dedicated (i.e., put in the public domain). In addition, it is a courtesy to ask the owner of the document for permission and for proper form of citation; some repositories require this permission. The Whitman copyright on unpublished writings would have been inherited by the heirs of Horace Traubel, but that line apparently ended with the disappearance during World War II of his grandson Malcolm.

No comprehensive facsimile edition of Whitman manuscripts exists, but many sections of the major holdings in public repositories have been published by Joel Myerson in The Walt Whitman Archive: A Facsimile of the Poet's Manuscripts (New York: Garland, 1993). This set includes three volumes in six physical books: parts one and two of volume 1 include the poetry portions of the Feinberg/Whitman collection at the Library of Congress (reels 15–19 of L.C. microfilm); part one of volume 2 reproduces much of the collection at Duke University, while part two of this volume shows a portion of the collection at the University of Texas; volume 3 shows the University of Virginia manuscript collection.

Edwin Haviland Miller's edition of Whitman correspondence authoritatively identifies letters to or from the poet and provides location of originals if known. The letters are printed in Miller's The Correspondence of Walt Whitman (New York: New York UP, 1961–1977), 6 vols. The sixth volume of this set is a supplement with a composite index, which should be used with Miller's subsequent publication, The Correspondence of Walt Whitman. A second supplement with a revised calendar of letters written to Whitman (Iowa City: Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, 1991).

Early work in ordering and identifying the fragments of Whitman's prose and poetry manuscripts, including notebooks, was pioneered by Dr. Bucke in his Notes and Fragments (London, Canada: 1899) and augmented by Emory Holloway in The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, Much of Which Has Been But Recently Discovered...(Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, 1921). This was followed by Clifton Joseph Furness in his Walt Whitman's Workshop. A Collection of Unpublished Manuscripts (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1928). Clarence Gohdes and Rollo Silver edited manuscripts of Whitman and his family in Faint Clews and Indirections (Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1949).

Some of the important specific groups of manuscripts receiving editing attention include those in Fredson Bowers's Whitman's Manuscripts: "Leaves of Grass" (1860), A Parallel Text (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955). Arthur Golden's Walt Whitman's Blue Book: The 1860–61 "Leaves of Grass" Containing His Manuscript Additions and Revisions (New York: New York Public Library, 1968), 2 vols., is a facsimile of the book in the Oscar Lion Collection plus a textual analysis. William White edited the commonplace books and some notebooks in Walt Whitman: Daybooks and Notebooks (New York: New York UP, 1978), 3 vols. Edward F. Grier reedited prose texts in Walt Whitman: Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts (New York: New York UP, 1984), 6 vols.

Two major exhibits in 1955, at the Detroit Public Library and at the Library of Congress, marked the centennial of the first edition of Leaves of Grass and produced the catalogues listed below. Some notable exhibits of Whitman manuscripts in recent decades have been presented by the New York Public Library, the John Hay Library of Brown University, and the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center of the University of Pennsylvania.


Berg Collection. Dictionary Catalog of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature. 5 vols. Boston: Hall, 1969. 2 supps., 1975, 1983.

Broderick, John C. "The Greatest Whitman Collector and the Greatest Whitman Collection." Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 27 (1970): 109–128. [Description of the Library's then new Whitman collection and salute to its collector, Charles E. Feinberg]

"Catalog of the Sesquicentennial Exhibit Held in the Library of Congress from May 1969 to January 1970." Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 27 (1970): 171–176. [Exhibit of 200 items from the first installments of the Feinberg collection]

"Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, The" (unpublished finding aid: Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, 1984). [Detailed register of manuscript items, with list of images transferred to Prints and Photographs Division]

Exhibition of the Works of Walt Whitman, An. Detroit Public Library, Detroit, Mich.: February and March, 1955. [Highlights much of what would become the Feinberg-Whitman Collection of the Library of Congress]

"Feinberg-Whitman Collection, The." Library of Congress, Acquisitions, Manuscript Division: 1979. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1981.

Francis, Gloria A., and Artem Lozynsky, comps. Whitman at Auction, 1899–1972. Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1978.

Frey, Ellen Frances. Catalogue of the Whitman Collection in the Duke University Library, Being a Part of the Trent Collection. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Library, 1945. [Reprint: Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat, 1965]

National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, The. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1959–1993.

Robbins, J. Albert, et al., comps. American Literary Manuscripts. 2nd ed. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1977.

Ten Notebooks and a Cardboard Butterfly Missing from the Walt Whitman Papers. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1954. [Four notebooks and the butterfly were returned in 1995.]

Walt Whitman: A Catalog Based Upon the Collections of the Library of Congress. Washington, D.C.: Reference Department, Library of Congress, 1955. [Highlights from the Thomas Harned-Walt Whitman papers and 27 additional Whitman collections in the Library of Congress, on the occasion of the centennial exhibit]


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