The Library of Congress Essay

            The Library of Congress is home to many documents, artifacts, and pictures relating to American history, as well as the interactions of America with other countries and cultures. These various documents, artifacts, and pictures have been put on display at the Library, and can also be viewed on the Library of Congress website page, which contains a section devoted to the exhibitions.

            The focus will be on two specific exhibitions: “The Gettysburg Address”, which focuses on one of the pivotal moments in the Civil War era, and “Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass,” which focuses on one of the greatest poets within American history and culture. Thus, these two exhibitions are a presentation of the theme of America’s past and character.

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            As stated, the first exhibit focuses on the Gettysburg Address. The exhibit is broken down into four sections, each one discussing a particular aspect regarding the document. The first section discusses the actual document itself. According to this section, there are five known drafts of the Gettysburg Address, but the Library of Congress has only two of these drafts, which were owned by the private secretaries of Abraham Lincoln: John Nicolay and John Hay.

            The draft belonging to John Nicolay is called the first draft, as it is believed to be the earliest copy. However, there is a debate as to whether or not it was the draft Lincoln read at the dedication ceremony in Gettysburg. In 1894, Nicolay wrote that Lincoln had brought with him the first part of the Gettysburg Address, which was written in ink; the second part of the document was written in pencil, on lined paper, prior to the dedication ceremony.

This is supported by the fact that the document has matching folds that can still be seen, thus suggesting it was the copy Lincoln read at the ceremony. However, there are those that believe the Nicolay copy does not match up to contemporary accounts with regard to some of the words and phrases in the document. Based on this view, the Nicolay draft could not be the copy that was read at the ceremony.

            The draft belonging to John Hay was written after the dedication ceremony, when Lincoln returned to Washington, D.C. The draft given to Hay, as well as the Nicolay draft, were both in the possession of the Hay descendants, who donated them to the Library of Congress in 1916. There are differences in the text of each draft, yet since they are most closely linked to Gettysburg, they are still consulted and viewed with a great deal of respect and awe.

            The remaining three copies, of which very little is ever said or discussed, were written by Lincoln for charitable purposes. One copy was written and given to Edward Everett, the man who spoke for two hours prior to Lincoln giving his address. It is in the possession of the Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield, Illinois. Another copy was given to George Bancroft, and is in the possession of Cornell University in New York. The final copy was given to Colonel Alexander Bliss – stepson to George Bancroft – and is in the possession of the White House, on display in the Lincoln Room.

The second section focuses on the invitation extended to Lincoln to attend the dedication ceremony for the cemetery at Gettysburg. It was sent to him by David Wills, who had the responsibility of cleaning up the aftermath of the three-day Gettysburg battle, which occurred in July 1863. With the approval of the governor of Pennsylvania – Andrew Curtin – and 18 states, Wills acquired approximately 17 acres of land to be used as a cemetery for the Union dead.

Although Lincoln received his invitation to the dedication ceremony just three weeks before it was to occur, there is evidence that Lincoln already knew about it prior to getting his invitation. Lincoln did not accept the invitation for purely altruistic reasons; it was a calculated move on his part. According to the exhibit, Lincoln saw the dedication ceremony as the right time to honor all those who had died in the war, and as the right time and place to reveal his new view of the war – “as a fight not only to save the Union, but also to establish freedom and equality for all under the law.”

The third section discusses the only known image of Lincoln at Gettysburg. It had been kept in the archives of the Library of Congress for approximately 55 years, until it was found and recognized as a picture of Lincoln by Josephine Cobb, head of the Still Pictures branch, in 1952. It is estimated that the picture was taken around noon, just after Lincoln arrived at the dedication site, about three hours before giving his address.

Lincoln is located in the center, bareheaded and most likely sitting down.

The final section of the exhibit discusses the techniques used to keep the two drafts protected from the elements. Each one is kept in a container made of heavy-gauge stainless steel inner supports, while the outer frames are joined together with neoprene gaskets and bolts. Plexi-glass is also part of each container, while each document is suspended within its container by telex TM. The plexi-glass filters out ultraviolet rays, while allowing both documents to be viewed by any who are interested in looking at them. The cases are also filled with low-moisture argon gas to prevent oxidation of the drafts, thus allowing the writing to remain visible.

The second exhibit focuses on Walt Whitman and his contribution to American society and culture. It is divided into seven sections, tracing the various occupations and events that led Whitman to write his infamous “Leaves of Grass.” The first section provides background on the early part of Whitman’s life. He was born on his parents’, which was located in the West Hills of Long Island, New York. From 1836 to 1841, Whitman taught at several schools throughout rural Long Island, and letters he wrote during the last two years of this period are considered to be the earliest of his correspondence that can be accounted for.

