Back to previous page


Post Most

Newly found papers of Walt Whitman unveiled

By ,

The scholar’s eyes glazed over as he turned page after page of the old government letter books filled with the scribbling of Victorian clerks.

“Sir ...

“I am instructed ...

“Your obedient servant ...

On and on they went: Orders, pronouncements, instructions, inked by copyists hunched over desks in the years right after the Civil War, filling the blue-lined pages like those in a child’s penmanship book.

Suddenly, the scholar stopped. There were the distinct “D’s,” the strange “X’s,” the ornate capital “C’s” he recognized. And later, in a margin, the telltale “W.W.” — for Walt Whitman.

Kenneth Price, a Whitman expert from the University of Nebraska, realized he had unearthed a trove of documents in the famous American poet’s handwriting, filed away in the National Archives and virtually forgotten until now.

On Tuesday, the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, the archives announced that Price had found almost 3,000 pieces in Whitman’s handwriting, a discovery that Archivist of the United States David Ferriero called “astonishing.”

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.

A journalist, poet and essayist, Whitman is perhaps best known for capturing the haunted pageantry of the Civil War in his work “Drum-Taps,” which contains his masterpiece “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” an elegy to Abraham Lincoln.

There are no new poems or other literary works in Price’s find, the experts said Tuesday. But the discovery illuminates Whitman’s day-to-day life as a Washingtonian and dedicated federal worker toiling with hundreds of others in the demanding post-war bureaucracy.

Whitman lived in Washington for most of the years between 1863 and 1873. He is most famous as the national poet of the Civil War and for his many visits to sick and wounded soldiers in Washington hospitals during the war.

But he also worked — diligently, Price said Tuesday — in the Army paymaster’s office, in the attorney general’s office and at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Price, a university professor of 19th century American literature and co-editor of the Walt Whitman Archive, began unearthing the new items during research in 2008 and 2009 to locate anything Whitman had ever written.

“Although Whitman is not the official author of these documents, in most cases, they definitely passed through his mind and his fingertips,” Ferriero said during the public announcement of the find at the main archives building in downtown Washington.

“They shed light on Whitman’s post-war poetry and his cultural criticism,” he said.

Whitman, then 43 and a striking, dapper man with a full gray beard and light eyes, came to Washington from Brooklyn in 1862 after his brother, George, was wounded in the Battle of Fredricksburg.

George turned out to be only slightly hurt, and the poet, deeply moved by the plight of the sick and wounded, decided to stay on in the capital to visit the hospitals, work and write.

He sat often at the bedside of ill and dying soldiers, comforting them, writing letters home to their families, and dispensing “oranges, stationery, small amounts of cash, candy, breadpudding and love,” Price said.

Whitman “was a sustaining presence to many frightened young men suffering from amputation, dysentery [and] smallpox,” Price said. “After the war, several soldiers credited him with saving their lives.”

But Whitman had a working life, too.

“The Washington City Directory listed him not as national poet nor as missionary to the wounded but instead as ‘Whitman, Walt, clerk,’ ” Price said.

Price said Whitman was a “scribe,” or a “copyist,” whose 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.

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.”

© The Washington Post Company