Whitman’s Notebooks…and Butterfly

In 1918, Thomas B. Harnard, a literary executor for Walt Whitman, gave to the Library of Congress a 3,000 item donation.  This donation included many of Whitman’s possessions such as small, personalized notebooks, and interestingly enough, a small cardboard butterfly.  This butterfly can be seen here in an 1877 portrait that Whitman commissioned from Philadelphia photographers Samuel Broadbent and W. Curtis Taylor.  The presence of the cardboard butterfly and Whitman’s honesty are put in opposition as he has been quoted telling Horace Traubel (his constant biographer):

“Yes—that was an actual moth, the picture is substantially literal: we were good friends: I had quite the in-and-out of taming, or fraternizing with, some of the insects, animals . . .”

Whitman at one point also told historian William Roscoe Thayer:

“I’ve always had the knack of attracting birds and butterflies and other wild critters.”

Beyond the comedy of this situation is one further baffling that occurred in 1944.  During WWII, particularly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Library of Congress shipped off crates of historic documents for safekeeping.  In 1944, when the crates returned to Washington one of the crates was missing.  This crate contained 24 Walt Whitman notebooks and the above mentioned cardboard butterfly.

In 1995 a New York Lawyer took four of the missing 24 notebooks and the cardboard butterfly to Sotheby’s for appraisal.  The were recognized by the vice president of Sotheby’s Books and Manuscripts Department, as a description was circulated of the missing articles 30 years previously.  The articles were immediately returned to the Library of Congress for conservation efforts.

These efforts are actually extraordinary, and you can see pictures and essays documenting the process at the LOC’s Poet At Work website.  The notebooks and butterfly were actually listed as Handle Only Once items!  Digital pictures and scans would be used for further reference material.

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2 Responses to Whitman’s Notebooks…and Butterfly

  1. Anton Vander Zee says:

    Very cool. I’m always struck by Whitman’s penchant for artifice here. Why do we can that it was fake? That he was merely posing? How does it change our sense of Whitman? I think it complicates things in a fascinating way. I use that very image as the banner on my personal blog…. it’s a personal favorite.

    • Kaitlin Mcknight says:

      In short, I was thinking that Whitman, as you’ve mentioned in class, was not above reviewing himself. I think I remember reading that it was one of the early editions of Leaves of Grass that he refers to himself as “one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly,” and you’ve also mentioned this in class. Whitman seems to try to create a great being that is “Walt Whitman”, though not specifically a bodily Whitman. This seems to fit in with many of the Whitman’s we listed in class the other day. He is an “I” but also a “We” and this works with his seeming attempts to showcase himself as a tamer of animals. And also an attempted mender of his country!

      It is surprising that he posed this way because all in all he is often given an old seer kind of demeanor – honest. But I think he was entirely aware of his presence and what would make it stronger, maybe more alluding? But maaaaybe he was just kidding around when he told Horace that quote that I included. Complex man…

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