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Walt Whitman, half-length portrait, seated, facing left, wearing hat and sweater, holding butterfly

[Detail] Walt Whitman holding butterfly

Collection Overview

The four early notebooks in the Walt Whitman Notebooks,1847-1860s collection contain fragments of the poem "Song of Myself," trial lines of poetry and prose, Civil War hospital notes, and personal jottings on a wide range of subjects. The notebooks and a cardboard butterfly were returned to the Library of Congress in 1995, fifty years after they mysteriously disappeared from the Library's manuscript collections.

The patient student will have greater success using this collection. There is no search function, table of contents, or index to the notebooks. Rather, a page turner allows the user to browse the notebooks one page at a time. However, the Learn More About It documents present the notebooks in terms of their historical and literary subjects and provide numerous links to specific passages. Though Whitman's handwriting is legible, some words and sections are difficult to decipher.

Special Features

These online exhibits provide context and additional information about this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection, although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

There are currently no other resources for this collection

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection.

The Walt Whitman notebooks are not searchable. The notebook pages appear just as Whitman wrote them, with no table of contents or index. Because there is no subject index for the collection, a page turner function has been added to help you browse the notebooks.

The Learn More About It documents present the notebooks in terms of their historical and literary subjects and provide links to specific passages.

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.


Walt Whitman Notebooks, 1847-1860s presents four of the poet's notebooks and a cardboard butterfly that were stolen from and subsequently returned to the Library's Whitman collection. These four notebooks contain notes in poetry and prose which, the user should be advised, do not always appear in sequence, as Whitman was wont to skip pages and then use them later. In addition to providing information about the poet, the collection is also a resource for studying the Civil War, nineteenth-century culture, and interrelated historical themes.

The Civil War

Over the course of the war, Whitman visited thousands of soldiers in Washington, D.C. hospitals. His notes from these visits give students a sense of the the times, of the great number of soldiers and scope of the war, and of the soldiers as individuals. Refer students to the following notebooks and pages:

Go to page 18 of Notebook #101 and page 126 of Notebook #94 to read about how young most Civil War soldiers were. Ask students what other indications they can find of the soldiers' youth.

Students can get a better understanding of what service in the army entailed by reading a detailed account of the history of Fererro's 51st New York regiment, including its battles at Roanoke and Antietam:

Whitman's continuing account of the regiment's loss of men will impress upon students the likelihood for survival in a regiment as active as the 51st. Another instructive highlight is Whitman's account of an exhausting 100 day march:

The quieter side of army life, namely camp life, is illustrated in Whitman's description of a tent dwelling and his records of the soldiers' vernacular, the food they ate, and the stories they told around the campfires. Students can make a drawing or write a soldier's journal entry based on the following pages: 109, 111, 115, 120, 124, 126, 139, and 141 of Notebook #94.

Finally, the notebooks also bring home the violence of the war through descriptions of battle, death, injury, and amputation. Refer students to a description of battle on pages 143, 145, and 147 of Notebook #94. Whitman vividly reproduces the sounds of weapons and the sight of the dead. Or, have them read some of Whitman's comments on death. Pictures from Civil War Photographs, 1861-1865 can also be helpful in bringing home the reality of war.

Nation Building

Living not one hundred years after America declared its independence, Whitman, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and other contemporaries, was concerned with how the country would develop. Students can read Whitman's definition of true American character on pages 17-19 of Notebook #80. They can also read statements about nationhood on pages 24 and 114-116. Ask students to consider the following questions:

  • How does Whitman conceive of America and its people? What are some of the words he uses to describe them? Is this a realistic description? What does Whitman want to communicate through these descriptions?
  • What does Whitman mean by "scheme" on page 116 of Notebook #80? What might his scheme be and how does he hope to accomplish it?

Interest in nation building was not limited to intellectuals like Emerson, but captivated the public at large, expressed in the many reform movements of the nineteenth century. On pages 4-8 of Notebook #86 Whitman writes a long, graphic simile comparing "what has been called and is still called religion," to a corpse. Shortly thereafter, he makes reference to "religious and political improvements." Ask students to consider the following questions:

  • How does Whitman's simile on pages 4-8 relate to pages 2 and 3, preceding it?
  • Why does Whitman use a corpse to characterize religion? What does he suggest about religion through his description of the corpse?
  • Is Whitman calling for a reform of religion? What else might he be trying to reform and how?

Refer students to David Reynolds's Beneath the American Renaissance to better see how the poet and popular culture influenced each other through the activities and rhetoric of reform.

