Sifting Through Archives and Snooping Through Desks

Walt Whitman, 1883 ,by Unidentified photographer, Albumen silver print, 14.3 cmx10.1 cm, National Po

A remarkable archival find came to light in mid-April, when Kenneth Price—professor of American literature at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and co-director of The Whitman Archive—announced that while researching in a National Archives vault in Washington D.C., he came upon approximately three thousand previously unknown documents that were written by the poet Walt Whitman when he worked as a government clerk between 1864 and 1874.

Whitman took jobs as a copyist and scribe to earn money while to support his work as a poet. The material Price found came from the records of the attorney general’s office, where Whitman worked after he was fired from a similar job in the Indian Bureau of the Department of the Interior. His dismissal there came after Secretary of the Interior James Harlan, found a copy of Leaves of Grass either on or in Whitman's desk while snooping through the building after hours. According to an entry in The Whitman Archive, “Since Whitman was in the process of editing poems for subsequent editions, Harlan found numerous underlined, amended, and marked off passages. Curious, he carried it back to his office. Upon further reading, he declared the book obscene and its author immoral,” which prompted Harlan to discharge Whitman the following day.

According to a report published in the The Guardian, Prof. Price thinks this new material in Whitman’s hand—dealing with issues such as the rise of Ku Klux Klan, the westward spread of the railroads, and the trial of Jefferson David, President of the Confederacy—will shed light on Whitman’s ideas about democracy and his writing. "This was an age of high hopes but also big problems, and Walt Whitman was there in the thick of it," Price commented. It’s hard to say, in hindsight, whether Whitman was responsible in any way for the content of the materials he handled or transcribed, but Price feels that future biographers will need to consider how the information Whitman was exposed to may have impacted his intellectual and literary evolution.

In this short video and the video above, Price describes what it felt like to strike archival gold and uncovers what’s long gone unseen. And if you’re interested in getting a very different perspective on Walt Whitman and visibility, read this fascinating piece that Leo Braudy, a scholar of celebrity, wrote about Whitman’s relationship to fame and photography for the Smithsonian Photography Initiative’s project, click! photography changes everything.

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