As one of the world’s foremost Walt Whitman scholars, University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Ken Price can easily identify the handwriting of the famous 19th-century poet, essayist and journalist – from his unusual upstroke on the letter ‘d’ to the peculiar way he made the letter ‘x’ to a host of other signs that, taken together, clearly show evidence of Whitman’s pen.
“It’s something that, both holistically and specifically, you recognize when you see it,” said Price, the Hillegass University Professor of American literature at UNL.
So when the head of the National Archives contacted him on a recent Sunday evening asking Price for his opinion on a newly discovered “soldier letter” suspected to be in Whitman’s hand, it didn’t take long for Price to deliver a definitive verdict.
Price was able to swiftly authenticate the letter, which Whitman penned on behalf of a New Hampshire infantryman dying of tuberculosis in a Washington, D.C., hospital shortly after the Civil War. Earlier this week the letter, and Price’s role in assisting in its verification, made national headlines (1, 2, 3.)
“I’ve been working with Whitman manuscripts on a daily basis since 2000, (so) I am extremely familiar with his handwriting,” Price said. “I have very little doubt about the authenticity of the letter.”
The January 1866 note, found a month ago in the archives by a research librarian, was written neatly in ink and is among only three Whitman-scribed “soldier letters” known to exist. It will now be housed in a vault at the National Archives with other valuable documents.
Whitman himself said he often wrote letters on behalf of injured soldiers; in his 1875 “Memoranda During the War,” he described his humanitarian work on behalf of both Union and Confederate troops. In one passage, he wrote “when eligible, I encourage the men to write, and myself, when call’d upon, write all sorts of letters for them.”
The discovery is important because of its rarity as well as its touching nature, said Price, who is also the co-director of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at UNL.
“His work in the hospitals was extraordinary,” Price said. “Hospitals were very dangerous places in the Civil War, so his time spent visiting soldiers was courageous and generous. Few writers would have sacrificed such an enormous amount of time at the height of a literary career.
“His visits to the hospitals were acts of love that remain frankly inspiring.”
In addition to being protected at the National Archives, the letter will be digitized and entered into the digital Walt Whitman Archive, a long-term effort to edit Whitman’s work on the web. Price co-directs the Whitman Archive with Ed Folsom of the University of Iowa.
Price is no stranger to surprising Whitman-related finds in the National Archive: In 2011, he revealed that he had found 3,000 previously unknown Whitman documents from the 1860s and 1870s, when Whitman worked as a clerk in the U.S. Attorney General’s Office.
For two years, Price pored over a range of documents, including large, bound 900-page letter books in the archive, identifying thousands of official federal letters that were written in Whitman’s hand.
Over the next several years, the scribal documents were added to the Whitman Archive and help give a glimpse into the policy-based discussions regarding the issues of the day, such as civil rights, war crimes, treason, western expansion, the Ku Klux Klan, international incidents and many other matters.
As with the soldier letter, it is worth exploring and studying what role Whitman played in the creation of the documents, Price said. While it may vary from item to item, in one sense or another, Whitman was a creator of all the documents.
“All of the content went through his mind and fingertips,” Price has written.