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Walt Whitman collection
Ms. Coll. 190
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the University of Pennsylvania. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in our reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
- University of Pennsylvania: Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts
- Walt Whitman collection
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- Ms. Coll. 190
- 4 boxes (plus one oversized item)
- Materials include correspondence to, from, and concerning Walt Whitman; financial records; writings by and about Whitman; and memorabilia, such as sketches, photographs, and portraits of Whitman, his family, his friends, and his homes.
Cite as:Walt Whitman collection, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania
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Walt Whitman (1819-1892) has frequently been venerated as the poet-prophet of the nation, an author representative of, if not identical with, democratic ideals. His work particularly reflects these ideals in its celebrations of America’s "composite" or inclusive aspects: the mix of cultures, languages, customs; the "distillations, decantations, compactions of humanity" represented by America’s various peoples. He labored to model this composite America in his opus, Leaves of Grass, which he first published in 1855 as a collection of twelve poems. Over the years he revised and expanded his work several times, so that the final "deathbed" edition incorporated much that he had written since the mid-fifties, including prose and poetry once published separately. With its unconventional use of free verse and its raw sensuality, this "language experiment" , as Whitman eventually came to call Leaves of Grass, introduced an innovative poetic style that shocked many of his contemporaries, accustomed as they were to the metrical regularities and often moralistic themes of a Longfellow or Whittier, and that has influenced many poets writing after him.
In 1819 Whitman was born to Louisa Van Velsor and Walter Whitman, who were then living in Huntington, Long Island. The second of nine children, young "Walter," as he was christened, moved with his family to Brooklyn by the time he was five years of age, although he continued to visit relatives on Long Island throughout his youth. After a few brief years of schooling, Whitman began working to contribute to the family income: his first job was in a lawyer’s office. There his employer informally contributed to Whitman’s further education by tutoring him in writing and giving the boy a subscription to a circulating library (after which he became an avid reader). These aids, coupled with his experience two years later setting type as a printer’s apprentice, helped to make up for the deficiencies of his formal education. In addition, Whitman sought to learn more about the things around him, both in nature and in the city; birds, the sea, ships, ferrymen, and farmers he made his objects of study. By the time he was sixteen, he was working in a printer’s office in New York, where his cultural horizons expanded even further as he visited art galleries, attended plays and concerts, and watched the multitudes of people around him.
From 1836 to 1841 Whitman taught school in Queens and Suffolk Counties on Long Island, but after 1838 he increasingly involved himself in journalistic activities. In 1838 he founded his own journal, The Long Islander, which briefly did well before the restless Whitman moved on. He worked for or contributed to many papers and magazines for the next decade or so; The Long Island Democrat, The Aurora, The Sun, The Evening Tattler, The American Review, The Democratic Review, and The Brooklyn Daily Eagle are just a few of the publications with which he was affiliated. He contributed editorials and criticism, sensational or sentimental prose fiction, and only occasionally poetry. In these years he published a temperance novel entitled Franklin Evans, or The Inebriate, and took up many other causes in his journalism, such as corporeal and capital punishment, and the exploitation of female laborers. His democratic party politics placed him at odds with many of his editor-employers, particularly during the mid- to late 1840s when he embraced the position of the Free-Soil Democrats. After losing an editorial job with a paper owned by a slave-soil Democrat in 1848, Whitman decided on a change of scenery and took a new position, ironically with a Southern newspaper, the New Orleans Crescent.