Following his stint as a rural teacher, Whitman moved on, first working in offices and in the printing trade, then moving on to being a journalist/editor in Brooklyn and Manhattan. During this time, he would often travel around Manhattan and Brooklyn, observing the working-class people going about their daily lives, keeping track of all he saw in a little notebook. It would be within this notebook that he would develop the metaphor that would serve as the basis for his masterpiece, “Leaves of Grass”: “Bring all the art and science of the world and baffle and humble it with one spear of grass” (Whitman Exhibit, 2005). Also within this notebook can be found the major points of all of Whitman’s poetry: “mediation, meditation, ecstasy, the self, the poet in everything, the soul everywhere, and the passion of common touch” (Whitman Exhibit, 2005).

The second and third sections discuss the period of time Whitman spent in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War. In 1862, his brother George was listed among the wounded at the battle of Fredericksburg. Wanting to find his brother, Whitman rushed to the battle site and upon arriving, realized first-hand just how grisly war can be. He developed friendships with the soldiers, and began writing down the stories of those who had served in battle.

Once his brother was found alive, Whitman decided to stay with the wounded soldiers, going back with them to Washington. While in Washington, Whitman worked in war hospitals, helping to care for the wounded while also recording what he saw and experienced. From these notes, as well as lists of expressions he developed for feelings of grief, suffering, and compassion, came Whitman’s Civil War poetry.

Compiled into a book entitled “Drum Taps,” this volume of poetry would be the most important produced during the Civil War era. It included accounts of troops being called to arms, accounts of personal heroism, and portraits of the camaraderie seen in the camps and in battle. The central poem of the book is entitled “Wound Dresser,” Whitman’s “somber testament to the terrible afflictions of men in army hospitals and the quiet courage of those who daily cared for them” (Whitman Exhibit, 2005). Another poem of distinction within the book is entitled “Ashes of Soldiers” and it serves as an elegy mourning the deaths of soldiers from all over the United States, while capturing “the high cost in sorrow paid to preserve unity” (Whitman Exhibit, 2005). The book was released a second time following the assassination of Lincoln in 1865, and included two poems lamenting his death, as well as the famous “When Lilacs Las In the Dooryard Bloom’d” and “O Captain, My Captain.”

Between 1875 and 1890, Whitman did a great deal of writing with regard to the Civil War era. In 1875 and 1876, he wrote a series of newspaper articles on the Civil War itself, which he based on the notes he compiled during his time in Washington, D.C. Altogether, the articles are known as “Memoranda During the War.” In 1871, the published two pamphlets that focused on the nation’s character and soul. “Passage to India” focused on explorations of the New World and its development, before going on to discuss the mystical and universal meanings behind that development. “Democratic Vistas” served as a harsh examination of American corruption and materialism, which were the underlying themes of the Gilded Age. Finally, in 1879, he wrote a speech entitled “Death of Lincoln” which discussed the impact Lincoln had on America, both personally and historically.

The fourth and fifth sections focus on Whitman’s later years. There is a discussion of his friendship with a variety of people, including Peter Doyle, who may have been Whitman’s homosexual lover; William Douglas O’Connor, who was responsible for getting Whitman a position in the office of the Attorney General in 1865 & who also wrote “The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication,” which was meant to put a positive spin on the notoriety Whitman had gained through his writings; British patrons Anne Gilchrist, who wrote the first review of “Leaves of Grass,” and William Rossetti, who compiled and sold British editions of Whitman’s works in 1868 and again in 1886; and Oscar Wilde, one of many celebrities that visited Whitman’s home in Camden, New Jersey, where he spent his last years being cared for by different friends and companions.

It was during his later years that he put together the last edition of “Leaves of Grass” which he called the Deathbed Edition. Published in 1891-1892, it concluded with the poem “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads.” Clearly, the poem was meant to serve as a reflection of his life and the various paths on which he traveled.

The final two sections focus on “Leaves of Grass.” Beginning as a slim volume of 12 poems, by his death, the book encompassed 400 poems. The first edition was published in 1855, and by his death in 1892, eight more editions were published. Up to 1881, the poems contained in the book were constantly updated, either receiving names for the first time, being renamed, or being continually regrouped. Translated into most of the major world languages, the Library of Congress owns 25 examples of the book, as well as selected poems by Whitman in various languages.

Page of “Leaves of Grass” (1855)

In conclusion, the exhibit states that Whitman’s poetry “influenced world literature chiefly through its themes of love, freedom, brotherhood, and democracy” – themes that everyone could relate to. These exhibits thus accomplish their goal: they present to those viewing them an inside view on two people who helped to shape American history and culture.


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