Walt Whitman's Cardboard Butterfly


Shown here is the brilliantly colored cardboard butterfly that belonged to the American poet Walt Whitman. In 1877 Whitman had a photograph taken by W. Curtis Taylor of Broadbent & Taylor in Philadelphia of himself holding the butterfly, a portrait Whitman intended to use as the frontispiece for a new edition of Leaves of Grass. To foster the image of himself as one with nature, he claimed that insect was real and one of his "good friends." In fact, the die-cut cardboard butterfly was clearly a photographic prop. Now in the collections of the Library of Congress, it was tucked into one of the first Whitman notebooks donated to the Library in 1918. The word "Easter" is printed down its spine, and it is imprinted with the lyrics to a John Mason Neale hymn. Dr. R.M. Bucke, one of Whitman’s literary heirs, said that to Whitman the butterfly represented Psyche (the Greek goddess of the soul), or the poet’s own soul.

Last updated: October 16, 2012