The Walt Whitman Archive – Price 4
Kenneth M. Price
4What other issues or questions relating to The Walt Whitman Archive most intrigue you?
Kenneth M. Price
Co-Director, The Walt Whitman Archive Hillegass University Professor of American Literature – University of Nebraska-Lincoln
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 At the Whitman Archive we recently have focused on two aspects of Whitman’s work: 1) what we call his scribal documents—the letters Whitman copied or drafted for others and the notes and summaries he drafted as a clerk in federal government offices; 2) Whitman’s crossing of international boundaries as seen in translations and in the remaking of “Whitman” as his work is absorbed into other cultural, literary, and political traditions. In what follows I discuss these new developments to illustrate how the Whitman Archive continues to unfold to reveal new layers for development. After more than fifteen years, the Whitman Archive still intrigues me daily—whether it is Whitman’s writings, the people and processes which bring these texts to the public, the way we make them available, or what we (and others) may be able to do with them in the future. I conclude with a consideration of the long-term viability of our project and the crucial matters of funding and open access.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 For the past two years I have been studying Whitman’s scribal documents and his time in Washington, DC (1863-1873) during and following the Civil War. Whitman worked for the Army Paymaster’s office, for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (part of the Department of the Interior), and for the Attorney General’s office. When I first went to Washington to look for documents in Whitman’s handwriting that might have been preserved in the records of these offices, I hoped to find perhaps a half dozen items in the National Archives; seven trips later, I have found close to 3,000.[ref]This research was prompted in part by the Whitman Archive’s recent grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Historical Publications and Records Commissions to edit Whitman’s literary works and correspondence from the Civil War and Reconstruction era. These documents are now being transcribed and should be fully available within the next two years.[/ref] Thus far, all of the items are from the Attorney General’s Office. These scribal documents are crucial for understanding Whitman’s Washington years, his position in this particular office, and the influence of this work upon his literary development.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 One document in Whitman’s handwriting, on an envelope of the Attorney General’s Office, says in its entirety:
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Memoranda
pardon applicants Sept 8-9 -1865
also the negro-suffrage
also position of the President
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The stationery might suggest that these are notes Whitman made to himself about work in the Attorney General’s office. But are they, and how can we know? Perhaps they are notes about issues Whitman wanted to consider as he was composing “Democratic Vistas.” After all, anyone who has worked with Whitman manuscripts knows that many of his letters and literary manuscripts were written on this type of office stationery and other repurposed pieces of paper. I draw attention to this document not because it is the most powerful of the scribal documents (if it is one[ref]It may be significant that this document was not found where most of the scribal documents have been discovered, in the National Archives, but instead in the Charles E. Feinberg collection at the Library of Congress.[/ref]). I highlight it, in fact, because of its liminal status: we can not determine whether this is a literary or a scribal document, a document written for Whitman’s own purposes or for the purposes of others. As such, it challenges in a useful way the boundaries between literary and scribal documents.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Imagining a firm wall dividing these areas of life for Whitman is misleading. At times, Whitman used his office address as his literary postal address, and he worked in the office at night (the heat and lighting were important benefits). Moreover he first gained his clerkship with the help of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who recommended him on literary and patriotic grounds.[ref]See the letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Salmon P. Chase, 10 January 1863 available at http://whitmanarchive.org/biography/correspondence/cw/tei/nar.00002.html[/ref] And it was because Whitman’s Blue Book (his personal and very heavily revised copy of the third edition of Leaves of Grass) was found at his government desk that he lost his job at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. James Harlan, Secretary of the Interior, judged the book to be immoral, though Whitman’s allies staunchly defended it and helped him to secure a new post in the Attorney General’s office. 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.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 One of the challenges in studying the scribal documents is to figure out what impact Whitman’s work in a series of low-level government positions had on his creative life. To date, critics have almost entirely ignored his ten years of labor in Washington offices. How should we understand and treat the scribal documents? In most cases Whitman acted not as author but as a conduit for the words and thoughts of others. Thus, it could be argued that these documents should not be featured in an archive centrally concerned with Whitman’s writings. If his intellectual contributions to scribal documents are unclear and likely minimal, perhaps these documents should be excluded altogether from the Whitman Archive, or at least not prioritized.