Walt Whitman has been the subject of rigorous study for more than 100 years. Is there anything left to discover? Three former Kluge fellows and scholars of Whitman help to answer the enduring appeal of “America’s poet” and discuss their research at the Library’s Kluge Center.
No one’s work seems to get “discovered” as much as Walt Whitman’s.
In April, a University of Houston doctoral student uncovered a 50,000-word newspaper series written by Whitman under the pen name Mose Velsor. The series includes observations on men’s health, male bodies, sex and proper dieting (apparently Whitman ate paleo).
A month earlier, a letter written by Whitman on behalf of a dying solder was discovered by a volunteer searching through Civil War pension applications.
And in December 2014, Wendy Katz, an associate professor of art history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found a poem by Whitman in the Library of Congress newspaper collections: an ode to William Cullen Bryant signed simply, “W.W.”
Whitman is not the only canonical author whose body of work is bolstered by new discoveries. Yet only Whitman’s seems to make national headlines. With the announcement earlier this year that the Library of Congress Whitman manuscripts are now online, part of the largest archive of Whitman materials anywhere in the world, more scholarship and discoveries are bound to be made. But what is left to uncover about the man who has been tirelessly studied for more than 100 years? Three former Kluge fellows and scholars of Whitman help answer what remains to be learned about “America’s poet.”
From Humble Beginnings
Karen Karbiener is Clinical Assistant Professor of Liberal Studies at New York University. A scholar of Whitman, she is also a Whitman enthusiast. She discovered Whitman in graduate school, in a class on Whitman and Dickinson. “I fell in love with the poetry first,” she recalls, “its energy, urgency, expansiveness, and intimacy.” As a New Yorker, she also wondered why this great New York writer had hitherto not been part of her education. She set out to make a career studying Whitman’s work. For the past thirteen years she has led the annual “Song of Myself” Marathon, where readers recite favorite passages in view of New York Harbor. She refers to him as “Walt.”
We know Whitman as an urbanite: the Brooklynite, the New Yorker, the ferry passenger on the East River. But, at heart, Whitman was a farm boy. For her 2009 Kluge Fellowship, Karbiener researched at the Library of Congress the man who rose from obscurity in the Long Island countryside to become America’s poet. Whitman was a country bumpkin; he was born in a log cabin surrounded by a wooden fence. There was a cider mill and a family farm. There were hills, cows and trees. He was a grammar school dropout. His first job was as a traveling school teacher. According to Karbiener, rural Long Island was an essential part of who he was.
As a young man he moved to Brooklyn, then the seventh largest city in the country, where he worked as a journalist and newspaper editor. He published his first poems at the age of 20, but for the most part his life as a young man was that of an anonymous migrant, a second-rate literary man, ambling through the city trying to make ends meet.
The South American writer Jorge Luis Borges once said that “Leaves of Grass is one of the most important events in the history of literature.” That now-seminal event occurred with little fanfare in 1855, when Whitman published a collection of twelve unnamed poems with a preface titled “Leaves of Grass“. The following year, he published a revised edition with 32 poems. The style and language caught the notice of Henry David Thoreau, then an emerging writer who had recently published “Walden.” In 1856, Thoreau and Whitman met on a Brooklyn esplanade and presented each other with a copy of their works. Whitman recorded the event on the flyleaf of Thoreau’s “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers”:
“Thoreau call’d upon me in Brooklyn 1856 and upon my giving him L of G first edition–gave me this volume–We had a two hours talk + walk. I liked him well–I think he told me he was busy at a surveying job I own on Staten Island. He was full of animation-seemed in good health-looked very well.–W.W.”
In 1860 a Boston publisher issued a third version of “Leaves of Grass.” Though the work received some praise, Whitman was still not a commercial success. He was struggling financially. Save a brief stint in New Orleans, he had never left New York.
Then the war came.
The War Years
Lindsay Tuggle is a poet and literary scholar based at The University of Sydney, Australia, who grew up in Alabama and Kentucky. As a child she was fascinated by the Civil War. As a scholar, her attention turned to Whitman, and how he thought about death, dying, corpses and the afterlife through the war—phenomena Whitman witnessed firsthand.
