Selected Criticism

Leaves of Grass, 1855 edition
Marki, Ivan
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The importance of the first edition of Leaves of Grass to American literary history is impossible to exaggerate. The slender volume introduced the poet who, celebrating the nation by celebrating himself, has since remained at the heart of America's cultural memory because in the world of his imagination Americans have learned to recognize and possibly understand their own. As Leaves of Grass grew through its five subsequent editions into a hefty book of 389 poems (with the addition of the two annexes), it gained much in variety and complexity, but Whitman's distinctive voice was never stronger, his vision never clearer, and his design never more improvisational than in the twelve poems of the first edition.

The first Leaves of Grass was put on sale in at least two stores, one in New York and another in Brooklyn, in late June of 1855. Printed in the shop of Andrew Rome of Brooklyn (where Andrew was assisted by his younger brother Tom), the quarto-size volume was designed and published by Whitman himself, who is also believed to have set the type for a few of its 95 pages. As William White has shown, 795 copies were printed in all, 599 of which were bound in cloth with varying degrees of gilt, the rest of them in paper or boards. A recent census of extant copies of the first edition reveals that nearly 200 copies survive today. Copies of the first edition are regularly some of the most expensive American books sold at rare-book auctions, with recent copies going for as much as $200,000. Because it was printed on a handset press, the first edition could never be reprinted (there were no plates); once the pages were printed, the type was redistributed. The handset type on Rome's hand-inked iron-bed press slipped and moved and in some cases fell off while the 795 copies were being printed, and so arguably each copy of the first edition is unique. Whitman stopped the press at least twice during the press run, once to correct a typographical error in the preface, and once to reset an entire line of poetry (he revised "And the night is for you and me and all" to "And the day and night are for you and me and all"). Because Whitman was paying for the printing, he did not want to waste any copies, so he bound copies that contained the corrected and uncorrected typo, as well as copies that contained both versions of his revised line (about one-third of the extant copies contain the original version). For a hundred and fifty years, many critics saw great significance in Whitman's concluding the poem that would come to be called "Song of Myself" with no period (indicating, so it was thought, the endless, ongoing process that the poem celebrates), but the census has revealed that a number of copies do have a period at the end of the poem. When Whitman proofread the first quarto sheets off the press, then, he would have seen the period before it broke off early in the print run.

The text begins with a ten-page statement in prose, untitled here and later known generally as the 1855 Preface. This is followed by twelve poems on 85 pages, the first six entitled "Leaves of Grass" and the remaining six untitled (listed here in order of appearance, they will be referred to in this entry under the final titles Whitman gave them in the 1881 edition of Leaves): "Song of Myself," "A Song for Occupations," "To Think of Time," "The Sleepers," "I Sing the Body Electric," "Faces," "Song of the Answerer," "Europe, The 72d and 73d Years of These States," "A Boston Ballad (1854)," "There Was a Child Went Forth," "Who Learns My Lesson Complete," and "Great Are the Myths." Whitman worked on the Preface while the book was being printed and wrote most of the poems in 1854 and 1855, although some lines that eventually found their way into the volume occur in his "green notebook," which has been dated as early as 1847, though more recent criticism dates the material related to Leaves as much later, probably in the early 1850s. The complete manuscript of the book is lost (although various early manuscript versions of many passages of1855 poems still exist). As Whitman told Traubel decades later, he left the original manuscript with Andrew Rome, and in 1858 it "was used to kindle the fire or feed the rag man" (Traubel 92).

The physical design of the book is unusual. Spread over the dark green covers and sprouting from the words "Leaves of Grass" embossed in gold in the center, patterns of vines, tendrils, and tufts of grass announce the spirit of organicism and give visual confirmation to the words' suggestion that the contents have grown like grass. These words are the only title to appear in the book, in bold big letters on the title page, in somewhat smaller characters at the head of the first six poems (serving as a repeated title for those pieces), and as a modest refrain at the top of each page. On the frontispiece is a portrait of a bearded young man. The collar of his shirt open, a wide-brimmed hat at a jaunty angle on his head, one hand in his pocket and the other one on his hip, he stares down the onlooker. Ted Genoways has discovered that there are two versions of this frontispiece, one in which the figure's crotch is flat, and the other in which a noticeable bulge has been added by the engraver to enhance the image of what Whitman would refer to as a "goodshaped and wellhung man."