[ref]It is not clear yet—we need more time to study this trove of documents—how exactly the Attorney General’s office functioned. Did Whitman merely transcribe a clean copy from a draft written by someone else? Did he sometimes generate the letter based on an outline of points provided by another, or based on comments made in conversation to him? Certainly some of those who supervised him recognized his intellectual capacities. James Speed, for example, sought Whitman’s aid when he prepared an oration dedicating a bust of Abraham Lincoln.[/ref] It could be further argued that we should concentrate our finite time on making available additional known Whitman-authored documents (e.g., his journalism or short stories or novel, Franklin Evans). On the other hand, the scribal documents are potentially more revealing to scholars than such Whitman-authored documents, both because of the quantity of information and because the scribal documents were previously altogether unknown. Scholars may lack perfect access to Whitman’s journalism, short stories, and novel, but they do have reasonably good access for the time being. The same is not true for the scribal documents, and, if the Whitman Archive does not work on these materials, they are likely to remain buried, unavailable to enrich future biographical and critical studies.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Whitman’s experiences in Washington offices have rich implications. In Washington, Whitman was an actor near the epicenter of government efforts to reshape the nation in the aftermath of war. [ref]Rosemary Graham mistakenly argues that “for the most part . . . Whitman spent these postwar years as an observer.” See “Attorney General’s Office, United States,” in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland, 1998).[/ref] In his day job as an anonymous clerk, he and others in the office of the Attorney General dealt with postwar experiments with civil rights, war crimes, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, battles over land claims in the west, and an assortment of other matters. He treated closely related matters while revising Leaves of Grass and drafting his probing cultural analysis “Democratic Vistas.” His network of friendships in Washington offices also shaped his ability to get government jobs and to advance his literary career. For example, Whitman sent a copy of his “Proud Music of the Sea-Storm,” published in the Atlantic Monthly in February 1869, to an acquaintance named Julius Bing,[ref]Julius Bing (dates unknown) served as the clerk of the Joint Select Committee on Retrenchment in 1867 and 1868 and ghostwrote the 1868 report “Civil Service of the United States” before being appointed diplomatic agent for Crete later that year. A major advocate for reform of the Civil Service, Bing wrote a series of articles on the civil service for the North American Review and Putnam’s Magazine in 1867-1868. For more on Bing, about whom little is known, see Art Hoogenboom, Outlawing the Spoils: A History of the Civil Service Reform Movement 1865-1883 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1968), especially 40-49.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Although Whitman must have sent at least one letter to Bing, since Bing thanked Whitman for sending a copy of the Atlantic Monthly that included Whitman’s “Proud Music of the Sea-Storm” (the poem was published in the February 1869 issue of the magazine), no additional correspondence between Bing and Whitman has been identified to date.[/ref] a clerk of the Joint Select Committee on Retrenchment in 1867 and 1868. In response, Bing wrote a lengthy letter urging Whitman to write a poem about the Child Crusades. The poem was attempted by Whitman but never realized as such (Whitman’s notes on the topic and trial lines can be found in the Thomas B. Harned Collection of the Library of Congress). To the best of my knowledge, this aborted poem has not received any critical commentary, but I think it is well worth study because it is a rare instance of Whitman, in effect, collaborating on a poem, and it also shows him addressing an international issue of the remote past, but one with continuing resonance in his time and in our own.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The scribal documents also help shed light on Whitman’s increasing interest in international issues in his later writings—his work in the Attorney General’s office meant that he, quite literally, had his hand in international incidents involving Canada, Mexico, Ireland, France, Britain, Spain, China, and many other countries. The Whitman Archive recently has focused increasingly on international issues in more direct ways, too. Since most people in the world first encounter Whitman in a language other than English we are attempting to better serve that audience. We currently provide translations of Whitman’s work into German, Spanish, and Russian; translations into Ukrainian, Portuguese, and Yiddish are far along in development. In addition, we are in conversation with scholars about expanding our work into Chinese, Polish, Italian and other languages soon. It is fascinating to see what happens to Whitman when he crosses linguistic and cultural borders and becomes absorbed in another milieu. This interaction often illuminates both the hosting cultural tradition as it comes to terms with Whitman as well as the ways that American audiences have interpreted Whitman’s works.