Restoring Fragile Remains: Two Louisa Van Velsor Whitman Letters

“Half sunk a shattered visage lies”[1]

To illustrate the tools and expertise that conservation demands, Duke University has highlighted the work of its Conservation Services Department on fragile materials. The letters of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, poet Walt Whitman’s mother, which were treated for preservation by Beth Doyle, Erin Hammeke, Rachel Penniman, and Grace White,[2] have emerged as a favorite example. Conservation is a background for editorial scholarship, and this conservation work is in the background to my own encounter with the same documents, as an editor. My edition of the letters, “walter dear”: The Letters of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Her Son Walt, may be conceived as a continuation or expansion of their conservation efforts, though it is other work as well. This short story concerns preservation, loss, and an editor’s reliance on the work of others, for two purposes: to preserve what promises to crumble away, to restore a part of what has been lost. I will close with a brief cloak-and-dagger note that in part explains my sometimes fraught relationship to previous scholarship.

To acquire a sense of the Duke conservators’ efforts, you can browse images of their labor on two of Louisa Van Velsor Whitman’s fragile letters in Aaron Kirschenfeld’s “Campus Observer: Loan Renewal” in Duke Magazine (Tip: Read the article on their work, of course, but to see the images, click “Show Full Article”). More images, also of her letters, are on the library’s flickr account (with higher resolution) at “Louisa Whitman letter, before treatment” and again (same title) and (though some repeated) in the online catalog for the exhibit Louisa Whitman Letters. The two most important ones for my subsequent discussion are reproduced below, at a lower resolution:

Louisa Whitman letter, before treatment

Figure 1: “Louisa Whitman letter, before treatment”
(Source: Trent Collection, Duke University)

Louisa Whitman letter, before treatment

Figure 2: “Louisa Whitman letter, before treatment”
(Source: Trent Collection, Duke University)

In the introduction to my edition, the conservators receive only faint and indirect mention, classed generally among the group “of collectors and archivists, and of scholars and funding bodies” and again, anonymously, as part of the collective known as “David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.” The mostly invisible efforts of library and archive personnel—who did the work and when they did so is no doubt recorded in work logs and project documents but invisible in catalog records—are effaced often in published literary and historical scholarship. I first encountered the handiwork of the conservators after their ministrations to these fragile documents were complete: only later would I notice and seek to reconstruct some of what had been lost. My editorial work has been complicit in silencing the conservators’ labor: only after the letters were published would I seek out their names.

Work on Mother Whitman’s letters was proposed by the Walt Whitman Archive and funded in part by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission as an editorial project, and for me it became work to be done after it was funded. Many removes occur between the letters as material objects and my editorial labor upon them, which can be summarized briefly as follows. Duke selected the Mother Whitman letters for digitization and provided the entire collection of images to the Whitman Archive, and the decision to digitize probably set the work of conservators in motion: they sought to reduce the risk of further damage. When the Whitman Archive received the images from Duke, Liz Lorang, senior associate editor and program manager at the archive (located at the University of Nebraska), patiently assembled digital images into letter units: each letter is assigned a Walt Whitman Archive ID and categorized as on “object” in the tracking database, though one letter may be represented by multiple image surfaces. The letters arrived to me (located at Kent State) through the tracking database interface, as a digital image of their material form, the reconstituted traces on the basis of which I and others would labor. About a third of the letters I transcribed myself from the tracking database interface, and assistant editor Felicia L. Wetzig completed the initial transcription and annotation for the remainder. Within the application Oxygen, we transcribed the text of the letters into an XML file that complied with the Whitman Archive schema. After two rounds of proofreading (one with assistance of Cathy Tisch or a student) and several rounds of annotation were complete, Ms. Tisch or I transformed the XML version of Duke letters into an HTML version and printed them. This previous summer, I headed to Durham, North Carolina, where I spent most of five days proofreading our transcriptions against the original documents.

Below (Figure 3) is a letter that you may recognize, from the Duke conservators’ work above (see Figure 1).

Cropped Section from Image 1, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman, [9–14] March 1863

Figure 3: Cropped Section from Image 1, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman, [9–14] March 1863
(Source: Trent Collection, Duke University, via Whitman Archive)

If you examine the words and the tear on the bottom of the image, the phrases “about 11 Oclock” and “[w?]ith his key” and the general outline of the tear confirm that this is an alternate perspective on the same letter. But because of the large triangle-shaped tear, a probable word that appeared between “came” and “in” has been lost and is irrecoverable, except through speculation. I declined to speculate in my editorial transcription, but we may conjecture that “on” completed the phrase “came on in.”

Louisa wrote on the opposite surface of the same page, and it is also photographed.