Accompanied by his brother Jeff, Whitman journeyed to New Orleans--and within months, back to New York, after losing this latest job--and had for the first time an opportunity to see the South and what was then the West. This trip is cited by some scholars as the possible inspiration for Whitman’s emergent poetic impulses; certainly in the years that followed, he began work on Leaves of Grass, which he published in 1855. Unusual in appearance as well as in content, this first edition of Leaves made little impact on the literary world, although Whitman sent it to various presses for review, as well as to figures of literary renown. Among the recipients of these gift editions was Ralph Waldo Emerson, who stood nearly alone in his praise of the work but whose praise enabled Whitman to bear up under the criticisms coming from other quarters. Whitman published two revised editions in the next five years, one in 1856 (which included an unauthorized publication of Emerson’s remarks, along with a letter from Whitman addressing Emerson as "dear Friend and Master" ) and one in 1860. These editions saw the addition of such poems as "Spontaneous Me," "A Woman Waits for Me," "Children of Adam," and "Calamus," poems that, due to their explicit sexual themes, did not increase Whitman’s popularity or improve his reputation. Indeed, the widespread negative responses to these "indecent" pieces would plague him for the rest of his career. Yet despite such responses, the 1860 edition, published in Boston by a reputable publisher, looked as though it might sell better than previous editions, until the advent of the Civil War caused its publishers to go out of business.
Whitman is famously associated with the Civil War; works such as Drum-Taps (1865), his notes and letters that recorded his experiences visiting the wounded in military hospitals (as in Memoranda during the War , and The Wound Dresser ), and his poems and lectures elegizing Lincoln after his assassination have each captured aspects of that war-time drama, while together these works, with their patriotic pride and sorrow, have been appreciatively understood by many as giving voice to the complex responses of a nation at war with itself. Whitman did not enlist in the fighting, but upon hearing in 1862 that his brother George had been wounded he went to Fredericksburg, Virginia in order to look after him. When he discovered that George’s wound was superficial and that he needed no nursing, Whitman turned his attention to the soldiers housed in makeshift hospitals. These men he would visit, writing their letters, talking and reading to them, bringing them food and gifts at his own expense, even tending them physically at times. To earn money he wrote occasional articles for various northern newspapers while he worked part-time in government positions. From the first of these positions Whitman was fired in 1865 by the Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, who had gotten hold of a copy of Leaves of Grass and had been shocked by its sexual content. Whitman’s friend, William Douglass O’Connor, rose to the poet’s defense in a pamphlet called The Good Gray Poet, and the Assistant Attorney General, J. Hubley Ashton, tried to change Harlan’s mind but to no avail. Whitman, however, remained for the most part living and working in Washington, D.C., until 1873, when he became too ill to hold a job.
This period in Whitman’s life has been called the "high plateau" by one Whitman scholar, a time of productivity, good health, and strong relationships. It was in this period that he met or became better acquainted with such writers as O’Connor, John Burroughs, and Edmund Clarence Stedman, all figures who would write in support of him in the coming years (though in Stedman’s case the support was qualified by his disapproval of Whitman’s sexual imagery). O’Connor’s grounds for defending Whitman in 1865 rested in part on an argument against censorship, an argument that he would reiterate in the 1880s when the state of Massachusetts would suppress the publication of Leaves of Grass. John Burroughs published a book-length study of Whitman in 1867 entitled Notes on Walt Whitman (parts of which Whitman himself ghost-wrote), the first of many of his writings about Whitman. Whitman himself was writing a good deal in this decade, publishing not only Drum-Taps but also two articles that together would become known as Democratic Vistas (1867 and 1868), along with Passage to India (1870) and two revised American editions of Leaves of Grass (1866-67, 1870). His work was also gaining popularity in Europe, where articles about him appeared in several countries, and an edition of his poems was published in England by John Camden Hotten (1868).
Responsible in great part for this British edition, entitled Poems of Walt Whitman, was its editor William Michael Rossetti, brother of the pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Interestingly, Whitman, for once, reluctantly permitted Rossetti to print only select poems from Leaves of Grass, an expurgation that no doubt accounted for the edition’s positive reception among British audiences. Some of Whitman’s new enthusiasts included Swinburne, Edward Carpenter, and John Addington Symonds, as well as Edward Dowden in Ireland, but perhaps the most important new supporter was Mrs. Anne Burrows Gilchrist. Co-author of an important biography of Blake that her husband had left unfinished at his death and sole author of other critical works, Anne Gilchrist had enjoyed the Rossetti edition so much that Rossetti lent her a copy of the unexpurgated Leaves of Grass. Soon thereafter, upon hearing her praise of its purity and spirituality, Rossetti asked her to write an article on Whitman that defended the poet against charges of indecency. This she did and in May of 1870 "A Woman’s Estimate of Walt Whitman" appeared in the Boston Radical. In addition to this impassioned article, Gilchrist began writing love letters to Whitman, which he so ineffectively repulsed that she actually moved herself and her family to the United States in 1876 and lived in close proximity and growing friendship with the poet, before she could fully understand or accept that they would never be married. After she returned to England, Whitman affectionately corresponded with her until her death in 1885, as well as with other members of the family, especially her son Herbert, a painter of some renown.
