October 11, 2015 § Leave a comment
In the 1855 “Preface,” Whitman argues for an American poetry that will be “transcendent and new”: “It is to be indirect and not direct or descriptive or epic. Its quality is to go through these to much more” (619).
So, Whitman has in mind something epic but also that is more than epic, transcends the epic. In the beginning of “Song of Myself” Whitman invokes the tradition of the epic. And at the same time, he seems to rewrite it into something more commonly associated with the lyric. Perhaps this is what he means by “through these to much more.”
One traditional version of the epic is Paradise Lost–or more accurately, a version that rewrites the classical tradition and applies it to an unconventional arena; here are the opening lines:
1: Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
2: Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
3: Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
4: With loss of EDEN, till one greater Man
5: Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
6: Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
7: Of OREB, or of SINAI, didst inspire
8: That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
9: In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
10: Rose out of CHAOS: Or if SION Hill
11: Delight thee more, and SILOA’S Brook that flow’d
12: Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
13: Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
14: That with no middle flight intends to soar
15: Above th’ AONIAN Mount, while it pursues
16: Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.
17: And chiefly Thou O Spirit, that dost prefer
18: Before all Temples th’ upright heart and pure,
19: Instruct me, for Thou know’st; Thou from the first
20: Wast present, and with mighty wings outspread
21: Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
22: And mad’st it pregnant: What in me is dark
23: Illumine, what is low raise and support;
24: That to the highth of this great Argument
25: I may assert th’ Eternal Providence,
26: And justifie the wayes of God to men.
Whitman’s version turns epic into lyric; but he also suggests that the lyrical–the individual, the story of the I and what I experiences, assumes–is also epic in America: what you assume; remember that “you” (the second person pronoun in English) can be both singular and plural, as well as formal and intimate. There is another interesting implication to consider by way of Milton’s argument, his rewriting of the Bible. Whitman, too, is interested in a Bible rewritten for America. Take a look at his notes to his edition of the 1860 Leaves of Grass, where he clearly wants to create in his book a text that will rival the heft of the Bible.
Which returns me to my original question about our sense of this beginning of Leaves of Grass: what’s the project? what’s the “argument”? what is being introduced to us in July of 1855–and then expanded upon in the 1856 edition, and again in 1860? Once introduced, whatever that poetry is (epic, lyrical, biblical), why does it need to be revised?
For some thoughts on the emergence of Leaves of Grass in Whitman’s experience in the city, listen to this 2008 Whitman documentary; at 19.30 you will hear a discussion by the Whitman scholar, Ed Folsom, that illuminates Whitman’s growing interest in the relation between I and you.
A final note on three rhetorical terms that are associated with Biblical syntax and apply to Whitman’s poetic grammar:
October 10, 2015 § Leave a comment
Emerson writes of “creative reading” in “American Scholar”; he calls the scholar or poet (his Man Thinking) to engage with books, with nature, with the world, creatively: the book becoming luminous with manifold allusion. Perhaps one of the greatest examples of someone reading Emerson creatively comes from Whitman.
In July of 1855, Whitman publishes his first edition of Leaves of Grass; he sends Emerson a copy. Emerson writes enthusiastically in response. Whitman then responds to that response quite creatively in the second edition of Leaves in 1856. For some of the imagery of this creative reading, see this slide show I created; for digital scans of the book, what Emerson would have been holding in his hand, visit the Whitman Archive. As we begin Whitman, begin his incomparable and strange book, some questions we should consider, imagine: What does Emerson see in this book in July 1855? What do we see in our initial reading? In other words, what’s our sense (or Emerson’s sense) of the project that Whitman has undertaken? Opening this book, where do we find ourseleves?
DEAR SIR–I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of “LEAVES OF GRASS.” I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile and stingy nature, as if too much handiwork, or too much lymph in the temperament, were making our western wits fat and mean.
I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire.
I did not know until I last night saw the book advertised in newspaper that I could trust the name as real and available for a post-office. I wish to see my benefactor, and have felt much like striking my tasks, and visiting New York to pay you my respects.
Concord, Massachusetts, 21 July, 1855
Whitman’s creative reading of American poetry in Leaves of Grass begins, I would argue, before you get to the famous opening lines: I celebrate myself. It begins with the cover, and then with the first text within, the frontispiece image of Whitman.
