Sunday, November 22nd, 2009 | Author:

On our field trip to Washington DC, as we doggedly trekked back to the cars, Chelsea and I fell into conversation about Whitman’s letters. Of course, we were thrilled to have seen them and nearly touched them. The preciseness of Whitman’s handwriting and the possibility that one of the letters might have had his fingerprint was incredible. What was even more incredible about the letters, I think, was the fact that they were physical evidence of Whitman’s transcendence of time. Not only had his words and thoughts survived, but they were still able to touch a group of college students and turn them into weepy messes. Even something as simple as his revisions brought on tears, and then his letters…Oh, Walt. I know I’ve said this before, but the “I will get well yet” will always stick with me.

It got both Chelsea and I thinking: in the age of technology, with emails and AIM, what is our legacy going to be like? Emails and IMs are deleted within minutes and what with their ability to be instantaneous, I think we tend to make them a lot more impersonal. There’s just something lacking when you type in Times New Roman, size 12. Furthermore, where are they going to be saved? How are we going to pass some of these things on for people a hundred years ahead?

Granted, I think part of the reason we are able to take Whitman’s letters to heart today is because he knew he was going to be pretty special. Score one for egotism But I can’t help wonder what his legacy would  be like if Whitman was reduced to 140 characters (sorry, Jim Groom!). At any rate, the idea has made me get out my pens and write some letters via snail mail. I even sealed them with wax. So maybe I’m not going to be famous like Whitman, and future generations would probably care less what I wrote to my grandmother, but at least my children might one day get a glimpse of what I and my super trippy handwriting were  like (I’ve been told I have the cursive of a serial killer, seriously).

Okay. At the risk of this not having anything much to do with our field trip, I’m going to post several of the pictures of Whitman’s letters and handwritten notes. I dare you not to tear up a little (or at least the Whitmaniacs in Digital Whitman, anyway).







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  1. More power to you, actually setting pen to paper! I haven’t gone that far in a while, but I think these same thoughts a lot–how weird it is that the easier it gets to disseminate a message (cut, paste, check–or just post on the facebook wall) the harder it is to believe the next generation will care about it.

  2. I’m so glad you started writing letters by hand after our conversation; I should do the same.

    After seeing Whitman’s letters in D.C., the whole preservation idea was really the thing that struck me the most. It is interesting that in a world where we have the ability to mass-produce literature and art and have technology that assimilates information almost everywhere so that we may literally and figuratively reach out to the most people, we run the risk of being unfeeling and empty. Whitman extends so far beyond himself even to the point that a group of undergrads a century later would get butterflies simply looking at his handwriting. To this end, in the world of the digital age I wonder just how far our generation will go. Seeing the loops of Whitman’s lettering and studying the places he crossed out words to replace them with others meant more to me than a lot of the other things we saw (perhaps that’s the editor in me?) and you just can’t get that on a computer screen. If we only had access to Whitman’s email account, we wouldn’t have known that he thought about writing “Material Science” before he decided on “Positive Science” (shown in the first image) or be able to wonder why he changed that phrase. We wouldn’t see the intimacy in the words as they were written, the care with which he crafted messages to his mother or the attention he gave to each revision process. The idea that we won’t have that in a hundred years is very distressing to me. I remember a year or so ago I found a letter my grandfather wrote to my grandmother during the war. Since that time, my grandmother has passed away and my grandfather has become very ill, but their love will live on through that letter and I am able to experience it again and again every time I look at it. That is something I wish for everyone, that love live on through letters or journals or even scribbled thoughts on paper napkins and that it be given the ability to touch people across time and place, but in a fast-paced instant-gratification society that feels that sitting down to write a letter would be an inconvenience when a quick email would be a more efficient way to communicate, it seems that this is almost impossible.

  3. Avatar of oatakan oatakan says:

    In our field trip, right here in Brooklyn, New York; I had the same feelings while I was searching through old hand written land conveyances dated back 1650’s and directory books from 1840’s. Being able to touch them, smell them made me think of the history. Additionaly, finding a land conveyance which is belong to Whitman’s father thrilled me. The reason that I do mention these, I had the same thought which is today’s digital world can last long or not? Even thoug it will last, it wont make the people feel the same way in comparison to handwriting in the far future.
    Don’t we all appreciate when we receive hand written letters rather than Times New Roman format as you stated? Because we know the paper holds a human effort, a touch or a smell maybe in other words we look at the paper and try to think what writer thought or felt while writing and looking at the same paper.
    After your effort to save something like writing a letter, I wanted to do same thing too, that people after like family members in the future finds it and gives a smile, respect, remembrance. maybe. I have taken some pictures of these documents when we went to BHS (Brooklyn Historical Society) and mentioned my feelings on my blog called “old cold and cool place” Here is the link:

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