Digitally Editing Walt Whitman’s Aurora Editorials

Walt Whitman was a journalist for over fifteen years before he wrote Leaves of Grass.  While his journalism has been published in various books for almost 100 years, editing Whitman’s journalism for print has been problematic for a couple of reasons.

First, much of Whitman’s journalism was published anonymously, and therefore it is often difficult to identify what is by Whitman and what isn’t. In this regard, scholars have had to rely on contextual evidence, or Whitman’s own memories (or those of his contemporaries) to identify what might be Whitman’s and what might not.

This leads to a second problem of editing Whitman’s journalism for print: there is always a need to update the scholarly record. For example, in just the last six months, Zachary Turpin, a doctoral student at the University of Houston, discovered a lost journalistic series on men’s health of over 45,000 words that Whitman wrote in the fall of 1858. This book-length series remained unknown to scholars of Whitman’s journalism for an entire century and requires us to rethink what we know about Whitman as a journalist. With new journalism always coming to light, printed collections of Whitman’s journalism are in a constant danger of becoming obsolete.

On the other hand, digital editing and online publication allows for a more flexible medium where newly discovered work can be easily incorporated into an existing framework. The Walt Whitman Archive at the University of Nebraska has begun the long and laborious process of digitally editing Whitman’s journalism and has already published four series by Whitman from the 1840s and 1850s, “Sun-Down Papers” (1840-1841), “Letters from a Travelling Bachelor” (1849-1850), “Letters from Paumanok” (1851), and “New York Dissected” (1856), as well as an impressive collection of the poet’s Civil War journalism.

The Archive‘s most robust holdings of Whitman’s journalism, however, are its issues of the New York Aurora, which Whitman edited in the spring of 1842. Previously, these issues only existed in print and were housed at the Patterson Free Library in New Jersey. Now, however, scholars and students have access to Whitman’s editorials in the Aurora online.

Over the past year, students in my Antebellum American History course (HIST 326), my five URCA students, Thad Marshall, Andrew Pashea, Lucas Reincke, Nolan Shan, and Amanda Kapper, and graduate students Samanthe’ Braswell and Jacob Byers, have helped me begin the process of transcribing, annotating and encoding Whitman’s editorials from the Aurora, which will make them fully-searchable on the Walt Whitman Archive and provide useful historical annotations to help make sense of the names and events that fill these one-hundred-and-seventy-five-year-old documents. Currently, we have prepared about 40 of the 120 editorials that Whitman wrote for the Aurora in the spring of 1842. The Archive will publish these editions from the Aurora in the summer of 2017.

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Antebellum American History (HIST 326), Spring 2016

Written by Dr. Jason Stacy

 

 

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