The Walt Whitman Archive recently published a new digital edition of Whitman’s short fiction. Most people know Whitman as America’s poet and the author of Leaves of Grass, but in the early 1840s, he was a journalist, a newspaper editor, and the author of numerous short stories. Whitman wrote at least twenty-six (and likely more) stories, some of which were published in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, a prestigious magazine that counted Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe among its contributors. As Whitman wrote his fiction, he drew on popular fiction genres of his time, including reform literature, religious and didactic stories, and tales of crime and urban life in New York. His stories are set in taverns, restaurants, boarding houses, graveyards, and schoolrooms. Whitman’s fiction is peopled with determined widows, corrupt lawyers, struggling writers, violent schoolmasters, and unsympathetic fathers. It focuses on respected war heroes, violence and murder, the dangers and consequences of drinking alcohol, and intense, often homoerotic friendships between men.
Whitman’s stories circulated both nationally and internationally during his lifetime, and even though notices about and reviews of his stories are seemingly rare in nineteenth-century newspapers and magazines, those that have been discovered praise both Whitman’s stories and his ability as a fiction writer. Over the last few decades, there has also been a renewed scholarly interest in Whitman’s fiction, particularly with respect to his treatment of race and sexuality in these works. At the same time, although there is a print scholarly edition of Whitman’s fiction–Thomas Brasher’s The Early Poems and the Fiction, a volume of the Collected Writings of Writings of Walt Whitman–it was published in 1963, and the ways in which we read, teach, and understand Whitman’s fiction have changed considerably in the last 54 years. Therefore, it seemed like the right time to create an updated digital edition of Whitman’s fiction for the Walt Whitman Archive.
With the generous support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, my co-editor Nicole Gray (Research Assistant Professor of English, University of Nebraska-Lincoln [UNL]) and I–with assistance from other members of the Whitman Archive staff–selected texts, processed high resolution page images, and used text encoding (TEI/XML) to prepare the edition. Our edition of Whitman’s fiction is unique, not just because it is digital, but because we made the editorial decision to present the fiction as it was originally printed in New York periodicals. Thus, the edition includes the twenty-six known works of fiction by Whitman and scanned images of each page of the stories as they were first printed in newspapers or magazines. Each story is annotated, and these annotations offer definitions for relevant terms, note significant editorial revisions, and provide key contextual information that allow readers to better understand the historical, political, and social contexts within which Whitman was writing. Each story is also accompanied by a headnote; for example, Whitman’s first short story, “Death in the School-Room. A Fact.” (1841) has a corresponding headnote titled, “About ‘Death in the School-Room’” that details the story’s publication history, highlights important themes in the work, and provides evidence of the tale’s positive reception among nineteenth-century readers. The full scholarly introduction to the project, “Introduction to Walt Whitman’s Short Fiction” describes Whitman’s fiction-writing career, makes connections between stories with similar themes, analyzes editorial changes Whitman made to the stories over time, and presents a wealth of new information on the circulation of the stories during his lifetime. The updated bibliography and map allows users of the edition to see how frequently Whitman’s fiction was reprinted and how widely it circulated.
While work on this digital edition took about three years, Whitman’s fiction has long been one of my primary research interests. I read Whitman’s fiction for the first time during the Spring 2005 semester at the University of Iowa in the English Department’s well-known and much-loved graduate seminar course on Walt Whitman taught by Professor Ed Folsom, who also co-directs the Walt Whitman Archive with Professor Kenneth Price (University of Nebraska-Lincoln). At that time, I was still adjusting to graduate school, to being the first person in my immediate family to graduate from college and the only one to attempt to pursue a PhD. Some six months earlier I had moved to Iowa City, traveled nearly one thousand miles from a rural community in northern North Carolina, leaving behind the textile mill and assembly line jobs that many families relied upon, as well as the country stores, and the tree-filled backyards of my youth. I was not yet used to Iowa–to the severe thunderstorms in the summer, the snow that can blanket the ground for weeks at a time in the winter–or to the University itself, which moved to its own unique rhythms: a steady beat of forms to fill out, deadlines to meet, and futures to plan. And in the midst of everything, I can only say, inarticulately at best, that I took great comfort in reading Whitman’s writings and learning about his life that semester: it was in that class and with those texts that I would come to feel most at home. Then, I only knew Whitman as America’s poet and the author of poems like “Song of Myself” and “Calamus.” But from the start, I was fascinated with Whitman’s early career–with Whitman as a young upstart journalist, an editor for the New York Aurora, and a writer of short stories, at a time when he was not much older than the undergraduate students I would soon teach in Rhetoric classes. It was this Whitman–the writer of fiction–I wanted to learn about in spite, or, perhaps, because it was generally accepted, as Thomas Brasher put it in his own edition: “Whitman had no talent for fiction.” And while it is certainly possible to debate the literary merit of the stories, my own research would soon show that Whitman’s fiction was circulated far more extensively in the nineteenth-century than had been previously imagined.
