Every Atom | No. 106

Nancy Kuhl

Introduction to Every Atom by project curator Brian Clements

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The material origins of Walt Whitman’s poems—his manuscripts, notebooks, letters—survive in archives as a record of the poet’s dynamic creative process. The Yale Collection of American Literature at Yale’s Beinecke Library includes an outstanding collection of archival materials and books related to Walt Whitman’s life and work. 

Drafts in the collection are characterized by Whitman’s sweeping and distinctive handwriting and by evidence of a rigorous process of writing and revising: text is boldly struck; numerous additions and changes are made in margins and between lines; passages are cut out and others are pasted in, leaving stains where the glue dried. If these documents illustrate a richness of thought and idea, they show, too, a material economy—pasted in additions to a text are written on the back of an abandoned draft or note; paper envelopes are recycled to add pages to a notebook

Material traces of the poet’s life and times, too, enrich our understanding of his mind and imagination. Notebooks record the addresses of friends and the location of a good cup of coffee. Family ties are evident in the poet’s letters to his mother, assuring her of his good health (“Fearing you might worry about me I write to say I am doing very well indeed…”) and notes about his brother’s condition and whereabouts as a soldier during the war. His self-promotion in print is well known—his promotion of his books in shops is demonstrated by a handmade broadside created for the purpose.   

The material fact of the body leaves its mark too, beyond the handwritten language on the page. Made static by the photograph, the poet’s physical image survives in many more instances than most of his contemporaries. Relics and souvenirs related to Whitman also survive—including his last pair of eyeglasses, accompanied by a note from his nurse. 

Like that of Whitman’s individual poems, the material life of Leaves of Grass is dynamic; the many editions of the book published during the poet’s lifetime are a record of the enormous ambition of his lifelong creative project, his evolving vision of the work. The text develops over time; the books themselves change shape and presentation from one volume to the next. The first edition itself cannot be easily fixed in place—the  six copies of the 1855 edition in Beinecke Library’s collection include multiple variations, one to the next. A close look at the 1855 first edition—its various printings, bindings, paper stock, and frontispiece photos—reveals the difficulty of following archival threads back to a single point of origin.  

To his reader, Whitman writes: “You shall not…look through the eyes of the dead…you shall not look through my eyes either.” And yet in archival documents and objects we do seem to see through the eyes of the poet. Materials of the poet’s life reveal something of his world and his place in it; artifacts of his thought process and his imagination help us understand something of the workings of his mind.

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Nancy Kuhl is Curator of Poetry for the Yale Collection of American Literature at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.


Cover art by Ben Rendall