Delicious As The Kisses Of God1
Whitman’s Butterfly (Bottom View)2
The Mystery Of The Missing Walt Whitman Notebooks3
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Library of Congress sent almost 5,000 crates of historic documents (equivalent to 26 freight car loads) to repositories in Virginia and Ohio for safekeeping.4 In 1944, one of those crates, which should have contained 24 of Walt Whitman’s notebooks and the butterfly pictured at top of post, was returned to Washington. When the seal was broken and the crate unpacked, only 14 notebooks (and no butterfly) were found. A ten year internal search was unrequited and, at that time (1954), acting on advice from the FBI, the Library of Congress circulated a description of the missing goods to book and antiquities dealers, archives, and other likely individuals and institutions, asking that a watch be kept for the missing items.
Forty-one years passed without a response. Then, in 1995, a New York lawyer turned up at Sotheby’s to ask them to appraise four of the lost notebooks and the cardboard butterfly, which he reported were given to his father, who had held them for 30 years before his death. The other six notebooks are still missing.
Prodigal Notebooks Now Online
Not only have the four notebooks been recovered but these once-lost and now-found Walt Whitman Notebooks have been scanned and are available online at Poet at Work: Walt Whitman Notebooks 1850s -1860s
The conservation of the notebooks in general and the methodology of scanning and preserving these documents in particular are also part of this online exhibition and deserve attention in their own right.
Humanizing America’s Humanist Or
Why I Like Whitman More Now Than Before I Saw The Notebooks
Before I happened onto this online exhibition of Whitman’s Notebooks, I harbored a few small resentments toward the author.
His style has always seemed to me a tad florid and his point of view more than a little self-important for a steady diet, better suited to epigrams than essays or poetry.
A morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books.
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.
I celebrate myself, and what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. I loafe and invite my soul, I lean and loafe at my ease… observing a spear of summer grass.
That he is acknowledged as the father of free verse is not an unambivalent endorsement by my lights. Heck, I was even put off by Ezra Pound’s claim that “Mentally I [Pound] am a Walt Whitman who has learned to wear a collar and a dress shirt (although at times inimical to both),”5 although, I suppose, that was hardly Walt’s doing.6
A more significant issue, however, has been my assumption that Leaves Of Grass and the rest of his literary corpus flowed from his brain through his hand and pen onto paper with trivial effort. This supposition, I suspect, was the result of learning that the man wrote in free verse, which is – well, it’s free verse, which sounds pretty easy compared with composing, say, an Italian sonnet.
And he was a transcendentalist7 and adhered to that school’s emphasis on intuition over scientific and empirical knowledge. Well, if you’re writing from intuition rather than doing the heavy lifting of working out a rational idea, how dificult can that be?
I don’t claim my resentments were well considered, let alone fair.
In any case, a glance at these notebooks wiped out my preconceived notion that Whitman’s writing was the unedited, unexpurgated transliteration of his spontaneous thoughts – Whitman channeling Whitman, as it were. To the contrary, there are many pages completely X’d out and many more on which only a few words or a phrase here and there survived the onslaught of erasures and marking-outs. The appearance of his notebook pages, in fact, bears a striking resemblance to my own. Consider page 12 from the “Perceptions or Senses” Notebook:
Or page 20 of that notebook:
I feel much better.
Delicious As The Kisses Of God
The first page I randomly selected for viewing (the notebook contents are not searchable) was Page 22 of the “Perceptions or Senses” Notebook.
And it was at the top of that page that I happened onto that felicitous phrase, Delicious as the kisses of god
Is that cool or what?
The Walt Whitman Notebooks Semi-secret Index
While browsing might be fun, searching for material without a table of contents or index, is an arduous task.
I happened onto, however, the handy-dandy Resources For Educators page which includes annotated links to specific notebook pages. For example, one set of links goes to specific pages (pages 97, 99, 101, 103, 106-108, 111, 114, 117, 119, and 120) identified as “Whitman’s accounts of the 51st regiment of New York.”
The Resources For Educators page can be accessed at Collection Connections
What About That Well Behaved Butterfly?
Displayed below is an exceedingly popular portrayal of Whitman with a butterfly or moth perched on his finger. The photograph, taken by W. Curtis Taylor in spring 1877 and described only as “a 2/3 length with hat outdoor rustic,” was first printed in the 1883 Miami Herald. It has since appeared in several displays and publications, most famously as the frontispiece of the so-called “Birthday Edition” of Leaves of Grass in 1889.
