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Focus on Research: Kenneth M. Price F'08 on Editing Whitman in the Digital Age


ACLS asked its fellows to describe their research: the knowledge it creates and how this knowledge benefits our understanding of the world. We are pleased to present this response from Kenneth M. Price, professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Price_Kenneth_lgLiterary scholar Daniel Aaron argued four decades ago that the Civil War was “unwritten.” For Aaron, American writers failed to produce texts that were commensurate with the magnitude of the sacrifice, suffering, and import of this time of national crisis and redefinition. In recent years, scholars have questioned this conclusion: Alice Fahs, Kathleen Diffley, Cristanne Miller, Eliza Richards, Randall Fuller, and a host of others have analyzed writings, particularly by women and African Americans, that have enriched understanding of the range, quality, and importance of the literary response to the war.

Aaron’s idea about the unwritten war may have been prompted by Walt Whitman’s insistence on the war’s elusive quality: “Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors, (not the official surface-courteousness of the Generals, not the few great battles) of the Secession war; and it is best they should not—the real war will never get in the books.” Whitman knew that commentators would focus on famous battles, officers, and political leaders and would thereby obscure what he thought was most important and moving: the endurance, stoicism, bravery, and mingled strength and tenderness of ordinary soldiers. He was also convinced that the war—both in its chaotic quality and in its “practicality, minutia of deeds and passions”—would defy efforts to adequately represent it. An honest account could at best offer a “glimpse,” or a “specimen,” of the war’s “convulsiveness.”

Ironically, Whitman’s own notebooks, poems, and journalism challenged the claim that the war could not be written, and he succeeded as well as anyone in getting at the “marrow” of the conflict. He felt that this inner meaning was most apparent in the hospitals where he served in Washington, DC as a self-styled “missionary to the wounded,” an attentive visitor to tens of thousands of soldiers, northern and southern alike. The importance of his achievements in healing and in writing motivates our work on the Walt Whitman Archive, a project designed to edit Whitman’s writings and make them freely available to scholars, students, and general readers. Generous support from the American Council of Learned Societies has helped me—along with Ed Folsom and a team of other scholars—to edit, for the first time, both Whitman’s outgoing and incoming Civil War correspondence along with many of his other writings from this period.


Digital editing does not allow us to conjure up the palpable presence of original documents—their texture, weight, and smell—but it does allow for good visual representation of the documents. When we examine the images of the notebooks (as opposed to reading a transcription) they come to life in a new way.


Even as Whitman claimed that the war could not be written, he repeatedly asserted that Leaves of Grass emerged out of the Civil War. It would be more accurate, however, to say that his career was bifurcated by the war: the first three editions of Leaves of Grass appeared before the war began, and the final three editions were issued after the war was over and were shaped by the nation’s internal struggle. Whitman’s writing has special standing both because of its quality and because of his proximity to the war. His work aiding the wounded in Washington, DC, was courageous and self-sacrificing (hospitals were dangerous). His efforts, as numerous soldiers testified, were extraordinary and in some cases life-saving. No other significant writer experienced the war so directly and for such an extended period of time. Perhaps only Abraham Lincoln commented on it with as much insight and eloquence.

Given Whitman’s contributions to Civil War literature (and to world literature), it is not surprising that his work has attracted major editorial efforts. The earliest attempt to collect and publish everything Whitman wrote occurred not long after his death when his literary executors, Horace Traubel, Richard Maurice Bucke, and Thomas B. Harned, issued in 10 volumes the so-called Complete Writings of Walt Whitman (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1902). A second, more ambitious attempt to encompass Whitman’s writings spurred editorial work from the mid-twentieth to the first decade of the twenty-first century and culminated in The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman, a monumental undertaking. Twenty-two volumes of this series were published by New York University Press; Peter Lang published two volumes of Whitman’s early journalism; and the University of Iowa published one volume of correspondence to supplement the six volumes earlier produced by New York University Press. Overall, The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman was remarkable both for its strengths and for its puzzling shortcomings: Whitman’s correspondence was brilliantly edited but offered only outgoing letters; the journalism from the war years was not collected at all; and Whitman’s prose manuscripts and notebooks from the war were chaotically reproduced. The economics of print publishing precluded the possibility of providing access to all six distinct editions of Leaves of Grass, not to mention the manuscript drafts and early notebook versions of many poems. Print-based editors of Whitman achieved many of their intended goals even as they made one point inadvertently: The limitations of print as a medium are underscored when trying to do justice to Whitman’s vast and textually complex writings.

