Robert Brissey

Key Project Analysis

English 8120 – Dr. Thomas


The Walt Whitman Archive Analysis


The Walt Whitman Archive project is an earnest attempt at creating a digital, and thus permanent, repository of everything from one of the most influential and important American poets of all time. The archive features all of his poetry, but also features several other types of writing, including: marginalia, correspondences, essays, journal articles and much more. There are also accompanying images of the primary source materials as often as is possible. Perhaps one of the most interesting items on the site is the recording of a voice thought to be Whitman himself reading his poem, “America”. Overall, the archive seems painstakingly comprehensive, and as it has been operating and growing since 1995, the amount of material successfully collected is quite staggering. The project is still actively working, though much of the labor today seems to revolve around converting the materials into the most modern and usefully encoded format. The current efforts are funded by a variety of sources, which speaks to the validity of the project as a whole. Thus, the primary strengths of the project would certainly include its breadth and longevity. There is also a feature which allows users to search for links between documents, which expedites multi-source research on Whitman. Many such projects might go abandoned after two decades or so on the internet, but the Walt Whitman Archive has persevered and more importantly, modernized. Perhaps the only discernible weakness within the project is that it does not contain very much in the way of modern criticism about Walt Whitman, though this is admittedly not the fault of the administrators for the archive; rather, these criticisms are still held under copyright.

The methodology is evolving but consistently contemporary. The primary source material, as one might expect, are largely archival sources of actual documents penned and printed by Walt Whitman himself, housed in over 50 archival repositories, which are then translated into digital formats. The project began with the most sophisticated encoding available in 1995, HTML. After 2000, TEI and XML methods were employed to make the data more searchable, and thus more useful. The images and texts are encoded separately, as the requisite technology varies for textual accuracy and the sharpness of rendered images. There are several help pages that provide the most clear technical data regarding methodology, including a “Wiki” style page which details the exact type of encoding for the texts, P4 and more recently P5 versions of TEI, which comes directly from Guidelines for Electronic Text Encoding and Interchange. An acknowledged weakness of this or any similar archive is that the process of encoding actively changes the media, regardless of how meticulously things are produced. The researchers, do however, attempt to limit the amount of change by keeping intact spelling, punctuation, spacing, cross-outs, and any marginalia contained within a given manuscript. However, any writings that are contained in conjunction with Whitman’s in any given artifact are notated but not included in the encoded document. One item of particular attention are the various versions of Leaves of Grass, which are treated by the archivists as multiple parts of a single work, rather than iterate revisions of a single work.

The primary audience for the project appears to be professional scholars and college students researching Whitman. This site is unlikely to be used by the casual reader of American poetry, although it could, as it provides a readily searchable, accessible archive of Whitman’s works. The nature of the research certainly speaks to more straightforward literary scholarship and criticism, but there is certainly much to be said for The Walt Whitman Archive’s usefulness within the realm of literary history, particularly the extended attention paid to correspondences and marginalia, which would not necessarily figure into typical methodologies. There are also several links to outside resources, including syllabi for teaching courses on Whitman, links to criticism of Whitman not contained within the Archive itself, and information about Whitman’s home in Brooklyn, NY. The simplicity in design for the site speaks to a non-specific audience preference, though the information contained therein indicates a preference for the serious, thus collegiate, researcher. Each section of information, and all the metadata describing the collection and processing of said information, is explicitly describes and searchable. The website would prove to be an invaluable resource for almost any level class on American Literature in general or on Walt Whitman specifically, with plenty avenues for continued research. Literary history scholars would find certain sections particularly useful, including but not limited to: the interviews, the timeline of Whitman’s life, the biographical efforts presented for free, and the scribal documents which contain information produced by Whitman in his duties at the Attorney General’s office.

The project, which has been around much longer than many projects now associated with the digital humanities, in many ways encapsulates the growth and transitions within such fields of study. The methods are clearly described at each stage of the Archive’s development, providing both a road map for Whitman scholars and a potential blueprint for researchers of any other literary or historical figure. Any time such resources are contained within a single, easily searchable location, it expedites research. However, the painstaking encoding practices make connecting multiple sources from within the site and any other such archive which makes use of similar markup/tagging methodologies much more easily facilitated. Work such as this certainly acts as a framework or exemplar of reconciliation between literary critical scholars and literary history scholars. It arguably encourages diverse collaborations on such projects, as the staff is a heterogeneous mixture of traditional Whitman scholars, digital humanists, English PhD students, and history majors. This manner of collaboration has much larger implications on the current state and methodologies needed for literary scholarship and research as is required in the 21st century. The network of scholarship created by this site alone is commendable, as it links people from disparate backgrounds, career levels, and geographies around a unifying focus upon the life and writings of Walt Whitman.