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 One of the strengths of the Archive, related to the digital nature of our work, is the ever-evolving team that has built and continues to build the project. The Whitman Archive has become a training ground and laboratory for the next generation of literary scholars and digital humanists. The staff of the Whitman Archive—largely made up of graduate students—get hands-on experience and serve as apprentices of sorts. These graduate students serve as assistant editors and often attain positions of considerable responsibility within the project. I have been delighted by the diverse career paths our “alumni” have taken: one has gained a faculty position in a library; another works at the vice-chancellor level at a major university in an information technology role; some have gained tenure track positions at research-oriented institutions; others are employed at digital centers in various roles. Collectively they have demonstrated a range of ways to succeed professionally; their lives offer hope in a time of difficult job prospects in the humanities.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Although the creation of the Whitman Archive—a vast and still rapidly growing resource—has cost a great deal of money, we are able to make it freely available. One of the strengths of the Archive, then, stems from success in garnering local support from several key institutions, a steady stream of grant support from four different federal agencies, and donations from various individuals and private foundations. These fundraising efforts culminated in the creation of a permanent endowment to support ongoing editorial work. We realize that this ongoing work could potentially reach far into the future, and we strive to make our work reusable for later scholars (so they can improve upon it) by documenting our practices and decisions. Having an endowment obliges us to think in longer terms than is common for scholars: we have the burden and advantage of a project that should continue well beyond the lives of anyone now working on the Whitman Archive.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 For end users a key advantage of the Whitman Archive is that it makes freely available what would otherwise be difficult, costly, or impossible to access. The nature and extent of our audience are changed profoundly because the Whitman Archive is freely available, changes that are all to the good in my view. Instead of working with a small audience of specialist scholars in mind, we now also consider our large, varied, international audience as well. The importance of open access can hardly be overestimated. For us, open access means more than making content freely available for reading and analysis; it means making content freely available for reuse and repurposing. We willingly share files and have people work with them and reuse them in projects as long as those projects also are open, and they cite the Archive.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Despite what the Walt Whitman Archive has accomplished thus far, we recognize that some features are lacking and that other features should be improved. The current search capability of the Archive is fairly limited and fails to take full advantage of our encoding, a key contribution to Whitman scholarship. Upcoming developments make me optimistic about leveraging the Archive’s rich encoding in more sophisticated ways, however, and experiments in indexing and searching the Archive are ongoing. The text base we’ve developed and continue to develop will lend itself to experimentation—by us and others, and we have rightly spent fifteen years developing the corpus so that it can be read, researched, and used by a variety of audiences employing a range of technologies and methodologies. The Whitman Archive also provides for the study of a new scholarly form, thanks to our documentation including encoding guidelines, history, and essays about the Archive. What seems clear is that the Whitman Archive is one of a group of projects that are demonstrating how the print-based monumental scholarly edition can be reimagined and advanced in the form of an electronic archive.
I love these insights about Whitman’s scribal documents. One of the things I’ve enjoyed so much about listening to you and Ed Folsom talk and write about your work on the Whitman Archive is that you’ve discovered so many interesting things in the process of trying to collect material for the site. I’m thinking of Folsom’s census of the 1855 Leaves of Grass in particular and your comments about “Debris” at the sesquicentennial symposium at TCNJ. For all the talk of digital humanities scholarship creating new knowledge through the development and use of digital tools, you and Folsom have made so many discoveries through the simple act of trying to collect, catalog, and describe everything for the Archive. My sense is that this collecting, cataloging, and describing is a fundamental aspect of digital archiving, even if it doesn’t feel as digital as, say, a visualization tool. Remediation from print/manuscript to digital involves describing objects in ways we haven’t had to describe them before, and your efforts to describe these objects (again, I’m thinking specifically of “Debris” here) have produced fascinating insights.
What seems clear is that the Whitman Archive is one of a group of projects that are demonstrating how the print-based monumental scholarly edition can be reimagined and advanced in the form of an electronic archive.