Whitman’s movements during the Civil War have been well-documented. Initially traveling to Fredericksburg to search for his brother George, Whitman relocated to Washington and made nearly 600 hospital visits visiting tens of thousands of wounded soldiers. He developed personal relationships with many of them. He wrote letters home for those too ill or physically disabled to write. He kept watch over the dying. He raised money to bring needed provisions to the men and carried a haversack filled with food and supplies: crackers, peaches, preserves, tea, oysters, tobacco, brandy, stamps, envelopes and note paper, fresh underwear and handkerchiefs, socks, and the morning papers.
What we did not know until recently was Whitman’s connections to surgeon John H. Brinton, founding curator of the Army Medical Museum. As a Kluge Fellow in 2012, Tuggle uncovered in the Library of Congress correspondence between Whitman and Army Medical Museum staff in the years following the war, and evidence of a direct connection between Whitman and the museum. In the Library’s Thomas Harned Whitman Collection, Tuggle found an untitled draft poem that Whitman composed about observing an amputation in a Civil War hospital. She also discovered a fragment of an unpublished poem about human skeletal remains that almost certainly relates to specimens at the Army Medical Museum.
Whitman and Brinton led parallel lives during the war, according to Tuggle. Both arrived at Falmouth, Virginia, in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Fredericksburg. Both frequented the Washington hospitals. Whitman spent the majority of his waking hours caring for wounded soldiers. Brinton recruited hospital surgeons to collect examples of unusual injuries and amputations. On August 1, 1862, Brinton was ordered to establish the Army Medical Museum. This was the beginning of a collection that would incorporate thousands of Civil War remains, many of which are still on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. While the practice of embalming would have been repulsive to many antebellum mourners, Tuggle says, the war ushered in a collective desire to preserve the corpses of fallen soldiers. Whitman’s transformation in thoughts on death and dying took place within a zeitgeist of changing attitudes towards the same.
Skeletal remains from at least four of Whitman’s soldiers became artifacts in the Army Medical Museum. All were submitted by Dr. D. Willard Bliss, Chief Surgeon at Armory Square whom Whitman described as “one of the best surgeons of the Army.” Bliss, in turn, praised Whitman for his devotion to soldiers: “No one person who assisted during the war accomplished so much good to the soldier and for the government as Mr. Whitman.” Did Whitman know the limbs of these soldiers were to be displayed in the museum? Did he visit them there? Those remain open questions. But we do know that the stories of these soldiers’ bodies intersected with both men: “nursed by Whitman in life, curated by Brinton in death,” as Tuggle says. And according to Tuggle, we know that Whitman had a role in the evolving cultural understandings of the body as an object of posthumous discovery.
The post-war years brought Whitman companionship, employment, fame, ill health and the foundation for his posthumous legacy.
Companionship arrived in the form of Peter Boyle, an Irish streetcar conductor with whom Whitman had a romantic friendship. Employment was provided by the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior. Fame came from his continued writing, which earned him greater and greater recognition. Ill health came in 1873, when he suffered a stroke and relocated to Camden, New Jersey. His death in 1892 was front page news; the headline in the Sacramento Record-Union read: “THE VENERABLE POET JOINS THE SILENT MAJORITY.”
In the preface to the 1876 edition of “Leaves of Grass,” Whitman wrote, “Finally as I have lived in fresh lands, inchoate, and in a revolutionary age, future-founding, I have felt to identify the points of that age, these lands, in my recitatives, altogether in my own way.” In 2011, Sascha Poehlmann came to the Kluge Center as a Bavarian Fellow to understand what Whitman meant by “future-founding.” Poehlmann is Associate Professor of American Literary History at Ludwig-Maximilians Universitat Munchen, in Munich. Poehlmann first discovered Whitman while searching for ways to participate in a research group on the 19th century. He picked up a copy of “Leaves of Grass” wondering if there might be something about beginnings in it, he recalled, and soon found out that this was like reading “Moby-Dick” looking for something about whales. As he spent more time with Whitman’s texts, he realized he could spend decades unpacking them. When reached by email for this article, Poehlmann was in Exeter, England, taking part in International Whitman Week 2016 as a faculty member.
