Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

Keeping Tally with Meaning: Reading Numerals in Walt Whitman's Manuscripts

Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

Keeping Tally with Meaning: Reading Numerals in Walt Whitman's Manuscripts

Article excerpt

ONE OF THE GREAT GIFTS of the digital age to literary research and pedagogy is access to images of writers' manuscripts. Of particular interest is a writer like Walt Whitman, whose work is out of copyright and whose manuscripts routinely attract literary historians. Teaching or studying the development of the poem that would become "I Sing the Body Electric," for example, now requires only a copied URL if one wants to use manuscript 13 from Duke University's Trent Collection (Figure 1) for classroom discussion or source document analysis.1 This document includes a list of human body parts in many ways congruent-and fascinatingly not so-with anatomical features appearing in the published poem. In it we can see a deep framework for a section of Whitman's poem as he plays out the logic of his bodily catalog in full. But the manuscript also provokes new questions about why some elements from the draft made it into the printed poem and why others were altered or left out ("man-nuts," for example, was intriguingly displaced by "inward and outward round" in the 1856 version, while perhaps less surprisingly, "upper half leg" was left out).

But turn the document sideways, and other questions, requiring other modes of analysis, emerge. On the manuscript, scrawled between the columns, appears the number "1856" atop the number "1776," followed by a line, and then the number "80." Traditional left-toright reading techniques don't easily explain how the notation-a kind found often in Whitman's manuscripts-functions in relation to the finished poetry's content, but an unconventional analytical approach can. In this case, Whitman's famous character of the old man "six feet tall" and loved by all who saw him may have been the occasion of the calculation. Whitman describes the age-enlightened farmer and father of the poem as being "over eighty years old." The 1856 number aligns with the version of Leaves of Grass that incorporates the first appearance of the list of body parts drawn from this manuscript, in the poem then titled "Poem of The Body." The number 1776 likely refers to the official year of United States independence from Great Britain. Whitman was trying to determine the number of years between the claiming of independence and his own historical moment of publication. He may have done so to verify that the age of the character he introduced in the poem the year before, in its 1855 version, would still bracket the country's initial moment of political democracy and Whitman's instantiation of a democratic poetic form. The vertical line dividing the page, however, curiously weaves to accommodate the mathematical notation: might this list have been written earlier, and re-consulted for the 1856 publication? Without the marginal annotation of MS 13, the eighty-year link and its attendant questions can fade as we focus on the manuscript's linguistic content. A mathematical sideways glance helps make visible a step in the process of poetic creation and the interdependence of Whitman's mathematical skill and his poetic acts of imagination.

If we take manuscripts seriously as objects of study in themselves, we can relate such digits and operations, or similar annotations, more intimately to the story of an author's world and his poetry. Though their layouts vary according to the chirographic and morphological conventions of the times in which they were made, manuscripts often contain violations or manipulations of the space of the page that, for students accustomed to printed text (and digital texts that use print conventions), can challenge interpretive norms. "Read with a . . . wandering eye," Marta Werner writes, "the draft may disturb the very idea of the still, absolute text, revealing it as only one possible realization of a matrix that precedes and sometimes follows it. Under these conditions, the draft is no longer a point of departure for the 'work,' into which it ultimately vanishes, but, rather, a witness to the 'poetics of writing. …

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