The inadequacy of treatments of Whitman’s notebooks in print editions is especially regrettable. When Whitman described these notebooks he emphasized their material reality—their appearance, their smudged quality, even their blood stains—and what the aura of the original documents evoked:

I have perhaps forty such little note-books left, forming a special history of those years, for myself alone, full of associations never to be possibly said or sung. I wish I could convey to the reader the associations that attach to these soil'd and creas'd little livraisons, each composed of a sheet or two of paper, folded small to carry in the pocket, and fasten'd with a pin. I leave them just as I threw them by during the War, blotch'd here and there with more than one blood-stain, hurriedly written, sometimes at the clinique, not seldom amid the excitement of uncertainty, or defeat, or of action, or getting ready for it, or a march. Even these days, at the lapse of many years, I can never turn their tiny leaves, or even take one in my hand, without the actual army sights and hot emotions of the time rushing like a river in full tide through me. Each line, each scrawl, each memorandum, has its history.

Digital editing does not allow us to conjure up the palpable presence of original documents—their texture, weight, and smell—but it does allow for good visual representation of the documents. In the notebook page reproduced below, we can see Whitman’s care to capture the names of soldiers, their location, regiment, bed number, health status, and individual defining detail. When we examine the images of the notebooks (as opposed to reading a transcription) they come to life in a new way. In the cramped and hasty writing, it becomes easier to imagine Whitman in the physical circumstances of hospital visits. These notebooks deserve to be better known because of their unostentatious power.



Dont forget Austin Lawton ward D. ^ (also Chas Moody, bed 44) ward D. n [illegible] orth side near the door right arm badly wounded—left hand slightly wounded—Ohio boy—(born in England) has a friend in one of the Departments. (1

The simple phrasing is poignant: “Dont forget Austin Lawton ward D. ^ (also Chas Moody, bed 44)”—and a few leaves later: “some peaches / don’t forget.” Don’t forget becomes Whitman’s mantra here. Remembering the soldiers drove his visits, guided his writing of Memoranda During the War, and determined the shape of his experimental autobiography, Specimen Days, with its seemingly displaced center: the book says almost nothing about the development of what most people would regard as Whitman’s great achievement in life—the writing of his breakthrough book of poetry, Leaves of Grass—and instead focuses on the war, the hospitals, and especially the soldiers.

Our work on Whitman and the Civil War is part of a much larger and long-term undertaking to re-edit Whitman’s writing. The Walt Whitman Archive devotes to Whitman’s texts the type of care suited to his status as a major cultural icon. Even as we move forward in creating an electronic edition, we continue to develop ancillary material that enhances that work. For example, the Whitman Archive documents the process of our work through essays treating technical, financial, linguistic, and editorial challenges, and we make our process as transparent as possible. We share with the public and other scholars our encoding guidelines, and we make our texts available for download and reuse in accordance with our creative commons license. We document not only achievements—grants and prizes awarded; new material added to the site—but also our errors and corrections in a changelog that we added to the site in May 2008 and continue to update. We regularly find ourselves engaged with the questions—experimental, theoretical, and practical at once—raised by the online archive as an expansive form (2), notable for the potentially rich interlinking of its parts, and its daunting challenges of organization, presentation, and preservation.

Kenneth M. Price F'08 received an ACLS Digital Innovation Fellowship for his project "The Civil War Writings of Walt Whitman." The complete series is available here

  1. http://whitmanarchive.org/manuscripts/notebooks/transcriptions/uva.00053.html. Back to text.
  2. Among the many unresolved questions regarding digital editing is what to call the products created. See my "Edition, Project, Database, Archive, Thematic Research Collection: What's in a Name?" Digital Humanities Quarterly 3 (Summer 2009). Available at http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/3/3/000053/000053.html. Back to text.
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