For more on the history of revision and “recomposition” (Emerson’s word recall from “Quotation and Originality”) that Whitman weaves into Leaves of Grass, including the second edition (1856) that we are reading, I highly recommend Ed Folsom’s “Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman.”
November 29, 2011 § 2 Comments
I did some further reading in Emerson. The essay is titled “Works and Days,”collected in the 1870 volume Society and Solitude. I had forgotten that I had read it about two years ago; in fact, I discovered that I had already read it (remembered that I had forgotten it…) by finding some notes I saved on the web. Our thoughts come back to us, so Emerson says, with an alienated majesty.
My current, primary interest in this essay now is that it contains a vision and a vocabulary of technology that the 20th century media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, puts to use. Emerson writes of technological tools here as “extensions” of the human body. McLuhan borrows the very word in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. So, one of my current projects is to pursue further this interesting and somewhat unlikely association, Emerson and McLuhan. I have been planning and composting for some time an essay that explores Emerson in relation to digital technology, something I have carried by the handle, Googling Emerson: is the web, I wonder, or Google Books, more specifically, the logical extension of Emerson’s notion of creative reading, of luminous allusion? McLuhan’s connection may give me one way to frame the critical narrative.
Of such stuff critical readings are made. So, for the final project, think about going forward (into unlikely connections and comparisons, links) as well as going back. Critical readings, good arguments, are built upon experiment and surprise.
I would suggest, in the end, that the vision (and version) of transcendentalism we have explored, by way of Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson, also makes an argument for, and toward, experiencing and experimenting with the surprising and the spiritual–the enigmatical, as Emerson names it–in the everyday world of Wednesday. Here is Emerson toward the end of “Works and Days.”
And him I reckon the most learned scholar, not who can unearth for me the buried dynasties of Sesostris and Ptolemy, the Sothiac era, the Olympiads and consulships, but who can unfold the theory of this particular Wednesday. Can he uncover the ligaments concealed from all but piety, which attach the dull men and things we know to the First Cause ? These passing fifteen minutes, men think, are time, not eternity; are low and subaltern, are but hope or memory ; that is, the way to or the way from welfare, but not welfare. Can he show their tie ? That interpreter shall guide us from a menial and eleemosynary existence into riches and stability. He dignifies the place where he is.’ This mendicant America, this curious, peering, itinerant, imitative America, studious of Greece and Rome, of England and Germany, will take off its dusty shoes, will take off its glazed traveller’s-cap and sit at home with repose and deep joy on its face. The world has no such landscape, the aeons of history no such hour, the future no equal second opportunity. Now let poets sing ! now let arts unfold !
One more view remains. But life is good only when it is magical and musical, a perfect timing and consent, and when we do not anatomize it. You must treat the days respectfully, you must be a day yourself, and not interrogate it like a college professor. The world is enigmatical, – everything said, and everything known or done, – and must not be taken literally, but genially. We must be at the top of our condition to understand anything rightly. You must hear the bird’s song without attempting to render it into nouns and verbs. Cannot we be a little abstemious and obedient ? Cannot we let the morning be ?
And lest we think that Emerson urges us here into a simplistic view of simplicity, he complicates the picture in the very next paragraph:
Everything in the universe goes by indirection. There are no straight lines…. Well, human life is made up of such transits. There can be no greatness with-out abandonment.
I suggest, in the end, that we find in Whitman and Dickinson, as in Emerson, a practice of indirection (a very Whitmanian word here) and the slanting of no straight lines (Dickinson) informed by a poetic theory of abandonment: understanding and writing and transcending the enigmatical world not literally, but genially.
- Early Media Prophet Is Now Getting His Due (nytimes.com)
November 4, 2011 § Leave a comment
Some last thoughts, links, regarding Whitman at the end.
The Robert Creeley essay Professor Folsom mentioned, that disputes the conventional view that Whitman’s poetry in old age fails in comparison to his earlier writing.
One of the texts that has been neglected, based on this commonplace that Whitman’s work after the Civil War fails, is the highly experimental Two Rivulets published in 1876 (as a companion to Leaves of Grass). Note the way Whitman blends poetry and prose. I wrote an article recently that gives more thought to this text and to the older Whitman, in relation to the Emerson he seems to be rejecting. It also focuses on Whitman’s “poetics of digestion.”
