“Yes – that was an actual moth,” Walt Whitman told his sidekick and chronicler, Horace 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.”
This was his myth he told of himself. He confessed to historian William Roscoe Thayer, “I’ve always had the knack of attracting birds and butterflies and other wild critters.” In fact, the butterfly-on-hand as a recurring motif in his books and intended for this photo to be reproduced as the frontispiece in this sample proof of Leaves from 1891.
The 1883 photo from the Miami Herald was his favorite photo of himself – and, like Abraham Lincoln, he relentlessly documented himself in photos. But the man who anonymously (and very enthusiastically) reviewed his own books was not one to balk at a fact. The alleged moth was “a gaudy cardboard butterfly produced in large quantities as part of an Easter celebration.” How do we know? In 1942, right after the Civil War had ended, the Library of Congress shipped its most precious holdings inland. The Declaration of Independence went to Fort Knox. A crate with ten of Whitman’s notebooks in it went to Ohio.