The portrait represents Whitman, of course; it is a stipple engraving, perhaps by John C. McRae or Samuel Hollyer, based on a daguerreotype (often referred to as "the carpenter portrait") taken a year earlier by the painter-photographer Gabriel Harrison. The young man, however, is not identified, just as no author's name is given on the title page; there is no reason to associate the portrait or text with the Walter Whitman who, according to the small print at the bottom of the back of the title page, registered the book in the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York on 15 May 1855. One effect of the arrangement is that the identity of the person speaking the poems emerges from the poems themselves and is not confused with any actual individual. So successful in this respect was Whitman's layout that even after hearing the speaker of "Song of Myself" identify himself as "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos," an astute reader like Emerson could not "trust the name as real & available for a post-office" (Correspondence 1:41).

That identity, rather than any argument, is the true significance of the volume; that is what it means. The topics and themes taken up by the poems are components of the speaker's personality, and the order in which they are arranged does not so much advance propositions leading toward a reasoned conclusion as it discloses the dynamism through which that personality is constituted. The key to that personality is the speaker's intuitive certainty that by being himself and himself alone he is everyone else and that, beyond all apparent conflicts, differences, and contradictions, he and America, thus people and land, are one, for each receives identity from the other as they respond to one another—"tally," as Whitman often puts it—in profound harmony. The speaker of the first Leaves does not justify or explain his vision but bears witness to it; as the Preface has it, "he is no arguer . . . he is judgment" (1855 Leaves v).

To articulate this sense of the self or, as Whitman phrased it thirty-three years later in "A Backward Glance," "to put a Person . . . freely, fully and truly on record" (Prose Works 2:731) is the volume's program, as it will, indeed, remain the program of Leaves of Grass throughout all its subsequent versions. In the first edition, it is announced in the Preface, enacted in "Song of Myself," and elaborated in the other eleven poems.

The theory of poetry emerging from the Preface, that the poet is the prophet of his land because "the others are as good as he, only he sees it and they do not" (v), is clearly indebted to Emerson's essay "The Poet"; it is small wonder that Emerson responded to it enthusiastically. The Preface also points to what proves to be a substantial difference between the later editions and the first one. As it describes, exuberantly and at length, the speaker's undertaking and catalogues his raw materials (defiantly testing the limits of conventional prose all the while), this introduction avoids the first person singular with an almost pedantic rigor that is in startling contrast with the carefree unrestraint of the rest. The absence of "I" throughout the piece is a reminder that its words are spoken about, but not by, "the greatest poet," because at the outset of the first Leaves this program is also "the direct trial of him who would be the greatest poet" (xi). He must find the voice, the language—Whitman spoke of Leaves of Grass as "only a language-experiment" (American Primer 4)—that will communicate his vision to those who are blind to its truth even as they embody and live it. If the experiment succeeds, if the speaker passes his trial, he will have become "the greatest poet."

In none of the later editions will Whitman have to face this challenge, for "Song of Myself" follows, and by the time it reaches its end the trial is over: the poetic self named Walt Whitman is born. In all its editions, not just the first one, Leaves of Grass is dominated by this presence emerging from "Song of Myself," Whitman's greatest poem and one of the truly great poems in the language. It is as if the rest of the poems had been written by the poet who is "Song of Myself" (as a matter of fact, in the editions from 1860 up to 1881, the poem was titled simply "Walt Whitman"). As for the world beyond Leaves of Grass, the Whitman it has known is the person it met in the 1855 version of "Song of Myself."

