Walt Whitman's Butterfly
a web story.




'Bring all the art and science of the world,
and baffle and humble it with one spear of grass'
From the recovered notebooks of Walt Whitman.













"Do I contradict myself?
Very well then . . . .
I contradict myself."

I bought my copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass for the pictures.

It was a thick, crudely re-printed remaindered hardback with black and white photographs from a favourite American photographer Edward Weston. A commissioned work for a folio publisher, it involved Weston traveling across the US with an open brief to interpret the poems of Whitman, who at the time, although recognised as one of the greatest American poets, was considered by the public as 'old fashioned'. Today there are Whitman web sites, complete hypertext copies of his work on the 'Net and he is being translated into many different languages. Whitman long considered so American, has become a poet for the world.

For me (as a 20 year old) the poems that came between the illustrations took a while to assert themselves. They are so much full of their times, the mid to late 1800’s, that it took a later interest in Victoriana before I could appreciate much of it. Whitman the man however, is much easier to approach. 


In his writing, Whitman lied and contradicted himself so many times that it has made it difficult for his biographers. (They still don't know how to explain the intense homoeroticism in his writing. Was he homosexual?) Yet, he clearly comes across strongly as a clever (and blustering) self publicist.

As one modern reviewer said, "The story of Whitman selling himself as a cultural commodity is fascinating, the way Madonna is fascinating. Late in life, cigars, calendars, and cults were named after him, and
apparently he resented bowdlerization only if the price wasn't right".


Who tied that butterfly to the poet's finger?

There's a famous 1880's photograph of Whitman, with long gray beard and broad-brimmed hat, seated with a butterfly on an outstretched finger. Ever the self-promoter, Whitman used the photograph to convey an image of himself as being at one with nature, in a way that's pure Victorian sentimentality. It's not until you consider the long exposure time required and the perfectly positioned butterfly that the artifice becomes patent. The butterfly is a cardboard fake.

In a twist that Whitman himself could never have imagined, the artifice has been exposed and the butterfly's story is on the Web. It's a classic tale that involves a theft, complete with FBI agents and ends with a digital conservation coda that should ensure that it will be around for my children to read.

From 1889 edition of Leaves of Grass (Philadelphia, Ferguson Bros. & Co.; PS3201 1889, Library of Congress)



I sing the body electric

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1887






Like all writers, Whitman kept notebooks, jotting down thoughts and developing odd lines into longer poems. As a journalist he wrote story ideas and contact names, pasted in clippings, photographs and parts of manuscripts. Many were commercial notebooks that he cut pages from and pasted new ones in, others were home-made folded sheets of paper fastened with pins or ribbons.

They form a valuable source for definitive versions of his poems and gave biographers an insight into the way he crafted his work and to Whitman's daily life. In the Civil War years when Whitman visited and comforted the wounded soldiers in the Washington hospitals, he noted what treats a soldier might like on the next visit- "bed 15--wants an orange. . .bed 59 wants some liquorice. . .27 wants some figs and a book."


When Whitman died there were three literary executors. Thomas B. Harned, a Philadelphia lawyer had the many of the early notebooks and after making them available to scholars and biographers, deposited them with the Library of Congress. A hand-written memo that is dated Nov. 15, 1918, noted that the Manuscript Division received "this afternoon" 24 notebooks "and a lot of miscellaneous sheets, in yellow covers," which were later counted as a 25th notebook. There was also a small, coloured cardboard butterfly. (There are Whitman notebooks in other collections and it is estimated that around a hundred notebooks exist.)

The notebooks were copied, some were Photostatted and remained in the Library's care until the Second World War. Concern for the National Library's treasures saw anti-aircraft guns installed on rooftops and staff conducting 24-hour air raid watches. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the most important items were crated up, including Whitman papers from the Harned collection, for evacuation early in 1942.


At the end of the War, 4,789 packing cases--"the equivalent of 26 freight car loads"--of materials were returned to the Library, the last arriving on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 1944. According to Alice L. Birney, the Library's American Literature Specialist, the small container that supposedly held "24 notebooks" and the butterfly, was still sealed upon its return.
When it was opened, there were only 14 notebooks and no butterfly.

An extensive search was made, and years later the Federal Bureau of Investigation called in. The FBI advised the Library how to proceed in 1952 but it was two years later before a circular was published describing the missing items. This document was circulated to archives, book dealers, and other sources asking them to watch for the missing materials. It was to be over forty years before they were to receive any response.