“Future-founding poetry is poetry that aims to actively mark and perform a beginning that is relevant to a combined imagination of both present and future,” Poehlmann wrote in an email. For Poehlmann, it is a poetry that is about beginnings, but that also marks a beginning. “My argument is that Whitman is the beginner of a continuum of future-founding poetry in American literature, which includes William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Muriel Rukeyser, and Allen Ginsberg,” Poehlmann said.
Whitman was about beginnings. Even as he reprinted “Leaves of Grass,” each version contained fresh poetry. Poehlmann suggested “Leaves” was the appropriate open-ended project to correspond to the open-ended, future-oriented work in progress that was America. Or perhaps it was simply good marketing. But even in his final years, Whitman was not solely looking back but looking ahead, “leading the present with friendly hand toward the future.” Poehlmann noted that critics have decried Whitman for being a permanent deferralist: greatness—for himself, for America—was always just around the corner. Was that just building cloud castles? Or was he knowingly setting a framework for a better future? One could argue he laid the future for American poetry, American literature, perhaps even America itself. “He went to great aesthetic lengths to ensure that he speaks to each new generation of his readers,” Poehlmann said. “He tried to ensure that his poetry would always be timely whenever it is read in the future.”
An Enduring Fascination
Whitman remains a writer of enduring fascination. Most obvious are his words: intoxicating, unusual, dense, startling even today. Whitman was a gifted spinner of language and a pioneer of form.
There is also the time and place within which Whitman came of age: the Civil War. As Whitman is to American literature, the Civil War is to American history. That such a fascinating man lived during such a fascinating period makes for a powerful combination.
Then there is the man: the beard, the hat, the photographs. During his lifetime, Whitman consciously constructed a persona; the most photographed man in America, he shrewdly used photography in ways that were novel in the 1860s but we take for granted today. Karbiener agrees that his cultivated image contributes to his endurance. “His image is recognizable and still marketable,” Karbiener says. “And that famous frontispiece image of Walt Whitman in 1855—in his classic streetwear of rumpled chinos, easy button-down and glimpse of undershirt, with hat cocked, hands in pockets, eyes directly in contact with yours—still has immediate impact. You can actually hear him say, ‘I stop somewhere waiting for you.’” We can only imagine what he might have done with the selfie and Instagram. For those reasons he may feel particularly resonant in our current moment.
For Poehlmann, it is Whitman’s contradictions that continue to fascinate him. “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then . . . . I contradict myself; / I am large . . . . I contain multitudes,” Whitman wrote in the first edition of “Leaves of Grass.” “It is impossible to reduce the complexity of his work to a single dominant meaning,” Poehlmann said. “Whatever you find in Whitman, you’ll probably also find the very opposite. His work speaks of many, if not all the contradictions of 19th-century America, and perhaps of American Modernity in general. They are not resolved but exposed in all their tension.”
There is also something about “Walt” that remains strikingly human—a photograph of him at the end of his life, surrounded by a mess of papers, is remarkable for how ignoble it is. Whitman feels accessible. He invites us in. He has prepared us for the very act of reading his words. He promises to remain a subject of enduring fascination.
Learn more about Karen Karbiener’s work here
Learn more about Sascha Pölhmann’s work here
The Library of Congress holds the largest archive of Walt Whitman materials anywhere in the world. A helpful starting point is here, created by Digital Reference Specialist Peter Armenti.
December 7, 2016 – The original version of this article incorrectly described Sascha Pohlmann’s initial encounter with “Leaves of Grass.” The experience was not similar to that of reading “Moby Dick”; when Pohlmann picked up “Leaves” and thought, ‘I wonder if there is anything about beginnings in here,’ he stated that was equivalent to picking up Moby Dick and wondering if there might be something about whales in it.