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Whitman's Lifelong Endeavor: Leaves of Grass at 150

Geoffrey Saunders Schramm



One hundred and fifty years ago, a little-known poet chose a small print house in Brooklyn to print his first book of poetry. He typeset ten pages or so of it himself. The poet was Walt Whitman and the book was Leaves of Grass.

By the time of Whitman's death, the small book had gone through eight editions and grown fivefold in size. On the sesquicentennial of the book's publication, Leaves of Grass has undergone another significant change, moving from the printed page to digital form on the Walt Whitman Archive.

From the very beginning, Whitman foresaw a grand scale for the book. He invoked the tradition of Homer and Virgil in putting the history, politics, and culture of the nation-state to verse.

"The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been and is," he wrote. "He drags the dead out of their coffins and stands them again on their feet . . . . he says to the past, Rise and walk before me that I may realize you. He learns the lesson . . . . he places himself where the future becomes present."

Whitman looked to the Americans whirring around him for inspiration, perceiving "a teeming nation of nations" that anticipated its centuries-long prominence. By listening to the meter of everyday life, Americans could understand their past, experience their present, and anticipate their future. "The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem," he said, adding, "Past and present and future are not disjoined but joined."

Whitman's conviction that America and its citizens were poems in and of themselves echoed the zeitgeist of mid-nineteenth-century America that sought to eradicate the lingering influences of Europe by defining a distinctly American idiom and literature. During this American Renaissance, as it came to be known, authors and philosophers such as Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, and Emerson assessed the nation's brief history in their writings and summarily expressed a national identity.

Of all of them, it was Whitman, who, with his barbaric yawp, was the most radical in avowing that American identity was inextricable from the nation's central premise of self-governance and equality. In poems such as "Song of Myself," he stressed to his readers how their individual lives constituted the very circumference of democracy. "[T]he genius of the United States," he pronounced, "is . . . in the common people."

He would say this in different ways over the next twenty-seven years. Despite its prominence, however, the edition of the book being memorialized this year is one with which most readers are largely unfamiliar. Comprised of a ten-page preface in prose and twelve poems, six titled "Leaves of Grass," the others untitled, this ninety-five-page first edition was just the beginning of what became a lifelong project for the poet. By the time of Whitman's death in March 1892, Leaves of Grass had grown to a staggering 293 poems printed on 382 pages.

"Each edition of Leaves of Grass has a great deal to teach us about the cultural, historical, and biographical moments at which Whitman was constructing it," says Ed Folsom, Carver Professor of English at the University of Iowa. "These editions remain in a lot of ways unread because people have not yet been able to do the kind of intensive cultural and historical analyses that are now possible because of the availability of the editions on the archive." The variations between the editions of Leaves of Grass range from minor edits to the addition or removal of entire clusters or sections of poems. Whitman made some of these revisions for logistical reasons, breaking single lines into two or three to fit the dimensions of the paper used by the Rome brothers, who helped print the first edition. Folsom notes that the Romes owned a small publishing house that primarily printed legal forms and reports for the city of Brooklyn.

"If you look at these nineteenth-century legal forms," explains Folsom, "they tended to be printed on paper that is virtually identical to the size of the paper on which the 1855 Leaves of Grass was printed. While we've always had this discussion that Whitman chose this large size of paper for the first edition because he wanted to let his lines flow across the page, people would be sort of up against it when they had to explain the second edition—which is a very small edition—in which Whitman didn't seem to think twice about breaking every line he wrote sometimes even three or four times. We may be looking at a choice of convenience."

Folsom, who, along with Ken Price, the Hillegass Professor of American Literature at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, codirects the archive, says that examining the different editions helps to debunk the long-held belief that Leaves of Grass was a single-evolving text whose overall meaning was little changed by the poet's constant revising. Of the nine editions that existed in the poet's lifetime, six were so unlike their predecessors that some scholars have described them as individual books altogether. "This realization," says Folsom, "has been the most interesting aspect of Whitman criticism over the last ten to fifteen years."

Until recently, the different editions were scattered among the special collections of a handful of libraries. The launch of The Walt Whitman Archive in 1997 made these editions more accessible to the public, allowing users to explore materials including facsimiles and transcriptions of all the editions of Leaves of Grass published before Whitman's death, contemporary reviews of the book, selected poetry manuscripts, and various photographs of the poet. Since that time, the archive has grown to include Whitman's complete prose works, current literary criticism about his poems, background on his many disciples, and even a digital audio file of what is thought to be the poet reading his poem "America." The different editions are the core of the archive.

