WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A researcher culling through Civil War-era documents at the National Archives has identified nearly 3,000 letters and papers written by one of America’s greatest poets — Walt Whitman — when he worked as a government clerk, officials said on Tuesday.
The newly unearthed papers, most written when Whitman was a low-paid clerk for the attorney general, touch on issues ranging from the prosecution of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis to a copyright claim by fellow poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
“Whitman was an actor near the epicenter of government efforts to reshape the nation in the aftermath of war. We can now pinpoint to the exact day when he was thinking about certain issues,” said Kenneth Price, the University of Nebraska literature professor who identified the documents.
“Some of these documents treat routine administrative matters, for example appointments of officials, salary payments and book orders, but others treat civil rights, war crimes, treason, western expansion, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and a host of international incidents,” Price said.
The announcement of the discovery of the Whitman papers coincided with the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. On April 12, 1861, rebel forces bombarded Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, South Carolina.
The documents highlight the issues that faced the country in the Reconstruction period after the war as well as the environment in which Whitman worked at a time when he wrote his poems mourning the 1865 assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
Whitman, a New Yorker best-known for his poetry collection “Leaves of Grass,” was in his 40s when the war began and never enlisted in the military. In December 1862, after learning his brother George had been wounded in the Battle of Fredericksburg, he traveled to the Virginia camp to see him.
After assuring himself George was recuperating, Whitman traveled to Washington, where he began to work as a part-time clerk in the Army paymaster’s office and regularly visited wounded soldiers in the city’s hospitals.
Whitman visited tens of thousands of wounded and sick soldiers in subsequent years, using his income to buy them oranges, candy and other treats. He wrote letters for amputees and took notes about the soldiers’ experiences, labeling his notebook “Walt Whitman, Soldiers’ Missionary.”
“He was a sustaining presence to many frightened young men suffering from amputations, dysentery, smallpox and a variety of other debilitating wounds and ailments,” Price said, adding that several soldiers credited him with saving their lives.
Whitman worked briefly as a clerk in the Bureau of Indian Affairs but was fired after a book of his poetry was judged by Interior Secretary James Harlan to be immoral. He then became a clerk in the attorney general’s office, where he worked for a succession of the nation’s top law enforcement officers.
Price, a co-director of the Walt Whitman Archive at www.whitmanarchive.org, said the poet’s work as a clerk was well-known. A researcher in the 1950s visited the National Archives and wrote about the Whitman documents he found.
“You come away thinking he found six or 10 items,” Price said. “It doesn’t give you any sense of the literally thousands of documents that are there.”
Price said in most cases there was no way to know Whitman’s role on a given document, whether he had merely copied it as a record-keeper or had actually formulated the ideas.
Whitman is known to have had quite a bit of latitude in some writings. In one case, Attorney General James Speed wrote of asking Whitman to finalize the rough draft of a speech.
“I have a notion that if he has the time and is in the mood, he can do it better than any man I know,” Speed wrote.
Price said the collection underscored the need to study Whitman’s network of contacts in Washington to get a better sense of his intellectual milieu.
“For me, it heightens the sense that we need to be thinking about Whitman as a collaborator much more than we ever did before,” Price said. “We’d understand Whitman better and move away from the myth of the solitary author if we thought in terms of collaboration.”
Editing by Peter Cooney