Whitman, in his old age, writes a piece that looks back onto Emerson’s influence, and looks (somewhat unfavorably) on Emerson in his old age. The piece is called, wonderfully: “Emerson’s Books (The Shadows of Them)” Here is the conclusion of that piece:
November 1, 2011 § 1 Comment
In “A Backward Glance” Whitman discusses what he calls the “impetus-words” of Leaves of Grass. One of the words he gives is “suggestiveness,” a word that suggests the very importance (and impetus) of words in Whitman’s poetics, his “theory experimental”: language that connects and communicates to a reader environmentally (the atmosphere of the theme or thought), but also, or therefore, language that leaves things unfinished. “The reader will always have his or her part to do, just as much as I have had mine” (480). So, words for this writer are theories, experiments in thinking and doing, and theories take action in words.
So, as you work on Whitman for the writing project, consider his words and their suggestiveness.
For more on Whitman’s interest in language, Ed Folsom has an entire chapter on “Whitman and Dictionaries” in Walt Whitman’s Native Representations. Whitman writes about his own interests in words and language in something of his own dictionary, An American Primer.
As far as critical resources to use for your project, for further investigation into Whitman’s words.
And finally, to track Whitman’s words within his work, explore TokenX at the Whitman Archive.
October 25, 2011 § Leave a comment
Something startles me when I thought I was safest. This opening line from Whitman’s “This Compost” (originally published in the 1856 edition) comes to mind when I try to make sense of “Democratic Vistas.” Whitman seems startled by where he finds himself in post-Civil War, reconstruction America. (Remember Emerson’s opening line in his great essay “Experience”: Where do we find ourselves?) It is and isn’t the America and the democracy he had been envisioning in his writing since 1855. It is strange and familiar. And I feel startled by the essay: interested in where it wants to go, familiar with some of its echoes of the Whitman of Leaves of Grass, and startled by its inability to get there. You thought Emerson’s essays were strange? Folsom and Price in chapter 6 of Re-Scripting Walt Whitman provide helpful social and historical context for Whitman’s essay and for the problem of reconstruction in his writing. I copy below two relevant paragraphs. Should you be interested in doing more with this strange but important text in Whitman, or with Whitman and race and reconstruction, I invite you to read further in the chapter.
If “Passage to India” and “After All Not to Create Only” were celebratory (perhaps at times naively so), Democratic Vistas mounted sustained criticism of Reconstruction-era failures. Based in part on essays that had appeared in the New York journal the Galaxy in 1867 and 1868, Democratic Vistas responds most immediately to a racist diatribe by the Scottish essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle, “Shooting Niagara: And After?” Carlyle’s “great man” view of history left him impatient with democracy and opposed to efforts to expand the franchise in either the US or Britain. For him, the folly of giving the vote to blacks was akin to going over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Whitman grants Carlyle some general points, acknowledging, for example, the “appalling dangers of universal suffrage in the U.S.” because of the “people’s crudeness, vices, caprices.” In fact, Whitman gazes piercingly at a society “canker’d, crude, superstitious and rotten,” in which the “depravity of our business classes . . . is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater.” Yet he contrasts these current problems with “democracy’s convictions [and] aspirations” and ultimately provides a ringing endorsement of democracy as the safest and only legitimate course for the US. His thought on the intertwined fates of the US and democracy—his “convertible terms”—is future-oriented. He preceded the philosopher and educator John Dewey in arguing that the United States was not yet made and thus could not be categorically assessed, just as the history of democracy was yet to be written because “that history has yet to be enacted.” “We have frequently printed the word Democracy,” Whitman wrote in Democratic Vistas; “Yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawaken’d” (PW, 2:390). Democracy always remained for Whitman an ideal goal, “resid[ing] altogether in the future” (PW, 2:390), and never a realized practice. The history of America, so he hoped, would eventually define the word for the first time, because in his own day, he believed, democracy was only “in its embryo condition” (PW, 2:392). Crucial to his program for strengthening democracy are what he calls “personalism” (a form of individualism in which every person develops uniquely but always remains aware of his or her interconnectedness with the larger social body) and the nurturance of an appropriate “New World literature” that would demand more aggressive reading habits, literature that would awaken the populace and make them argue with the author instead of lull them to sleep and have them passively accept whatever the author professed.