Cropped Section from Image 2, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman, [9–14] March 1863

Figure 4: Cropped Section from Image 2, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman to Walt Whitman, [9–14] March 1863
(Source: Trent Collection, Duke University, via Whitman Archive)

Notice the phrase “buckwheat cakes”—apparently also one of Walt’s favorite breakfasts—which appears also in part, as “buckwhea[t?]” mid-way up in the Duke conservation image (Figure 2). Because the phrase “as if” is below the word “buckwheat,” it’s the same letter. And you can also see that the two pairs of triangular tears in Figure 3 and 4 are mirror images of one another. But if you look closely at the Duke image, it includes characteristics of the letter as a material document that are invisible in the version of the images posted on the Whitman Archive. The paper of the letter separates along a line that runs vertically through the middle of the image: that is where the letter was mounted into the letter book along its margin. The adhesive that once held the letter in place has contributed to the deterioration of the paper. At the bottom of Figure 2 one may discern a sharp angle, a strip of cotton-rag paper like that used in scrap books. That is the paper on which Louisa’s letters were mounted alongside the type transcription.

The letters are mounted in a bound scrap book. The two images below are the title page to the scrap book, though the bottom half of the page has been cropped…

Title Page, Louisa Whitman Letters, Duke University

Figure 5: Louisa Whitman letters, t.p., before treatment
(Source: Trent Collection, Duke University)

…and the letter book’s binding. I snapped a photo of this 2nd-volume binding when it was retrieved for me at Duke.

Louisa Whitman Letter Book, Duke University

Figure 6: Louisa Whitman Letter Book
(Source: Trent Collection, Duke University)

To a significant extent, all these material forms in which the letters are preserved are defined as irrelevant for the editorial work. And that is why I include the following statement in the introduction:

Other items, such as two notes by Waldron that are placed loose in An Extensive Collection (Trent Collection, Duke), are referenced when applicable but not reproduced. The other paratextual materials in An Extensive Collection and in A Series of Thirteen Letters (Walt Whitman Collection, Ransom Center)—title pages, bindings, mounted catalog clippings in the end papers or the inside front cover, mounting pages for the letters, and type transcriptions—are not reproduced.

If truth be told, I was ill-prepared to deal with the letters as original documents when I first arrived at Duke, though I had already proofread a smaller set at the Harry Ransom Center. And I spent the first two or three hours in special collections floundering. You can see what I encountered by browsing the finding aid named Guide to the Trent Collection of Whitmaniana, 1841-1992, bulk 1845-1849, 1854-1857, and 1864-1892. If you wanted all the Louisa Whitman letters, what would you request first, Box III-5E, Box III-5F, Box II-9B, Box II-9D, or Box III-5D? You can request multiple items to be available for you, but you can only have one item at a time at a table. So for first hour or two I browsed through albums that looked like they were prepared by a befuddled scrapbooker who had lost his or her nerve and was just cramming what had fallen out into sleeves, and I was getting nervous. In fact, the letter books were kept in a vault, and it was only when I had begun to reach a state of nervousness somewhere short of consternation that curator Will Hansen explained the letter books’ recent move and promised to have them out shortly. But after I had my hands on and had oriented myself to the proper letter albums, those qualities that were defined as secondary began to fall away. I needed to get into a zone because I was trying over 4.5 days to proofread all 148 letters. And at the same time I wanted to move slowly and deliberately to ensure that I would not fold or damage any of the fragile documents.

Only two of the letters are extraordinarily fragile, and the poor quality of the paper Louisa Van Velsor Whitman herself noticed. In her March 19, 1863 letter to Walt, she wrote: “this 12 sheets of writing paper for 4 cents is awful stuf to write on.” The same paper is used for her March 9-14, 1863 letter. I had read that line when transcribing the letter, but it did not really hit home until I saw the small envelope of fragmentary remains.

Clear Plastic Sleeve with Letter Fragments

Figure 7: Clear Plastic Sleeve of Preserved Letter Fragments in An Extensive Collection
(Source: Trent Collection, Duke University)

These fragments are pregnant with meanings. During the Civil War, Louisa scrimped on food for herself and for her sons Edward and Jesse, and she scrimped on writing paper. The paper that she chose is one of the remains of her genuine fear of poverty and the thriftiness that she practiced in the wake of that fear. These are the first two letters of her war-era correspondence, shortly after Walt’s departure for Washington, D.C., in search of his injured brother George, who had been wounded at Fredericksburg. One senses in her choice of paper no suspicion that writing letters to Walt will be the activity of the next decade, because her son was expected to return to Brooklyn. After writing Walt became a regular habit, he kept her in supply with higher quality paper and stamped envelopes. These letters are the fragile beginnings of a war-era correspondence that would continue through Reconstruction and unto her death in May 1873. That a conservator at Duke University kept them and tweezed each individual fragment into a transparent sleeve conveys both a surrender to the inevitable corruption of material things and an almost insane optimism. To save them as fragments must on some level be an admission that one no longer has the time, energy, or inclination to devote any more effort to them. I for one could pardon a sharp sneeze that scattered these fragments on the floor, where a janitor’s vacuum might whisk them away. But their conservation is also an expression of hope in a better future for the letter, that at some point someone may wish to painstakingly reconstruct its shattered visage. When I encountered them, I surrendered a sentimental tear for their presence but resolved myself to a hard-headed recognition that decay and dissolution are inevitable, the fate of material things. I had no inclination to sit there and try to reconstruct a letter out of 7 or 10 or 15 millimeter-wide fragments. Not only did I realize that I had neither the necessary time nor expertise, to even try seemed hopeless.

