The Paris Review

Before a Million Universes

The pros and cons of the digitized Whitman and his “lost” novels.

Walt Whitman with a butterfly, 1873.

When I was a history graduate student in the waning days of the analog nineties, there were three kinds of researchers. Most impressive were the archive rats. These chain-smoking, type-A cranks entered an archival collection, knew precisely the evidence they needed, and did everything but ransack the place to find it. They chewed their nails to the nub and suffered insomnia, but their work showed a rare, if manic, evidentiary depth. Then there were the curious browsers: laid-back dreamers with a loosely generalized notion about what they sought. They limited themselves to documents that seemed interesting, floating among their sources with poetic insouciance. Their work, like cloud formations, drifted until it cohered into elegance. (They were also the only grad students I knew who smoked weed.) Finally, there were the surgical strikers. Soulless but engineered for accuracy, these students knew precisely which few documents to was how the rats and browsers praised the surgical strikers—faintly, of course. 

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