In 2017, Dr. Rodney Swantko donated a first edition, first issue copy of Walt Whitman’s Drum-Taps to the Newberry. This is, in and of itself, a special gift. Drum-Taps is the best-known book of poetry to emerge from the American Civil War, and the Newberry didn’t have a copy of the first issue, which is printed without the “Sequel” poems that Whitman wrote after Lincoln’s assassination.
But this copy sent me down a fascinating curatorial rabbit hole, for the book is what is known as a “presentation copy”: it was given by Whitman to a friend, and bears an inscription in the poet’s hand noting the gift.
Such inscribed presentation copies are prized by book collectors and research libraries alike. Present-day readers can know that the copy they are touching was also handled by the author and intended for a particular recipient. The past comes closer to the present, in a way. Beyond that thrilling bridge across time, an inscription might contribute to research by telling us something about a work’s publication and distribution, and about its author’s network of friends and family.
In this case, Whitman inscribed Drum-Taps to Garaphelia B. Howard in July, 1865, about two months after the work was first printed, and while he was in the midst of working on the Lincoln memorial poems, such as “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” that would be added to the work a few months later. He was also working as a clerk in Washington, D.C. and had just been transferred on July 1 from the Office of Indian Affairs to the Attorney General’s office.
Garaphelia Howard was working as a copyist in the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster General’s Office at this same time. A 30-year-old woman from West Bridgewater, Massachusetts, Howard had gotten to know Whitman in Washington, probably sometime in 1865. (He thanks her in two letters that year for monetary donations for “the soldiers in hospital.”) In an 1874 letter, Whitman refers to “Garry Howard” as “a good, tender girl—true as steel.”
But what had brought them together, among the thousands of clerks, copyists, and other administrative workers in governmental offices in D. C. during the Civil War and Reconstruction? Intrigued, I started looking through the Newberry’s genealogical resources and web searching for clues. I stumbled across a serendipitous find online: a sale listing for a scrapbook kept by one of the women working in the Quartermaster General’s office in 1865! We moved quickly to purchase it.
The scrapbook, kept by Elizabeth A. Richardson, indicates that many of the women working in the office were interested in, wrote, and published poetry. They had even formed a “literary society” called the Olla Podrida—a Spanish stew, and a title often applied to literary miscellanies in the 19th century. No poetry identified as Garaphelia Howard’s appears in the scrapbook, but she does appear (listed as Garaphelia Stone; she married Henry Stone in 1874) as one of the two “verifiers” of a plan showing the position of desks in the Quartermaster’s office in the summer of 1865. Perhaps, then, Garaphelia and Whitman developed a friendship through their shared interest in poetry?
However fanciful the scene, one can easily imagine Whitman strolling into this office, making small-talk with his friends, and presenting Drum-Taps to Garaphelia, perhaps in part as a token of his appreciation for her donations to ease the pain of the afflicted soldiers.
By Will Hansen, Curator of Americana