Wordsmithing Whitman: Diaries and Notebooks from the Feinberg-Whitman Papers
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Washington/Canadian-Media: Library of Congress (LoC)’s By the People launched May 26 a new project Whitman campaign in honor of Walt Whitman’s May birthday, focusing on the diaries and notebooks in the Manuscript Division’s Charles E. Feinberg Collection of Walt Whitman Papers, LoC reported.
By the People is an online transcription platform where anyone with an internet connection can transcribe documents from Library of Congress digitized collections. Everyone is welcome to contribute to this crowdsourcing project including members of the public, non-specialists, and specialists alike, to help make data more usable and discoverable.
A journalist, essayist, autobiographical and freelance writer, critic, and poet, Whitman carried small and often hand-made notebooks with him most places he went to note everything under the sun and made them into creative assemblages of his thoughts, observations, and miscellany.
Containing names and places, the notebooks provide evidence of Whitman’s thoughts on politics and politicians, the natural sciences and the organic composition of the soil beneath our feet, and the nature of time, death, and eternity.
“The Insects.” The idea of a poem. Whitman notebook of government, nature, trial lines, and self-advice, c. 1855–56. Feinberg-Whitman Papers, Manuscript Division.
Whitman wrote in his notebooks about what His observations while on the streets of Washington during the Civil War were transcribed to his notebooks including the hotels, recently enslaved persons classified in property terms as “contraband” walking up wartime Fourteenth Street, Union soldiers waiting for their pay.
Besides compassionately describing the severity of the conditions of the patients he met while volunteering in Civil War hospital wards, he also sketched scenarios of the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the haze of campfires during his visit to the Union army encampments at Culpeper, of the sun setting behind the U.S. Capitol, and political opinions formed after witnessing proceedings while sitting in the gallery of Congress.
Combined with resources from the Whitman-Harned collections with two hospital notebooks containing information translated into Whitman’s journalism and poems about the Civil War were, they form a basis of Whitman’s published memoirs about Washington in the war period. The Whitman campaign materials in By the People relate closely to other campaigns of collection items about the Civil War.
Description of Capitol Hill at sunset, Feb. 1863. Whitman diary, 1863. Whitman-Feinberg Papers, Manuscript Division.
Especially for the literary-minded, these notebooks reveal Whitman as a wordsmith who was perpetually working at and ruminating upon his writing and demonstrate the creative behind-the-scenes work of the writer’s craft.
Many concepts on which Whitman worked later appeared in published form in Leaves of Grass or in his many prose writings. He jotted down ideas he had for his freelance writing. He compiled figures of speech, turns of phrase, and words and slang he heard spoken or that he had encountered when reading from a variety of sources. Always working toward utilizing a newer American vernacular in poetry and songs, he evoked philosophies and defined for himself the meanings of words like “microcosm” (“the great whole world”). He imagined a new form of opera that would incorporate American folk song, dialects, and idioms of speech — a concept that would later be manifested in productions like Porgy and Bess, the poems of Sterling A. Brown, or the plays of August Wilson.
Focusing upon philosophies of writing and of life, he records titles of books and the authors he’s reading. he had thoughts about writing a poem about libraries, poems about American names, letter writing, occupations, artists, singers, musicians, tools found in hardware stores or used in trades, tears, insects and plant life, Indigenous peoples, and the various states.
He examines the mandate for equality in light of the perpetual hierarchies created by humankind and figured liberty as something still in the process of being realized. He champions the felon, the prostitute, enslaved people, and those who are dying. While thinking about the nature of personality, of introverts and extroverts, magnetism and ego, he writes of infusing the spirit of joy into poems.
Trial lines and concepts that we see Whitman working on in the notebooks became distilled in such poems as “Song of Myself,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” “Proto-Leaf,” “Starting from Paumanok,” “Song of Occupations,” “the Sleepers,” “Song of the Broad-Axe,” “To the States,” and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”
We ultimately see in the notebooks Whitman achieving what poet Alberto Ríos has called a “rugged pluralism.” That is poetry freed of the parlor and brought out into the neighborhoods and the streets, enlivening and honoring what is witnessed, and dealing and struggling, sometimes imperfectly, with major questions. The notebooks show poetry as an alive and dynamic and changing things. In the notebook pages, we find seeds of influence and work that have since Whitman’s time continued to grow and expand and entwine more communities in ever more diverse languages and voices. This is happening as writers of increasingly polyglot identities take up the mantle of poetry writing today, and as students in classrooms, and those who are penning their own thoughts and trial lines as they walk down the streets of their city, join poetry slams, and see all around them the poetic, as Whitman did, in animal, vegetable, mineral, Earth, and in the faces of strangers and those passing by.
The By the People crowdsourcing transcription process provides volunteers a chance to engage closely with Whitman as he was in effect thinking aloud on the notebook pages and recording information he could turn back to or rework later. They will find that many themes remain evergreen. Whitman writes about caste, and of social hierarchies, and the immorality of slavery and its lasting influence on the body politic.