The Individual

While Emerson wrote Self Reliance and Thoreau encouraged people to step to the music of a different drummer, Whitman pondered "Why can we not see (a) being who by manliness and transparence of nature disarm(s) the entire world, and brings one and all to his side, as friends and believers?" Students can read the rest of this musing on pages 61-62 of Notebook #80. Have students compare Whitman's ideas about the individual with those of his contemporaries. Ask them why this interest in the individual existed as it did in the nineteenth century.

Celebration of the common man has often gone hand in hand with celebration of the individual. Students can explore this theme in Whitman's writings on page 65 of Notebook #80. Students can also consider Whitman's notes on the Civil War, eespecially its soldiers, in light of the theme of the individual.

The Poet and Poetry

Walt Whitman's anonymous publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 introduced a revolutionary new form of verse. Notebook #80 contains trial flights of verse which later evolved into "Song of Myself"--the opening section of Leaves of Grass. On pages 65 and 68-72, Whitman breaks off from prose ruminations and speaks--perhaps for the first time--in the revolutionary verse form he created. Furthermore, these lines announce Whitman's unique conception of the role of the poet and the use of poetry. Have students read and discuss pages 21, 35-36, and 110 of Notebook #80. Ask them what they think Whitman is contending and what they think about it. Are his ideas novel or familiar? Realistic or impractical?


Many passages referenced above also apply to Transcendentalism. Additionally, students may find citations about the relation of mind and matter, body, soul, and spirit on pages 75 and 200-201 of Notebook #94 and pages 26, 29-32, and 42-44 of Notebook #80. Ask students to consider whether Whitman's ideas about the individual, nationhood, and poetry seem to express more his interest in Transcendentalism or Nation Building.


Critical Thinking

Although it is a small collection, Walt Whitman Notebooks, 1847-1860s allows for interesting projects that foster a variety of Historical Thinking skills. Working with private journals, students will get a more personal as well as discriminating understanding of history as they consider the perspectives of Civil War soldiers and this unique American poet.

Chronological Thinking

Students can use Whitman's accounts of the 51st regiment of New York or of a hundred-day march to do projects that foster chronological thinking.

Students can make a timeline of the events of one of these accounts. They can also combine it with a timeline of the major events of the war to get a sense of the relationship between national and local events. Searching Civil War Photographs, 1861-1865 with the names of battle locations and dates, students can illustrate their timelines. Alternatively, they can relate time and events with places by creating a map. Have them mark the locations of major battles and other events, and label them with the date and a word or two to identify the event. Arrows between these locations can indicate travel, while color coding can be used to indicate the outcome of battles.

Historical Comprehension

Students can use Whitman's notes from his hospital visits to understand what it was like to live at the time of the Civil War, to serve in the army, and to be at an army hospital. Have them read from the following pages and consider the following questions. Then, reading Whitman's post-Civil War writings, students can discuss what influences they see from his experience of visiting the hospitals.

  • What sorts of things did the soldiers request? What would you request today, if you were in a hospital? How many of those things would have been available during the Civil War?
  • What was the typical experience of a wounded soldier in an army hospital given the state of medical knowledge and available supplies? How does this experience compare to that of soldiers wounded in later wars?

Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Bring all the art and science of the world, and baffle and humble it with one spear of grass

Notebook LC #80 "Earliest" Notebook (Holloway No.1), 1847, page 25. Walt Whitman Notebooks, 1847-1860s

History, especially the history of culture, is often powerfully illustrated in literature. Whitman's work provides the means for a lesson in analyzing and interpreting literary symbolism. Look at Whitman's journals or other writings and discuss the breadth of Whitman's interests to provide a background. Then, have students generate as many meanings as possible for Whitman's use of grass as a symbol on pages 24-25, and 83 of Notebook #80 and in the title and body of his life's work. Consider what Whitman's use of this symbol might indicate about the culture in which he lived and for which he wrote.

Historical Issue-Analysis and Decision-Making

The journals touch upon different methods of reform, including war, organized reform movements, poetry and prose, and the character and actions of an individual (one example is Whitman's hospital visits). Students can read Whitman's thoughts on these methods in this collection and in other writings. Refer students to pages 35-36, and 110 of Notebook #80 and page 11 of Notebook #86. In discussion, evaluate the uses, goals, and relative and comparative success of each method. Which methods have lasting effects? When do the ends justify the means? Then, have students choose a contemporary issue, be it war, poverty, racism, or materialism, and make an argument for or against the use of a certain reform method for the chosen problem.

