“It was you that broke the new wood” Ezra Pound famously said of Walt Whitman; perhaps it’s fitting then, that Whitman is so foundational to the space being carved out by the digital humanities. The Walt Whitman Archive, run by Kenneth Price and Ed Folsom, was one of the first of a relatively small handful of very ambitious digitization projects – the Archive was launched in 1995, just two years after the first online edition of the complete works of Shakespeare (http://shakespeare.mit.edu/). Looking at its successes and challenges, particularly in comparison to a later generation of virtual archives, I aim here to draw useful conclusions about the direction of such archives, perhaps even moving away from the metaphor of the archive altogether.

When analyzing a literary website, we naturally start by asking ourselves how visiting it compares to the experiences of reading a codex critical edition, or to visiting the author’s real world literary archive(s) in person. Helpfully, the Archive’s directors have done some public reflecting on how they would like their work to measure up against those experiences. In “Database as Genre” Folsom discusses the advantages of an online archive: “Where before scholars had to travel to many individual archives to examine Whitman’s poetry manuscripts, they are now able to access all those manuscripts from a single integrated finding guide and to display the manuscripts from diverse archives side by side, thus discovering lost connections” (1575). In terms of its comprehensiveness, Folsom is right to tout the singular achievement of his archive: it includes all known manuscripts of Whitman’s poetry plus every major published edition, all his civil war correspondence, every contemporary review of Whitman’s work, a long biography of Whitman written by Folsom and Price, every known photo of Whitman, a rare audio recording of Whitman’s voice, and numerous sundry items, like material by and about Whitman’s circle of “devotees,” or teaching guides and syllabi. For all this, the website is quite easily navigable, with one of the clearest and most self-explanatory main navigation bars I’ve ever seen (fig. 1).

FIGURE 1.  Main Navigation Bar of The Walt Whitman Archive.

FIGURE 1. Main Navigation Bar of The Walt Whitman Archive.

Folsom’s claim that this will facilitate the discovery of “lost connections” is persuasive. The creativity made possible by the comprehensiveness of the virtual archive is probably its greatest achievement; in a sense, though, this is not a departure from but rather a continuation of the thrust of 20th Century literary scholarship. The move to displace the voice of any one central authority, thereby opening up new possibilities for interpretation, has been central to this scholarship, from the intentional fallacy to the death of the author. Folsom uses Deleuze’s metaphor of the rhizome to describe the effect of visiting the Archive: in contrast to climbing a tree, where there are many branches but only one trunk, in the Archive all materials exist on one plane and spread out in a network, with no particular experience of Whitman taking precedence.

 I was skeptical of this claim – it is notoriously difficult to displace the voice of the interpreter in any critical edition. As Price himself says “neutrality is finally not a possibility.”  (“Electronic Scholarly Editions”). and the fact that Folsom and Price wrote the biography of Whitman provided on the site made me even more skeptical. After visiting the site, though, I think the claim that this experience allows more critical freedom for the individual interpreter is a defensible one. I quickly jumped from Folsom and Price’s biography (fig. 2);

FIGURE 2.  Biography of Walt Whitman, with mother’s name highlighted.

FIGURE 2. Biography of Walt Whitman, with mother’s name highlighted.

to the Walt Whitman Encyclopedia entry for Whitman’s mother (fig. 3);

FIGURE 3: Entry on Louisa Whitman from The Walt Whitman Encyclopedia.

FIGURE 3: Entry on Louisa Whitman from The Walt Whitman Encyclopedia.

and then to all of Whitman’s Civil War correspondence to and from his mother, though I had to go through Biography >> Correspondence >> and then through an alphabetical list to find it (fig. 4).

FIGURE 4: Hyperlinked List of Louisa Whitman’s correspondence with Walt Whitman.

FIGURE 4: Hyperlinked List of Louisa Whitman’s correspondence with Walt Whitman.

 I could easily problematize Folsom and Price’s claims about Whitman’s mother and his relationship to her through my own reading of these primary sources; doing the same thing with an edited codex would have required at least a second volume of correspondence, if not a trip to one of the Whitman archives scattered around the US. In this sense, the access to knowledge provided by this website is truly unprecedented.

