Readex Report

Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


Whitman in Wisconsin: Uncovering his Legacy with "Labor-Saving Machines"

No labor-saving machine,
Nor discovery have I made;
Nor will I be able to leave behind me any wealthy bequest to found a hospital or library,
Nor reminiscence of any deed of courage, for America,
Nor literary success, nor intellect—nor book for the book-shelf;
Only a few carols, vibrating through the air, I leave,
For comrades and lovers.

—Walt Whitman, "No Labor-Saving Machine," 1867.

In a rare moment of humility recorded in this poem, Walt Whitman was circumspect about his legacy. His lasting contribution to the world would be no "labor-saving machine," or act of philanthropy. Even Leaves of Grass, into which he had collected a lifetime of reflections and assertions about democracy, the body, the spirit, the physical world, seemed transient. Earlier Whitman had predicted a demand for "copious thousands of copies"1 of Leaves of Grass, but here sees no "literary success" as his lasting achievement. Whitman instead saw his legacy as a ripple in the zeitgeist, "a few carols vibrating through the air" to perhaps be tuned in later by likeminded souls.

Whitman was mostly right. It wouldn't be until years after his death that the public began to view him as the venerable poet of America. By the mid-20th century, when a group of editors set out to create the first scholarly edition of his work, they faced the daunting task of collection: their most difficult charge was gathering these vibrating carols. Whitman left behind six very different editions of Leaves of Grass, and thousands of manuscripts, letters and journalistic pieces that had been distributed to the four winds by the time these editors set to work. Their edition, the Collected Writings of Walt Whitman, has become an object lesson in the inadequacy of print scholarship to accommodate the complexities of a figure such as Whitman. The Collected Writings, which was painstakingly labored over for the second half of the 20th century, consists now of dozens of volumes, but even such a vast quantity of print, meticulously edited, has not been able to satisfactorily gather all of Whitman's writings. After the print edition published Whitman's correspondence, for example, more and more of Whitman's letters began emerging, forcing the publisher to release, to date, six supplements to the edition. The editors of the Whitman Archive have noted that it is almost as if Whitman "were continuing to generate letters and other manuscripts today at the same rate as when he was alive."2 Only the digital medium, where newly emergent texts can be seamlessly enfolded, can adequately address this problem.

Recently, the rapid digitization of U.S. newspapers has exposed a similar problem with tracking the public reception of Whitman's writings. In the late 1970s, Scott Giantvalley, a Ph.D. student at the University of Southern California, set out to collect citations for all reviews of and books about Walt Whitman published in the first 100 years of his public reception. Giantvalley performed this difficult undertaking so conscientiously that it served as his dissertation, which, after a couple more years of research, he published as Walt Whitman, 1838-1939: A Reference Guide.3 In 1981, when the book came out, computing to the literary scholar usually would have meant programming BASIC or playing Donkey Kong on a Commodore VIC-20. For Giantvalley, "searching" meant going to over a dozen libraries around the country and poring over old newspapers in hopes of encountering an article about Whitman. He accomplished this search remarkably well, and compiled thousands of annotated citations that chronicle Whitman's turbulent early public reception. For over 25 years, Giantvalley's project has stood as the go-to source for any researcher interested in how the reading public viewed Whitman. But as Giantvalley himself noted, "no conclusion is possible other than an open-ended one." He stressed that "the bibliography must allow for the possible discovery of additional items and indeed encourage an active search for them."4 He planned to contribute an annual supplement of newly found reviews to the Walt Whitman Review (now the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review), which he did only a few times before his untimely death in 1989.

As with Whitman's letters, reviews of his work continue to pop up. In 2007, the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review published 68 previously undiscovered reviews, which mostly surfaced the old-fashioned way, as scholars happened upon them in their research—though now that research is greatly aided by electronic databases. Even since that large group was brought to light, more Whitman reviews have been found as ventures such as America's Historical Newspapers allow researchers to explore materials that may never have seemed likely enough hiding places for Whitman materials to warrant the effort and expense of searching in print form. For example, two "new" reviews come from the Milwaukee Sentinel, which turns out to have harbored some strong acrimony toward Whitman just before the Civil War. In 1860, Whitman was becoming a well-known figure, though not from the publication of Leaves of Grass, which had not fared at all well on the market. Whitman had begun publishing regularly in the New York Saturday Press, a widely read weekly whose editor was Whitman's friend. Newspaper editors around the country received the Saturday Press and in its pages encountered Whitman for the first time. Many newspapers republished Whitman's poems from the Saturday Press, sometimes accompanied by commentary—often in the form of a rebuke to the paper for giving page space to Whitman (all the while doing it themselves).

On February 20, 1860, the Milwaukee Sentinel printed a bit of commentary on the "wonderful Walt Whitman" which would have seemed quite complimentary if it had not been a parody.5 Following the commentary the paper reprinted Whitman's "You and Me and To-Day," which had just appeared in the New York Saturday Press, and followed it with the parodic "They and We" by "Skimmilk." The parody mocks Whitman's style and his attempt to enfold other people into his poem. Whitman writes, "With my fathers and mothers, and the accumulations of past ages" and Skimmilk answers, "With my aunt and her grandmother's squint." The Skimmilk parody also mocks Whitman by including Jews and African-Americans among the people the poem embraces, at the time a common reaction to Whitman, who was often sneered at because of his insistence upon the beauty and dignity of all people.

A few months later, in June of 1860, the Sentinel attacked Whitman again, after he published "The Errand-Bearers" (later titled "A Broadway Pageant") in the New York Times.6 Whitman wrote the poem upon the occasion of the Japanese Embassy's first visit to New York. The Sentinel responded, "It seems bad enough that the poor Japs should be beset by politicians, dowagers, aldermen, billiard makers, Peter Funks and stock brokers—but all this is endurable in comparison with the atrocious climax which the New Yorkers have allowed to cap their cruelty. They have allowed the notorious WALT WHITMAN…to write one of his soul-seething poems at them." Whitman's frequent appearance in New York periodicals had made him a symbol of New York to much of the rest of the country by 1860. Southern newspapers held him up as the voice of abolition and the Union, and here in the Milwaukee Sentinel Midwesterners propped him up as the culmination of fast-paced New York City living. New York's din of politicians, aldermen and "Peter Funks"—a western slang term for New York City shysters—culminates in the poetics of Walt Whitman.

As Giantvalley has noted, "Few literary figures during their lifetimes have received the high acclaim and categorical rejection accorded to Walt Whitman."7 Indeed, like his poetry, the public reaction to Whitman records much of the diversity in the 19th-century United States. Reviews such as these in the Milwaukee Sentinel expose fascinating pieces of America's cultural history that would almost certainly go undiscovered without digitization. Whitman left "no labor-saving machine," but his legacy now owes a great deal to them.


Footnotes:

1 New York Saturday Press, 7 January 1860, p. 3

2  www.whitmanarchive.org

3 Giantvalley, Scott. Walt Whitman, 1838-1939: A Reference Guide. Boston: G.K. Hall and Co., 1981.

4 Giantvalley, vii.

5 "The City. Walt Whitman and Skimmilk's Warbles." Milwaukee Sentinel, February 2, 1860 p.1.

6 Untitled. Milwaukee Sentinel, June 30, 1860. P.1.

7 Giantvalley, vii.

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