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Monochrome profile portrait of elderly Whitman seated
Walt Whitman, c. 1881. Bartlett F. Kenney, photographer. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

New Crowdsourcing Transcription Project in the By the People Walt Whitman Campaign: The Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of Walt Whitman Papers

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This is a guest post by Barbara Bair, historian of Literature, Culture, and the Arts in the Manuscript Division.

On May 23, the Library of Congress By the People (BTP) program launched a third collection as part of the Walt Whitman crowdsourcing transcription campaign: Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of Walt Whitman Papers from the Manuscript Division. This newly added project provides a fresh opportunity for transcription volunteers to engage closely with Whitman’s words in honor of the poet’s May 31 birthday and upcoming Pride Month in June.[1]

The 3,000-plus new items available for transcription and review by BTP volunteers include letters written by and to Whitman, poetry and prose manuscript drafts and fragments, detailed pocket notebooks, essays on many topics, published materials, and miscellany such as calling cards and newspaper and magazine clippings. The items span mainly from 1855, the year Walt Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass, to the poet’s death in 1892. There are substantive materials available for transcription from a broad period of Whitman’s life, especially for volunteers interested in the Civil War and Whitman’s later years in Camden, New Jersey, near Philadelphia.

Thomas Biggs Harned (1851-1921) was a Philadelphia-based attorney. He was born in Camden, and he and Whitman became good friends when the poet made the city his home. Harned served as one of Whitman’s three literary executors. The others were his brother-in-law Horace Traubel (1858-1919), a frequent Whitman companion who authored the multivolume With Walt Whitman in Camden, and the Canadian psychiatrist and Whitman traveling partner Richard Maurice Bucke (1837-1902).[2] Harned warmly welcomed Walt Whitman into his Camden home to share meals and get-togethers with friends. Like their mutual friend, British literary critic and Whitman patron Anne Gilchrist (1828-1885), Harned provided financial support and incorporated Whitman into networks of artists and writers in the region, as well as his own family.[3] Harned was also the principal organizer of Whitman’s burial and memorial service in Camden in 1892.

Handwritten letter
Draft letter, Walt Whitman to Anne Gilchrist, February 8, 1872. Box 3, Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of Walt Whitman Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The Harned-Whitman Papers first came to the Library of Congress as a gift of the Harned estate in 1917-1918. A highlight of the collection is the rich and highly varied set of notebooks and diaries created by Whitman between approximately 1847 and 1885. These reveal the dynamic nature of Whitman’s thinking, the cultural and creative genesis of his writings, and his connections with others over decades in the various places where he worked and lived. In some, Whitman muses upon the nature of the soul, of connection, transformation, and love. He uses others to make notes while in Boston, Brooklyn, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Hospital notebooks stem from Whitman’s time as a frequent visitor to hospitalized Civil War soldiers in Brooklyn and the temporary military hospitals in Washington, D.C. Whitman used the notebooks to jot down observations and record ideas and scenarios he transfigured in new forms in his poetry, journalism, and memoirs. He listed individuals he encountered in the hospital wards along with details about their condition or needs, and he used contact information they gave him to write letters home to their parents or families. He saved the notebooks and utilized them as primary resources to prepare his later memoirs of the war.

Pencil writing on small notebook
Walt Whitman, page from Washington hospital notebook, c. 1863-1864. Box 8, Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of Walt Whitman Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The Harned-Whitman Papers contain a closely related section devoted to the poet’s views on the significance of Abraham Lincoln. Transcribing these documents may be of particular interest to crowdsourcing volunteers who have worked on other Civil War-related collections available through the By the People program. Originally skeptical both of Lincoln and the prospect of war, Whitman came to admire the president once the war began and held hope in the transformations the war promised for the country. Other related items in the collection include portions of Whitman’s Memoranda During the War (1875) and an issue of the Armory Square Hospital Gazette (1864).

When transcribing the poetry and prose drafts in the Harned-Whitman Papers, volunteers will find ample evidence of Whitman’s penchant for constantly reworking, rethinking, and revising his writing. They will also see how his work appeared in print. Correspondence in the collection stems from the postwar period, from 1866 to 1891. It features exchanges with close friends, patrons, and publishers who knew and loved Whitman, including Gilchrist and her children Beatrice and Herbert; the journalist, editor, and biographer William Sloane Kennedy (1850-1929); publishers James R. Osgood (1836-1892) and Benjamin Holt Ticknor (1842-1914); and Thomas Biggs Harned himself.

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[1] See also the closely related digitized Library of Congress collections Charles E. Feinberg Collection of Walt Whitman Papers and Walt Whitman Papers (Miscellaneous Manuscript Collection). Opportunities to transcribe materials in the Feinberg collection continue in the By the People Whitman Campaign.

[2] For published works prepared by Whitman’s three literary executors, see, for example, Thomas B. Harned, ed., Walt Whitman’s Letters to His Mother, 1866 to 1872 (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1902); Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden (Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906); and Richard Maurice Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness (Philadelphia: Innes & Sons, 1901). See also the Horace Traubel and Anne Montgomerie Traubel Papers available for research in the Manuscript Division reading room.

[3] See Thomas B. Harned, ed., Letters of Walt Whitman and Anne Gilchrist (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page, & Co., 1918).

Comments (2)

  1. I might be interested in working in this. Could you outline the process for me—is there training; how does the volunteer get the source material, etc?

    Thanks! Katherine Stevens

  2. Katherine, thank you so much for your interest and your question. We would be so happy for you to participate. All the digitized collection materials are online and available for transcription in the By the People Walt Whitman campaign, and instructions for volunteering are online, too (no additional training needed). Information about how to go about it is available from the By the People crowdsourcing transcription portal through the Library of Congress web site. You can click on the newly added project link in the blog, or go to the By the People home page at https://crowd.loc.gov/ Information about getting started as a volunteer is available at https://crowd.loc.gov/get-started/ and more detail on how to transcribe https://crowd.loc.gov/get-started/how-to-transcribe/ or register to review is also provided https://crowd.loc.gov/get-started/how-to-review/ Right now the Whitman Campaign is featured at the top of the topical list of available transcription campaigns at https://crowd.loc.gov/campaigns-topics/ and you can view the projects in the Whitman Campaign, including the Harned-Whitman materials, here https://crowd.loc.gov/campaigns/walt-whitman/ The By the People crowdsourcing transcription community managers and staff are always happy to help and to address questions. They encourage volunteer transcribathons too, or use of transcription exercises in classrooms. Please see the History Hub portal with questions and answers at https://historyhub.history.gov/crowd-loc/

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