Four of Walt Whitman's early notebooks containing fragments and revisions of the poem "Song of Myself," as well as notes of wounded Civil War soldiers' needs, are being returned to the custody of the Library, some 50 years after they mysteriously disappeared from LC's manuscript collections.
The notebooks, together with a cardboard butterfly photographed on the 19th-century poet's finger, came to light last month at Sotheby's in New York. A New York lawyer settling his father's estate took the four notebooks and the butterfly to Sotheby's for appraisal. He told Sotheby's the items were a gift to his father, who had them for some 30 years.
Selby Kiffer, a vice president in Sotheby's Books and Manuscripts Department, traced them to the Library, which confirmed on Jan. 25 that these were among 24 Whitman notebooks deposited with the Library in 1918 by Thomas B. Harned of Philadelphia, one of Whitman's three literary executors.
Still missing are six Whitman notebooks from the Harned collection of some 3,000 items. LC discovered the disappearance of 10 Whitman notebooks and the butterfly in 1944, when staff unpacked crates of precious materials that LC had deposited for safekeeping in 1942 at four archives outside Washington.
The Library conducted a fruitless internal search for the notebooks for the next ten years. "We never knew for sure that they got out of the Library; this is the big break I never dreamed would happen," said Alice L. Birney, American literature specialist, Manuscript Division.
Not only are the Harned collection notebooks among the first Whitman papers received by the Library, whose premiere collection of Whitman materials has grown to more than 98,000 items, but they contain early versions of the poems that appeared in Leaves of Grass. "These notebooks are the primary record of the poet's very early career, while he was a journalist (during the 1840s), and during his years in Washington while he was a volunteer nurse in the Civil War," Birney said.
She noted that the Whitman notebooks were the subject of scholarly works by Emory Holloway (1921), Clifton Joseph Furness (1928), and Charles I. Glicksberg (1933). "It would take a line-by-line comparison of the notebooks with published materials to see what is new. Scholars will be able to do that before long," Birney said.
Already, scholars are clamoring for access to the four notebooks that have been out of circulation since 1942. However, they will have to wait until they are returned to LC — Birney would not disclose that date "for security reasons" — and are given "immediate preservation treatment."
"These are extremely fragile. Our first concern is their preservation. They will be made available in surrogate form for research as soon as possible," Birney said.
According to Sotheby's, the most important of the four recovered notebooks is the earliest, dated 1847, which contains about 47 small leaves densely written in pencil with aphorism, observations, and extensively revised poetry, including early drafts of "Song of Myself."
The other three notebooks, also written in pencil, include thoughts on perception and the human senses, names and addresses of friends and acquaintances, and drafts of Civil War poetry. One includes notes about wounded soldiers Whitman was nursing in 1862: "bed 15 — wants an orange. . .bed 59 wants some liquorice. . .27 wants some figs and a book."
Birney said a famous 1880 photograph portrayed Whitman, with long gray beard and broad-brimmed hat, seated with a butterfly on an outstretched finger. Scholars concluded that the butterfly in the photo was in fact the cardboard model found among Whitman's papers after his death in 1892. Ever the self-promoter, Birney said, Whitman liked to convey an image of himself as one-with-nature.
A Philadelphia lawyer, Harned wrote Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam on Feb. 8, 1917, to ask if he would take the Whitman manuscripts, books, and other materials in his care. Noting that the New York Public Library also was under consideration, Harned said he had a "decided preference" for Washington, where Whitman had lived "for an important ten years of his life." Washington also was a central point for study by students of Whitman, Harned said.
Among the letters exchanged between Harned and the Library was one, dated Sept. 4, 1917, from acting Librarian F. W. Ashley. "We are extremely gratified at the decision to place this collection with the National Library, and the papers will here be given that expert care and attention which their importance deserves," the acting Librarian said.
In a Sept. 7, 1917, reply, Harned said he would hold back Whitman's notebooks "(the most important of all)" and some letters from his share of the papers until after fall publication of two or three books based on those materials.
A hand-written memo dated Nov. 15, 1918, noted that the Manuscript Division received "this afternoon" 24 notebooks "and a lot of miscellaneous sheets, in yellow covers," which were later counted as a 25th notebook.
Access to the notebooks was restricted until after Holloway's two-volume work, The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, appeared in 1921. All restrictions fell away in 1925, after Harned's death, and scholars extensively consulted the notebooks until 1942.
World War II hit the Library hard. Anti-aircraft guns were installed on rooftops and staff conducted 24-hour air raid watches from six posts atop the Jefferson and Adams buildings. Special divisions were formed to provide defense information and "war time communications" to the Congress and executive agencies. Staff bought war bonds, rolled bandages for the Red Cross, and recycled scarce materials; they reused envelopes, hoarded paper clips, pulled erasers from used pencils, and wore carbon sheets thin. Several called for active duty died in battle.
During the days following the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, LC's keeper of the collections, Alvin W. Kremer, and staff crated up LC treasures, including Whitman papers from the Harned collection, for evacuation early in 1942.
The October 1944 issue of the Information Bulletin reported that the last shipment of 4,789 packing cases — "the equivalent of 26 freight car loads" — of materials were returned to the Library on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 1944. According to the Bulletin, four of LC's wartime repositories were Denison University in Granville, Ohio, the Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University in Lexington, and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
According to Birney, the small container that supposedly held "24 notebooks" and the butterfly still was sealed upon its return to LC in 1944. When it was opened, there were only 14 notebooks and no butterfly.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation advised LC how to proceed in 1952. In 1954, the division published a circular describing the missing items from information and some photostatic copies provided by scholars who had used the collection. This document was circulated to archives, book dealers, and other sources asking them to watch for the missing materials and return them to the Library. However, the call from Sotheby's was the first news of the missing items in 50 years.
"We are grateful to Sotheby's for its alertness and its public spirit, and to the person who found the four Walt Whitman notebooks. They are a priceless part of our national literary heritage," Dr. Billington said. "We hope that the recovery of these notebooks may finally lead to the recovery of the other six that disappeared from the Library's holdings a half-century ago, and we ask that anyone with knowledge of their whereabouts contact the FBI."
By Gail Fineberg
Reprinted from the Library of Congress Gazette, February 24, 1995