April 13, 2011

Whitman the Scrivener


Walt Whitman, around the time of his scrivening.

A new cache of Walt Whitman‘s writing — literally, his handwriting — has been discovered in the National Archive. According to a report in the Washington Post, the National Archive announced Tuesday — the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War — that Kenneth Price, a Whitman scholar from the University of Nebraska, “found almost 3,000 pieces in Whitman’s handwriting, a discovery that Archivist of the United States David Ferriero called ‘astonishing.'”

According to the Post, “The writings are essentially letters authored by various government officials that Whitman copied into record books when he was a clerk in the U.S. attorney general’s office in the 1860s.”

Price says he’d been shuffling through volumes of documents when he suddenly recognized “ the distinct ‘D’s,’ the strange ‘X’s,’ the ornate capital ‘C’s” and “later, in a margin, the telltale ‘W.W.’ — for Walt Whitman.”

No new poems, essays or literary writing have been discovered. But Ferriero believes the cache is nonetheless important. “Although Whitman is not the official author of these documents, in most cases, they definitely passed through his mind and his fingertips,” he tells the Post. “They shed light on Whitman’s post-war poetry and his cultural criticism,” he said.

Whitman lived in Washington between 1863 and 1873, and was profoundly affected by the Civil War and its aftermath. His great civil war poems are well known, as is his work with sick and wounded soldiers. But it isn’t very well known that while he was in DC caring for the sick and writing poetry, he also had a job.

As Price tells the Post, “The Washington City Directory listed him not as national poet nor as missionary to the wounded but instead as ‘Whitman, Walt, clerk.'”  He says Whitman’s “job was to generate a ‘fair copy’ of outgoing government correspondence. He copied letters authored by numerous high-ranking officials, including President Andrew Johnson, often signing their names.”

According to the Post:

Some scholars have suggested that Whitman was a lazy federal worker who “sauntered in to work when he wanted to, put in a few hours and then left when he felt like it,” Price said.

On the contrary, he said: Whitman “worked steadily and produced a prodigious amount of material.” He said Whitman’s superiors valued the clarity of his handwriting and his intellect and often used him as more than just a clerk.

“Honesty is the prevailing atmosphere,” Whitman, in previously discovered documents, said of his colleagues in the bureaucracy.

“I do not refer to swell officials, the men who wear the decorations, get fat salaries,” he said. “I refer to the average clerks, the obscure crowd, who, after all, run the government. They are on the square.”

Bartleby, one; Official Swells, zero.



Valerie Merians is the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.