By Ashley Palmer
If you wanted to purchase a copy of Two Rivulets from your local independent bookstore today, it could cost you around $28.95; in 1886, Walt Whitman might have traded you the book for 10 ¼ yards of Halifax tweed. Such a trade, in fact, occurred on July 29, 1886 when Whitman’s friend and biographer Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke sent Whitman the Canadian fabric, and Whitman turned right around and sent him Two Rivulets, an estimated value, Whitman decided, of “$10 or 12,” as repayment. This biblio-textile factoid is one of many gems I’ve gleaned from scouring Whitman’s daybooks on a project for the Walt Whitman Archive.
The aim of this research has been to cull as much data as we can from the daybooks about Whitman’s book sales: to whom did he sell? Where did they live? How much did he charge? For this project, we are especially interested in the geographic locations of his buyers—I’ll talk more about that below—but what has surprised me most in this process have been the minutiae of Walt Whitman’s life that it illuminated. As a student of American literature, I came to the Whitman Archive with a general knowledge of and appreciation for Walt Whitman. I’ve always enjoyed the way he uses language both playfully and powerfully, and I admire his work on the material side of his publications. Books are not only filled with ideas but they are a craft in and of themselves. In fact, his close work with printers in assembling his books brought with it such careful oversight that he might even have directed the shaded enhancement of his own crotch bulge in his image for the frontispiece in a reprint of Leaves of Grass (see figure 5 in this essay for visuals). Details like that keep me excited about the unexpected and amusing surprises of research.
In spite of Walt Whitman’s colorful image, one might worry that reading Whitman’s daybooks, which are often very factual and to-the-point, could be a bland process. Here Whitman rarely even wrote full sentences and mostly used the daybooks to keep track of financial transactions. For example, one entry that characterizes much of the collection reads simply: “water rent tax 1886 8.” (this one is for June 30, 1886). Whitman was diligent about paying his bills, and that fact in and of itself can certainly tell us something about the man, but home accounting alone can only go so far.
To my delight, in between his more clerical entries, Whitman weaves charming observations about his life and emotional personal sentiments about his friends and family as well as his personal health. One such example, which I found alternately amusing and shocking, is the creative language Whitman uses to excoriate his brother-in-law (Charles L. Heyde, his sister Hannah’s husband). To give you a taste, on December 18, 1889, Whitman writes, “letters continued from that miserable whelp C L H – he is the worst nuisance & worriment of my illness…always whining & squeezing me for more money – damn him – he ought to be crush’d out as you w’d a bed-bug.” The bed-bug simile reappears in other entries as well. Whitman’s passion here is not surprising in the context of his poetic energy, but the insight it offers into a familial relationship—sad though it might be—further humanizes an already accessible author.
The daybooks further reveal friendships and more touching familial relationships (he regularly sent money for his brother Edward’s board and frequently sent gifts to his sisters and nieces). They are filled too with wonderfully unexpected details evincing personal quirks (he frequently composed brief sketches of people he met on the ferry, and, in keeping with his careful bookkeeping, he even recorded instances when he discovered his pockets had been picked). Perhaps most difficult to read has been the detailed documentation of his own declining health over the later years of his life. We were not mapping any of this information for our recent project, but soaking it in between spreadsheet entries illuminated a more complete picture of the man whose books I was watching shuttle across the country and even the world.
Our focus with this research has been to document the geographic patterns of Whitman’s book sales in an effort not only to track their destinations statistically but also to graph this data in map form, to provide an instant visual display of Whitman’s book sale distribution. I should note, of course, that this data will not include the many copies of his books sold from bookstores, but utilizing the precise data we do have from his daybooks gives a realistic picture of his personal sales across the United States and abroad. Unsurprisingly, Whitman sold very well in the northern region of the United States, but I was excited to see sales to Australia and continental Europe that remind us of the global network in which even the most seemingly “American” works of American literature participate.
As academics, this kind of project opens up promising opportunities within reception studies for Whitman scholars. In the more general field of American literature, it provides a creative and accessible resource for scholars that would also be interesting for and accessible to undergraduates in the classroom. I think it will inspire substantial future research. This kind of work does lend itself particularly well to Whitman, because he was both so active with the sales of his books and so thorough in his record keeping. It would be a challenge to create a similar document for authors with a less exhaustive paper trail. Still, the convergence of literary studies and applications of digital tools this project utilizes can continue to fuel our imaginations in the digital humanities and prompt us to consider analogous projects both for Walt Whitman and for other writers. And we might even continue learning fun facts about book bartering.
Ashley Palmer is a doctoral student in the English Department at the University of Texas at Austin and Project Manager for “Walt Whitman’s Annotations” with the Whitman Archive.