Remarkably, Whitman's name appears nowhere on the title page of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which the poet, a former printer's devil and journalist, self-published. Other than the "Walter Whitman" that appeared in the copyright information and the reference to a "Walt Whitman, an American" in the book's first poem, there were no other clues to his identity. Even these clues some readers treated skeptically, among them Emerson, who mentioned that he could not "trust the name as real & available for a post-office." Those interested in ascertaining the poet's identity had nothing to go on but a stipple engraving of a modestly dressed, bearded young man staring at the reader as he stood with his left hand in his pocket and his right hand on his hip. This "carpenter portrait," as critics have called it, depicted the author as a working-class man, whose plain manner and informal sartorial style departed from the stodgy conventions of nineteenth-century authorship. Beyond the engraving, Whitman's informal style carried over into his poetry, which he wrote in free verse and peppered with American slang.

The preface that opened the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass responded to Emerson's 1841 essay, "The Poet." In concord with Emerson, Whitman insisted that the American poet must be indivisible from the people about whom he wrote. "The proof of the poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he absorbed it," he writes. The metaphoric amalgamation of the poet and his countrymen continued in the opening poem, which would later become "Song of Myself":

     I celebrate myself,
     And what I assume you shall assume,
     For every atom belonging to me as good
           belongs to you.

Whitman was suggesting, through his frequent use of "I," "me," and "you," that the "myself" he was singing about could stand in for every American.

Another way in which Whitman united the individual selves of Americans in the 1855 edition created a controversy that dogged him throughout his life. Drawing upon the then-legitimate science of phrenology, he called for a reevaluation of sexual desire and sensuality in all forms, including homosexuality. Penny novels in vogue among American readers treated sexual desire as profane, something with which Whitman took issue. He believed the human body was the sacred creation of God and sexuality was God-given. He dismissed the Platonic divide between the body and the soul and exhorted his readers to see the divine in themselves and one another, as well as in his poems. In the second poem of the edition, which would become "A Song for Occupations" in later editions, he explains:

     We consider the bibles and religions divine . . . .
           I do not say they are not divine,
     I say they have all grown out of you and may
           grow out of you still,
     It is not they who give life . . . . it is you who
           give the life;
     Leaves are not more shed from the trees or
           trees from the earth than they are shed
           out of you.

Whitman believed that both the human body and consciousness bore the inimitable impress of the Almighty.

While reviewers such as Emerson welcomed Whitman's iconoclasm, others regarded it as depravity. Rufus Griswold, a former Baptist minister turned journalist, believed that the ideas and words in Leaves of Grass were so vile that he could not reprint them. "In our allusions to this book," he explained in his review published in the Criterion, "we have found it impossible to convey any, even the most faint idea of its style and contents, and of our disgust and detestation of them, without employing language that cannot be pleasing to ears polite."

Whitman continued to flesh out his beliefs in the second edition of Leaves of Grass, which he self-published in 1856 with the help of Fowler and Wells, a house known for publishing books on phrenology and etiquette. He interpolated twenty new poems among the twelve from the previous edition and gave each of them a title. He also reprinted the stipple engraving that opened the 1855 edition and, again, did not add his name to the title page. Despite the spate of reviews lambasting Whitman's frank depictions of sexual desire, he ended this edition with the provocative poem "A Woman Waits for Me" in which he proclaims, "Sex contains all, bodies, souls."

The third edition of Leaves of Grass, released in 1860, was the first released by a publisher. Printed by the Boston-based Thayer and Eldridge, it was 456 pages long and consisted of 178 poems—146 of them new—organized in seven clusters. Although the book was more elegant because it was professionally printed, Whitman remained involved in its design. "He typically was involved in designing the covers, choosing fonts, selecting ornaments, providing illustrations, and so on," Price explains. "The archive provides users with ways to grasp how these non-linguistic features of the text contributed to meaning."

Even the engraving of Whitman was updated for this edition, replaced with one that featured an image of the poet looking more cultivated and avuncular. It is in this edition that the poet first includes "Enfans d'Adam," which would become "Children of Adam," and "Calamus," the controversial clusters celebrating heterosexual and homosexual love.