Fast forward to the year 2010 when I was finishing a dissertation about the years Whitman spent at Pfaff’s beer cellar in New York and how the self-proclaimed American bohemian community of artists, writers, and actors that gathered there helped shape Whitman’s third edition of Leaves of Grass (1860). I was searching for quotes from the fiction that showed how Whitman had described barrooms and taverns in his youth to use for my introduction, but what I began to find–in databases of digitized newspapers and magazines–were reprints of Whitman’s short stories. I should clarify that it was quite common in the nineteenth-century for newspapers and magazines to borrow content from one another. Newspaper and magazine editors, for example, often reprinted stories, poems, articles, and recipes that they had taken directly from other books, newspapers, and magazines. So, on one hand, it was not surprising to encounter Whitman’s fiction circulating in numerous newspapers in and beyond his native New York. On the other, in the case of Whitman’s fiction–long believed to have gone unnoticed even in his own time–these reprints had not been documented by previous Whitman biographers and bibliographers. Over the last six years, I have found more than 370 reprints of Whitman’s short stories in newspapers and magazines. More than 250 of these reprints are recorded in a bibliography that was published in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review in 2013, and the rest are documented in the Whitman Archive’s bibliography, now part of the new fiction edition. This research reveals that Whitman’s fiction was published and presumably read by newspaper and magazine readers from California to Mississippi and from Wisconsin to North Carolina throughout the nineteenth-century. Even more significantly, it reached newspaper readers as far away as Canada, England, and even Tasmania by the mid-1840s, when Whitman was still in his twenties. It is also quite remarkable that even though Whitman wrote these short stories in the 1840s, they were still being reprinted nearly fifty years later in 1892, the year of Whitman’s death and a time when he had gained international fame as a poet.
The number and the geographic range of the reprints of Whitman’s fiction suggest the potential for a considerable readership for his fiction in the nineteenth-century. In fact, if Whitman was known in the 1840s, it would not have been as a poet (although he did publish some early poems), but rather as a writer of fiction for newspapers and magazines. Some of these reprints may even represent his earliest contact with an international readership. Since new details about Whitman’s fiction career continue to emerge, it is an exciting time to be publishing a new digital edition on the Archive. Nicole and I hope that this edition will invite readers who have never before encountered Whitman’s fiction to read these texts for the first time and that it will encourage those who are familiar with them to return and consider them anew. Users of the Archive’s edition will be able to see how Whitman’s fiction engaged with popular 1840s reform movements and how he understood and treated race, gender, and sexuality in these tales. They will be able to explore when, how, and where the fiction circulated and how Whitman himself revisited and revised his stories at various points during his life. They will also have the opportunity to see Whitman not simply as a poet, but as a young fiction-writer with a keen understanding of the literary marketplace and the magazines and newspapers to which he contributed. Finally and, perhaps most importantly, it is my hope that this edition will enable today’s readers to understand Whitman’s fiction as an important chapter in his writing career and that it will encourage them to ask the questions that will lead to new ways of looking at these materials in the future.
Stephanie M. Blalock
Digital Humanities Librarian &
Associate Editor, Walt Whitman Archive
University of Iowa Libraries