Journalist, critic, and feminist Margaret Fuller wrote an essay in 1846 entitled “American Literature; Its Position in the Present Time, and Prospects for the Future.” Its first line read, “Some thinkers may object to this essay, that we are about to write of that which has, as yet, no existence.” Walt Whitman (1819-1892) took up the implicit challenge (as well as explicit ones from other pens, notably Ralph Waldo Emerson’s) and, nine years later, brought out the first edition of his landmark work in verse, Leaves of Grass. The moment was a defining and pivotal event in the history of that which, in the minds of some arguably unimaginative thinkers, did not yet exist; this much is clear to us over 150 years later, but the Whitman we know today is, of course, not the Whitman we knew then. History is only tidy in retrospect. His answer to Fuller’s call was immediately if not universally recognized, but as his reputation evolved over the first hundred years following the work’s first publication, our understanding, like the continual revisions to which he subjected the poems, of the way in which he answered that call has dilated and expanded in directions as unpredictable and provocative as Whitman himself. We can only take stock of that understanding—and attempt to say something useful about it—if we return to and look closely at the texts and artifacts that document it. Brandeis University’s Department of Archives & Special Collections is fortunate enough to have acquired an interesting and varied assortment of these over the years; the collection at present affords a broad range of impressions to be had in service of this effort.
In October of 2008, Archives & Special Collections held a Show-and-Tell event showcasing a representative selection of its Whitman texts and artifacts; space limitations prevented a fuller display of the collection. This digital exhibit forms part of an effort to make a greater number of these items available to the public. As you proceed through the different areas of the exhibit, you may click on the images to enlarge them.