Walt Whitman’s Fraudulent Butterfly


What’s With Walt’s Well Behaved Butterfly?

Displayed below is an exceedingly popular portrayal of Whitman with a butterfly or moth perched on his finger. The photograph, taken by W. Curtis Taylor in spring 1877 and described only as “a 2/3 length with hat outdoor rustic,” was first printed in the 1883 Miami Herald. It then appeared in several displays and publications, most famously as the frontispiece of the so-called “Birthday Edition” of Leaves of Grass in 1889.


Whitman himself was especially fond of this photo:

… this photograph was recalled by Thomas Donaldson and Elizabeth Keller as being Whitman’s favorite.1

Moreover, Whitman was clear in his description of how the scene came about:

“Yes–that was an actual moth,” he told Traubel; “the picture is substantially literal: we were good friends: I had quite the in-and-out of taming, or fraternizing with, some of the insects, animals.” Whitman told the historian William Roscoe Thayer, “I’ve always had the knack of attracting birds and butterflies and other wild critters.”2

In this case, however, it turns out that the “wild critter” Whitman attracted was a colorful to the point of gaudy cardboard butterfly produced in large quantities as part of an Easter celebration.

I came across Mr Whitman’s ersatz butterfly while researching a recent post,Walt Whitman’s Missing Notebooks Now Online. It turns out that the archives of the once lost but now found Walt Whitman Notebooks published by the Library Of Congress at Poet at Work: Walt Whitman Notebooks 1850s -1860s include Whitman’s cardboard butterfly.

The scanned view of the butterfly at the top of this post is actually the underside of the cardboard novelty. The top of that mock butterfly is shown below:



Whitman’s Butterfly (Top View)3


The words on the top of the butterfly are from John Mason Neale’s Easter hymn which was introduced into hymnals in the 1850s.4 The thorax of the butterfly also bears the word “EASTER.”

The consensus of scholars is that Whitman, already well-known during his own lifetime as a vigorous self-promoter, wanted to present himself as a man of nature. Real butterflies being notoriously uncooperative with the notion of sitting for a portrait, Walt apparently procured this inanimate stand-in.


Credit Due Department:,Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Thomas Biggs Harned Walt Whitman Collection. Whitman’s Cardboard Butterfly


Note: Originally posted Oct 16, 2006 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of AllanShowalter.com


  1. Ed Folsom and Ted Genoways. This Heart’s Geography’s Map: The Photographs of Walt Whitman. The Virginia Quarterly Review. Spring 2005. 81:2. []
  2. Ed Folsom and Ted Genoways. This Heart’s Geography’s Map: The Photographs of Walt Whitman. The Virginia Quarterly Review. Spring 2005. 81:2 []
  3. From Whitman’s Cardboard Butterfly []
  4. The only version of the hymn I was able to find was “Come, see the place where Jesus lay” from The Hymnal [of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA], which does not attribute this hymn to Neale, although he is listed by this hymnal as the writer or translator of several others. (Neale is best known for writing or translating “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” “Good King Wenceslas,” “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” and “A Great and Mighty Wonder”) The complete hymn follows with the lyrics found on the butterfly in bold:

    174. Come, see the place where Jesus lay
    Heinrich Isaak, 1539;
    harm. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
    Thomas Kelly, 1804;

    Come, see the place where Jesus lay,
    And hear angelic watchers say,
    “He lives, who once was slain:
    Why seek the living midst the dead?
    Remember how the Savior said
    That he would rise again.”
    O joyful sound! O glorious hour,
    When by his own Almighty power
    He rose and left the grave!
    Now let our songs his triumph tell,
    Who burst the bands of death and hell,
    And ever lives to save.
    The First-begotten of the dead,
    For us he rose, our glorious Head,
    Immortal life to bring;
    What though the saints like him shall die,
    They share their Leader’s victory,
    And triumph with their King.

    No more they tremble at the grave,
    For Jesus will their spirits save,
    And raise their slumbering dust:
    O risen Lord, in thee we live,
    To thee our ransomed souls we give,
    To thee our bodies trust.

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