Walter Whitman

Walter “Walt” Whitman was an American poet, essayist, and journalist. A humanist, he was a part of the transition between transcendentalism and realism, incorporating both views in his works. Whitman is among the most influential poets in the American canon, often called the father of free verse.

walt whitman stamp 1940
1940 Walt Whitman Stamp

Issue Date: February 20, 1940
First City: Camden, New Jersey
Quantity Issued: 22,207,780
Printed by: Bureau of Engraving and Printing

A New Yorker by birth, Whitman first came to the Washington, D.C., area in December 1862, following the battle of Fredericksburg. He had rushed to the front to check on his brother George, whose name had appeared on a casualty list. Once assured that his brother would be fine (he had a superficial cheek wound), Whitman began aiding the many seriously wounded men as they were transported to Washington. In the following years he visited the dozens of hospitals that sprang up everywhere in the capital (all types of structures were adapted to accommodate the wounded, including a blacksmith’s shop).

He visited soldiers from both north and south, to whom he dispensed oranges, stationery, small amounts of cash, candy, bread pudding, and love. He was a sustaining presence to many frightened young men suffering from amputations, dysentery, smallpox, and a variety of other debilitating wounds and ailments. The urgency of the times is captured in the poet’s October 13, 1863, letter to his mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman:
There is a new lot of wounded now again. They have been arriving, sick & wounded, for three days—First long strings of ambulances with the sick. But yesterday many with bad & bloody wounds, poor fellows. I thought I was cooler & more used to it. . . . I had provided a lot of nourishing things for the men, but for another quarter—but I had them where I could use them immediately for these new wounded as they came in faint & hungry, & fagged out with a long rough journey, all dirty & torn, & many pale as ashes, & all bloody—I distributed all my stores, gave partly to the nurses I knew that were just taking charge of them—& as many as I could I fed myself—Then besides I found a lot of oyster soup handy, & I procured it all at once—Mother, it is the most pitiful sight I think when first the men are brought in—I have to bustle round, to keep from crying—.
At times Whitman wondered if his labors did the men any good: “I do not see that I do much good to these wounded and dying,” he wrote; “but I cannot leave them.” After the war several soldiers credited Whitman with saving their lives.

Yet, the Washington city directory listed him not as “national poet” nor as “missionary to the wounded” but instead as “Whitman, Walt, clerk.” He functioned primarily as a secretary of the day, spending much of his time as a scribe or copyist. Beginning in 1863, he worked in the Army paymaster’s office and for the Bureau of Indian Affairs before gaining a clerkship in the attorney general’s office.
All of the documents I have identified were in records of the attorney general’s office and date from 1865 to 1873. These records are now filed as Department of Justice records, though that department did not exist when Whitman began his employment.

As noted, although Whitman’s work as a clerk spanned a significant number of years, it has received surprisingly little attention from biographers. In 1943, Dixon Wecter published a valuable article on “Walt Whitman as Civil Servant.” No one has followed up on his work in any significant way, perhaps because Wecter made no estimates about the number of documents in Whitman’s handwriting. In fact, the article discusses about a dozen items but never implies that there are a vast number of other documents to be explored. When scholars have described Whitman’s government work, they suggest he took things casually, sauntered into work when he wanted to, put in a few hours, and left when it suited him.

The full extent of these government documents only recently came to light because of the work of the Walt Whitman Archive , a project I co-edit with Professor Ed Folsom of the University of Iowa. This freely available resource sets out to make Whitman’s vast work, for the first time, easily and conveniently accessible to scholars, students, and general readers.

The Walt Whitman Archive will present high-quality color facsimile images of these documents, along with searchable transcriptions. The facsimile images are especially important since not more than a handful of these documents are signed or initialed by Whitman. One of the few documents that is initialed appears here. It is a July 14, 1868, letter in Whitman’s hand having to do with pensions. A marginal note, also in Whitman’s hand, says: “This letter has been withdrawn and cancelled—is to be considered as never having been written. W.W.” The practice of canceling a document is straightforward. However, the phrasing here is curious, perhaps even nonsensical. How can one look at writing and regard it as never having been written?

Intriguingly, the comment serves as an apt description of how Whitman’s work as a scribe has been treated—as cancelled, non-consequential, writing that somehow left no mark either on the writer or the world.
Actually, these documents have double significance both because they contributed to national redefinition in the aftermath of civil war and because of Whitman’s role in their creation. For the most part, the documents I have located were internal fair copies of outgoing correspondence. These were kept for reference purposes—as a record of orders, instructions, and policies.
Interestingly, in a case dealing with a murder in Dakota Territory, we can compare one of apparently several external copies with the internal office copy. The letters are nearly identical in semantic content, although they are visually quite distinct because they were written by two different scribes.

In addition, in this case the external copy has with it illuminating contextual information not found with the office copy. It is unclear how many other documents in Whitman’s handwriting might be found across the country if a systematic search were to be conducted for the external or sent copies. Presumably, the information in these copies would duplicate what we have in the internal copies of record.
At the Walt Whitman Archive, You Can Judge for Yourself

The identification of almost all of the documents, with the exception of the few that bear Whitman’s initials, depends on recognition of his handwriting, and it is important to provide the evidence in full. These documents are being mounted in an online environment containing previously known pieces of signed correspondence. Users are welcome to judge for themselves the authenticity of the documents.
All material that we present—Whitman’s poetry, prose, photographs, personal correspondence, scribal documents, and more—is made freely available to a world audience. We are able to do this thanks to support from four different universities and grants from various federal agencies including the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the National Endowment for the Humanities. For the discovery described here, we are indebted to the National Historical Publication and Records Commission (NHPRC), the publishing arm of the National Archives. Their support enabled us to publish the first 800 of the newly discovered scribal documents in fall 2011, with the remainder scheduled for the following year.
Should these documents be dismissed because Whitman was not the sole “author” of them in the typical sense? Actually, it is not clear how much he contributed to many of the letters he copied. We have to wonder how many of these documents may have been created in the manner James Speed described, with a capable clerk left to “revise and finish it.”
With regard to any one particular document we can only speculate about how Whitman might have served as author or copyist or both. Regarding the overall working of the office, we do have Whitman’s description given in conversation with Horace Traubel: Whitman said he had been “put in charge of the Attorney General’s letters.” In this instance, Whitman did not specify which one he meant of the several attorneys general he served, perhaps implying that it was a common practice for them all.
Whitman continued by saying: “cases were put into my hands—small cases: the Attorney General could not attend to them all so passed some of them over to me to examine, report upon, sum up.”
At other times, Whitman is more specific in his remarks to Traubel, as in these comments about Henry Stanbery, the attorney general under Andrew Johnson, before Stanbery stepped down in order to defend Johnson during his impeachment.
“I was the Attorney General’s clerk there,” he said, “and did a good deal of writing. [Stanbery] seemed to like my opinions, judgment. So a good part of my work was to spare him work—to go over the correspondence,—give him the juice, substance of affairs—avoiding all else.”