It is similarly true, I would posit, that the Whitman Archive is at the forefront of projects that are demonstrating how bricks and mortar archives can be reimagined and perhaps advanced in the form of a digital archive. It is precisely this difference of perspectives that drew me to participating in Archive: A Digital Journal in the first place. Historians, literary scholars, digital humanists, electronic archive editors (who are one or more of the preceding, as well) and archivists viewing the same program or project through our distinct lenses, but then being encouraged to talk amongst ourselves. It is a long overdue idea, one whose long-term significance will probably not appear immediately, but Lauren Coats and the others responsible for Archive: A Digital Journal should be congratulated on having given such conversations a beginning.
Just how major online “archives” of digital facsimiles built around a single author or event will lead to reconfiguring and reimagining bricks and mortar archives is, I regret to say, beyond my ken at the moment—or perhaps more realistically beyond my ability to give serious and sustained thought to the matter. But I can limn one possibility, providing, perhaps, sufficient impetus for others to take up study of this matter. For example, in a 2002 interview Ken Price noted that “Most libraries and other institutions have been supportive and at times quite enthusiastic about our undertaking…. A couple of well-funded private libraries are resistant to having parts of their collections displayed on the web. They are working on a more proprietary and protective model.”
Indeed, Ken here identifies a significant gulf in the archival world, between those archivists and their repositories who are committed to expanding access to and use of their holdings to the widest possible audience on the one hand and those archivists and repositories who hew to an early 20th century notion of the “moral defence” (it comes from a British writer) of archives encompassing a rigorous gatekeeper role for our profession. It is the same tradition whence derives vestigial but still enforced policies that only “qualified scholars” be permitted to have access to a particular repository. Where it intersects the digital 21st century universe, this defensive tradition is adamant about not “losing control” of facsimiles of material in its holdings, regardless of whether the copyright in that material expired decades ago.
The practical grounding of such defensiveness is the concern that repositories would otherwise see their on-site visitation gradually drop to zero, since researchers had access to good-quality copies of the material that once made the repository indispensible. To date statistics suggest just the opposite has been occurring, that the more material is digitized the more on-site statistics increase: because even when an entire collection is digitized and placed on the web, interested researchers still have (or, likely, have for the first time) reason to visit the repository to take advantage of all the corollary collections that have yet to be scanned. The “protective” archives are apt to find themselves and their small portions of otherwise digitized collections increasingly ignored by users both on and off line.
There are, actually, several factors joining to force “proprietary” repositories to re-examine their philosophy and model, but the existence of projects such as the Whitman Archive is part of that confluence. And there are other issues that the Archive will force bricks and mortar repositories to re-examine. One is the tradition of digitizing “gems” and patron requests versus a growing minority of repositories who are turning to digitizing only entire folders and sometimes full series or even entire collections; the Whitman Archive and others like it suggest powerfully that there is a large “market” for organic collections. Less clear is the impact of digital archives on internal allocation of repository resources—what is more important now, digitizing entire collections or acquiring new ones, creating curriculum units to help students interpret sources, or improving capabilities to serve on-site patrons?
If we pay close attention to one another—that is, the on-line archives and the earth-bound repositories—we have some interesting discussions ahead of us. Archive: A Digital Journal will give us a venue for those discussions. I look forward to seeing the journal and the conversations evolve.
 See “History of the Project,” The Walt Whitman Archive, part of the project’s substantial “About the Archive” section.
 See, for example, Mark A. Greene, “Existential Archives: Looking To the Value Propositions of Archives and Special Collections,” paper presented to the joint meeting of the Association of Research Libraries and the Coalition for Networked Information, “An Age of Discovery: Distinctive Collections in the Digital Age, October 2009,” available online at http://www.arl.org/bm~doc/mm09greeneremarks.pdf.
It seems like one of the biggest challenge in designing a database is wrestling with how to handle the narrowness of metadata: in databases, everything must be categorized to a certain extent: what about the items that are not easily assigned? Does it short-change them to categorize them as one thing or another for the sake of consistency within the system? Is it a disservice to both the document and the user to choose clarity over any intriguingly ambiguous qualities that the document might possess? Is it a failure of the database when the material resists its categorization strategy, or can we look at it differently?