In January 1995, a New York lawyer settling his father's estate took four notebooks and the butterfly to Sotheby's in New York for appraisal. He said the items were a gift to his father, who had them for some 30 years. Inside one of the notebooks, was the butterfly. It was this distinctive piece that helped Selby Kiffer, a vice president in Sotheby's Books and Manuscripts Department, to trace them to the Library. On the 25th of January it was confirmed that they were part of the missing collection and Terry Wallis, a rare book conservator joined Alice L. Birney at Sotheby's in New York City to pack them safely for return to the Library. No one was taking chances on the losing the notebooks again. There were three FBI agents present, one from Washington and two from New York. The agents photographed each notebook after Birney verified its identity by comparing notebook pages with the Library of Congress's photostatic copies, and with descriptions in a 1955 Whitman exhibition catalog.


The conservator, Terry Wallis recorded their condition. His report describes "Torn leaves and faded pages of one notebook, limited opening capability of another, and loose leaves--"very likely out of order"--in another". Then she "wrapped the notebooks in mylar, encased them in "sandwiches" of flexible styrofoam and corrugated plastic covers made to fit them, and secured them in a hard-cover attaché case".

The three agents escorted Birney, Wallis, and the attaché case to Penn Station for an Amtrak train trip back to Washington. At 5:30 p.m., the trio arrived at the Library of Congress Conservation Office, where they were signed over from FBI custody.



Having the rare items back, triggered a chain of events at the Library.
The following Monday morning the Conservation Office assessed the condition of the notebooks so they could plan preservation and what access should be allowed for researchers. There was a request that they be transferred to microfilm immediately, but the Conservation Office held back. They realized that this was an opportunity to be involved in the proposals for a National Digital Library, a process that is planned to take valuable items in National collections and make them available on the Internet.

The Whitman notebooks were designated Handle Only Once and although microfilm photoduplication had been the preferred process since 1939, it was decided that these items should be recorded digitally. This involved a laborious process of pulling the notebooks apart, removing the covers, separating sheets and flattening them for high resolution scanning. The scans were then used to create a microfilm copy for reference. The advantages of the high resolution scans were that it would allow production of printed 'surrogates', not quite the original but replicas that could add invaluable information to scholars and the public.


The attitude of the Library staff to the change seems strangely reactionary from just two years later. Carl Fleischhauer, an American Memory project pioneer, said

"Today we understand how to make a microfilm copy to preserve materials, and in the future we will make digital copies; we feel certain that digital images will be the medium of the future for reformatting materials.

We know a digital image can last forever--so long as you can copy it from one medium to another. That's where the anxiety comes in; we don't know that the storage medium of today, for example optical media, will be compatible with the technology of the future."


The next step was to make the Whitman images available on the Web.
The Conservation Office, Manuscript Division, and American Memory produced high quality JPEG compressed versions of the Whitman images, and the Whitman notebooks now have their own home page. There is a catalogue of the full page images, pictures of the butterfly and other texts that provide the background information that I've drawn on here. There's also important discussions on the Digital Library concept and on the conservation process. Terry Wallis is quoted saying
"I think scholars are going to love the digital medium. Digitizing can improve the image, and users will be able to click on a detail and enlarge it onscreen for closer examination", but he stresses the importance of conserving the object. "The textual information is not the only thing of value. . . . The object itself has information for cultural historians. The artifact connects you to the person whose these were," Wallis said.


The butterfly is a perfect example of this.
On examination it still has the string attached that held it to Whitman's finger. It is a cheaply printed piece of 1880's novelty ephemera with a religious text printed on the back. The words are by John Mason Neale, himself something of a celebrity to Victorian church-goers. Neale was born in London in 1818, studied at Cambridge, and was ordained to the priesthood of the Anglican Church in 1842.
He is best known as a hymn writer and translator, having "enriched English hymnody with many ancient and mediaeval hymns translated from Latin and Greek". The religious text, almost certainly from a Neale hymn, are clearly read printed inside the butterfly's wings and separated by the vertical word Easter. Was it the text, a stirring verse about triumph over death, that attracted Whitman or the whimsy of the coloured butterfly on the reverse?


There are six notebooks still missing.
The FBI and Alice Birney are working to find them.

Whitman resources available on the Internet include

The Library of Congress pages and scans are at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/wwhtml/wwhome.html

There's a hypertext linked annotated Leaves of Grass and facsimile of Whitman's biography at

The Walt Whitman Circle has newsletters and events linked to Whitman

The review by Caleb Crain of David Reynold's book Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography.  is on his homepages at
Dead Link: http://www.cc.columbia.edu/~wcc6/reynolds.html

There are the words to a John Mason Neale hymn Good Christian men, rejoice at
and some biographical detail and his writing in the Calendar of Christian Historical Biographies

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