Thursday, April 14, 2011

Where's Walt Whitman? Budget war needs a poet -- April 14, 2011 column


News this week of Walt Whitman’s day job as a lowly federal clerk brought the Civil War – and current budget wars – into rare alignment.

On the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, the National Archives in Washington announced the discovery of nearly 3,000 documents handwritten by one of America’s most famous and influential American poets of the 19th Century.

Meanwhile, Congress and the president dug in for a long and bitter fight over the country’s direction, as set by our spending priorities. Among the many looming questions: Should taxpayers support scholarly, artistic and cultural pursuits – like the Whitman research -- and by how much?

The documents handwritten by Whitman were not his own poems, letters, diary entries, journalism or essays. These were official documents the former newspaper editor copied for the federal government in the pre-typewriter 1860s to support himself while he did what he really wanted – nurse sick and wounded soldiers in the many hospitals around Washington.

Kenneth M. Price, an American literature professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-director of the Walt Whitman Archive, spent two years searching official documents in dusty volumes at the National Archives for the distinctive way Whitman wrote his D, X and C.

“I remember getting glazed,” Price said in a video interview on the National Archives site, and, “suddenly I turned the page, and there it was.”

The beautifully penned letters and orders deal with such topics as charges of treason, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ treatment after the war. About 2,000 documents are expected to be put on later this year.

The Whitman Archive has as its ambitious goal making all of Whitman’s vast body of work easily available, free and online, to scholars, students and general readers. It’s a huge task because Whitman was a prolific writer and editor. “Leaves of Grass,” his major work, was published in six very different editions.

Whitman, who was in his 40s during the Civil War, did not serve in the military. He lived in Washington from 1863 to 1873, moving to the city after finding his brother George who was wounded, superficially, as it turned out, near Fredericksburg, Va.

Whitman devoted himself to nursing in the makeshift hospitals that sprang up around the city. He took the patients oranges and sweets and wrote letters home for them.

“I go around among these sights, among the crowded hospitals doing what I can, yet it is a mere drop in the bucket,” Whitman wrote in his journal. For more on Whitman’s experience as a wartime nurse, read Angel Price’s excellent essay on the University of Virginia’s Crossroads site.

Some 620,000 soldiers died in the Civil War, most of sickness, not battle wounds. Some soldiers credited Whitman's kindness with saving their lives.

Price began his work on the Whitman archive in 1995. He also co-directs the Civil War Washington site, which studies the city’s transformation during the war, and the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska.

Price and the National Archives both credit federal grants with making the Whitman discovery possible. Price has received more than a million dollars in grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities since 2003. He has received other grants from the Education Department’s Fund for the Improvement of Secondary Education as well as the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and the Institutes for Museum and Library Sciences.

Republicans are calling for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.

When Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., recently complained that NEH budget cuts could hurt the Nevada-based Cowboy Poets Gathering, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh both endorsed cutting the funds.

The NEH and NEA both got trimmed in the compromise spending bill that cut $38.5 billion from 2011 accounts. Each agency will receive $155 million for 2011, a cut of $12.5 million – or 7.5 percent. Both are likely to be targeted in the 2012 budget fight, which has already begun.

I’m a fan of using tax dollars to put everything by Whitman online. But I’m an English major.

What do you think?

(c) 2011 All rights reserved. Marsha Mercer.


  1. This week, Marsha brings us a very interesting example of the good use of federal dollars. She weaves together the civil war and Walt Whitman to lend support to her argument that federal spending on the arts and humanities is money well spent. Nice job, there, Marsha.

    Of course spending on the arts and humanities is worthwhile. But, so are almost all the spending programs of the federal government. The problem is we have too much of a good thing. The nation is broke and we need to cut back, or someone else will do it for us, China, for example.

  2. I see that cmcrva3 has commented on Ms. Mercer's excellent column. Ms Mercer makes a good point and I am inclined to agree with her view that spending on programs, such as the Whitman letters is a good thing. But, as cmcrva3 points out, the federal government has run out of money. Would it not be possible for the arts to be supported by private donations by those of us who really value what the arts provide the nation?