       On other counts, the status of access to knowledge through the website is less clear. On the “Conditions of Use” page, it says the copyright to the Archive is held by Folsom and Price – it’s not immediately clear, though, what this means they own, given that the copyrights to many of the individual materials on the site are still held by the institutions that granted use of them to the Archive (more than 20 institutions are listed on the “Holding Institutions” page, with contact information for each). Also, Whitman’s writing should, in theory, have long ago entered the public domain – Whitman died in 1892. To someone unfamiliar with US Copyright law, it could seem that Folsom and Price are claiming they own Whitman’s works; therefore, their claims to ownership need to be spelled out more clearly. They have helpfully, however, provided a link to fair use provisions and made clear that these apply to all materials in the Archive. Even more helpfully, Folsom and Price have licensed all the TEI/XML files (the coded versions of the documents on the site, which cannot be immediately reused as websites but can be manipulated and put to other uses by developers) under Creative Commons and provided them for download in the “Resources” section (fig. 5).

FIGURE 5: TEI/XML downloads  page, with Creative Commons Licensing.

FIGURE 5: TEI/XML downloads page, with Creative Commons Licensing.

This is a very generous move, and one Folsom and Price should be applauded for.

       There are shortcomings, though, with this site’s generosity towards its users. Though they are provided with all the information they might need to make different cases about Whitman’s life and work, users of the Archive are not given any platform on which to make that case. In “Remediating Whitman” Meredith McGill notes that “[d]espite the revolutionary capacities of the new technologies, pioneering digital projects such as  The Walt Whitman Archive hew surprisingly closely to normative ideas of the author and the work…keep[ing] such projects from functioning in the radical ways that Folsom describes” (1593). She cites several examples: the focus on a single author; the emphasis on Whitman’s poetry versus his prose, and on Leaves of Grass specifically; the centrality of the author’s biography; and the absence of any reader-generated data. This last point she makes quite briefly, but as someone raised in the Web 2.0 environment, it had the most impact on my experience of the site: I expect to be able to interact with other users, to be exposed to and benefit from their knowledge and opinions about the site and about Whitman. The Whitman Archive doesn’t have even a basic “guest book” feature where users can enter comments – the “Comments” link, found in tiny script in the footer section of the page, simply links to an auto-email feature that emails Folsom and Price directly (fig. 6).

FIGURE 6: Website Footer, with a link to “Comments?”

FIGURE 6: Website Footer, with a link to “Comments?”

Price has talked about the need for a new metaphor for online “archives” such as “arsenal,” understood primarily as a “public place for making,” which according to Price “suits current aspects of the genre … and will no doubt characterize it even more in this age of social networking” (Edition, Project). But the Whitman Archive isn’t really a public place for making, particularly when compared to NINES (www.nines.org) which allows users to discuss articles, create Exhibits of related works, tag articles and then search through these user-generated tags. The “public making” aspect of NINES are mostly neglected, though, and generally haven’t been central to the experience of using NINES because of this lack of critical mass. So while we can fault the shortcomings of The Whitman Archive from the perspective of creativity and rhizomatic experience (if departure from archives is what Price and Folsom were interested in, then The Whitman Archive represents a missed opportunity) we are still left with the problem of how to stop remediating the archive and start building participatory online “places for making”. Hopefully with time, the digital humanities will move more in the direction of valuing, and providing access to, scholars’ shared knowledge about authors and their work.

Works Cited

Folsom, Ed. “Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives.“ PMLA (October

2007) 122:1571-1579.

McGill, Meredith. “Remediating Whitman.“ PMLA (October 2007) 122:1580-1612.

Kenneth M. Price. “Electronic Scholarly Editions.” A Companion to Digital Lierary Studies,

eds. Susan Schreibman and Ray Siemens. Oxford:Blackwell, 2008.


–. “Edition, Project, Database, Archive, Thematic Research Collection: What’s in a Name?”

Digital Humanities Quarterly (Summer 2009) 3:3.