In Electric Discovery, Scholar Finds Trove of Walt Whitman Documents in National Archives

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Walt Whitman (1819-92), best known as a poet, had an underappreciated career as a government bureaucrat whose clear handwriting was especially valued.
April 12, 2011

A huge collection of government documents handwritten by Walt Whitman when the poet was a federal clerk has been unearthed. The find, announced on Tuesday by the National Archives, gives scholars a detailed guide to the national and political issues—such as war crimes, voting rights, and westward expansion—that Whitman encountered in Washington during the Reconstruction era. The documents also bring to life an underappreciated side of the poet: his life and work as a bureaucrat.

Kenneth M. Price, a professor of English and co-director of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, uncovered the 3,000 or so documents over the last couple of years at the Archives. David S. Ferriero, the archivist of the United States, described the find as "an astonishing discovery," one that will help scholars understand Whitman's post-Civil War creative work and his nonfiction writings on democracy—Democratic Vistas, for example. The announcement was timed to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the day shots were fired on Fort Sumter, in South Carolina, in the opening hostilities of the Civil War.

Whitman moved to Washington in 1863, in the middle of the war, and stayed for a decade. He took low-level jobs as a government clerk to support himself. From 1865 to 1873, he worked in the attorney general's office. The recently identified documents consist of copies of official correspondence, many written into so-called letter books that served as a record of official business.

"Whitman's work as a clerk has received surprisingly little attention from biographers," Mr. Price said. "When scholars have described his government work, they suggest he took things casually, sauntered into work when he wanted to, put in a few hours, and left when he felt like it." That leaves the wrong impression, the scholar said. "The evidence I've collected paints a very different picture. He worked steadily and produced a prodigious amount of material"—as the recent find makes clear. Government workers, take heart: One of America's most influential literary figures found his federal work engaging and thought well of many of his fellow bureaucrats, according to Mr. Price.

The attorney general's office was a smaller operation in the 1860s and 1870s. Mr. Price said the post was a half-time job until the Civil War. As part of a small staff, Whitman would have been closely involved with the work. He was valued in the office for his clear handwriting, according to Mr. Price, and probably for his intellectual abilities as well. (The scholar said that Whitman reserved his neatness for his government output; his literary manuscripts are far messier.)

Literary and Clerical Lives

It's hard to tell from the documents themselves what authorial contributions the poet made to them. Letters are signed with the names of higher-ranking officials, but he may well have pitched in as an adviser or ghostwriter, Mr. Price said. "In Washington, Whitman was an actor near the epicenter of government efforts to reshape the nation in the aftermath of war," he said.

Some of the documents cover routine business. But many deal with major Reconstruction-era issues: voting rights, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, war crimes and treason, railroads and westward expansion, and international copyright law (as it related to the work of another poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow). Mr. Price quoted another scholar who, in the late 1990s, argued that the Whitman of Reconstruction "has yet to be fully scrutinized" by researchers. The evidence of the letter books gives them a huge amount of fresh documentation to work with. "We can now pinpoint to the exact day when he was thinking about certain issues," Mr. Price said.

The Nebraska scholar pointed out that, for Whitman, office and creative life overlapped. "At times, Whitman used his office address as his literary postal address, and he worked in the office at night" because it was a warm and well-lit place well stocked with writing supplies, Mr. Price said.

It was through the patronage of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "who recommended him on literary and patriotic grounds," that Whitman got a government gig in the first place. (He also lost an earlier clerkship at the Bureau of Indian Affairs because the secretary of the interior considered Leaves of Grass to be immoral.) "During his Washington years, Whitman's literary and clerical lives regularly occurred in the same physical locations and no doubt out of related emotional and psychological circumstances," Mr. Price observed.

Although most of the documents don't bear Whitman's name or initials, Mr. Price has no doubt they're Whitman's work. He has spent a lot of time with Whitman's handwriting. He co-directs the Walt Whitman Archive, a long-term digital project to gather all of Whitman's writings, and has worked for 15 years editing those works.

Knowing of the writer's government service, Mr. Price made an exploratory trip to the National Archives, with the hope that he might turn up four or five documents in Whitman's distinctive script. "I began to get bleary-eyed as I turned over hundreds of documents and found nothing," he recalled. Then he turned a page, "and there it was—an entire page in Whitman's hand." He described the moment as "electrifying and tremendously exciting." More pages in other clerks' writing followed, then a string of Whitman-scripted pages. "I was astonished to find several hundred documents that first day," Mr. Price said. Subsequent trips to Washington produced hundreds more, and there are probably many more waiting to be found.

As many as 2,000 of the Whitman documents will be digitized and published later this year, with the help of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. The Whitman Archive has also received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, most recently to help it publish all of Whitman's Civil War-era writings.

As for Mr. Price, he planned to spend Tuesday afternoon at the National Archives facility in College Park, Md., hunting through more Reconstruction-era records from the attorney general's office. He sounded confident that the day's work would turn up still more Whitman documents.