Whitman himself was especially fond of this photo:
Moreover, Whitman was clear in his description of how the scene came about:
In this case, however, it turns out that the “wild critter” Whitman attracted was a colorful to the point of gaudy cardboard butterfly produced in large quantities as part of an Easter celebration.
The scanned view of the butterfly at the beginning of this post is actually the underside of the cardboard novelty. The top of that mock butterfly is shown below.
Whitman’s Butterfly (Top View)10
The words on the top of the butterfly are from John Mason Neale’s Easter hymn which was introduced into hymnals in the 1850s.11 The thorax of the butterfly also bears the word “EASTER.”
The consensus of scholars is that Whitman, already well-known during his own lifetime as a vigorous self-promoter, wanted to present himself as a man of nature. Real butterflies being notoriously uncooperative with the notion of sitting for a portrait, Walt apparently procured this inanimate stand-in.
Have We Missed Anything?
Let’s see – we covered the case of Whitman’s lost/purloined notebooks – a national treasure – and their recovery, we reviewed that wonderful, albeit unheralded, example of the notebook’s contents, “Delicious as the kisses of God,” and we saw how one of American’s premiere poets and philosophers transformed a cardboard butterfly into a PR stunt worthy of a modern political campaign. What else could there be?
Well, there is that hat.
- Today’s post is a reworking of Delicious As The Kisses Of God, a blog entry from October 2006. What began as a quick fix of a typo became a significant revision of the prose with better graphics. It seemed a shame to hide the result a year and a half deep in the blog so here it is. Enjoy. [↩]
- From Whitman’s Cardboard Butterfly [↩]
- The information about the disappearance and recovery of the notebooks and butterfly is taken from LC’s Missing Whitman Notes Found in N.Y. and Walt Whitman and Thomas Harned [↩]
- Denison University in Granville, Ohio, the Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University in Lexington, and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville [↩]
- Trachtenberg, Alan. “Walt Whitman.” a href=”http://cco.cambridge.org/book?id=ccol0521443431_CCOL0521443431″>The Cambridge Companion to Walt Whitman. Ed. Ezra Greenspan. Cambridge University Press, 1995. Cambridge Collections Online. Cambridge University Press. 15 August 2008 [↩]
- I also have the unfortunate habit of occasionally attributing Whitman’s writing Emerson and vice-vesa, again something for which one really shouldn’t blame Whitman. [↩]
- OK, one can make an argument about whether or not Whitman was a transcendentalist, and if so, just what kind of sexed-up transcendentalism he had in mind, but I was taught in high school that he was a transcendentalist so I’m stuck with that [↩]
- Ed Folsom and Ted Genoways. This Heart’s Geography’s Map: The Photographs of Walt Whitman. The Virginia Quarterly Review. Spring 2005. 81:2. [↩]
- Ed Folsom and Ted Genoways. This Heart’s Geography’s Map: The Photographs of Walt Whitman. The Virginia Quarterly Review. Spring 2005. 81:2 [↩]
- From Whitman’s Cardboard Butterfly [↩]
- The only version of the hymn I was able to find was “Come, see the place where Jesus lay” from The Hymnal [of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA], which does not attribute this hymn to Neale, although he is listed by this hymnal as the writer or translator of several others. (Neale is best known for writing or translating “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” “Good King Wenceslas,” “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” and “A Great and Mighty Wonder”) The complete hymn follows with the lyrics found on the butterfly in bold:
174. Come, see the place where Jesus lay
Heinrich Isaak, 1539;
harm. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Thomas Kelly, 1804;
Come, see the place where Jesus lay,
And hear angelic watchers say,
“He lives, who once was slain:
Why seek the living midst the dead?
Remember how the Savior said
That he would rise again.”
O joyful sound! O glorious hour,
When by his own Almighty power
He rose and left the grave!
Now let our songs his triumph tell,
Who burst the bands of death and hell,
And ever lives to save.
The First-begotten of the dead,
For us he rose, our glorious Head,
Immortal life to bring;
What though the saints like him shall die,
They share their Leader’s victory,
And triumph with their King.
No more they tremble at the grave,
For Jesus will their spirits save,
And raise their slumbering dust:
O risen Lord, in thee we live,
To thee our ransomed souls we give,
To thee our bodies trust.