Big news last week for those who study and love American literature, and for Walt Whitman fans in particular: as reported in the Washington Post and elsewhere, a new cache of almost 3,000 documents written and signed by Whitman were discovered in the National Archives. The archival sleuth who found these lost treasures? None other than UNC Press author Kenneth Price, author of To Walt Whitman, America.
As Hillegass University Professor of American Literature at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-director of the online Whitman Archive, Price is one of the world’s most prominent Whitman scholars. He spent months on a recent research trip to the National Archives turning through pages of government documents by faceless civil servants before happening upon familiar handwriting and the initials “W. W.,” suddenly awakening him to the fact that he was reviewing papers that Whitman had clearly transcribed during his years as a federal clerk in Washington, D.C.—the full-time job that supported his life’s labors as one of America’s greatest poets.
The newly discovered papers are drawn mostly from the Reconstruction era, after the formative years Whitman spent among the Civil War’s wounded and dying. Though the find includes no new literary works, as Price explains in a video available on the National Archives web site, they shed important new light on Whitman’s work life and the ways it shaped his state of mind as he revised his masterwork, Leaves of Grass, to incorporate the Civil War poetry collected in the 1865 volume Drum-Taps.
As Price explains in To Walt Whitman, America, the poet’s influence extends powerfully beyond the bounds of his own work to shape the canon of American and British fiction and poetry through the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. So any new discovery about Whitman’s life promises to ripple through the way all of American literature is understood.
The first 2,000 documents will be published this year with support from the National Archives and the National Historical Records and Publications Commission. For more information, visit the National Archives or the Whitman Archive.