How that "hankering, gross, mystical, nude" (section 20) poet comes to life in the poem's 1336 lines is beyond the scope of this essay. Inventive and illuminating accounts abound, and by their very diversity they prove not that it is indeterminate but that it is inexhaustible. However construed, the poem discloses the private world of its protagonist, the "I" so conspicuously missing from the Preface, as he "invite[s his] soul" and "observ[es] a spear of summer grass" (section 1). The soul is what senses the self in the other and the other in the self; its presence allows the private world to "tally" with the whole world without losing any of its own integrity. It is an irresistibly attractive, various world of delicacy, strength, and joyous acceptance. It is also a world where the vision often darkens and moments of weakness, guilt, pain, and mortal fear must be confronted. (Whitman's romance with death begins only with the third edition, in 1860.) That in this exuberant yet anxious world of contrasts and tensions Americans—indeed, Americans of the globe—can recognize their own (or perhaps see it for the first time) is what gives the poem its rank in the literature of the United States and explains the continuing and sometimes anxious fascination it has held for its readers.

In the 1855 edition, the power of "Song of Myself" is at its least controlled or self-consciously "poetic," and the versatility and wit of its language are at their freshest and most exhilarating. The "-ed" of the weak past tense is not yet replaced by the later editions' "'d"; four points of suspension are the only punctuation within a line; and beyond double spaces grouping lines into stanzas, no subdivisions of the sort that appear in later editions interrupt the onrush of words. Thus the reader's sense is reinforced that for all the variety and multiplicity of the images, moods, and episodes that make it up, the poem is a single, unified experience just as its subject, the Whitman presence, is one, for all its multifariousness. The diction is also freer and the verse more supple in 1855 than later. In the first edition, the speaker "cocks [his] hat as [he] please[s]" instead of wearing it, as in later editions; he is "a rough" in the 1855 edition and "of Manhattan the son" in the 1881 edition (section 24); his slang is more pungent ("Washes and razors for foofoos") than in later versions, and when the occasion arises he will even curse—"O Christ! My fit is mastering me!" The line that by 1881 becomes "And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap'd stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed" (section 5) breathes much more easily in 1855: "And mossy scabs of wormfence, and heaped stones, and elder and mullen and pokeweed." Although "Song of Myself" has remained throughout all editions substantially what it was in 1855, Whitman kept coming back to its text until 1881, weeding and pruning even when he might have left the leaves of grass as they had grown.

An important difference between "Song of Myself" and the eleven poems that follow it is that the latter are structurally closed and thus formally less innovative than the former with its essentially open, loose structure. These eleven poems have often been referred to as "cuttings" from the long poem, passages that for one reason or another Whitman chose not to include in it yet would not discard altogether. The assumption seems to underrate both Whitman's sense of organization and the structural unity achieved in the volume. To be sure, the topical anger of the two political poems, "Europe, The 72d and 73d Years of These States" and "A Boston Ballad (1854)," would be hard to fit into "Song of Myself," and the omission of the slight "Who Learns My Lesson Complete" would probably not have made much difference to the book, nor is there good reason to regret that Whitman decided to leave out "Great Are the Myths" from later editions altogether. Some of the other poems, however, like "I Sing the Body Electric" or "There Was a Child Went Forth," are Whitman at his best, and the sequence as a whole is indispensable, for it concludes the business that "Song of Myself" has left unfinished.

The tenor of "Song of Myself" is robustly optimistic and self-confident, yet its protagonist is "somehow . . . stunn'd" (section 38) time and again by moments of anxiety, even terror, and haunted by powerful images of frustration, violence, and death. He can extricate himself from each of these episodes but cannot shake them off completely. To discover and thereby confront and overcome the forces that stun him, he must probe the depths of his self: this process is the primary burden of the so-called "cuttings." The climax of the drama occurs in another great poem in the volume: "The Sleepers." In the dream-vision of "The Sleepers" the "I" moves through several increasingly intense nightmare-episodes until he finds in himself the murderous impulse which may precipitate his fits of existential anxiety and sexual guilt: "My tap is death." Once he has discovered and admitted to himself that, with all his affection and goodwill, he also has anger enough to kill, his nightmare is over, and his trance becomes a reinvigorating dream of harmony and "summer softness" (section 7) as he joins the other sleepers, and "they flow hand in hand over the whole earth" (section 8). This drama is possible only in the 1855 text of "The Sleepers"; Whitman's later revisions radically altered the poem's shape and character. In this original version, however, it is at the very heart of Leaves of Grass, forming, with "Song of Myself," what Justin Kaplan calls the matrix of the work.

