Walt Whitman’s Railroad Journey West Goes Online

Manuscript notes made by Walt Whitman during a four-month railway journey through the West have been digitized and are now available online in the Princeton University Digital Library: http://pudl.princeton.edu/objects/pk02cc02d

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—plains—plains—plains / the dug-outs / antelope / the Prairie-Dog / emigrant wagons camped for the night / The vast stretching plains hundreds of miles area / the buffalo grass / the yellow wild flowers / the clear, pure, cool, rarified air (over 3000 ft above / sea level) / the dry rivers.

According to his notes, Whitman began his journey on 10 September 1879 and arrived back on the East Coast on 5 January 1880.  The fragments record his first impressions from the “vast stretching plains” of Kansas to the “wooded & rocky land” of Pennsylvania. The journey filled him with “exhaustless recollections,” as he describes in the final leaves. Yet Whitman was unable to extend his trip beyond Colorado, and he noted plans for additional travel to the West Coast:

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“I did not go through to San Francisco, though I hope to do so one of these days.  Indeed I have a good deal of travel laid out; (among the rest Tennessee and Alabama).”

The notes were donated to the Princeton University Library by Philip Ashton Rollins, Class of 1889 and founder of the Western Americana Collection.  The donation was noted in the first issue of the library newsletter, Biblia, which included a full transcription of the fragments: http://libweb5.princeton.edu/visual_materials/pulc/biblia_v_1_n_1.pdf

Rollins collected a wide range of materials relating to the development of the American West, and two of his principal collecting passions were overland narratives and cowboys.  Whitman’s poetic fragments beautifully capture both:

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“The cowboys (‘cow / punchers’) to me / a wonderfully interesting class—clear & swarthy complexion—with / broad brimmed hats—their / loose arms always slightly / raised & swinging as they ride—their / splendid eyes—(Fra Diavolo  / and his men in the opera) / –a herd of horses / numbering 200.”

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