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Ed Folsom
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ED FOLSOM University of Iowa English faculty member widely regarded as a preeminent Walt Whitman scholar.

In 1955, when Ed Folsom was 8, a kid from down the block proposed a baseball card swap. Young Ed went along with the deal, but was puzzled by the new card—the older, bearded man wearing a Yankees cap didn’t look like any ball player he’d seen before.

Laughing, Folsom’s father explained that the “Yankee from Left Field” card featured poet Walt Whitman, commemorating the Leaves of Grass centennial. Folsom tricked a younger kid into taking the card, not knowing that he’d grow up to be one of the world’s leading Whitman scholars.

“Now I wish I had it back,” says Folsom, professor of English in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Folsom, the Roy J. Carver Professor of American Literature, codirects the online Whitman Archive (www.whitmanarchive.org), which makes Whitman's work accessible to scholars and general readers.

He has been involved with 21 Whitman books published by the University of Iowa Press, 11 of which are part of the Iowa Whitman Series he edits. Folsom also edits the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, a respected journal featuring critical analysis of Whitman’s work, along with articles that put him into historical context or explore his influence on later writers.

“American literature scholars in general and Walt Whitman scholars in particular in countries around the world know and respect Ed, asking him to keynote prestigious conferences, to teach graduate seminars, to advise them on their programs, and just to spend a few days in the company of a scholar and teacher so obviously exceptional,” says UI English professor Brooks Landon, a longtime colleague of Folsom’s. “‘World class’ is a term we probably throw around too easily, but when we call Ed Folsom a world-class scholar, we simply state a fact.”

Each year, Folsom reads up to 70 or 80 books and hundreds of articles on Whitman. His fascination with the poet relates to his interest in the process of writing. Whitman’s book of poetry, Leaves of Grass, was a perpetual work in progress, and the changes were often drastic: cutting and pasting line by line, and combining, reordering, or removing entire poems to see how various juxtapositions could affect the mood or message.

Whitman tinkered with Leaves of Grass for 35 years, from its first publication date in 1855 until his death. Folsom is writing a biography of the book, which tracks its evolution over that period.

“A Whitman poem feels like a living, growing thing,” Folsom says. “I think it’s in part because I teach here, at the Writing University, that I’ve become so interested in tracking the process of his writing.”

Folsom has solved a few mysteries in his years studying the poet. For 150 years, scholars debated the lack of a period at the end of one of Whitman’s poems. The absence of punctuation was considered a radical move, suggesting that the poem never ended. When the period appeared in later editions of Leaves of Grass, scholars speculated that Whitman had become less adventurous.

Folsom and his colleagues conducted a census to learn how many of the original 795 copies of Leaves of Grass still exist. They discovered that the period was present in seven of the 200 copies they located.

“The type on the handset letter press slipped around, and when we compared the copies, we could see the period shift and eventually fall off,” Folsom says. “So this idea that he added the period because he lost his radical edge, we now know was just in the imagination of critics.”

The Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities have supported Folsom’s research. For his teaching ability, he has received the President and Provost’s Teaching Award and a Collegiate Teaching Award. This past year, the Graduate College named him an outstanding faculty mentor.

“I try to make books come alive in my classes, and it actually takes a lot of physical energy,” Folsom says. “If I’m not physically tired after teaching, I haven’t put into the class what I need to put into it.”

Students say Folsom creates a collaborative environment in which he and the students interpret and invent together through dialogue.

“Even though he is the busiest person I know, I can't recall an instance when he hasn't opened his door to me and talked me through a concept or theory I was in the process of developing,” says Blake Bronson-Bartlett, a graduate student in English. “More often than not, he will make the reading suggestion or pose the question that I truly need to hear. He's a source of knowledge and inspiration."

It was graduate students who inspired Folsom to teach Whitman. The University of Iowa hired Folsom in 1976 to teach 20th-century literature, and he frequently referred to writers “talking back” to Whitman. Graduate students urged Folsom to create a course on Whitman, and the seminar he developed will be offered for the 18th time this fall.

It’s possible, though, that he was destined to teach Whitman.

Folsom’s first exposure to Whitman’s work was in an honors English course on the day President Kennedy was assassinated. The conscientious and prompt teacher, Mr. Dunford, arrived late to class. He walked straight to the lectern and opened a paperback copy of Leaves of Grass. Dunford recited “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”—Whitman’s elegy to Lincoln—closed the book, and walked out.

“Whitman’s were the only words that week that stuck with me,” Folsom says. “Each time I read or teach the poem, I recall being struck by the power of those words, even before I knew anything about the poem or Whitman.”

story by Nicole Riehl; photo by Tom Jorgensen

July 15, 2010