Wednesday, October 28th, 2009 | Author:

I am indebted to Other Sam for drawing my attention to this very moving detail.  One of the best things I saw at the Library of Congress was Whitman’s letter of December 29, 1862 (that is, exactly 106 years before the day I was born), to his mother about finding George in Fredericksburg.  We were able to read aloud his words about the suffering of the soldiers putting other suffering into perspective.  We have read this letter in a collected of selected letters: “Dear, dear Mother, . . . I succeeded in reaching the 51st New York, and found George alive and well–in order to make sure that you would get the good news, I sent back by messenger to Washington (I dare say you did not get it for some time), a telegraphic dispatch . . .”  What is not visible in that version of the letter is the revision Whitman made, no doubt anticipating the anxiety with which his mother would scan the letter if she had not received the “telegraphic dispatch” or was desperate for information about her wounded son.  Lovely:

revision ("alive and well"), photo by MNS 10/24/09, LOC

revision ("alive and well"), photo by MNS 10/24/09, LOC

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  1. Avatar of Matthew Gold Matthew Gold says:

    Thanks so much for writing about this, Mara. I love your reading of that insertion. One thing I’d note is that a printed transcript of that letter could definitely use a symbol and special formatting to indicate that Whitman had inserted “alive and well” in superscript, but it couldn’t (or wouldn’t) convey all of the other things we might notice when looking at the document itself or your image of it: the thickly lined, deliberately shaped nature of the caret that Whitman placed below “George”; the way that that caret speaks to Whitman’s long career as a journalist and editor; the way that that insertion point tilts a bit towards his brother’s name; the fact that the inserted text, “alive and well,” floats between two lines in interstitial space; the way we see ink from one side of the page bleeding through to the other . . . .

    All of these things can be gathering from a digital image as it might be from an in-person examination of the manuscript, but I wonder whether there is also something about seeing an object like this in physical space that makes such details more evident and more affecting.

  2. Avatar of s-words s-words says:

    I’ve been wondering for days whether I should complain at being called “Other Sam”… but then I realized that I applied the epithet myself on our first-night nametags. Nothing like being self-defeating, I guess.

    By the way, excellent exegesis, Dr. Gold. You’re right: the physical fact of the letter, alongside Whitman’s haversack and Peter Doyle’s lock of hair, forced us to consider Whitman’s literal reality in a way we never had before. Obviously, we haven’t gotten over it.

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