Continuous Creation

December 1, 2009 § Leave a comment

The conclusion of Folsom and Price’s Re-Scripting Walt Whitman turns from historical problems of editing Whitman’s work to the digital editing project underway for the past decade at the Whitman digital archive. I think this is a brilliant conclusion to the book. The problem in making sense of Whitman’s work is ongoing, though not in the typical senses of an editorial, scholarly project;  Whitman’s work was coneceived that way: as ongoing creation.

An electronic edition, unlike a print edition, is typically issued as work in progress rather than as a finished product. As it is made public, its readers become active agents in its continuing creation—pointing out omissions, suggesting improvements, challenging transcriptions. The Archive is revised and expanded virtually every day, and newly discovered documents can be seamlessly folded into the existing structures so that the edition is always up to date. It is the perfect medium for an author who was always revising and reordering and rethinking his work. As editors, we are confident that the Archive will keep the re-scripting of Whitman active for generations hence.

Folsom and Price get into some of the technological specifics of what this means in terms of digital scholarship (tagging, XML, etc). But here is the key point: the digital is not just a better medium for representing Whitman’s massive metonymic project (the book that reflects the man and his times by being ‘part of the actual distraction’ of those times; like a photograph); it is representative of the process through its own processing.

I think this takes us all the way back to Emerson, to where we began: to American Scholar, to the search for a book that would be more than a book, and a reader that would uncover through reading the luminous allusion of the world. And it takes us forward to where we are now: to Democratic Vistas and to Whitman’s halting yet eqaully visionary view of a future for American literature, culture, democracy. In that regard, another point made by Folsom and Price in the appendix I think illuminates something of Whitman’s vision for the democratic future (still unwritten). They note that the print edition of the Collected Works privileges ‘solitary authorsthip” over social production of text, over ‘jointly produced intellectual work.’ We read Whitman and Emerson as solitary authors; and yet I would argue that both are deeply interested (and in Whitman’s case, concerned) with the joint production and process of intellectual work.

And for that reason, I agree with Folsom and Price’s assertion, and would use it as an entry point, epigraphically speaking, for the seminar paper in this course you are about to embark on: In the last analysis, we are not editing Whitman for Whitman but for ourselves and for all those interested in him in our historical moment.

In a manner of speaking, it seems to me that such is what Whitman is writing against, and writing for, in “Democratic Vistas”: American readers who will take an interest in him, but not for him, for themselves. In this sense, I give particular attention to the paragraph toward the end where Whitman returns to his ‘gymnastic’ metaphor and focuses his ‘new theory of composition’ not on authors but on ‘the process of reading,’ on what readers will do with those authors and their necessarily incomplete books. It is noticeable to me that Whitman prefaces this by indicating that his ‘prospects’ for this future of new forms of reading and writing are “not merely the pedagogue-forms, correct, regular, familiar with precedents, made for matters of outside propriety, fine words, thoughts definitely told out–but a language fann’d by the breath of Nature…” Whitman is thinking of a new school. Or more to the point, thinking of a literature and a poetry that will provide a school for American democracy–and that will not be the vision of school already in place.

This interest in ‘school,’ at least to my way of reading, associates Whitman with Emerson’s school, with Emerson’s interests from “American Scholar” forward. This also suggests–to use the terminology I have been focusing on–that Whitman’s ‘gymnastic’ imagery is more metonymy than metaphor: he wants readers who actively read, reminding us that the gymnasium is already a school. And it suggests something that is there in Whitman from the beginning. Whitman thinks of his poetry as a ‘perfect school.’ We learn this from one of the poetry manuscripts available at the Whitman archive.

[Poem—a perfect school]
a TG 2 get— P[deletion, illegible] description of [deletion, illegible] Chr

Poem—a perfect school,
gymnastic, moral, mental and
sentimental,—in which
magnificent men are formed
—old persons come just as
much as youth—gymnastics,
physiology, music, swimming bath
—large saloons adorned with
pictures and sculpture—great ideas
not taught in sermons but imbibed
as health is imbibed—
—love—love of woman—all manly exercises
—riding, rowing—the greatest persons
come—the president comes and
the governors come—political economy
—the American idea in all its
amplitude and comprehensiveness—
—grounds, gardens, flowers, grains—
cabinets—old history taught—
The lines beginning “The three or four poets are well” were probably drafted in 1853 or 1854, just before the first publication of Leaves of Grass (1855). “Poem—a perfect school” was probably written in the 1850s also.
Editorial note
“The three or four poets are well” are draft lines of the third poem, entitled “Leaves of Grass,” in Leaves of Grass (1855). It became “Burial Poem” in 1856, “Burial” in 1860 and 1867, and took its final title, “To Think of Time,” in 1871. The poem outlined in “Poem—a perfect school” was apparently never written.

This sort of reading–reading back into manuscripts, reading across Whitman’s various revisions and publications–is something the Archive makes more accessible. Folsom and Price describe the digital as a ‘perfect medium’ for Whitman’s process. I might only add, or bring out, this implication. That Whitman’s own conception of the ‘process of reading’ (from Democratic Vistas) suggests to me that such process reading (and re-reading), messy though it may be, messy as I would say, in metonymy, is part of the schooling that Whitman has in mind.


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