Skip to main content

Collection Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of Walt Whitman Papers

Poet at Work: Notebooks in the Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of Walt Whitman Papers

In this essay, originally written for the 1995 online release of the four recovered Whitman notebooks, Alice L. Birney, American Literature Specialist, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, describes the larger body of Whitman notebooks and how the poet used them to capture his thoughts and words.

In this essay originally written for the 1995 online release of the four recovered Whitman notebooks, Alice L. Birney, American Literature Specialist, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, describes the larger body of Whitman notebooks and how the poet used them to capture his thoughts and words.

Although much attention was deservedly given to the 1995 return to the custody of the Library of Congress four Walt Whitman notebooks that had been missing for more than fifty years, it is important to consider the larger body of materials from which those four came.  Among the approximate 3,000 items that Thomas Biggs Harned and later his son, Herbert S. Harned, donated or sold to the Library of Congress, there were a total of forty original Walt Whitman notebooks.  In addition, there are other similar notebooks in the Charles E. Feinberg Collection of Walt Whitman Papers in the Library of Congress and several more notebooks each in collections held by Duke University, Yale University, New York Public Library, and other public repositories, as well as some others which are still in private hands.

It is safe to estimate that Whitman created at least one hundred notebooks of greatly varying sizes and descriptions. Some are basically commercial notebooks in which he wrote with any implement at hand (pencil stub, pen, crayon) and which he amended at will by cutting out and replacing pages and pasting in clippings, photographs or scraps of manuscripts. Others are home-made notebooks which he created by folding and/or cutting sheets of paper and fastening with a pin or ribbon. A few come down to us as loose sheets.

In these typical writer’s notebooks, Whitman jotted down thoughts in prose and expressions in poetry. The earliest examples include journalistic entries with ideas for articles he might write. His first trial lines for what would soon become part of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass appear in an early notebook which bears an internal date of 1847; it was his habit, however, to use these notebooks over a number of years, filling in blank pages at will, and the remarkable trial flights of verse for "Song of Myself" in it are likely to date closer to 1854.

In the Civil War years, he was more apt to carry tiny notebooks in his shirt pocket in which he took notes about the needs and wants of wounded soldiers whom he visited and comforted in the hospitals in and near Washington, D.C. In these he noted what treats a soldier might like on the next visit — raspberry syrup, rice-pudding, notepaper and pencil — or notes and addresses of family to whom Whitman would then write in place of the gravely wounded or dead young man. Occasionally he would also describe scenes on the battle-field, probably from reports from others in the camps.

In later years, he used the notebooks for literary lecture notes, drafts of poems, and recording of national events, such as how New York City looked the day after Lincoln's assassination. Many notebooks have become known by their very partial contents, when in reality each book is apt to cover many subjects. The wide range of topics in the other notebooks demonstrate the great diversity of subjects included in the poet's reading and range of interests: English history and literature; Lucretius, Shakespeare and Spanish literary masterpieces; physique and the science of swimming; faith, death and organized religion; the Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Long Island; oratory and lecturing; his 1869 trip to Boston; notes on Columbus and on Lincoln; slavery, democracy and the meaning of America.

Whitman cut out many pages of the four notebooks that had been recovered in 1995.  These excised pages apparently had been used earlier for more mundane purposes, such as accounting. In re-sewing the books to incorporate some loose pages, the Library's conservators kept the stubs of the cut pages intact. Thus, such missing pages are included in the numbering but bear no text.

 Back to top