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Winter 1999-2000
Vol. 62, No. 2

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LEAVES OF HYPERTEXT

Walt Whitman, the "good gray poet" of 19th-century America, may have finally found his medium in the sparkling electronic world of hypertext and e-mail.

At least Ed Folsom '76 (PhD), one of the nation's leading Whitman scholars, imagines that the author of Leaves of Grass would have been intrigued by the way today's technology could have loosed his "barbarous yawp."

"For Whitman, poetry was what happened when the public encountered what he had written," says Folsom. "His poems were very much public acts that didn't really even exist for him until they were in the hands of readers."

Folsom, the F. Wendell Miller Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Iowa, is doing his part to help bring about a meeting between Whitman's world of hand-set type and the modern era of the World Wide Web.

He's co-editor of a Web site, "The Walt Whitman Hypertext Archive," (jefferson.village.virginia.edu/whitman/), and a CD-ROM, "Major Authors on CD-ROM: Walt Whitman," both designed as electronic resources for Whitman scholars and teachers.

In addition to every edition of Leaves of Grass published in Whitman's lifetime, the CD-ROM includes the full text of the New York University Press edition of the complete works of Walt Whitman, more than 100 photographs of the poet, and a recording of Whitman's voice. The disk was named an "Outstanding Academic Book" for 1998 by Choice magazine.

It's the latest chapter in a fascination with Whitman that began during Folsom's graduate school days at Rochester, when he devoted a chapter to the poet in his dissertation on American poetry. The author and editor of several books and many articles on Whitman, Folsom also serves as editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.

In the mid-1990s, like many scholars, Folsom began to experiment with the World Wide Web, and discovered a new level of affinity for Whitman.

A printer by training, the poet set his own work in type and was famous for his penchant for revising, a process that resulted in several versions of all of his most famous poems, each significantly altered from the last.

With just a few clicks of a computer mouse, Folsom can guide readers through revisions that took Whitman years to make. Readers can jump between editions, and between word changes within a poem in seconds.

"We finally have a technology that can capture Whitman's incessant alterations of his poetry," Folsom says. "Archives are filled with copies of his printed texts on which he has added handwritten alterations. Working through these documents becomes an exercise in hypertext. You see a poem changing, word by word, line by line, edition by edition."

But the new technology also has profound implications for his own work and the work of other scholars, Folsom has discovered.

If scholarly work can be revised so easily on the Web, is any electronic edition ever "definitive" in the way academic tomes used to be so considered? Since readers can send editors reactions and criticisms instantly by e-mail, shouldn't scholars use valid suggestions to continually update and improve their sites? And, if scholars can easily link to all editions of a writer's work--and other interpretations of that work--why should readers accept only one perspective when they have easy access to the original work and other scholarly views, allowing them to develop their own interpretations?

"Electronic scholarship produces a much more fluid, open-ended relationship between the scholar and the material the scholar is producing," Folsom says. "And it's raising all kinds of interesting questions.

"People are reeling from the implications. How do you assess work that is, by definition, ongoing and never done?"

They are questions Folsom has asked himself many times during the past few years as he realized that online scholarship comes with no final publication date.

"It began to occur to me that this literally was a project that would not end," he says. "At the end of my career, I will be passing it on to other editors."

As for Whitman, would he really have been a Webmaster?

The Web certainly fits Whitman's sense of democracy and his fascination with the world around him, Folsom says.

But most of all, the new technology fits Whitman's notion of poetry as a public conversation.

Says Folsom: "For Whitman, poetry should not make the reader a passive receptor but should invite the reader to talk back."

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