"The Sleepers" stands in the exact middle of the first of the two clusters of poems—the one cluster with poems all titled "Leaves of Grass" and the other cluster with poems untitled—that make up the "cuttings." In the order in which they appear the other four poems in the first cluster frame and center the climactic moment in "The Sleepers." The processional movement induced by the grand catalogue that is "A Song for Occupations" continues through the funeral march in "To Think of Time," slows down as it gathers strength in "The Sleepers," and speeds up again once the moment of high drama is past. After two other lists, in "I Sing the Body Electric" and "Faces," the procession comes to rest in the latter poem with the discovery of the face of "the justified mother of men" (section 5).

In the untitled cluster, the last six poems in the volume, a similar pattern, though much fainter, less pronounced, can be discerned. These poems frame "There Was a Child Went Forth" as the titled cluster frames "The Sleepers," and if the parallel can be sustained, they make the "mean, angered, unjust" father's "blow" and "quick, loud word" of "There Was a Child" as conspicuous as the speaker's deadly "tap" is made in "The Sleepers." As the first sequence ends reaching the mother, the second one, and with it the entire book, concludes discovering death: "Sure as the stars return again after they merge in the light, death is great as life" ("Great Are the Myths"). In another four years, in the magnificent conclusion of "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," the two images will be fused.

But it is also possible, as Ed Folsom has proposed, that the arrangement of the poems had less to do with thematics and more to do with the odd circumstances of the printing of the volume. Perhaps the final six poems contain no "Leaves of Grass" title because Whitman was trying to squeeze all of his poems into twelve signatures; thus, starting with the fourth poem, he stopped leaving blank space between poems, and, starting with the seventh poem, he omitted the repeated titles, moving the shorter poems to the end of the volume in case he would have to delete one in order to stay within the allotted number of pages (he was, after all, paying for the paper himself). Indeed, as Folsom has shown, Whitman's printer's cast-off for Andrew Rome indicates that he originally planned a quite different order for the poems (ending with the poem later titled "I Sing the Body Electric") and a quite different size for the book (181 pages instead of the 95 he ended up with). Since Rome was primarily a printer of legal forms (Leaves of Grass was the first book he printed), his presses were set up to handle the large paper on which such forms were printed, and so the oversized format of the first edition was clearly something forced on Whitman by the circumstances of the Rome shop, and he had to adjust the spatial arrangement of his poems as the type was being set.

On the morrow of the publication of the first Leaves Whitman definitely did not wake to find himself famous. Though no reliable records have survived, probably very few copies of the book were sold. A few reviews appeared, some of them discerning and sympathetic, but most of them somewhat bewildered by the new work and also offended by the sexual frankness of some of its passages. A small handful of unsigned reviews also appeared, which praised the volume in extravagant terms and in what must have appeared rather extravagant prose. These were written by the poet himself, who used his connections among the newspaper editors of New York to get them published. Apparently, they did not help sales much.

Thus, nothing in the public response gave Whitman any encouragement to continue his "experiment." The majority of the readers who happened to have come upon the book seem to have been simply indifferent. But Whitman had also had the good sense to send out a few complimentary copies. Although the Quaker poet Whittier reportedly threw one of these into the fire, another copy reached Emerson. A few weeks after the book's publication, Emerson acknowledged the gift in a letter in which he greeted the poet "at the beginning of a great career" and declared that he found "incomparable things said incomparably well" in Leaves of Grass (Correspondence 1:41). The praise from the author of "Self-Reliance" and "The Poet" was enough to outweigh the indifference or hostility of all other readers and to start Whitman on his plans for the 1856 edition.

