The Library of Congress Wants You to Help Transcribe Walt Whitman’s Poems & Letters: Almost 4000 Unpublished Documents Are Waiting

Every once in a while, a promi­nent artist will offer the advice that you should quit your day job and nev­er look back. In some fields, this may be pos­si­ble, though it’s becom­ing increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult these days, which may explain the recep­tion Bri­an Eno gets when he tells art school stu­dents “not to have a job.” Eno admits, “I rarely get asked back.” In a let­ter to his anx­ious moth­er, Gus­tave Flaubert, railed against “those bas­tard exis­tences where you sell suet all day and write poet­ry at night.” Such a life, he wrote, was “made for mediocre minds.”

Sure, if you can swing it, by all means, quit your job. Most poets through­out history—save the few with inde­pen­dent means or wealthy patrons—haven’t had the lux­u­ry. Poet­ry may nev­er pay the bills, but that shouldn’t stop a poet from writ­ing. It didn’t stop T.S. Eliot, who worked as an edi­tor (he reject­ed George Orwell’s Ani­mal Farm) and a bank clerk (he turned down a fel­low­ship from the Blooms­bury group). It did not stop William Car­los Williams, the doc­tor, nor Wal­lace Stevens, who spent his days in the insur­ance game, nor Charles Bukows­ki,  though he’d nev­er rec­om­mend it….

Then there’s ulti­mate jour­ney­man poet Walt Whit­man, who left school at 11 to get a job and var­i­ous­ly through­out his life “worked as a school teacher, print­er, news­pa­per edi­tor, jour­nal­ist, car­pen­ter, free­lance writer, civ­il ser­vant, and Union Army nurse in Wash­ing­ton D.C. dur­ing the Civ­il War,” as the Library of Con­gress (LOC) not­ed for the 200th anniver­sary of the poet’s 1819 birth. The LOC holds “the world’s largest Walt Whit­man man­u­script col­lec­tion” and last year they announced a vol­un­teer cam­paign to tran­scribe thou­sands of unpub­lished doc­u­ments.

Whit­man offered his own pos­si­bly dubi­ous advice to aspir­ing writ­ers—“don’t write poet­ry”—but he him­self nev­er stopped writ­ing, no mat­ter the demands of the day. He also advised, “it is a good plan for every young man or woman hav­ing lit­er­ary aspi­ra­tions to car­ry a pen­cil and a piece of paper and con­stant­ly jot down strik­ing events in dai­ly life. They thus acquire a vast fund of infor­ma­tion.” Whitman’s “jot­tings” include typed and hand­writ­ten let­ters, orig­i­nal copies of poems, drafts of essays and reviews, and more.

His prose is always live­ly and robust, full of exhor­ta­tions, exal­ta­tions, and admix­tures of the high lit­er­ary lan­guage and casu­al talk of city streets that were his hall­mark. Wit­ness the wild swings in tone in his brief let­ter to Abra­ham P. Leech (above) cir­ca 1881:

Friend Leech,

How d’ye do? — I have quite a han­ker­ing to hear from and see Jamaica, and the Jamaicaites. — A pres­sure of busi­ness only, has pre­vent­ed my com­ing out among the “friends of yore” and the famil­iar places which your vil­lage con­tains. –I was an hour in your vil­lage the oth­er day, but did not have time to come up and see you,–I think of com­ing up in the course of the win­ter holidays.–Farewell–and don’t for­get write to me, through the P.O.  May your kind angel hov­er in the invis­i­ble air, and lose sight of your blessed pres­ence nev­er.


There are many, many more such doc­u­ments remain­ing to be tran­scribed among the close to 4000 in the LoC’s dig­i­tized Whit­man col­lec­tion. “More than half of those have been com­plet­ed so far,” writes Men­tal Floss, and rough­ly 1860 tran­scrip­tions still need to be reviewed. Any­one can read the doc­u­ments that need approval and offi­cial­ly add them to the Whit­man archive.” This is a very wor­thy project, and it may or may not feel like work to vol­un­teer your time deci­pher­ing, read­ing, and tran­scrib­ing Whitman’s ebul­lient hand.

The ques­tion may still remain: How did Whit­man acquire the phys­i­cal and men­tal sta­mi­na to get so much excel­lent writ­ing done and still hold down steady gigs to make the rent? Per­haps a series of guides called “Man­ly Health and Train­ing” that he wrote between 1858 and 1860 hold a clue. The poet rec­om­mends rou­tine trips to the “gym­na­si­um” and a diet of meat, “to the exclu­sion of all else.” For those “stu­dents, clerks” and oth­ers “in seden­tary and men­tal employments”—including the “lit­er­ary man”—he has one word: “Up!”

As with all such pieces of advice, results may vary. Enter the two huge man­u­script archives—“Miscellaneous” and “Poetry”—at the Library of Con­gress dig­i­tal col­lec­tions and peruse, or tran­scribe, as much of Whit­man’s end­less stream of writ­ing as you like.

via Men­tal Floss

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Walt Whitman’s Unearthed Health Man­u­al, “Man­ly Health & Train­ing,” Urges Read­ers to Stand (Don’t Sit!) and Eat Plen­ty of Meat (1858)

Walt Whit­man Gives Advice to Aspir­ing Young Writ­ers: “Don’t Write Poet­ry” & Oth­er Prac­ti­cal Tips (1888)

Walt Whitman’s Poem “A Noise­less Patient Spi­der” Brought to Life in Three Ani­ma­tions

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Carroll Woods says:


    Thank you for the inter­est­ing arti­cle. I missed the part that shows me where I can sign up to vol­un­teer.
    Any links to that?

    Thanks again.

    Car­roll Woods

  • Mary Valletta says:

    This is very mis­lead­ing. Where exact­ly can I sign up? I see noth­ing list­ed here.

  • Susan says:

    From the arti­cal in ques­tion … “…Any­one can read the doc­u­ments that need approval and offi­cial­ly add them to the Whit­man archive.…” and “Enter the two huge man­u­script archives—“Miscellaneous” and “Poetry”—at the Library of Con­gress dig­i­tal col­lec­tions and peruse, or tran­scribe, as much of Whit­man’s end­less stream of writ­ing as you like.” The link is in the last para­graph.

  • Perla B Howard says:

    It’s now 2023. Are vol­un­teers still need­ed for this wor­thy task?

    If yes, where can i find detailed instruc­tions on how to access doc­u­ments that have nev­er been tran­scribed?

    How does a vol­un­teer send tran­scrip­tions?

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