Fredson Bowers didn’t know what he would find when he began digging into the disordered stack of 230 loose pages—all from 19th-century Walt Whitman manuscripts—that landed on his desk in 1951.
But for Bowers, a revered UVA English professor, the papers formed a massive puzzle waiting to be fit together. They were an “opportunity for literary detective work … that was of the highest interest to attempt,” he wrote in 1959.
Bowers solved the puzzle—or part of it—when he discovered within that pile the unpublished original sequence for 12 poems, together called “Live Oak, with Moss,” that were distributed throughout a section of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass.
The revelation of that sequence, illuminated by Bowers’ painstaking research, opened a door to insights that would change the way scholars looked at Whitman.
Unlike most of his work, “Live Oak” addresses themes of love. Scholars believe Whitman wrote the sequence after a relationship with a man named Fred Vaughan.
“Together [the poems in ‘Live Oak’] tell a connected little story of attraction, joy, desertion, despair, and sublimation,” Bowers wrote.
“For Whitman these poems were his first intense, sustained reflections on the love and attraction he felt for other men. For scholars they represent a new chapter in literary and social history,” wrote Karen Karbiener (Col ’87) in the afterword of an illustrated edition of “Live Oak” released this year.
“In these dozen poems, Whitman attempts to establish a definition of same-sex love decades before the word ‘homosexual’ was in common parlance, and he dreams of a supportive community of lovers more than 100 years before today’s LGBTQ rights movement,” she wrote.
But the sensitivity Whitman displays in “Live Oak” — “I am ashamed [but] I am what I am”—doesn’t mirror the persona he cultivated in his own time.
The poems “are a really important corrective to our caricatures of Whitman” as an “egotistical blowhard,” says UVA English professor Stephen Cushman, who curated a display on “Live Oak” for the recent exhibition Encompassing Multitudes: The Song of Walt Whitman at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library.
“They show he was a much more vulnerable, fragile person than we knew. And that a lot of that big blowing his own tuba, praise and celebration, is an achieved voice, a kind of mask.”
The sequence, Cushman says, “is a way of recovering the flesh-and-blood person behind the published poems.”
Getting to that flesh and blood took patience and expertise. Bowers, who as a renowned bibliographer studied texts as physical objects, began his exploration by sorting the pages—which varied in size, color and ink—by physical features. Determining that some had been cut from larger sheets, he diligently matched pages edge to edge. Many also had pin holes, and microscopic measurements indicated the order in which Whitman had originally pinned sheets together in the absence of modern paper clips.
As he pored over the pages, Bowers found 12 disparate poems that appeared to be on the same type of white paper. Evidence indicated that they had been part of a single notebook, and Roman numerals revealed an original, sequential order. But in the published edition of Leaves of Grass, the poems were separate and distributed in a different order throughout a section called the Calamus cluster.
Sorting them by numeral, Bowers pieced together the full sequence, including two poems that Whitman had included in just that 1860 edition.
To an expert such as Bowers, who “wrote the rules of modern bibliography,” according to exhibition curator George Riser, the sequence and the revisions made to it before and after that edition provide an intimate view of Whitman as a person and as a poet.
“Every variation [of a text] requires thought of some kind,” explains UVA English professor David Vander Meulen. “And so you can analyze that, parse that. Suddenly you have insight from the objects themselves that you never would have had in any explicit statement.”
Whitman claimed during his life, for example, that his process didn’t require any editing. But the hundreds of pages of edited drafts prove that was not the case.
“The picture of Whitman as Fancy’s child, warbling his native woodnotes wild, is as false as it was for Shakespeare,” Bowers wrote at the time. With access to the “layer after layer of revision” available in such manuscripts, “for the first time, an interested critic can see Whitman truly in the workshop.”
Until Bowers put all the pieces together, readers of Leaves of Grass had seen only what Whitman wanted them to see.
Subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass illustrated how Whitman continued to make changes to his most revealing poems. The poems “V” and “VIII” in “Live Oak” were never published again until Bowers discovered them nearly 100 years later.
“The fifth poem is sort of at the height of the love affair,” says Cushman. Whitman was saying, “America can go find somebody else to sing its songs. I want to go and hang out with the guy I love.”
But Whitman removed it for future editions “because it was very important for him to think of himself as the national poet,” Cushman says. “He wanted other people to think of him that way as well.”
Bowers, who retired from UVA in 1975 and died in 1991, was criticized at times for not focusing enough on the published text, but Vander Meulen emphasizes just how revealing the work behind the text can be.
“It’s like panning for gold,” he says. “Part of the point is that you go wherever it takes you. And here, through this bibliographical analysis, we learn things about people.”