For all of the idealism of Democratic Vistas, however, the work clearly arose out of Whitman’s struggle with the radical politics of the Reconstruction era, and it raises troubling and perhaps unanswerable questions about his attitudes toward the Radical Republican agenda of quickly securing civil rights and voting rights for freed (male) slaves. If Whitman’s faith in the future of American democracy was clear, his vision of the place of African Americans in that future was blurred. As he was writing Democratic Vistas, the shape of the new nation was uncertain, as malleable as the intense debates and shifting votes of a Congress that was revising the very Constitution and threatening to impeach the president, Andrew Johnson. Whitman, during this time, continued to spend evenings visiting the Civil War hospitals that remained opened, still filled with wounded soldiers two years after the war had ended, but he also devoted some of his time to trips to the Capitol to watch the extraordinary night sessions with their impassioned debates on Reconstruction legislation, including the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. For the Radical Republicans who controlled Congress, the war increasingly seemed to have been fought not just to emancipate the slaves (the Thirteenth Amendment had taken care of that) but to enfranchise them and guarantee them equal rights under the Constitution (this was the arena of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, and the amazing debates dealt with the very tricky issue of trying to unwrite the Constitutional provision that slaves counted as only three-fifths of a person, and trying to inscribe just what the black person’s newly granted full humanity meant). Whitman, like many Americans, was unsure about where he stood on these momentous issues.
Whitman refers early in the essay to the People–the promise of America and democracy, but also, always, the problem. The people, we learn, are in need of some learning. But the People are ungrammatical, untidy, and their sins gaunt and ill-bred. (968) But who are the people? Who are to be included? How do the people learn or realize this democracy that is not yet fulfilled?
Where does Whitman leave us? He argues that Democracy is still unwritten, and that it will be written, or brought to life, by the Poet or Literatus. So, in the early 1870s, we seem to be right back where we started: with Emerson’s call for an American scholar (in 1837) and Poet (in the 1840s). Whitman defines the need for this literature, without defining the type or shape of it. Does he know what it looks like? Is it Whitman’s own literature? Whitman’s notion of gymnastic reading, described toward the end of Democratic Vistas (not included in the excerpt in Norton), suggests why he is hesitant to define things:
Prospecting thus the coming unsped days, and that new order in them — marking the endless train of exercise, development, unwind, in nation as in man, which life is for — we see, fore-indicated, amid these prospects and hopes, new law-forces of spoken and written language — 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, which leaps overhead, cares mostly for impetus and effects, and for what it plants and invigorates to grow — tallies life and character, and seldomer tells a thing than suggests or necessitates it. In fact, a new theory of literary composition for imaginative works of the very first class, and especially for highest poems, is the sole course open to these States. Books are to be call’d for, and supplied, on the assumption that the process of reading is not a half sleep, but, in highest sense, an exercise, a gymnast’s struggle; that the reader is to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay — the text furnishing the hints, the clue, the start or frame-work. Not the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book does. That were to make a nation of supple and athletic minds, well-train’d, intuitive, used to depend on themselves, and not on a few coteries of writers.
October 19, 2011 § 8 Comments
Some excerpts from Folsom and Price, Re-Scripting Walt Whitman; once you identify the version of Whitman’s LG you want to focus around for your project, I recommend you take a look at the full chapter that corresponds to the period.
- Introduction (on the metonymic relations between Whitman’s book and his writer’s and printer’s life)
- [on Whitman’s poetics of revision] This continual deferral of the ideal was Whitman’s style; he set in process a history and a literature that would struggle toward democracy, even if they would never fully attain it. His poetry was written to initiate response, revision, process, and his own compositional techniques emphasized his refusal to reach conclusion. Whitman was the ultimate reviser, continually reopening his poems and books to endless shuffling, retitling, editing, and reconceptualizing. Leaves of Grass was Whitman’s title for a process more than a product: every change in his life and in his nation made him reopen his book to revision.
