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Stalking Whitman With Shotgun and Bludgeon

ISSUE:  Summer 1979
Walt Whitman: Daybooks and Notebooks. Edited by William White. 3 Volumes. New York University Press. $75.00.

If I owned a scrap of paper on which Walt Whitman had scrawled the name of a merchant of firm bedsprings or seamless shoes, I would treasure it as a powerful fetish. But I probably would not be tempted to publish it. One might as well exhibit fingernail cuttings. Yet the New York University Press has given two of these latest three volumes in its Collected Writings of Walt Whitman to precisely such literary detritus. The Daybooks are a partial record of various transactions and activities during the years 1876—1891. Although the attentive reader may discover in them a few scattered moments when the man reveals himself, they are not diaries. Instead, they are a collection of lists of names, addresses of correspondents, records of letters mailed and received, newspaper clippings. Whitman often writes a note or pastes in an advertisement to remind himself where he can have rattan work done, buy fish, catch the stage for Swedesboro, or find other necessities. He describes the weather and, particularly in later years, complains about ill health. The bulk of the daybooks, however, is given over to Whitman’s bookkeeping as his own publisher and distributor. Pages are filled with names and addresses of people who otherwise never touched his life, with records of shipments made and payments received. The result is a crazy jumble of fragments. One might have obtained much the same text by lobotomizing Horace Traubel.

All of this material is scrupulously, humorlessly edited. Whitman’s laconic entries become the occasion for William White’s annotation, which in turn becomes the substance of the two volumes of Daybooks. Editor White is thorough. One can learn, among other things, interesting facts about two men named Williams who are almost certainly not the Williams mentioned in a note of February 1879 (I, 85) or that “Edward Ettle, William A. Bryan, and Tommy Moore . . .are the sort of people’s names Whitman wrote on these righthand pages of the Daybook from time to time, singly or in groups, occasionally with a comment.” (I, 154). My favorite, and easily the most poignant of White’s annotations, reads simply, “442. Who is O W?” (1,112).

It is difficult to see what purpose has been served by publishing this material. Microcopies would accommodate the few scholars who have a genuine need for it. The daybooks are not readable, hold no intrinsic interest, and respond only to specific scholarly questions. Rarely, I suspect, has so much data so little satisfied general curiosity. Further, these documents have been known and in use for years, so that much of the information they contain has already been disseminated by Whitman’s biographers and critics. Their publication seems symptomatic of a recent tendency among scholarly writers to resist selection and judgment, to print the raw data rather than the results of scholarship. In biographies, editions, and anatomies that emphasize exhaustiveness at the expense of argument, scholars too often renounce their traditional roles as guides and interpreters and aspire to be collectors. The reader presumably is required to construct his or her own “study” from indiscriminate evidence. Such methods have their uses, and the scholarly determination to complete the record is admirable, but surely the elaborate apparatus and meticulous reproduction of manuscripts are wasteful here. Although Whitman loved attention as much as any puppy, this fumbling with his sources of lima beans would have embarrassed him.

The Notebooks are a different thing entirely. The third volume of the set contains the Diary in Canada, the material published as An American Primer, and a miscellany of previously unpublished philological and literary notebooks from various periods. The earlier notebooks are particularly valuable for their revelation of the young Whitman, creating his American identity as self-consciously as Ben Franklin did, groping toward form and articulation. Here the lists, the hoardings, the repetitions are quickened by the presence of the emerging poet and citizen. In Whitman’s determination to reform language according to radical democratic principles, we discover both his sense of the power of the word and a fundamental impulsion to prophetic poetry. “All,” as he put it, “lies folded in names” (III, 755).

We may be grateful that these documents have finally been published, but even here, among exciting and valuable texts, White’s editorial practice often seems myopic, arbitrary, or simply puzzling. In Notebooks 2 and 3 (III, 760—770), for instance, Whitman, meditating upon slavery, poetry, his “adhesiveness,” the processes of his mind—how “flocks of . . .ideas, some twittering as wrens . . .some soft as pigeons, some screaming as. . .sea-hawks, some shy and afar off as the wild brant. . .beat their countless wings and clutch their feet upon me”—several times attains language and imagery that are familiar from “The Sleepers.” He articulates most of the vision of the Negro Leviathan that concludes the sixth section of versions published before 1881, and he anticipates passages describing the “journeymen divine” of the first section. More than likely, this is a previously unrecognized preliminary version of the poem, and, if so, these fragments are important. Insights into those moments when a major work begins to gather random strands of thought and impose itself upon Whitman’s consciousness are rare. If, among these cancelled lines and scrawled memoranda, we have caught Whitman in the act of creation, we have uncovered a notable event in both the literary and emotional history of the United States.

To such concerns White remains indifferent. He does not identify the passages. In fact, his only annotation of the notebooks containing this material observes simply that Whitman cancelled several pages. His silence with regard to the relationship of the manuscripts to “The Sleepers” is the more puzzling because he identifies in other notebooks preliminary versions of passages from “Song of Myself,” “Who Learns My Lesson Complete?,” “Song of the Answerer,” and a number of other poems, some of which bear only shadowy resemblance to published versions. Further, White makes no attempt to date the notebooks, and he fails even to describe the materials from which Whitman made them, thus abandoning a simple matter of editorial principle which serves him well in considering other documents. Perhaps these lapses are inexplicable; surely they are inexcusable.

The Daybooks and Notebooks of Walt Whitman, then, offer us two volumes of material that should not have been published, burdened with more apparatus than a reader can easily stomach, and a volume of unusually important material, which does not have apparatus enough. The New York University Press Whitman is a substantial enterprise, and no one who is interested in the great man and his work can wish it other than well. But someone in those editorial offices had better set priorities straight.


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