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American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 14.2 (2004) 247-259

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From the Field:

Walt Whitman's Periodical Poetry 1

Periodical literature is still a fairly new field in the scholarship of nineteenth-century American literature; until recently, the periodical publications of most writers were not studied very carefully, even writers long-established in the canon. Although most students of Whitman know that he served as the printer and self-publisher of Leaves of Grass in 1855, few scholars have studied his career as a journalist and his ongoing relationship with periodical literature. Whitman wrote extensively for the periodical press and worked as an editor at a series of newspapers for many years before he published the first edition of Leaves of Grass. In the process, he not only developed skills as a writer and poet but also gained considerable acumen about the periodical marketplace. Whitman continued to publish poems in periodicals during the years he was revising and expanding Leaves of Grass. Altogether, he published about 150 first printings of poems in about 45 periodicals (both magazines and newspapers) from 1838 until his death in 1892. And these estimated figures do not include the many poems that were published multiple times or the ones that were published without his permission or even knowledge.

Since actual copies of nineteenth-century periodicals are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain and use, presenting digital images and encoded, searchable transcriptions of Whitman's periodical poems is one of the goals of TheWalt Whitman Archive (http://www.whitman (Figure 1). Through an electronic archive developed collaboratively by professors, librarians, archivists, e-text specialists, and graduate students, we can provide access to these hard-to-find poems, preserve the images of pages from the original periodicals in electronic form, and assist scholars and students in understanding another side of Whitman's life as a poet—one who constantly sought publication in [End Page 247] the popular periodicals of his day in order to broaden his audience. The challenges of creating an electronic archive of Whitman's periodical poetry are themselves quite significant, and there are many lessons to be learned from the work of creating such an archive.2 The process of collecting and reading the periodicals can teach us a great deal about Whitman's publication practices. Indeed, the close examination of the poetry as it originally appeared in the magazines and newspapers themselves raises some important questions. What was Whitman's strategy for publishing the poems in periodicals? How did the periodicals shape the writing and publication of the poems? How did those publications serve the various editions of Leaves of Grass?

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Figure 1
The main page of The Walt Whitman Archive, edited by Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price. Used by permission of the editors.

As Emerson guessed in a famous letter following the appearance of Leaves of Grass in 1855, Whitman "must have had a long foreground somewhere."3 That foreground was the periodical press.4 Before 1855, Whitman worked for about a dozen newspapers, four of which he edited, and for all of which he wrote numerous reviews and short articles. During these years, he also published nearly two dozen poems and twenty-two short stories—as well as a novel, Franklin Evans—in a variety of periodicals. As Whitman recognized, periodicals were crucial to the development of an audience for American writers. Certainly his was an increasingly prominent voice in the chorus of writers urging for the development of a national literature. In the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on July 11, 1846, for example, he called for an [End Page 248] autonomous "'Home' Literature": "He who desires to see this noble republic independent, not only in name but in fact, of all unwholesome foreign sway, must ever bear in mind the influence of European literature over us—its tolerable amount of good, and its we hope, 'not to be endured' much longer, immense amount of evil. . . . We have not enough confidence in our own judgment...


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