The Evolution of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!”

This post was written by Cheryl Lederle, Barbara Bair and Victoria Van Hyning of the Library of Congress.

Whitman portrait in “The Sleepers” ( 1855 ), corrected pages

The poet Walt Whitman revised almost everything he wrote, sometimes over and over. He often drafted his poems on odd scraps of available paper or bits of envelopes that he later pasted together, or in notebooks he carried in his pocket. Many poems started as just a jotted idea, a title, or a few trial lines.

The Library of Congress houses the largest archival collection of Walt Whitman materials in the world, all of which have are now available online. Seeing portions of Whitman’s poems in various stages of composition reveals both his very active creative mind and his innovative ways of seeing the world and crafting poetic expressions.

For example, present students with this early draft of a familiar Walt Whitman poem and allow time for them to examine the layers of crossed out and replaced words. Invite them to focus on one set of changes and speculate on what effect the poet is achieving with the revisions.

“O Captain! My Captain!” (1865), draft

O Captain! My Captain! printed copy with corrections, 1888

In the first stanza, Whitman crosses out the word “we” and replaces it with “I.” Ask students: How might this change the way that you experience the poem? How much does it change the meaning? Direct students to consider other revisions to the draft, asking the same questions.

Then, present students with the printed copy with corrections and again allow time for them to study and reflect on the revisions. Ask them to compare the two items: In addition to the word choices, students might consider the format; that one is handwritten and the other is printed; and order of stanzas.

Walt Whitman wrote “Oh Captain! My Captain!” to honor Abraham Lincoln after the President was assassinated in 1865. “Oh Captain!” became one of Whitman’s most well-known poems and was included in many anthologies, but in many ways it is atypical of Whitman’s poetic style, which was typified by his use of free verse and long lines that spill into two lines on the printed or handwritten page. Compare this memorial poem with some of the fragments and longer works in the collection.

The Library’s crowdsourcing initiative “By the People” will launch a campaign April 24 to enlist the public to help transcribe more than 121,000 pages of Whitman’s writings and papers to make them more searchable and accessible online. Documents selected for transcription will include samples of Whitman’s poetry, prose and correspondence, including versions of poems such as “Oh Captain! My Captain!” and fragments of poems Whitman published in more finished form in “Leaves of Grass.”

This is also a special opportunity for teachers and students to engage with Whitman’s creative process. Drafts and portions of his poems at various stages of composition reveal his active, creative mind, as well as his innovative ways of seeing the world and wordsmithing poetic expressions.

The Library will collaborate with the National Council of Teachers of English to host a Transcribe-a-Thon webinar on April 24 at 4 p.m. Eastern time. The one-hour event will bring together experts from the Library, NCTE, and educators to discuss how students can analyze, transcribe, review and tag the Whitman papers. Registration is open to all and available here.

Let us know in the comments what surprises your students or what they discover!

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