The years in which Gilchrist came to know Whitman were difficult ones for the poet, who suffered a stroke in 1873. His health had slowly declined since 1864, a decline attributed by his friends to the long, self-sacrificing hours he had spent nursing the war wounded and exposing himself to disease. Many of these friends made their opinion public in order both to point to Whitman’s patriotism and thereby rehabilitate his reputation and to help garner funds for Whitman’s support as he found himself less and less able to provide for himself reliably. From England Rossetti wrote to President Cleveland in 1885 asking that the United States do something to help this man who had so freely given of himself during the War, while the next year Boston journalist Sylvester Baxter managed to get his congressman to introduce a bill to provide a pension for Whitman; neither effort resulted in the desired effect. Rossetti and Gilchrist, however, drew upon their powerful influences in the artistic circles that they inhabited and together were more than once successful in promoting a relief fund for Whitman, a fund based on subscriptions "to buy Whitman’s books up to whatever limit of money they [were] prepared to spend" (in Rossetti’s words). For the rest of his life, other friends, fans, and even people who didn’t particularly like his work were to help in similar ways, such as buying subscription tickets to his annual lectures commemorating the death of Abraham Lincoln, giving benefit lectures themselves (as Robert Ingersoll did in 1890), and soliciting contributions to build a house in the country for Whitman or to purchase a horse and buggy that the less active invalid might get out and around a bit.
Scope and Contents
The bulk of the Walt Whitman collection at the University of Pennsylvania Library was acquired from Mrs. Frank Julian Sprague of New York, a collector of Whitmania, with additional contributors including Mrs. Charles Cridland (the granddaughter of David McKay) and John R. Stevenson. The manuscript collection, complementing a sizeable collection of rare first edition Whitman publications, contains important correspondence, manuscripts, and memorabilia that primarily represent Whitman’s life and career after the Civil War and until his death, a period from 1867 to 1892. It also holds letters and papers of early supporters, biographers, and guardians of the Whitman legacy: these letters shed particular light on Whitman’s relationship with William Michael Rossetti, the Gilchrist family, and Whitman’s publishers in the 1880s. More generally, the collection provides a picture of the tremendous forces that shaped public and scholarly reception of Whitman’s work, forces that ensured the poet’s entry into the canon of American literature.
The University of Pennsylvania Library is an appropriate home for such a collection, since Whitman spent most of the last two and a half decades of his life--the very decades represented by these papers--living across the river in Camden, New Jersey, and visiting his many friends in Philadelphia. They included David McKay (Whitman’s publisher from 1882 to 1892), the artist Thomas Eakins, George W. Childs (owner of the Philadelphia Ledger), Shakespearian scholar Horace Howard Furness (postcards from Whitman to Furness are housed in the H. H. Furness Memorial Library, Special Collections, University of Pennsylvania), and Penn professor Daniel Garrison Brinton. E. Sculley Bradley, a professor of English and American Literature at Penn (1919-1967), was instrumental in the University’s acquiring this collection. At the same time, Bradley--together with Gay Wilson Allen of New York University--oversaw the editing of The Collected Works of Walt Whitman, which include scholarly editions of Whitman’s letters, manuscripts, published and unpublished prose, and of course, Leaves of Grass. The contents of the Whitman manuscript collection no doubt were utilized by Bradley in the editing of these texts.
