Part of New York University Press's The Collected Writings of Walt Whitman (Gay Wilson Allen and Sculley Bradley, general editors), this six-volume set edited by Edward F. Grier comprises all of Whitman's notebooks and unpublished prose manuscripts except those published in William White's Daybooks and Notebooks (1978). The material ranges from random aphoristic jottings to long trial runs for major works. Some of it is of limited interest and value (e.g., Whitman's factual notes on geography in volume 5); even William White questioned whether lists of melons and other meaningless or only partially legible fragments should be included in The Collected Writings, but as Betsy Erkkila points out, what appears useless now might some day turn out to be significant. In any case, the 2,000 pages contain many treasures; indeed most of the material is indispensable to serious Whitman scholars and critics interested in the genesis of the poet's major works. And much of it is fascinating for readers who like to see a record of a genius exercising his mind. For these reasons—and the pervasive editorial excellence—this set is "an approved edition" of the MLA's Center for Scholarly Editions.
Of the 1,300 items included, about half were not previously published, but even the ones that can be found elsewhere (e.g., Emory Holloway, ed., The Uncollected Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman , or Clifton J. Furness, ed., Walt Whitman's Workshop ) were never before edited so meticulously or presented so readably. Each manuscript is introduced with a lucid and concise headnote that lets the reader know where the manuscript is located (if extant), what it looks like, when it was probably written (dating the manuscripts was a daunting task for many reasons, including Whitman's occasional practice of going back to early jottings and reworking them), where it was first published, and how it relates to Whitman's published works. Each manuscript itself is printed plainly, with no attempt—save for a few choice illustrations—to typographically reproduce Whitman's random placement of passages (photocopies of many of the actual manuscripts are available elsewhere for scholars interested in the actual appearance of the page, and some of the notebooks have even been reproduced on the Internet). Copious footnotes for each manuscript give Whitman's deletions and insertions, and often include valuable information linking the manuscript to Whitman's published works.
The set is organized in the most useful manner for scholars. The front matter of volume 1 contains a concise introduction, lists of abbreviations, illustrations, and titles (which comprise the first word or phrase of each ms., and which are listed in the order in which they appear), and a chronology of Whitman's life and work. The first three volumes contain the manuscripts in roughly chronological order: Family Notes and Autobiography, Brooklyn and New York (volume 1); Washington (volume 2); Camden (volume 3). The last three volumes contain the notes, organized topically: Proposed Poems, Explanations/Introduction to Leaves of Grass, Attempts to Define the Poet's Role and Tradition, Needs of American Literature (volume 4); Study Projects, Words, notes on various writers, on history, on geography, on natural history (volume 5); and notes on philosophy, religion, politics, slavery, education, oratory, and health (volume 6). The comprehensive index of titles and names is in volume 6 (in spite of the parenthetical note to the "List of Titles" on page xxix of volume 1 misinforming the reader that the index is at the end of volume 4—an erratum resulting from the last-minute expansion of the set to six volumes). The index is especially useful for scholars working on specific texts to discover quickly whether any mention of the texts is in the manuscripts and notebooks.
Ten of the notebooks Thomas B. Harned (one of Whitman's three literary executors) donated to the Library of Congress mysteriously disappeared in 1942, when they were being moved because of fear of aerial bombardment from Japan (it was not until the crates were opened in 1944 that the Library of Congress discovered they were missing). Since four of the missing notebooks (and the famous cardboard butterfly) turned up in early 1995, Grier's headnotes will have to be revised for them in the next printing. One of them is the earliest known notebook, and one of the most fascinating: "albot Wilson" (Notebooks 1:53-82). It contains prose (punctuated mainly with dashes) that eventually breaks into free verse, most of it obvious trial flights for the 1855 Leaves. Reading this and other notebooks will dispel any notion that Whitman's greatest lines—like "I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars" ("Song of Myself," section 31)—were born perfectly formed Athena-like from his head. Whitman wrote in his notebook: "And saw the journeywork of suns and systems of suns, / And that a leaf of grass is not less than they" (Notebooks 1:70-71). In imagining his soul enfolding "the countless stars" and asking whether it would then be satisfied, Whitman originally wrote: "No, when we fetch that height, we shall not be filled and satisfied but shall look as high beyond" (Notebooks 1:61). The line eventually became "No, we but level that lift to pass and continue beyond" ("Song of Myself," section 46). In another of the stolen manuscripts recently recovered, "You know how the One" (Notebooks 1:124-127), a striking prose passage about the power of operatic music is the embryonic form of section 26 of "Song of Myself."
While these notebooks and manuscripts give the reader a vivid picture of Whitman's creative processes, they do not give much insight into his personality. Indeed, some of the most personal passages were worked over, as he knew they would be read at least by Bucke, Harned, and Traubel, if not by posterity: for example, in "Epictetus," exhorting himself to "avoid seeing her, or meeting her" (Notebooks 2:889), he had originally written "him," referring to Peter Doyle, whom he felt he loved too much—to the point of "feverish disproportionate adhesiveness" (Notebooks 2:890). Here and in a few other notebooks, the reader gets a rare glimpse of the private, tormented soul of the man. But on the whole, these pieces are not for the literary voyeur; they are for the serious scholar and critic interested in the genesis and development of Whitman's great ideas, images, symbols, and themes.
Birney, Alice L., ed. "The Thomas B. Harned Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman." Walt Whitman Home Page: http://lcweb2.loc.gov/wwhome.html/
Erkkila, Betsy. Rev. of Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, ed. Edward F. Grier. The Mickle Street Review 10 (1988): 102-115.
Fineberg, Gail. "LC's Missing Whitman Notes Found in N.Y." Library of Congress Gazette 24 Feb. 1995. Rpt. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/wwhome.html/gazette1.html/
____. Rev. of Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, ed. Edward F. Grier. Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 3 (1985): 25-27.
Folsom, Ed. Rev. of Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, ed. Edward F. Grier. Philological Quarterly 65 (1986): 287-291.
Price, Kenneth M. Rev. of Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts, ed. Edward F. Grier. American Literary Realism, 1870-1910 18 (1985): 271-277.
Whitman, Walt. Daybooks and Notebooks. Ed. William White. 3 vols. New York: New York UP, 1978.
____. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1984.