With the publication of this new edition, the first one all but disappeared. When Malcolm Cowley reprinted it in paperback in 1959, he had to introduce it as "the buried masterpiece of American writing" (Cowley x). Until then, the text was not easily available and, except in Jean Catel's French study in 1930, received little scholarly or critical attention. That the situation has radically changed is due, to a large extent, to Gay Wilson Allen, who, even before Cowley, gave the first edition its due both in his handbook in 1946 and in his exemplary biography of Whitman, The Solitary Singer, in 1955. No serious study of Whitman has appeared since in which the 1855 text is not extensively discussed and its significance in Whitman's achievement not recognized. It has also been examined on its own in a book-length study and in a large number of critical articles, and two of its major poems, "Song of Myself" and "The Sleepers," are probably more often studied now in their first version than in their last. E.H. Miller's mosaic of interpretations of "Song of Myself," for example, dedicated to the "nearly 300" scholars from whose work the mosaic has been assembled, is accompanied by the 1855 text of the poem, and in the Library of America edition of Leaves of Grass both the 1855 and 1892 texts are given in their entirety.

Changes in critical perspectives and preoccupations are reflected, of course, in the responses to the first Leaves as well. The New Critical formalism of the sixties and early seventies has been long replaced by postmodern approaches, and these, too, will undoubtedly evolve and change; meanwhile, the fascination with the 1855 edition continues, and the book is unlikely to become a buried masterpiece again.

Ivan Marki (supplemented by Ed Folsom)


Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Catel, Jean. Rythme et langage dans la 1re édition des "Leaves of Grass" (1855). Montpellier: Causse, Graille et Castelnau, 1930.

Cowley, Malcolm. Introduction. Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass": The First (1855) Edition. Ed. Cowley. New York: Viking, 1959. vii–xxxvii.

Folsom, Ed. "A Census of the 1855 Leaves of Grass: A Preliminary Report." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 24 (Fall 2006): 71–84.

Folsom, Ed. "What We're Still Learning about the 1855 Leaves of Grass 150 Years Later." In Susan Belasco, Ed Folsom, and Kenneth M. Price, eds., Leaves of Grass: The Sesquicentennial Essays. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2007. 1–32.

Folsom, Ed. Whitman Making Books / Books Making Whitman. Iowa City: Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, 2005.

Genoways, Ted. "'One goodshaped and wellhung man': Accentuated Sexuality and the Uncertain Authorship of the Frontispiece to the 1855 Edition of Leaves of Grass. In Susan Belasco, Ed Folsom, and Kenneth M. Price, eds., Leaves of Grass: The Sesquicentennial Essays. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2007. 87–123.

Hutchinson, George B. The Ecstatic Whitman: Literary Shamanism & the Crisis of the Union. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1986.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Marki, Ivan. The Trial of the Poet: An Interpretation of the First Edition of "Leaves of Grass." New York: Columbia UP, 1976.

Miller, Edwin Haviland. Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself": A Mosaic of Interpretations. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1989.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906.

White, William. "The First (1855) Leaves of Grass: How Many Copies?" Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 57 (1963): 352–354.

Whitman, Walt. An American Primer. Ed. Horace Traubel. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1904.

____. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.

Facsimile Editions of Leaves of Grass (1855):

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1855. New York: Library of American Poets/Collectors Reprints, 1992.

____. Leaves of Grass: A Facsimile of the First Edition. Ed. Richard Bridgman. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing, 1968.

____. Leaves of Grass: A Facsimile of the First Edition Published by Whitman in Brooklyn in 1855. New York: Eakins, 1966.

____. Leaves of Grass: Facsimile of the 1855 Edition. Ed. Clifton J. Furness. New York: Columbia UP, 1939.


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