Immediacy is something the Reverend talks about as a benefit of the blog, social networking technologies, and the great digital experiment that is Looking for Whitman. Presence. Accessibility. These are words we use a lot. So this week a question has been dogging me while I process Digital Whitman’s Saturday field trip to Washington City. This pair of images sets it up:
The one on top is from a link to the Library of Congress I gave the class a few weeks ago, urging them to use these digitized images to study what OMW recorded about the soldiers. The bottom was taken on our field trip, and is surprisingly focused given that I, Brady Earnhart, and our students were nearly all literally in tears in that weird institutional room with lockers, blackened windows, and government-issue tables. Unless we were crying with simple gratitude for the incredible time that Barbara Bair had given us (or because we were soaked to the bloody skin and had been standing for 10 hours with two or three to go), why were we? Nothing was much easier to read in person, as those of us who stumbled reading aloud can attest (writing still spidery, bleeding through paper, plastic protection on many items reflected flourescent glare, etc.). We couldn’t touch anything (though, good lord, we certainly breathed all over it), couldn’t feel the paper, the wood, the leather, the hair (the hair!).
I couldn’t even smell the leather of that haversack or of its decay, and I have one good super-sniffer.
Obviously, what I am suggesting is this: the artifacts of the Library of Congress archive were in some ways no more accessible or immediate (indeed, let’s be honest, a lot LESS accessible or even immediate if we mean time instead of proximity) than the digitized images of those artifacts online. I saw that the inside of the haversack is brown canvas. Brendon found a fingerprint and will NOT entertain suggestions that it belongs to anyone but Walt Whitman. But tears?
Presence. Through the blog we are present to each other online even when we are physically apart during the week (or have never seen each other: hallooo out there, Brooklyn, Camden, and Novi Sad!). Agreed. But finally Saturday we were (good) old-fashioned groupies, we were Whitman lovers, and we were bodies (finer than prayer, but, geez, we were a bit rank by Hour Ten of the marathon). We desired the physical–the textured, the pasted, the water-stained. We may have cried because the broken skins of brittle pages and fragile covers, the light-sensitive [associative digression: Whitman’s Camden eyeglasses: so small, and with one lens protectively glazed over after strokes] and subsequently entombed haversack, and the tickets to a lecture on Lincoln long since delivered were as close to Whitman (brittle, entombed…) as we are going to get, as present as we can be. Unlike the wounded soldiers, we won’t get the healing presence of his 200-pound, hirsute, maroon-coated, deep-pocketed self. But it turns out that the digitized can’t hold a gas lamp to the physically present, and even if it’s paper and not flesh, I’ll take it. Whitmaniacs, pass the tissues.