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Marshall Professor Helps Uncover New Texts Penned by Poet Walt Whitman

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J. Bachman
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Library of Congress
1840's Birds' eye view of New-Orleans, Louisiana with the Mississippi River in the foreground.

A Marshall University professor is one of two U.S. scholars to make a major discovery on one of America’s quintessential American poets.

Stephen Schöberlein, director of digital humanities at Marshall University, and Zachary Turpin, a professor of English at the University of Idaho, have created buzz in the literary world after their discovery of new texts penned by American poet Walt Whitman.

Their research appears in the latest edition of the journal Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.

Whitman is considered the father of American free-verse poetry and one of the leading artists in modern literature. One of Whitman’s best known poems is “O’ Captain my Captain,” which was famously featured in the 1989 movie, “Dead Poets Society,” starring Robin Williams. Whitman published this poem and others in his first volume of poetry, Leaves of Grass in 1855.

Schöberlein said that Whitman is “one of the first major queer poets in the United States.” Whitman set his style apart from other poets through the way he broke established rules. According to Schöberlein, “most of his poetry famously doesn’t rhyme. Most of his poems are just long lines.”

Whitman was controversial during his time. In his personal life, Whitman loved conflict. He often would get into fist-fights. Whitman was also met with backlash from his poetry. Schöberlein notes that Whitman was, “A poet of the body. He celebrates the human body and all of its nooks and crannies. Often very sexually explicit.”

In reaction to the content of his poems, Whitman was banned from Boston. Schöberlein said that Whitman, “got into a fight with the Boston postmaster who banned his book for being pornography.”

Whitman lived mostly in New York City. Before becoming a poet, Whitman moved to New Orleans for three months to work as an editor. His time living in New Orleans and travelling along the Mississippi River is believed to have galvanized him as a poet. This period leading up to his first publication is shrouded in mystery.

“The years that lead up to Leaves of Grass have always been a special interest to scholars because everyone wants to know what went into the pot,” Turpin said. “It’s a really kitchen sink volume of poetry but it feels so fresh and vibrant and unusual that you wonder where it came from.”

While studying digitally archived documents through newspapers.com, Turpin and Schöberlein discovered letters to the Daily Crescent that were possibly written by Whitman. Turpin said that the letters, “just had the whiff of Whitman to it. Their pseudonym. The things they write about.” According to Turpin, the letters were signed Mannahatta and Manhattan. Whitman liked to refer to cities by their native names, and has often done so with New York City. After noticing the pen name, Turpin and Schöberlein cross-referenced the style and word choice of the letters to other documents Whitman wrote.

Turpin said the letters demonstrate that, “very likely, Whitman continued his relationship with New Orleans.” According to Turpin, the newly discovered letters reflect how New York and New Orleans affected Whitman as a poet.

“You can sense this connection between these two major cities,” he said. “They’re both maritime ports, they’re both relatively liberal bubbles full of creativity and change and growth.”

To Turpin, the letters further demonstrate how the character of both cities appear in the character of Whitman’s poetry.

Thousands of documents are archived to the internet every day, thanks to a network of researchers, librarians, and individuals scanning or transcribing documents online. According to Turpin, this could potentially mean more unknown documents in what scholars refer to as The Great Unread. “It’s literally right there for anyone to trip over,” he said, “I think it speaks both to the value of freely available open access archives but also just how big of an expanse there is.”

Before the internet, being able to research archived documents was privileged for those with direct access, time, and a staff to help look through them. “Equal access, or more equal access is really changing the game for a lot of scholars,” Turpin said. “You don't even have to travel to the public library in New York in order to find some major text that no one knew was part of American literature.”

Turpin and Schöberlein are continuing their work producing an edited publication of Whitman’s writings, including some of the discovered pieces, and a new monograph on Whitman’s relationship to New Orleans for the University of Iowa’s Whitman Series.


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