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Newcomb-Tulane College graduate finds undiscovered Walt Whitman photograph

August 22, 2019 3:30 PM

Walt Whitman photographed by William Kurtz. Princeton University, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections

You’ve heard the quote “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity”. Two years ago, Rose Robinson, Newcomb-Tulane College/English ’17, applied for a grant from the College to explore the archives of Princeton University hoping to gain insight into a little known 19th century writer named Clara Erskine Clement Waters. This curiosity was sparked by a class project in Professor Kate Adam’s class called the Beautiful Sisterhood Project. Professor Adam’s project tasks students with digitizing and researching the biographies and works of women writers featured in the 1884 Worlds Fair in New Orleans. During her project, Rose found an article from 1860 that mentioned a scandal in the writer’s life that she hadn’t previously read about anywhere. She discovered that there weren’t many people that knew about Water’s writing but soon realized there should be – she wrote profound works related to women’s rights well before it was conventional to do so. Rose knew she had to find out more and applied for a grant through Newcomb-Tulane College to travel to the archives in Princeton to document her writings and research Water’s career and life.

Spending a week in Princeton scouring through boxes of photos and typing out hundreds of words of Water’s handwritten manuscript (to someday publish), was “an honor” says Rose. The grant paid for her travel and expenses so even with graduation looming she was able to leave her stress behind and focus on her true passion - research. Because the archives were so extensive and Waters was relatively unknown, the project required a second trip. Through Newcomb College Institute, Rose was able to go back. It was during this trip that she happened upon another literary gem.

Walt Whitman was writing around the same time photography was becoming more accessible to the general public. He had several photographs taken and was known to muse about what it meant to have so many images of himself in the world. Scholars of Whitman have made an effort to find and catalog all photographs of him for just that reason. Rose didn’t know this when, during the process of looking through photos in the Princeton archive, she found a beautiful photograph of Whitman. Not knowing yet the significance of it, she took a quick photo with her phone and kept working. Once she arrived back home, she did some searching to find a copy online. Through extensive research she discovered that not only was the photograph unpublished, but it was also the inspiration for some of the most famous art works of Whitman. It’s recognizable by some from the cover of Jerome Loving’s biography Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself (1999). The chalk portrait seems to be inspired by the photograph.

Rose, curious by nature, realized she had to get in touch with scholars who knew more about Whitman and ended up discussing the photo with Dr. Ed Folsom, a leading Whitman scholar and professor of English at the University of Rochester. He has also served as the sole editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review since 1990. Dr. Folsom encouraged Rose to write a piece on the photograph to be considered for publication. Now, after two long years of sitting in coffee shops researching and editing, Rose’s eight page essay is included in the 2018 edition. Writing for scholars of this caliber can be very intimidating but she persevered and submitted her work. She is excited, honored and surprised at the outcome. Typically, an undergraduate student who is not a scholar of Whitman is considered an unlikely candidate for publication in the foremost Whitman journal. She is proud that other scholars may get some use out of her findings.

Through Newcomb-Tulane College, Rose was granted an opportunity to access the photograph through the archives. Her interest and skill in research (preparation) was cultivated at Tulane. All she needed was a bit of curiosity and luck to become a published scholar. Rose encourages all students to take advantage of every opportunity available here at Tulane. “You’ll find out new things about what you’re studying, new avenues. Give yourself space to get deep into the research you’re doing and find things you weren’t expecting to find.”

Read Rose's full essay about the Walt Whitman photograph here.

Rose is currently the Social Media Manager for Seven Three Distilling, here in New Orleans, while applying her research skills to finishing the Clara Waters project and writing about New Orleans’ Storyville. Her research on Waters won the Donald Pizer Award in American Literature in May 2017.

Photo by Andre LaFleur and Seven Three Distilling