The following guest post was written by Barbara Bair, curator of literature, culture, and the arts in the Library’s Manuscript Division.
Launched May 26 in honor of Walt Whitman’s May birthday, a new project of the Library’s By the People Whitman campaign focuses on the diaries and notebooks in the Manuscript Division’s Charles E. Feinberg collection of Walt Whitman Papers.
Ever mindful as a journalist, essayist, autobiographical and freelance writer, critic, and poet, Whitman carried small and often hand-made notebooks with him most places he went. He used them to note everything under the sun, and made them into creative assemblages of his thoughts, observations, and miscellany. The notebooks contain names and places. They provide evidence of Whitman’s thoughts on politics and politicians, the natural sciences and the organic composition of the soil beneath our feet, and the nature of time, death, and eternity.
Whitman wrote in his notebooks about what he observed while on the streets of Washington during the Civil War (the hotels, recently enslaved persons classified in property terms as “contraband” walking up wartime Fourteenth Street, Union soldiers waiting for their pay). He wrote compassionately of the patients he met while volunteering in Civil War hospital wards, and the severity of their condition. He sketched scenarios of the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the haze of camp fires while visiting Union army encampments at Culpeper, of the sun setting behind the U.S. Capitol, and political opinions formed after witnessing proceedings while sitting in the gallery of Congress. Two hospital notebooks contain information that was translated into Whitman’s journalism and poems about the Civil War. Combined with resources from the Whitman-Harned collections, they form a basis of Whitman’s published memoirs about Washington in the war period. The Whitman campaign materials in By the People relate closely to other campaigns of collection items about the Civil War.
Perhaps most importantly, especially for the literary minded, the notebooks reveal Whitman as a wordsmith who was perpetually working at and ruminating upon his writing. They demonstrate the creative behind-the-scenes work of the writer’s craft.
Whitman worked on many concepts that later appeared in published form in Leaves of Grass or in his many prose writings. He jotted down ideas he had for his freelance writing. He compiled figures of speech, turns of phrase, and words and slang he heard spoken or that he had encountered when reading from a variety of sources. He was always working toward utilizing a newer American vernacular in poetry and song (“the New York Bowery boy [says] ‘Sa-a-y’”). Words, too, evoke philosophies. Whitman defined for himself the meanings of words like “microcosm” (“the great whole world”). He imagined a new form of opera that would incorporate American folk song, dialects, and idioms of speech—a concept that would later be manifested in productions like Porgy and Bess, the poems of Sterling A. Brown, or the plays of August Wilson.
He muses upon philosophies of writing and of life, and records titles of books and the authors he’s reading. He thinks about writing a poem about libraries. He suggests to himself poems about American names, letter writing, occupations, artists, singers, musicians, tools found in hardware stores or used in trades, tears, insects and plant life, Indigenous peoples, and the various states. He examines the mandate for equality in light of the perpetual hierarchies created by humankind and figured liberty as something still in the process of being realized. He champions the felon, the prostitute, enslaved people, and those who are dying—imagining kissing them like a benediction upon the lips. He thinks about the nature of personality, of introverts and extroverts, magnetism and ego. He writes of infusing the spirit of joy into poems. He emphasizes the importance of frank talk in poetry about the body, sex and procreation. He gives himself a talking to as a writer, and notes what he thinks poetry should or should not be. Trial lines and concepts that we see Whitman working on in the notebooks became distilled in such poems as “Song of Myself,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” “Proto-Leaf,” “Starting from Paumanok,” “Song of Occupations,” “the Sleepers,” “Song of the Broad-Axe,” “To the States,” and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”
The By the People crowdsourcing transcription process provides volunteers a chance to engage closely with Whitman as he was in effect thinking aloud on the notebook pages and recording information he could turn back to or rework later. They will find that many themes remain evergreen. Whitman writes about caste, and of social hierarchies, and the immorality of slavery and its lasting influence on the body politic. Though he works towards the large-ego “I” first-person form for his poetry, meant to be universal and encompassing of place, time, and a sometimes sweeping diversity of human identity, status, and experience, he also expresses self-doubt as a writer. He asks himself whether he will be exhausted and lazy, or meet the challenge of expectation placed upon him by Ralph Waldo Emerson, in order to goad himself to endeavor to produce work that will rise to Emerson’s call for a new style of American poetry, reflective of transcendence and the non-elite of society.
We ultimately see in the notebooks Whitman achieving what poet Alberto Ríos has called a “rugged pluralism.” That is poetry freed of the parlor and brought out into the neighborhoods and the streets, enlivening and honoring what is witnessed, and dealing and struggling, sometime imperfectly, with major questions. The notebooks show poetry as a live and dynamic and changing thing. In the notebook pages we find seeds of influence and work that have since Whitman’s time continued to grow and expand and entwine more communities in ever more diverse languages and voices. This is happening as writers of increasingly polyglot identities take up the mantle of poetry writing today, and as students in classrooms, and those who are penning their own thoughts and trial lines as they walk down the streets of their city, join poetry slams, and see all around them the poetic, as Whitman did, in animal, vegetable, mineral, Earth, and in the faces of strangers and those passing by.