A review of this third edition in the New York Times noted, "If possible, he is more reckless and vulgar than in his two former publications." The sexual content that Whitman added to Leaves of Grass in this edition caused a great deal of controversy that plagued him for some time. Five years later, in June of 1865, he was let go from his job at the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., by Secretary James Harlan, who announced he would assess the moral turpitude of each employee. Harlan, a former Methodist lay minister turned politician, discovered a corrected copy of the 1860 Leaves of Grass in Whitman's desk and fired him. In 1882, Oliver Stevens, the district attorney of Boston, banned the 1881 edition—an edition that Whitman constructed to resemble a bible—because the sexually charged poems violated "the Public Statutes concerning obscene literature." But even his critics could not dismiss Leaves of Grass entirely. "Occasionally, a gleam of the true poetic fire shines out of the mass of his rubbish, and there are tender and beautiful touches in the midst of his most objectionable and disagreeable writings," the Times reviewer acknowledged.

Aside from sexuality, Whitman dealt with forebodings of a country on the eve of the Civil War. The 1860 edition is filled with imagery in which Whitman hoped to reunite a nation at loggerheads. "At one level, Whitman's turn to seemingly personal concerns in 'Calamus' might seem odd at this moment, on the very eve of actual warfare," Price notes, "but for Whitman the 'Calamus' poems explored both important personal relationships and addressed political issues. It was love that was to serve as the glue holding a democracy together."

The three editions of Leaves of Grass published postbellum—in 1867, 1871, and 1881—reflect in their own ways Whitman's shifting responses to the aftermath of the Civil War. He added and removed poems from each edition and appended annexes such as Passage to India in which he invoked Eastern spiritualism to rail against the materialism he believed was pervading postwar America. The most significant changes revolved around Drum-Taps. "In the 1871 edition," says Folsom, "you have a Reconstruction edition in which Whitman is literally reconstructing the book around the Civil War. The Civil War bleeds out of that book as he takes the poems from Drum-Taps and spreads them throughout it. Finally, the 1881 edition is a post-Reconstruction version of Leaves of Grass that responds to an entirely different historical situation in which Whitman is entirely unsure about the future of the country as he had been previously."

The archive is a resource for readers who want to track Whitman's changing views about the war and its aftermath. Users can place a poem from one edition next to the same poem from another edition to see how Whitman revised it or changed its placement. Soon users will have access to more than four thousand high-resolution images of Whitman's manuscripts, some of them unaccounted for in past collections. The images will be accompanied by transcriptions so that users can search the entire collection. "We feel fortunate to be the editors who are able to give these documents sustained attention for the first time," says Price. These images, which feature Whitman's poems in his own handwriting, convey a facet of his poetry that cannot be reproduced in typeset, printed editions.

"The scans of the manuscripts give you a sense of the DNA of Whitman's poetry," Folsom adds. "You can see the original codes of the poetry emerging from his own hands."

Folsom tells of traveling to the University of Texas Research Center to examine the manuscript Whitman used for the first edition of Leaves of Grass. As Folsom perused it, he noticed that Whitman's handwriting appeared on the back of one of the pages. When he looked more closely, he realized that what was before him was the order in which Whitman thought the poems should be published, as well as titles for the unnamed poems. "The nature of archives is that manuscripts sit there for fifty years and people can glance at them," he explains, "but until someone happens to recognize something significant about it, the discovery just sits there incubating. If this manuscript had been up on the Web, it wouldn't have taken somebody long to recognize its significance."

Rather than mark the sesquicentennial with a shortlived remembrance, Price and Folsom and their teams are hoping to finish loading onto the archive all of the images of Whitman's poetry manuscripts and the accompanying transcriptions. This, they insist, will be a more lasting commemoration.

As the archive grows to include translations and commentary from other countries, as well as discussions of the periodical printings of Whitman's poetry, new discoveries are expected. Even Whitman seemed to anticipate the durability of his book, often directly addressing his readers in the past, present, and future. In so doing, he hoped that they would read Leaves of Grass and find themselves in it, a point he highlights in the final lines of "Song of Myself":

     Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
     Missing me one place search another,
     I stop somewhere waiting for you.

This essay first appeared in Humanities, July/August 2005, 24-28, and is reprinted with permission.



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