Today, a butterfly is not what it seems to be. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
A now-famous photo from the
1883 Miami Herald shows white-bearded
Walt Whitman with a butterfly landing on his hand.
He looks like some latter-day St. Francis -- a
child of nature.
But there's more to that butterfly: In 1942, right
after we went to war, the Library of Congress
shipped its most precious holdings inland. The
Declaration of Independence went to Fort Knox. A
crate with ten of Whitman's notebooks in it went to
When the crate came back in 1944, the notebooks
were gone. Lost or stolen? We don't know. Fifty
years later, in 1994, a young man turned up at
Sotheby's Auction Gallery with four of the
notebooks from his father's estate. As soon as he
learned their history, he returned them without
claiming any of their half-million-dollar value.
And we had a new window into Walt Whitman.
Here were draft portions of his epic poem,
Leaves of Grass. Young Whitman
described his work as a nurse in a Civil War
hospital. That part gives us a very human picture
of Whitman. He wrote letters for men who couldn't
write, and he recorded their deaths. He talked
about requests from the wounded and dying -- for an
orange -- even for a piece of horehound candy.
Then a real bombshell: In one notebook, we find a
butterfly, drawn on paper and carefully cut out.
It's the same butterfly as in that 1883 newspaper.
So much for St. Francis! The butterfly was a fake.
Whitman was manufacturing his own image.
But wait! Genius often walks three steps ahead of
us. Everything about Whitman was a composition. He
was a part of the picture he drew. The problem of
matching appearance and reality, says author Miles
Orvell, obsessed him.
Poet! beware [Whitman says] lest your poems are
made in the spirit that comes from the study of
pictures of things, [and not from] contact with
real things themselves.
So Whitman used the new cameras to make himself
part of the poem. His own image became a dimension
of his self-expression. He didn't put his name on
the title page of Leaves of Grass, he
put his photo there -- standing in rough clothes,
the image of action, the image of the America he
was writing about.
We all do that, of course. We offer a face to the
world -- strong, caring, reckless, intellectual,
sinister. We all try to do what Whitman succeeded
in doing. In the end, that fake butterfly doesn't
tarnish the poet at all; it explains him.
Whitman's poetry was visual art. It was theater.
Poetry was a process where he struggled to be
one-and-the-same with the face he showed to the
world. That's surely the hardest thing any of us
ever does. We try to decide whether we're gentle or
tough, while the real butterflies circle -- always
outside our reach.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Missing Whitman Papers Surface after 53 Years.
The Manuscript Society News (Steve L.
Carson, ed.), Vol. XVI, No. 2, Spring 1995, pp.
Orvell, M., Whitman's Transformed Eye. The
Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American
Culture, 1880-1940. Chapel Hill, NC: The
University of North Carolina Press, 1989, Chapter
Whitman, W., Leaves of Grass. New
York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc., 1940.
I am grateful to Pat Bozeman, Head of Special
Collections at the UH Library, for providing the
article on Whitman's missing notebooks and
suggesting it might be story worth sharing.
For more on Whitman and his sense of iconography,
see Episode 342
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
Image courtesy of Special
Collections, UH Library
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