- Our book pursues the metonymic relation that Whitman famously employed between himself and his work (“this is no book, / Who touches this touches a man” [LG, 505]). We weave together an account of Whitman’s life and an account of his works, especially his evolving masterpiece Leaves of Grass. In a sense, we follow Justin Kaplan’s notion that “the irreducible reality of literary lives” is not the “naked self” but the “sum of a writer’s public verbal acts and ecstasies with language” (Kaplan 1979, 55). Once we begin to think about Whitman through the lens provided by digital resources, new questions become accessible and new problems emerge. Certainly some of the inadequacy of older models of criticism becomes clear. Many of us still talk about “Song of Myself” as if it were a single, stable entity. Yet this poem took various forms and had various titles in the six different editions of Leaves of Grass from 1855 to 1881, and it had a complex pre-history in manuscripts and early notebooks. Our discussion highlights Whitman’s evolving work—including the material production of the books themselves—in the context of his life. Many aspects of books that Whitman typically controlled—including typeface, margins, ornamentation, and the like—communicate in subtle but powerful ways to readers, and in ways that have been for the most part ignored
- Chapter 1: (on Whitman’s informal schooling)
- By the age of 11, Whitman was done with his formal education (by this time he had far more schooling than either of his parents had received), and he began his life as a laborer, working first as an office boy for some prominent Brooklyn lawyers, who gave him a subscription to a circulating library, where his self-education began. Always an autodidact, Whitman absorbed an eclectic but wide-ranging education through his visits to museums, his nonstop reading, and his penchant for engaging everyone he met in conversation and debate. While most other major writers of his time enjoyed highly structured, classical educations at private institutions, Whitman forged his own rough and informal curriculum of literature, theater, history, geography, music, and archeology out of the developing public resources of America’s fastest-growing city.
- Chapter 2: (on the mysterious manuscript origins of the 1855 Leaves of Grass–and its proto-word processing)
- Virtually every line of this early version of a section of “Song of Myself,” then, gets used somewhere in the poem or elsewhere in Leaves. But the section itself is entirely dismantled and scattered; it ceases to exist as a unit. We recall Whitman’s comment that his early drafts of Leaves were “recast, outcast, taken apart, put together.” It’s as if he mined early drafts for lines much like some sort of proto-word-processing system, lifting and moving lines and juxtaposing them with others, dissolving entire sections into other newly forming sections. This evidence strongly suggests that for Whitman the line was the basic unit of his poetry, since he seems always to move entire lines. This habit of composition may well have derived from Whitman’s experience as a typesetter, where lines of text were separate, moveable units assembled into galleys. For Whitman, then, passages emerge from the juxtaposition and accretion of lines, and those lines can be recast and put together in different combinations to form different but equally coherent larger units.
- Chapter 3 (on “The Sleepers” and Whitman’s intimate/democratic you)
- Sleep for Whitman, then, is a democratic condition. Throughout the first edition of Leaves, he seeks those experiences that cross the boundaries of class, gender, and race: all humans live in bodies and apprehend the world through the five senses and breathe the same air. His emphasis on the body and on sensuality grows out of his belief that such an appeal to physical experience breaks down hierarchies and discriminations among his readers. To represent those experiences that we all share is to create a democratic poetry, a poetry accessible to everyone, a poetry that invites all readers to assume the role of Whitman’s “you.” Sleep is another of those democratic experiences. Not only do we all sleep, we all know and have felt the “breakdown” of “sleep-chasings,” the way that falling asleep gives us the experience of losing control, the ways that dreams allow us to undergo shape-shifting, to wander worlds beyond our own waking experiences. Sleep, Whitman indicates in this poem, allows us finally to move into deeper and deeper levels of common psychic territory, where we all descend at night to plumb the depths of human emotion.
- Chapter 4
- Intensification of affectional bonds became a foundation for Whitman’s poetry and for his vision of a perfected democracy, and so sexual expressions of affection had to be broken loose from American Puritanical notions that sex was only for procreation: sexual desire, Whitman realized, was a powerful force for love across all kinds of boundaries and had to be more openly expressed in America’s literature than it had been before.