Some editorial projects are heroic, but mine is not. I really needed to finish the project during summer 2013 to shore up my case for tenure and promotion. At Duke, I was trying to keep up a pace of proofreading around one letter every 15 or 20 minutes, so I could proofread every letter before my plane left on Friday. And yet, because I’ve spent far more time on Louisa Van Velsor Whitman’s letters than any capitalist accounting of the value of labor could justify, I can still recognize the letter that appears alongside the fragments. You can too, now: all you need to do is transcribe a few words and search on the Whitman Archive. As you could find, similar holes in the paper are visible on Figure 8 (though you’re looking at the opposite side of page below):

Figure 8: Cropped, from Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, March 9–14, 1863 Letter (click for letter on Whitman Archive)

Figure 8: Cropped, from Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, March 9–14, 1863 Letter
(Source: Duke University, via Whitman Archive)

Though it’s humorously ironic that the dollar amounts that have fallen victim to decay, I failed to appreciate the humor at the time—cause the lost words are a real problem for an editor. But then, because I was sitting face to face with the documents, I realized that the type transcriptions that could retain information that had been lost as the original letters decayed (also see Figure 1, which shows small section of the letter book type transcription). Lo and behold, there one could find transcribed alphanumeric characters from the lost fragments (Figure 9):

Figure 9: Type Transcription, An Extensive Collection, March 9–14, 1863 Letter (Trent Collection, Duke)

Figure 9: Type Transcription, An Extensive Collection, March 9–14, 1863 Letter
(Source: Trent Collection, Duke)

There’s no grand lesson here. After all, that’s what an editor is supposed to do, but what one ought to do is sometimes not as easy as it could be. I have a troubled relationship to type transcriptions of Mother Whitman’s letters. And for a while I had been hesitant to use them, which requires a bit of a back-story, though names of the innocent have been changed to protect them. Near the beginning of this project, a Whitman scholar informed me that he had worked briefly with someone else (I’ll call him or her the “other LVVW editor”) who had put considerable effort toward a possible edition of Mother Whitman’s letters. An attempt at collaboration between the Whitman scholar and the other LVVW editor did not work out. At the time the Louisa Whitman letters project was suggested to me by Professor Ken Price, enough time had passed that the work of the other LVVW editor had begun to enter the status of folklore. The Whitman scholar had in his or her possession manuscript typescript photocopies with draft annotations that had belonged to the other LVVW editor, photocopies that were made by the Whitman scholar when attempting a collaboration. But in order to head off future concerns that I had benefited from the other LVVW editor’s work—I did not have his or her permission to use the work—I decided it was best that I not refer to the photocopies, at all. So I prepared a memo—that I forwarded to the Whitman scholar to be kept as a record—in which I explained that I had seen the documents but had decided I was ethically obligated to not use them in my own project without the other LVVW editor’s permission, that I had returned the documents to the Whitman scholar, and that I from that moment forward would never again consult them. The whole episode seemed a bit cloak and dagger and a bit 19th-century fiction in installments, with the fictional future narrative climax to be when I as the rightful heir and editor of the Mother Whitman’s letters pulled out the letter and presented it as evidence to have a legal suit dismissed. I felt both sincere and perfectly ridiculous.

