Walt from the vault

How a plaster cast of a great American poet’s hand landed at Mizzou remains a mystery.

plaster hand
Photo by Abbie Lankitus

Published on Show Me Mizzou Jan. 10, 2024
Story by Marcus Wilkins, BA ’03

The University of Missouri Libraries Special Collections and Archives division houses thousands of historical documents, rare books and artifacts. But one of its most unusual and mysterious items is a plaster cast of influential American poet Walt Whitman’s right hand.

Taken by sculptor Truman H. Bartlett during Whitman’s 1881 visit to deliver a speech on Abraham Lincoln in Boston, the life-size (5 1/2 x 8 3/4”) cast was used to create a series of sculptures that now reside in multiple collections — including those at the Library of Congress, Boston Athenæum and Hood Museum at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

How the plaster piece came to be in MU’s possession remains a mystery. 

Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman

Poet of the Body

An icon of the transcendentalist movement best known for his ever-evolving book of poems Leaves of Grass, Whitman (1819–92) was interested in making his readers attentive to his physicality and, through him, their own physicality: “I am the poet of the Body” he proclaimed in “Song of Myself.”

What’s in a Date?

Whitman published the sixth edition of Leaves of Grass the same year as Bartlett cast his hand. That hand had facilitated the addition of more than 50 new poems in the decade prior. Whitman referenced it in “Song of Myself” when he wrote,
“My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the public road …” A year after the casting, at 63, Whitman published his autobiography, Specimen Days.


In 1879, Whitman was stricken ill after a trip to Kansas and spent time in the Show-Me State to recover. While visiting his brother in St. Louis, he sat with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for multiple interviews — the published version of which displeased him. In it, he referred to editors as “fossils” who were preventing young authors from being published.

Tate Favorite

Whitman has figured prominently over the years within the handsome confines of Tate Hall, home of MU’s Department of English. His work appears in the graduate seminar “Nineteenth-Century American Poetics” taught by Alexandra Socarides, professor and associate provost for academic programs, as well as English 3300, a survey of American literature from the beginning to 1865, taught by Socarides and Professor John Evelev.

To read more articles like this, become a Mizzou Alumni Association member and receive MIZZOU magazine in your mailbox. Click here to join.

Subscribe to

Show Me Mizzou

Stay up-to-date with the latest news by subscribing to the Show Me Mizzou newsletter.