- Chapter 5 (on the Civil War writing of Whitman)
- With the nation now locked in an extended war, all of Whitman’s deepest concerns and beliefs were under attack. Leaves of Grass had been built on a faith in union, wholeness, the ability of a self and a nation to contain contradictions and absorb diversity; now the United States had come apart, and Whitman’s very project was in danger of becoming an anachronism as the Southern states sought to divide the country in two. Leaves had been built, too, on a belief in the power of affection to overcome division and competition; his “Calamus” vision, as we have seen, was of a “continent indissoluble” with “inseparable cities” all joined by “the life-long love of comrades” (LG, 117). But now the young men of America were killing each other in bloody battles; fathers were killing sons, sons fathers, brothers brothers. Whitman’s prospects for his “new Bible” that would bind a nation, build an affectionate democracy, and guide a citizenry to celebrate its unified diversity were shattered in the fratricidal conflict that engulfed America.
- Chapter 6 (on Reconstruction Era writing, including Democratic Vistas)
- Democracy always remained for Whitman an ideal goal, “resid[ing] altogether in the future” (PW, 2:390), and never a realized practice. The history of America, so he hoped, would eventually define the word for the first time, because in his own day, he believed, democracy was only “in its embryo condition” (PW, 2:392). Crucial to his program for strengthening democracy are what he calls “personalism” (a form of individualism in which every person develops uniquely but always remains aware of his or her interconnectedness with the larger social body) and the nurturance of an appropriate “New World literature” that would demand more aggressive reading habits, literature that would awaken the populace and make them argue with the author instead of lull them to sleep and have them passively accept whatever the author professed.
- chapter 7 (Whitman into the 1880s)
- poems objected to in 1881 edition (obscenity laws): The offending passages appeared in “Song of Myself,” “From Pent-up Aching Rivers,” “A Woman Waits for Me,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” “Spontaneous Me,” “The Dalliance of the Eagles,” “Native Moments,” “By Blue Ontario’s Shore,” “To a Common Prostitute,” “Unfolded Out of the Folds,” “The Sleepers,” and “Faces.” For most poems, only particular passages or words were at issue, but the district attorney insisted that “A Woman Waits for Me” and “To a Common Prostitute” had to be removed entirely. Intriguingly, the “Calamus” section and other poems treating male-male love raised no concern, perhaps because the male-male poems infrequently venture beyond handholding and hugging while the male-female poems are frank about copulation.
- Appendix (editing Whitman, the digital archive)
- Unlike the Collected Writings, the Walt Whitman Archive has not chosen to privilege one particular edition of Leaves of Grass. Instead, the editors of the Whitman Archive value and seek to present all versions, including all six distinct American editions, the British editions that Whitman contributed to in his lifetime, corrected page proofs, and the famous “Blue Book”—Whitman’s copy of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass with handwritten corrections and with material tipped in. Whitman authorized every published edition of Leaves of Grass. Any one of his editions could be vital for a researcher, depending on the questions to be pursued. A student concerned with the poet’s reaction to the prospect of black suffrage, for example, might well find the often-neglected 1867 Leaves to be crucial. Whitman called for future reprintings based on the “deathbed” edition, saying that it should supersede all the previous editions. To follow his advice would be problematic in numerous ways, especially since it would occlude some of his finest achievements, and it would trust that his judgment of his own work was sharpest in the final year of his life as his health was failing. 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.
- shifting focus from singularity of authorship (I hear echoes with RWE on Shakespeare and the social labour behind his work):
- as a range of theorists and textual scholars have variously demonstrated, the idea of an individual, autonomous author is open to significant challenge, and the term author, if we are to use it now, might be best understood as a convenient shorthand marker for the many agents—a writer or writers, editors, typesetters, proofreaders, and others—who typically contribute to the production of a text. Whitman himself recognized that texts are rarely the product of a single individual. After the publication of the 1881-2 Leaves of Grass, he commented on the importance of his proof-reader’s work: All this is not only to show my obligation to Henry Clark, but in some sort to all proof-readers everywhere, as sort of a tribute to a class of men, seldom mentioned, but to whom all the hundreds of writers, and all the millions of readers, are unspeakably indebted. More than one literary reputation, if not made is certainly saved by no less a person than a good proof-reader. The public that sees these neat and con-secutive, fair-printed books on the centre-tables, little knows the mass of chaos, bad spelling and grammar, frightful (corrected) excesses or balks, and frequent masses of illegibility and tautology of which they have been extricated. (DBN, 1:256) No one would claim that Henry Clark was the equal of Whitman in the making of Leaves of Grass, but he contributed to the social production of his text.
- 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. TheArchive 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.