As preservationists push to landmark 99 Ryerson Street, the only surviving Brooklyn residence of poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892), the question arises what, if anything, the New-York Historical Society Library holds on the building or the man, whose birthday is May 31st. Sadly, we haven’t got a whole lot on the building. There are insurance maps, which show the footprint of the house, but we have no pictures of the place. The building waited patiently off the radar of photographers and Whitman fans until writer Paul Berman detailed its rediscovery in the June 12, 1995 issue of the New Yorker.
On Whitman the man and his work we have our fair share, as a browse through the online catalog reveals. We hold a coveted first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), which Whitman wrote (in its first form) at 99 Ryerson Street. Some of our staff have blogged about Whitmaniana in the collections, like the letters he wrote home to the parents of Erastus E. Haskell, informing them of the Civil War soldier’s perilous health (Walt Whitman, Brotherhood, and the American Civil War), and his obsessive visits–twenty, at least–to Dr. Henry Abbott’s Egyptian Museum (Egypt on Broadway).
And there are a few folders of pictures of him in our Portrait File (PR-052). But Whitman is so recognizable that one has the sense of having already seen every photograph of him. For curiosity’s sake we thumbed through ours looking for any out of the ordinary. The one below is much like the others, but what caught our attention was the penciled fragment that came with it, pasted on the same wrinkly sheet of paper.
On the reverse of the leaf a handwritten note dated April 1910 explains “This portrait of Walt Whitman & the piece of his manuscript accompanying [it] came to me direct from him & go to my friends Mildred & Frank Bain. . . .” We think the name is Bain. The rest of the note is equally difficult to decipher, as is the writer’s signature, so we can’t say to whom, exactly, Whitman passed this picture of himself with its apparently authentic snippet of prose. (Your best guesses are welcome!) [See the UPDATE below.]
UPDATE: A sharp-eyed reader tells us the signature belongs to Whitman’s literary executor, Horace Traubel (1858-1919). Compare our note to this letter, written and signed by Traubel, and you’ll agree. AND a second sharp-eyed reader tells us that the couple with whom Traubel left this treasure was indeed named Bain. For more, download Marilyn J. McKay’s fascinating article “Walt Whitman in Canada: The Sexual Trinity of Horace Traubel and Frank and Mildred Bain” in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, vol. 30, no. 1 (2012), 1-30.
A Google search on phrases from the Whitman manuscript–“not the macrocosm but microcosm” and “not Nature but man”–led quickly to a sentence in his essay “The Poetry of the Future,” first published in the North American Review, vol. 132, no. 291 (February 1881), and later retitled “Poetry To-day in America–Shakspere [sic]–The Future” for his collected Prose Works (1892). In Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (1998), Robert W. Barnett deems this work “Whitman’s most succinct commentary on the evolution of poetry in America.” (You can read a facsimile of the 1881 printing here.)
In its published form the sentence reads “Still, the rule and demesne of poetry will always be not the exterior, but interior; not the macrocosm, but microcosm; not Nature, but Man.” As the draft shows, Whitman originally started with “But, as ever,” then tried “But, in time to come” before hitting on “Still,” using one word in place of three or five. Next he struck out the flabby “henceforth as ever” for the leaner “always.” It is fascinating to watch Whitman working here in microcosm.
This post is by Joseph Ditta, Reference Archivist.