But when Duke sent the images, they forwarded a set of original manuscript images AND a set of type transcriptions. Could I use the latter? Well, I had no idea. I was pretty sure they were not the the documents that I had browsed from the Whitman scholar two or so years earlier, because though typescripts they lacked substantial annotation, but I didn’t know who had prepared the typescripts. And I didn’t know whom to ask, or whether to do so. I had already downloaded the electronic copies to my hard drive. Was it time to write a letter swearing that I had destroyed all digital file copies also? If I did that and under cross-examination anybody asked whether I had read Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms, would I lie? No, my life has really not heretofore seemed anything like an episode out of CSI or Monk. So I asked Ms. Tisch to transcribe the typescripts with reasonable confidence they were not from the other LVVW editor. Ms. Wetzig transcribed from the manuscript facsimiles, and it seemed like comparing our transcription from the manuscripts against the typescripts from Duke would be a good way to check our work: two transcriptions digitally compared can produce more accurate copy of a printed work than proofreading can. I knew I had all my files with time and date stamps. Even had I to admit under oath that I had read Mechanisms and so knew that deleted files were never really gone because their material trace remained on the hard drive and were recoverable and I had as part of the project had the typescripts transcribed, my crack legal team could bring in its digital forensics expert to compare file access dates to job logs and show that Ms. Wetzig or I had the XML files open when accessing the Whitman Archive tracking database and so must have transcribed from the manuscript facsimiles. Reality was a lot more mundane than my imaginary court drama. We tried collating our transcriptions against those from the Duke letter book. But it didn’t help much. The transcriptions on a few occasions helped early on, but as I became more familiar with Mother Whitman’s hand I began to realize that I could only trust a transcription that I had proofread multiple times against the manuscript image and against the original manuscript.

Three or so years later, when I finished proofreading on Friday morning at Duke, I asked Hansen, Assistant Curator of Collections and factotum for all things Whitman in the Rubenstein, if we could talk for a while. During that conversation, I explained my dilemma. I wanted to use the type transcriptions to restore the text from the lost fragments, but I did not want to violate in spirit or in fact the promise that I had made about not touching the other LVVW editor’s work. So I asked if he knew who had made the transcriptions in the letter books. He answered that the person who prepared the type transcriptions was not included in the provenance description. After Whitman’s death, his documentary remains were split up among his executors, one of whom was Richard Maurice Bucke. I with Professor Price’s assistance had identified the hand in red ink on the letters, often a date, as Bucke’s. The collection that belonged to Bucke had been dispersed at auction. A collector apparently bought the Mother Whitman letters, and that unknown collector had hired a typist to transcribe them. Therefore, these transcriptions were prepared before they had been placed in the Trent Collection: I was relieved. That same collector subsequently had the manuscript letters and typescripts bound into the letter book, and both letters and transcripts were in the letter book when they were acquired by Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans and Dr. Josiah Trent, who had donated them to the library in the mid-20th century.[3]

That is where my story ends, with a handful of numbers and alphabetic characters that are lost in the manuscript fragments but now restored to my edition on the authority of the type transcript. The one who prepared the typescripts for the letter book, on whom I relied for the characters that may or may not lie as fragmentary ruins in the conservator’s plastic sleeve, is also lost to time and memory. When I began this post, I thought that at close I would with the Thunder declare, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”[4] But that is not the case: publishing the letters has brought mostly relief, that the work feels completed. For I have settled into that second calm that Billy Collins is said to have invoked, the one that belongs to poets after they publish. I know a similar calm belongs to editors, and I trust it belongs to conservators as well. Our job is to save and to restore what we can, from the fragile remains.

[1] Shelley, Percy Bysshe, “Ozymandias.” Poetry Foundation.

[2] Hansen, Will. RE: Conservators for Mother Whitman Letters. Email to the Author. March 26, 2014.

[3] Bonner, Paul. Duke Houses One of the Nation’s Top Whitman Collections. Herald-Sun, February 8, 2006. Rpt. Whitman Archive,

[4] Eliot, T. S., “The Waste Land.” Poetry Foundation.

[5] Collins, Billy. Poetry Reading, McDaniel College, May 4, 2011, Rpt. Adam Robinson, “Billy Collins at McDaniel College (Westminster, MD) 05/04/2011.” Publishing Genius. Blog.

Creative Commons License
Restoring Fragile Remains: Two Louisa Van Velsor Whitman Letters by Wesley Raabe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Restoring Fragile Remains: Two Louisa Van Velsor Whitman Letters

  1. Will Hansen says:

    Wesley, it may please you (and other researchers!) to know that the Trent Collection of Whitmaniana is slated for reprocessing to improve and simplify access to the collection, and correct problems and errors that cause difficulties such as the one you had retrieving the Louisa Whitman letters. The existing organization of the collection is an artifact of their former physical location, in a series of cabinets; moving the collection out of these cabinets (as the Library prepared for renovation) has created difficulty for both staff and researchers in locating physical materials. We hope that later this year, it will be much easier for scholars to obtain physical access to this wonderful collection.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the conservation of these precious documents!

    • wraabe says:

      Will, I trust the new efforts will make it more convenient for researchers. But let no one be under any impression except that Duke was already and still is one of the nation’s premiere research libraries and a place at which it is a great pleasure to work. Navigating a finding aid is a learned skill, and I’m still learning. I leave that reminder in for graduate students.

  2. Pingback: CollateX, Python, Anaconda, Oh My: Or, What Have I Done? (Week 3 Reflections) | Fill His Head First with a Thousand Questions

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s