Marshall, University of Idaho professors discover ‘new’ Walt Whitman texts

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HUNTINGTON, WV (WOWK) – A Marshall University professor and his colleague from the University of Idaho are being credited with the discovery of “new” texts penned by American Poet Walt Whitman.

The discovery, made by Dr. Stefan Schöberlein, an assistant professor in the Department of English and the director of digital humanities at Marshall University, and Dr. Zachary Turpin from the University of Idaho, was announced in the latest edition of the open-access journal Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.

Officials with Marshall University say two newly found sets of text include an unknown collection of letters to the editor that Whitman wrote to the New Orleans Daily Crescent, which is a newspaper he helped establish during the brief time he lived in New Orleans. Those letters were published under the penname “Manhattan.” The poet, who lived from 1819 to 1892, grew up on Long Island and spent much of his life in and around New York, according to university officials.

“Many Marshall students might not even know that Whitman stopped in what would later become West Virginia on his trip to New Orleans,” Schöberlein said. “And like a true West Virginian, he complained about how bad the roads were. But he also praised the ‘finest scenery’ around Wheeling and Harper’s Ferry.”

The texts are just over 40,000 words and Marshall University says they “mark one of the most significant new discoveries about Whitman in recent years.”

“We’ve been working on this since summer of 2019,” Schöberlein said. “It began with a hunch by Dr. Turpin and ultimately resulted in the attribution of around 50 unknown texts to Whitman.”

Schöberlein says attributing these texts to the poet was a lengthy process. The professors’ discovery also includes additional installments of a series of humorous sketches that show more about his time in New Orleans.

“It actually took quite a bit of detective work to make sure that this was really Whitman, considering there is no mention of any of this in his surviving records,” Schöberlein added. “Still, we not only found conclusive biographical evidence in these pieces but also employed a computational assessment that found significant stylistic overlaps between these texts and Whitman’s known writings.”

Officials say the texts were printed seven years before Whitman’s volume “Leaves of Grass,” published in 1855. At the time, Whitman was 28 years old and was staying in New Orleans for just three months. He had also become a widely-known and accomplished prose writer and newspaperman.

“The truism that Whitman only worked for the Crescent while physically in New Orleans by now underlies most, if not all, scholarship on this time in the poet’s life,” Schöberlein and Turpin wrote in their article. “This assumption is false.”

The professors’ research has shown Whitman kept in touch with the paper and contributed a significant number of additional writings by mail over a period of several months.

“These new writings shed light on a period in Whitman’s life that scholars knew very little about until today,” Schöberlein said. “There is so much to learn here about Whitman’s political leanings in these months, his attitudes about race and his ongoing interest in the republican revolutions in Europe. This is an exciting time to be a Whitman scholar.”

Marshall University says Schöberlein is the institution’s new director of digital humanities and serves as a contributing editor for the Walt Whitman Archive. According to the university, he will be publishing an edited collection of Whitman’s writings from New Orleans next spring.

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