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  • Writer's pictureSpencer Bennington

Whitman's Bulge and other Fun with Textual Editing

Welcome back to the Rhetorical Roundhouse blog! Last time I recounted my Digital Humanities grad school adventures, we were discussing Text Mining and the quantitative methods employed in various textual studies. This week is still all about text, but now the focus is how the editing process has changed over the years.

Textual editing, in its simplest form, is a way to prepare a document for an audience. Scholarly editing is a much more rigorous process (sometimes taking teams of scholars, grant funding, and decades of time) which presents critical, authoritative documents for specialized audiences. Scholarly editions do the intensive labor of locating, collating, sorting, and organizing texts according to hierarchies of importance like author's intention, historical accuracy, or even theme. There could be any number of texts from a single author with multiple typographical, lexical, or even content variants and scholars must figure out a way to present these variants in some cohesive way.

Over the centuries, these kinds of textual variants have occurred as a result of accidental (and sometimes intentional) scrivener errors from monks hunched over candlelight, printing press or block script malfunctions, multiple authorial versions of a single text, or the transcription of print media to digital formats. One of my favorite stories of textual editing came out of a class I took during my Master's at Radford University with the wonderful teacher, scholar and writer, Tim Poland. Poland used to teach a two year cycle of American Literature courses. One year focused on 19th century impressions of Native Americans and then the 20th century native writers in the following course. And the second year focused on the father of American poetry, Walt Whitman, with the following semester dedicated to the "children" of Whitman, the generations of writers inspired by his work.

I first took the Modern Native Lit course with Poland and loved it so much that I decided to take anything else he taught after that. When I found out it was a class all about Whitman, I was disappointed at first. Mostly, because I was young, naive and ignorant. In my defense, the only Whitman I'd ever been exposed to is the PG snippets included in middle school textbooks. After taking both the Whitman and Children of Whitman classes, I found myself struck by the rhythm and carnality of his lyrics, even years after my Radford days. One day I was bored, waiting for students to attend conferences in my USF Tampa office, and ended up doodling this masterpiece.

Smile, O voluptuous, cool-breathed Earth! Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees! Earth of departed sunset! Earth of the mountains, misty-topt! Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon, just tinged with blue! Earth of shine and dark, mottling the tide of the river! Earth of the limpid grey of clouds, brighter and clearer for my sake! Far-swooping elbowed Earth! Rich, apple-blossomed Earth! Smile, for your lover comes!

I acknowledge the role good teachers have in transforming students's preconceived notions of certain content, subjects, authors, texts, etc and Tim Poland CERTAINLY had that power for me and many other students. So much so that I decided to investigate his own fiction after I graduated, a pursuit that landed me my first published book review.

You can read my full review in Floyd County Moonshine 7.1 (though their website seems to be having some technical issues presently) or watch an "RU Reads" interview snippet of me discussing the book's significance.

Not only did Poland change my mind about Whitman and convert me to the church of Walt, but he shared some REALLY fascinating information about Whitman's obsession with the never-ending textual editing process behind the production of Leaves of Grass and its eight different editions published in Whitman's lifetime. Walt was notoriously obsessive over almost every aspect of textual editing and, by far, my favorite story illustrating this has to do with Whitman's curation of his own image.

"It would not be until the third edition that Whitman would allow his name to appear on either the cover or the title page: these books, he wanted to emphasize, were written by a representative American who spoke for the vast variety of the nation. America's new poetry, he believed, would not be written by a traditional poet, proud of his authority, but rather by a rough representative of the great democratic average, who gained his authority by speaking the language of the masses. So, facing the title page, Whitman included an engraving of a daguerreotype of himself, a full-body portrait, with working clothes and hat on (fig. 4).

Fig. 4

This is a poetry, the portrait seemed to say, that comes from the body as much as from the mind, that emerges from the working classes instead of from the educated aristocrats. Ted Genoways has recently discovered some intriguing variations in the frontispiece engraving, suggesting that Whitman may have worked with the engraver to enhance the bulge of the crotch in the figure, thus giving visual support for Whitman's introduction of his name halfway through the first long poem (later titled "Song of Myself"): "I [. . . ] make short account of neuters and geldings, and favor men and women fully equipped, / And beat the gong of revolt, and stop with fugitives and them that plot and conspire. / Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, / Disorderly fleshy and sensual . . . . eating drinking and breeding." The bulging-crotch version of the engraving appears in all of the copies in the first binding (fig. 5b), but many of the copies in the second binding contain the earlier flat-crotch image (fig. 5a), which was printed using the more expensive chine collé method of printing the image on a thin sheet of India paper and gluing that paper to the page at the moment of impression."

So yes, Whitman was not only, arguably, one of the first visually recognizable celebrities in American history on the cutting-edge of 19th century photographic technologies, but he was also one of the first "airbrush" artists to accentuate his manhood. A beautiful, bodily example of textual editing that I would be completely unaware of were it not for Dr. Tim Poland. If you're interested in finding out more about the kind of professor who brings his graduate students to the Roanoke College library with magnifying glasses specifically to inspect the bulge of Whitman's crotch, you should check out his Facebook author's page.

So what does Whitman's bulge have to do with the Digital Humanities? More than you might expect actually. We talked a lot about digital markup languages (SGML, HTML, XML, etc) and the ways authors prepare texts for digital publication. Standard Generalized Markup Language) is a standard developed before the internet or what we know as modern computers as a set of rules for how to design a markup language. A markup language is a type of machine readable code or a set of "tags" which indicate to a computer how you want it to display or organize text. Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML) is a common set of such tags which can be used to indicate the font, boldness, italics, or other textual display elements. eXtensible Markup Language (XML) let's programs know how to organize, sort, query, or set texts. For example, XMl can lable parts of this blog title, subtitle, body text, etc. Or, if you wanted things to be more specifically locatable, you could label things with tags like "Tim Poland," "Walt Whitman," "or bulging manhood."

I'd avoid the last one.

This kind of markup language is not only important for how we view and interact with web texts, but how we manage, store, and preserve precious texts for future generations where print books will be all but obsolete.

As I was learning about this, I realized that I take platforms like for granted because the website construction and blogging features are nearly idiot proof. I don't have to know anything about markup languages because this platform is intuitive, BUT, the more I know, the more likely it will be for me to preserve my Tae Kwon Do scholarship in the way I want it for years to come. So my connection to martial arts for today is this: for the future of martial arts studies scholarship, we owe it to ourselves to further investigate the technical intricacies of the evolving digital landscape so that, generations from now, our own versions of bulging bo staff photographs are available in the format we want for audiences of the future.

As always, thanks for reading. I have some exciting Research Updates to share in the next day or so as well as an awesome story about a Women's Self Defense class I taught yesterday for a Tri SIgma chapter at St. Leo University so stay tuned!


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