Roughly a third of the Whitman collection comprises correspondence, including Whitman’s personal correspondence, dated between 1868 and 1891. A preponderance of these personal letters are epistles and postcards exchanged between Whitman and his “noblest woman friend,” Anne Gilchrist. Gilchrist and Whitman’s correspondence, begun immediately following the 1870 publication of her article, “A Woman’s Estimate of Walt Whitman,” continued until she died; this collection contains all of the letters written to her by Whitman. Also in the collection is Whitman’s 1869 letter to Michael William Rossetti, through whom he sent a first, indirect message to his then-anonymous admirer, Anne Gilchrist. Whitman also came to correspond with her children, particularly her artist son, Herbert Gilchrist; a large number of these letters are in the collection. (The portraits that Herbert painted of his mother and of Walt Whitman, as well as his painting entitled “The Tea-Party”--depicting Whitman, Mrs. Gilchrist, and Herbert’s sister Grace--are among the University of Pennsylvania Library’s holdings. Readers interested in the Gilchrist family should also be made aware of the existence of the Gilchrist Family Papers, also located in the Department of Special Collections, University of Pennsylvania Library. Most of Anne Gilchrist’s letters to Whitman are housed at the Library of Congress.)
The Walt Whitman Collection also includes photostats of the autograph letter written by Emerson in 1855 upon reading the first edition Leaves of Grass, a letter made famous by Whitman’s unauthorized use of it to promote his second edition in 1856. For the most part, however, the personal correspondence in the collection is concentrated in the 1870s and 1880s, with literary correspondents including John Burroughs, William Sloane Kennedy, and Bernard O’Dowd. Also represented in this series are letters to close friends and family, such as Susan and George Stafford (whose farm he frequently visited in this period, and whose son, Harry, was an intimate friend), and Whitman’s own mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman.
In addition to this personal correspondence, there are many letters relating to Whitman written by his friends and literary acquaintances. These letters afford glimpses of the efforts made during his lifetime to increase Whitman’s respectability and popularity and after his death to preserve his memory and secure his place in America’s literary canon. Burroughs and Kennedy again make their appearance, as do the men who would become the executors of Whitman’s literary estate, Richard Maurice Bucke, Thomas Biggs Harned, and Horace Traubel. Other literary correspondents include Henry Bryan Binns, Mary Mapes Dodge, William Dean Howells, William Douglass O’Connor, John Addington Symonds, among others. Important information may be found in the notes and letters of both Anne Gilchrist and William Michael Rossetti regarding the efforts they made to raise funds for Whitman’s support during his invalid years. Also of interest, a letter by J. W. Wallace gives some indication of both private and public responses to Harned’s publication in 1919 of Whitman and Gilchrist’s correspondence.
A small number of Whitman manuscripts, along with various proof sheets and manuscript fragments, may be found in this collection. Items of special note include a complete manuscript of Whitman’s essay on Robert Burns (1882); a manuscript and galley sheet (with notes) of his "A Backward Glance on My Own Road" (1885); and the manuscript draft of his poem, "Going Somewhere" (1887), written in memory of Anne Gilchrist. In addition to these are numerous manuscript fragments, published and unpublished, including photostat pages from the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), some Civil War notes ( "Henry D. Howells" ), the beginnings of a late version of his Abraham Lincoln lecture, and a drafted response to a mayoral candidate who had asked for Whitman’s support in an upcoming election ( "Tell the American" ).
