As a clerk in the U.S. Attorney General's Office in the 1860s and 1870s, Walt Whitman had a firsthand view of the legal, cultural and ideological challenges facing the nation after the Civil War. That experience, most believe, shaped his later works of poetry and prose.
Now, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln researcher has discovered nearly 3,000 previously unknown Whitman documents from that era — a trove of information that sheds new light on the legendary poet's post-war thinking, as well as Whitman's published reflections on the state of the nation that soon followed.
"This was an age of high hopes but also big problems, and Walt Whitman was there in the thick of it," said Kenneth Price, Hillegass University Professor of American Literature at UNL, who recently uncovered the documents in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. "He was not a passive observer; he was participating, on a daily basis, in issues that were shaping what the nation would be like after the war."
The documents, which were revealed at a news conference at the National Archives this morning, consist of Whitman's handwritten clerical work from 1865 to 1873 when he was a scribe in the attorney general's office in the nation's capital. For more than two years, Price pored over a range of documents, including large, bound 900-page letter books in the archive, discovering for the first time thousands of official federal letters that were written in Whitman's hand.
"I had a hunch there might be three, four, maybe five documents still there. I looked through hundreds of pages without finding anything, and was starting to get bleary-eyed," Price said. "Then, there it was, a page entirely in Whitman's handwriting. Then, a few others. Then, a whole string of them, all in Whitman's hand."
In his clerical work, Whitman hand-copied letters and papers authored by federal officials on issues ranging from Reconstruction to the enforcement of new civil rights amendments to the myriad consequences of westward expansion. The government kept the copies in the massive letter books as an official record of the correspondence.
Those letters, though not officially authored by Whitman, likely felt his influence, Price said. At the same time, the weighty national issues passing through his office and his desk almost certainly had an effect on Whitman.
"These ideas passed through his mind, passed through his fingertips, and no doubt were absorbed into his consciousness," Price said. "These are fascinating documents — they show, down to the exact day, when Whitman was aware of certain things and what issues he spent time on."
These documents shaped "Democratic Vistas," Whitman's seminal 1871 analysis of American democracy that is arguably his greatest work of prose. Casting a skeptical eye on the nation's character and values while sharing a vision for an ideal democratic society, "Vistas" remains one of the most penetrating examinations of American society ever written.
The newly discovered documents "were crucial for (Whitman's) writing of one of the most important meditations on the meaning of American democracy," Price said. "They're also vital for understanding Whitman's late poetry. Anyone writing about the latter parts of his career is going to want to figure out what the relationship was between what he knew and when he knew it, and what he had to say in 'Democratic Vistas' and his later poetry."
Ed Folsom, Carver Professor of English at the University of Iowa, said Price's discovery is "a stunning find." For years, he said, scholars had suspected documents Whitman copied as a clerk might be buried somewhere in government archives, and several made unsuccessful attempts to find them. No one, Folsom said, expected the wealth of information that Price finally turned up.
The discovery "will revolutionize our understanding of Whitman during the explosive Reconstruction years, since we will be able to track, on a virtually daily basis, just what social and political issues he was thinking about and working on," Folsom said. "These newly discovered documents will allow biographers, critics, teachers and students to add a rich texture and deep background to our understanding of Whitman's post-war work."
The discovery was made possible in part by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, which provided grant funding to advance research on Whitman's correspondence.
The letters will be published in the online Walt Whitman Archive, a long-term effort to edit Whitman's work on the Web, which Price and Folsom co-edit. Price said he anticipates that 2,000 of the documents will be made available to the public by September, with the remainder released next year.
"It's interesting," he said. "Whitman was a scribe and now we're re-inscribing digitally the documents for which he was originally a scribe."