Walt Whitman and Thomas Harned

In early 1995 a New York lawyer took four notebooks (and a cardboard butterfly) which had belonged to poet Walt Whitman to Sotheby's for appraisal. The lawyer told Sotheby's the items were a gift to his father, who had them for some 30 years prior to his death. Little did he know that he was resurrecting a 50 year-old mystery. Selby Kiffer of Sotheby's researched a trail of ownership which lead all the way to the Library of Congress. The Library confirmed that these were indeed items deposited with the Library in 1918 by Thomas Biggs Harned of Philadelphia, one of Whitman's friends and literary executors. And so the mystery begins...

After the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Library of Congress staff packed 4,789 crates with important documents to be removed from Washington, DC for safekeeping, including many Whitman papers from the Harned collection. The crates were distributed between four repositories in Virginia and Ohio. The Library first discovered the disappearance of 10 Whitman notebooks (and the butterfly) when unpacking the many crates which returned to Washington in late 1944. The crate which should have held 24 notebooks (and the butterfly), was still sealed upon its return to the Library, but when it was opened there were only 14 notebooks (and no butterfly). They probably figured the butterfly had not flown away, taking along the 10 notebooks. The Library launched a ten year search for the Whitman items, but were never sure that they went outside of the Library. In 1954 the Library sent a description to archives, book dealers, and other sources asking them to watch for the missing materials. Selby Kiffer's contact from Sotheby's was the first clue in over 50 years.

Walt Whitman, one of nine children of a farmer, was born in 1819 very near where Jonathan Harnet/Harned settled in West Hills (Huntington), Long Island. He received very little formal schooling, but started out as a printer, later became a reporter, a newspaper editor, and finally a poet. During the Civil War, he was a volunteer nurse, visiting hospitals in and around Washington, DC. It was during this period that he developed his admiration for Abraham Lincoln's intelligence and compassion, which he felt symbolized the best of the American national character. Lincoln became the inspiration for many of his greatest poems. But Leaves of Grass, considered by many the poet's most famous work, paid homage to the disappearing beauty of an agrarian past, while accepting the social change of the Industrial Revolution. A truly epic American poem, it encouraged turning the energies of the American experience toward a "higher mind" of literature, culture, and the soul.

Whitman also changed the form and content of poetry by using a free verse form instead of the patterns and regular lines of his predecessors. His poetry was based on individual, rolling, oratorical lines of cadenced speech, and he violated popular rules of poetic diction by extracting a rich vocabulary from foreign languages, science, opera, various trades, and the ordinary language of town and country. Although controversial during his lifetime and after, he stands as one of America's greatest poets. He was laid to rest in Harleigh Cemetery, Camden, New Jersey in a tomb paid for by Thomas Biggs Harned.

Thomas Biggs Harned, a Philadelphia lawyer, was a personal friend of Walt Whitman's of many years, and in his home the poet met, during his later years, many American and foreign notables. Upon Whitman's death in 1892, Thomas Harned became one of three literary executors who received portions of the poet's personal notes, letters, and manuscripts. In 1917 Harned wrote to the Library of Congress asking if it would accept his collection. Thomas Harned's collection of 3,000 items was among the first Whitman materials received by the Library of Congress, and contained early versions of poems which later appeared in Leaves of Grass. The Library collection has since grown to about 100,000 Whitman items, including many artifacts such as his cane, spectacles, pen, watch, and the haversack in which he carried small gifts for wounded soldiers during the Civil War (and now, once again, the butterfly).

So what about the butterfly? A famous 1880 photograph shows Walt, with long gray beard and broad-brimmed hat, seated with a butterfly on an outstretched finger. Scholars have concluded that the butterfly in the photo was in fact the cardboard model found among Whitman's papers after his death in 1892. It has been speculated that Whitman, a frequent self-promoter, wanted to convey an image of himself as one-with-nature.

And what about the other six missing Whitman notebooks from the Thomas Biggs Harned collection? After the anonymous lawyer returned the 4 notebooks without compensation in 1995, a Library of Congress representative said, "We hope that the recovery of these notebooks may finally lead to the recovery of the other six that disappeared from the Library's holdings a half-century ago, and we ask that anyone with knowledge of their whereabouts contact the FBI." But part of the Harned collection is still missing...the mystery and the investigation continue...

See much more about Walt Whitman, his life and works, and many photographic images (some of which were taken by Thomas Harned's son Frank) on these two sites:

The Library of Congress Walt Whitman Home Page

The University of Virginia Walt Whitman Archive

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