Matthew Miller


How did Walt Whitman write Leaves of Grass? The question has fascinated scholars for decades, but one doesn’t have to be a scholar to wonder how this working class newspaperman and former schoolteacher produced such an astonishingly original, groundbreaking book of poems. For decades, readers have puzzled over Whitman’s metamorphosis into America’s first world-class poet, and a dizzying range of theories have been proposed to explain his breakthrough. We may never be sure what spiritual, sexual, or artistic revelation precipitated the 1855 edition of Leaves, but we do have at least one concrete source where we can turn to explore the question: the surviving manuscript drafts. Whitman told his friend Horace Traubel that the manuscript of the first edition “got away from us entirely--was used to kindle the fire or to feed the rag man,” and it’s true a complete manuscript has never turned up. There are, however, a number of surviving manuscript fragments which paint a tantalizing, if incomplete, picture of Whitman’s creative process. The most important collection of these fragments is bound in one of Whitman’s early notebooks, an amazing little document housed in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.

Filed under the title “Notebook LC #80,” this text was at one time called “The Earliest and Most Important Notebook of Walt Whitman” and is today usually referred to by the more modest title “The Talbot Wilson Notebook,” a title derived from a note Whitman wrote to himself on the front cover verso. The notebook has a history as interesting as its contents. It was originally donated to the Library by one of Whitman's three literary executors, Thomas B. Harned, in 1918, as a part of a larger collection of Whitman’s manuscripts. Scholars had access to the notebook from 1925 until 1942, when the Library of Congress began to disperse its collection for safekeeping during the war. With anti-aircraft guns installed on the rooftop and staff conducting 24-hour air raid watches, the Harned collection of Whitman materials was crated into a packing case and trucked off to a wartime repository. In 1944, the container was returned to the Library of Congress still sealed, but when it was opened, staff discovered that ten of the notebooks (as well as the cardboard butterfly Whitman used to fake a nature photo of himself) were missing. Librarians searched in vain, and for over fifty years the notebooks (and butterfly) were missing in action. Then in 1995, four of the notebooks and the butterfly suddenly turned up for auction at Sotheby’s, and an alert employee, Selby Kiffer, traced them to the Library, which confirmed that they were indeed four of the ten missing Whitman manuscripts. The notebooks were returned, and after they were scanned and treated for preservation, a select few scholars were allowed access to them.

Last summer, I had the good luck of being invited to accompany two of those scholars, Ed Folsom and Ken Price, to assist in taking high quality digital photographs of the notebooks to preserve for posterity as a part of the online Walt Whitman Archive. Due to their fragility and importance, we had been told that we would probably be among the last people to handle the manuscripts. I am a part of the staff of the Archive, and my work at the time focused on transcribing the “Talbot Wilson Notebook” and encoding it into SGML, a searchable computer language that can be used to perform complex software operations. As a poet myself and a longtime fan of Whitman’s, I was thrilled at the opportunity to actually see this notebook that I had been studying in minute detail by way of the Library of Congress scans from 1995. I arrived at the library fresh from the flight in, jetlagged and a little late, and after passing through security (my third time that day), I found Ed and Ken with a digital camera hunched over what seemed an impossibly small ledger book. The first thing I noticed about the notebooks was their size: they are tiny; I could easily slip one in a shirt-pocket. Anyone who has only seen the online scans will surely come away with a mistaken impression of the size both of the notebooks and of Whitman’s handwriting. The online images from the Library of Congress can give the impression that the notebooks are the size of a typical paperback, and that Whitman’s script is as sprawling and expansive as his lines, but in reality these notebooks are about the size of your palm, and the economy of his handwriting is meticulous, at times even fussy.

While working at the Library that weekend, I had opportunities to take breaks and actually read the “Talbot Wilson Notebook” cover to cover and study it closely. Holding this notebook that Whitman himself once held and first wrote such lines as “I am the poet of the body / And I am the poet of the soul” was a deeply inspiring experience. After I returned home and eventually finished my transcription for the Whitman Archive, I found myself wanting to share the transcription as soon as possible. I felt that the transcription held not only scholarly and historical interest, but also contemporary literary worth, presenting a deliciously jagged and immediate record of poetic thought, as well as some relatively cogent, “diamonds-in-the-rough” fragments and at least one complete prose poem, titled “Dilation” in the manuscript, that could ostensibly be presented as a “previously unpublished poem by Walt Whitman.” I contacted Mark Tursi at Double Room, and after discussing it with Double Room co-editor Peter Conners we all agreed that rather than publish one or two of the manuscript fragments under the rubric of previously unpublished work, it would be more honest and ultimately more interesting to publish a longer selection from the notebook, warts and all, that tracks a young Walt Whitman’s creative process. I have since received permission from the Whitman Archive to publish some excerpts from my work as a kind of “sneak preview” of the complete, revised transcriptions that will soon be available online.

Readers of Double Room may be particularly interested in the formal nature of the experiments Whitman undertook. As this notebook reveals, Whitman’s concept of poetic form was from the beginning highly elastic and mutable. Many of the lines of two of Whitman’s first major poems—“Song of Myself” and “Sleepers”—were originally drafted in prose, and some of the lines drafted here in verse seem to anticipate the later prose of the ‘55 Preface. Occasionally in the notebook, we find what appears to be a titled section, and the first of these titled passages (“Dilation”), if published today, would probably seem to most readers to be a prose poem. In another section, later in the notebook, Whitman experiments with the form of punctuation that would later dominate the ’55 Leaves—his ubiquitous ellipses—and offers a pair of lines that contain seven complete sentences between them. Like many of the lines that were eventually included, these loose, baggy outfits put considerable pressure on conventional definitions of line, as Whitman's contemporaries quickly realized. In fact, if you read the reviews that followed publication of the first edition, you’ll find that the issue that most perturbed those critics disinclined toward Whitman’s writing wasn’t his sexuality or blustery tone, but rather that his book wasn’t real poetry. Since then, of course, writing poetry that questions its own generic status has become all the rage among devotees of the avant-garde, and the criticism that someone's writing 'isn't really poetry' comes off as a kind of backhanded compliment.

To experience the notebook to its fullest, readers will want to explore the actual images of the drafts. While the photographs we took at the Library of Congress are still being processed by the Archive, the 1995 scans are available for your perusal online. If you are about to read these selections from the “Talbot Wilson Notebook,” I recommend opening another browser to the URL below, following the links to the images, and switching back and forth between the transcription and the images as your interest moves you. Also below is a link to a website created by Ed Folsom, where you can explore the images and Folsom’s own transcriptions side by side (note however that only transcriptions relevant to “Song of Myself” are offered at that site). I wish to thank Ed Folsom, as well as Mark Tursi, Peter Conners, and Double Room’s web designer Cactus May, for their help in preparing this transcription.


Walt Whitman Archive Homepage:

To find the online images, follow these links:
Whitman’s manuscripts > Notebooks from the Library of Congress > Notebooks and Butterfly > Notebook LC #80. (The notebook contains images of blank and torn out pages. My transcription begins on page 17.)

Ed Folsom’s “Manuscript Drafts of ‘Song of Myself’” website:


Matthew Miller is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a Ph.D. candidate in American Literature at the University of Iowa. His poems and critical work can be found in recent or forthcoming issues of American Letters & Commentary, Jacket, New Letters, Verse, Volt, The Writers' Chronicle, and other publications. A recipient of the John Logan Award and the Academy of American Poets Prize, Miller currently teaches writing and literature at Mt. Mercy College.