The Process of Discovery: How a New Walt Whitman Poem was Found at the Library of Congress

Walt Whitman enthusiasts were treated to a surprise last December when news broke that Wendy Katz, an associate professor of art history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, had discovered a new poem by Whitman. The poem, titled “To Bryant, the Poet of Nature,” was uncovered by Katz in May 2014 as she examined penny press newspapers in the Library of Congress’s Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room while a Fellow in Residence at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Appearing on page 2 of the June 23, 1842, issue of the Democratic Republican New Era, the poem was found serendipitously by Katz while conducting research for a forthcoming art history book, The Politics of Art Criticism in the Penny Press, 1833-1861.

"To BRYANT, the Poet of Nature." Democratic Republican New Era, June 23, 1832.

“To BRYANT, the Poet of Nature.” Democratic Republican New Era, June 23, 1832, page 2.

Dr. Katz, who split her time in Washington, D.C., conducting research at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, and the Library of Congress was kind enough to discuss her discovery of the poem in an email exchange with me.

Whereas many recent discoveries of “lost” literary works are due to the increasing availability of keyword-searchable full-text databases that provide access to historical newspaper and periodical content, Dr. Katz found the Whitman poem through a more traditional method:

My typical day [at the Library] really was spent at one of the reading room tables, with foam supports, not browsing, but standing and methodically going through bound newspaper volumes. I would spend 8 to 10 hours or more doing so. I identified volumes through the Library’s online catalog, but had assistance from the Newspaper circulation staff, who often could help me interpret the holdings more precisely.  Since my time in Washington was short, I prioritized bound volumes, on the principle that subscription databases and microfilm “might” be obtainable elsewhere.

Dr. Katz took advantage of the Library’s late evening hours during the week and its Saturday hours to complete her research. She spent the first three months of her time at the Library going through the Library’s nearly complete run of New York’s Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer, noting that it’s “one of the most important and longest-running Whig papers during this period, and as far as I know, not microfilmed or digitized.” Dr. Katz also noted that the paper is “a blanket sheetliterally 3 or 4 feet high and wide,” and that while skimming the pages is difficult, “to do so online or on microfilm would take ten or more times as long, because you could not get anywhere near all of one page’s contents in any particular screen or view.”

After she finished searching the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer, she moved on to papers that had shorter runs, at least in the Library’s collection, reviewing about 35 papers in all. It wasn’t until May, howeverthe final month of her Library researchthat the Democratic Republican New Era attracted her attention. As Dr. Katz describes:

Democratic Republican New Era, June 23, 1832, page 2. "To BRYANT, the Poet of Nature" appears at top of column 4.

Democratic Republican New Era, June 23, 1832, page 2. “To BRYANT, the Poet of Nature” appears at top of column 4.

I had started to find quite a bit of coverage of the arts in the Sunday weeklies that had started off with a Democratic bent to themthe Sunday Dispatch, and Atlas, for example, but also the Mercurymany of them of course became Republican by the 1850s. So that gave me a particular interest in the newspapers in that ‘circle’but I was also trying hard to work through some of the newspapers that like the New Era had only a relatively few issues in the [Library’s] collection, to see if I could get a feel for whether they would be productive sources and should be pursued. But I didn’t single the New Era out in advance, or have particular hopes for it.

Her hopes changed dramatically on May 22, at about 8 p.m., when she came across the poem “To Bryant, the Poet of Nature,” written by “W.W.” Even though the author’s full name wasn’t given, she had little doubt the poem was by Whitman:

Since I really do go through the newspapers page by page, I had noticed in earlier issues mentions (usually praising his work) of Whitman, first by Levi Slamm, and then by Parke Godwin. So when the “W.W.” poem appeared shortly after one of these comments, I was pretty immediately sure that it must be by him. Though nothing in the composition or language of the poem was recognizable to me as Whitman per se, the subjectBryant, who I knew he admired, but also the idea of a poet’s famealso pointed toward Whitman, for me. As did the fact that I knew he had edited a Democratic paper himself so had contacts and patronage within those circles.

Despite Dr. Katz’s certainty, her husband, the Whitman scholar Kenneth Price, “with his track record of identifying some 3000 Whitman documents in the National Archives,” was initially more skeptical. He was eventually swayed by Katz’s arguments, which were published in the Fall 2014 issue of Walt Whitman Quarterly Review (“A Newly Discovered Whitman Poem about William Cullen Bryant“).

When I asked Dr. Katz about the contributions of Library staff to her research, she offered words of praise for employees in the Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room:

I worked most closely with the circulation staff, who helped me identify the bound volumes I needed, which sometimes weren’t where I thought they were. They were really wonderful; thoughtful, always helpful, interested in my work, with a really good balance between keeping the materials accessible to researchers and making sure that best practices for conservation were in place.

The Library of Congress, as the largest library in the world and home to millions of books, serials, and manuscripts not readily available (or not available at all) through other institutions, is sure to be the home of future literary discoveries by researchers as dedicated as Dr. Katz. If you’re interested in coming to the Library to conduct literary research, please let us know; we’ll be thrilled to help you prepare for your visit.


 “To BRYANT, the Poet of Nature.” [Transcription]

Let Glory diadem the mighty dead
Let monuments of brass and marble rise
To those who have upon our being shed
A golden halo, borrowed from the skies,
And given to time its most enduring prize;
For they but little less than angels were:
But not to thee, oh! nature’s OWN, we should
(When from this clod the minstrel-soul aspires
And joins the glorious band of purer lyres)
Tall columns build: thy monument is here
For ever fixed in its eternity
A monument God-built! ‘Tis seen around
In mountains huge and many gliding streams
Where’er the torrent lifts a melancholy sound,
Or modest flower in broad savannah gleams.

W.W.

 

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