Historical Research Capabilities

Students can use Whitman's notebooks and other resources to research various aspects of the Civil War and to learn to validate their resources. For example, they can browse Notebooks #94 and #101 for Whitman's accounts of battles and hospitals to compare with accounts from other writings. A suggestion of other writings can be found in the Read More About It bibliography for Civil War Photographs, 1861-1865. This collection's images are a resource as well. Searching Civil War across the American Memory collections also brings up countless useful documents including Reminiscences of Pioneer Days in St. Paul, describing various battles and army life, and Crusader and Feminist; Letters of Jane Grey Swisshelm: 1858-1865, recording the experience of a Civil War nurse.

This research process encourages students to determine the evidence for a document's authenticity, authority, and credibility. What does it tell them about the point of view, background, and interests of the author? What point of view can they support from their research?


Arts & Humanities

Walt Whitman Notebooks, 1847-1860s allows students to study several aspects of poetry, including the writing process, the uses of style, the creation of mood, and the relationship between poetry and prose. In addition to his journals, Whitman's cardboard butterfly occasions an exploration into the relationship between multiple creative media.

The Writing Process

Notebook LC #101

Notebook LC #101 "Hospital" Notebook --"Platner and Porter, Congress," page 8 Walt Whitman Notebooks, 1847-1860s

Comparing pages 12 and 15 of Notebook #86, students may witness how Whitman developed and refined his ideas as he wrote. They can see how Whitman revised these journal entries for later publication by comparing pages 65 and 68-72 of Notebook #80 to lines of "Song of Myself" or pages 200-201 of Notebook #94 to his poem, "Quicksand Years" and page 189 to "A Noiseless Patient Spider". Whitman's process of editing is evidenced on numerous pages, including page 8 of Notebook #101 where Whitman has written with two different pens. Finally, a letter and corrected reprint in the Library's collection, Words and Deeds in American History, demonstrates how poets continue to rework their poetry even after publication. Ask students to consider the following questions.

  • What words and passages did Whitman cross out? What did he replace them with? Why do you think he made these choices? How do they change the meaning?
  • What do we learn about an author's intentions and goals in reading multiple drafts of one written work?
  • How has this process of rewriting and editing changed with the use of computers? Have scholars lost something valuable in not being able to see words crossed out or drafts rewritten?


After students have read some of Whitman's poetry, discuss the characteristics of his style. These characteristics can be brought into relief by comparing Whitman's work with that of other writers such as his contemporary, Emily Dickinson. What information or feelings does the style of a poem convey? How, when, and why do writers develop their own styles or use pre-established styles? How does a poet gain support for a new style of writing? Students can inform their discussion by reading Ralph Waldo Emerson's supportive letter to Walt Whitman in Words and Deeds in American History. With a grasp of the elements of poetic style, students can write their own poems in the style of a poet of their choice, or in their own style.


Whitman's journals provide the occasion for a lesson on mood. Have students read pages 2, 4, 6, and 8 of Notebook #101 and ask for a volunteer to read the passage aloud. In discussion, onsider what techniques Whitman employs to create a powerful mood. How does the passage make one feel? What images does it conjure? What sounds and rhythms were heard? Ask students to browse the notebooks for other passages that express mood powerfully and have them explain how they do so. Or, students can practice creating mood in their own prose or poetry.

Journal Writing

Whitman frequently reached for pen and paper to record his thoughts, ideas, observations, and tasks. If a notebook was not handy, he used scraps of paper. By comparing Whitman's poetry and prose (see the section above on The Writing Process) students can see how Whitman's journal writing also developed into poetry, how his poetry resembled prose, and how poetic his prose could be. In this way, they may witness the very close relationship between the two media.

cardboard butterfly

LC #220 Whitman's Cardboard Butterfly Walt Whitman Notebooks, 1847-1860s

Students can buy or make their own notebooks to jot full of notes. There are no right or wrong notes to include. After a given period of time, they can review their notebooks and choose a topic or passage to develop into an essay or poem.

Further consider the relationship between different creative media by contemplating Whitman's cardboard butterfly. Why would a person want to combine visual and literary media? Ask students why, given what they know about him, Whitman might have combined these media. Inform students of the changes Whitman made to the organization and look, especially the size and cover, of Leaves of Grass throughout his life. Why was Whitman so concerned with the book form? How does this interest relate to his other interests? Why might Whitman have enjoyed using journals so much?