Besides some of Whitman’s own writings, the collection also contains writings about Whitman by his contemporaries, such as John Burrough’s introduction to the 1912 edition of The Rolling Earth, drafted in the form of a letter to publisher Waldo R. Browne. Furthermore, there are proof- sheet excerpts of Burrough’s Notes on Walt Whitman (including the entire "Supplementary Notes" of the 1871 edition); a notebook belonging to Herbert Gilchrist that records conversations with Whitman (1876); partial galley sheets (with notes) to "A Study of Walt Whitman" by William Sloane Kennedy (1881); and page proofs of Horace Traubel’s "Walt Whitman’s Birthday" (1891). Of additional interest is a collection of clippings (announcements, reviews and editorials, some gathered by Whitman himself) pertaining to the publication and suppression of the 1881-1882 edition of Leaves of Grass. Among these may be found William Douglass O’Connor’s famous defense of Whitman printed in the New York Daily Tribune, May 25, 1882 (the series also contains a partial photostat of the manuscript of this same defense). Among the various tributes and commemorative works produced after Whitman’s death, this collection holds some of the early papers (constitution, list of officers, member list, etc.) of the Whitman Fellowship, which met on the poet’s birthday every year after his death. These papers include speeches given at the 1894 gathering of fellows by Francis Howard Williams ( "Walt Whitman as Deliverer" , 1894) and by Dr. R. M. Bucke ( "Memories of Walt Whitman" ). Also among the tributes may be found announcements and invitations to such commemorative events as the unveiling of a bust of Whitman by Chester Beach in 1931 and the 1957 opening of the Walt Whitman Bridge, which connects Camden and Philadelphia. Moreover, the series contains a set of Christmas postcards (dated 1912 to 1920) featuring Whitman poetry and designed by Whitman scholar Henry Saunders and a number of poems written in tribute to Whitman by such twentieth-century poets as Thomas Curtis Clark, Nathalia Crane, Michael Gold, and Langston Hughes, to name a few.
Whitman memorabilia includes portraits dating from the 1840s to the later years of Whitman’s life. Among these portraits are photographs and reprints (including a photograph taken by Alexander Gardner during Whitman’s years in Washington, D.C.); original sketches as well as print reproductions of paintings by Herbert Gilchrist and by Dora Wheeler Keith; and photographs of sculptures by Whitman’s contemporary Sidney Morse, as well as by a later artist, Jo Davidson, whose statue, "Song of the Open Road" , was exhibited at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. There are also photographs, engravings, and printed descriptions of biographically significant sites, such as Whitman’s birthplace, a Long Island schoolhouse in which he taught, Timber Creek, and the house on Mickle Street. Odds and ends include a ticket to Robert Ingersoll’s 1890 lecture, Whitman’s visiting card, and a lock of hair supposedly cut from Whitman’s head upon his death by his housekeeper, Mary Davis.
In processing the Walt Whitman Collection, extensive use was made of The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman, especially The Correspondence (1876-1892), edited by Edwin Haviland Miller (volumes 3-5), Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, edited by Edward F. Grier, and Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader’s Edition (1965), edited by Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley; the biographies The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman (1967) by Gay Wilson Allen, Whitman: An Interpretation in Narrative (1926) by Emory Holloway, Walt Whitman: A Life (1980) by Justin Kaplan, Dumas Malone’s entry on Walt Whitman in the second volume of the Dictionary of American Biography (1936), Walt Whitman (1906) by Bliss Perry, and Walt Whitman (1883) by Richard Maurice Buck; the study Anne Gilchrist and Walt Whitman(1900) by Elizabeth Porter Gould; the collections The Letters of Anne Gilchrist and Walt Whitman (1919), edited by Thomas B. Harned, The Letters of William Michael Rossetti (1934), edited by Clarence Gohdes and Paull Franklin Baum, Whitman Portraits (1922), compiled by Henry S. Saunders, and The Life and Letters of John Burroughs (1925) by Clara Barrus.
Organized into seven series: Series I. Correspondence; Series II. Financial papers and correspondence; Series III. Writings by Whitman; Series IV. Contemporaries' biographical and critical writings about Whitman; Series V. Tributes to Whitman; Series VI. Memorabilia; Series VII. Oversize.
Finding Aid Author
Finding aid prepared by Leslie Smith
This collection is open for research use.
Copyright restrictions may exist. For most library holdings, the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania do not hold copyright. It is the responsibility of the requester to seek permission from the holder of the copyright to reproduce material from the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts.
Source of Acquisition
Purchase (with additional gifts), 1942-1966.
Principal holdings: Mrs. Frank Julian Sprague.
Additional donations: Mrs. Charles Cridland (Whitman-McKay correspondence)and Mr. John R. Stevenson ( "A Backward Glance on My Own Road" manuscript).
Controlled Access Headings
- Writings (document genre)
- Whitman, Walt, 1819-1892
- Authors, American--19th century
- Poets, American--19th century