Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Leaves of Grass, 1856 edition
Author:
Aspiz, Harold
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Registered for copyright on 11 September 1856, the second edition of Leaves of Grass resulted from the continued surge of creativity that produced the first edition. The title page does not bear the author's name, but the verso page copyright is assigned to Walt Whitman (cf. Walter Whitman in the first edition). The little volume is bound in olive-green cloth; its front cover is blindstamped with leaves and berries and goldstamped "Leaves of Grass"; its back cover (without goldstamping) is identical. The spine is goldstamped with the title, leaf designs, and "I Greet You at the / Beginning of A / Great Career / R.W. Emerson." Unlike the slim outsized format of the first edition, this thick, squat volume measures approximately 6 2/3 by 3 3/16 inches and looks "like a fat hymn book" (Allen, Introduction xvi). The poems are set in well-leaded ten-point type, so that Whitman's characteristically long lines tend to overflow, sometimes three or four times. The New York Tribune advertised the one-dollar volume as "handy for pocket, table, or shelf" (Stern 121), so that when Whitman (in "Whoever You are Holding Me Now in Hand") challenges the reader to "carry me" "beneath your clothing," in breast or hip pocket, he imagines this volume as the embodiment of himself.

The volume's frontispiece is a photograph of Whitman in the "carpenter" pose. Its 32 numbered poems, including all 12 carried over from the first edition, are for the first time given titles. They are followed by "Leaves-Droppings," consisting of Emerson's encouraging but private 21 July 1855 letter of praise (previously reprinted in the 10 October 1855 New York Tribune and tipped into some late issues of the first edition); Whitman's "dear Friend and Master" reply, in effect, a prose essay; and "Opinions, 1855–56"—nine favorable and unfavorable reviews, including two anonymous self-reviews.

Despite its artistic merit, the volume was Whitman's greatest publishing failure. Its factual but unacknowledged publishers were Fowler and Wells, distributors of books and periodicals on phrenology, health reforms, and occasionally, belles lettres, to whose weekly Life Illustrated Whitman was then a contributor. Although reluctant to print the work, the firm advertised on 16 August in the same periodical that it was the principal distributor for this "neat pocket volume" in a stereotyped edition of 1,000 copies: "The author is still his own publisher, and Messrs. Fowler and Wells will again be his agents for the sale of the work" (qtd. in Stern 119). Despite Whitman's boast to Emerson that "these thirty-two Poems I stereotype to print several thousand copies of" (Comprehensive 730), sales were even poorer than those for the first edition; copies are now quite rare. Readers were embarrassed by such overtly sexual poems as "Spontaneous Me" and "A Woman Waits for Me," by the author's self-promotion, and by his unauthorized appropriation of Emerson's letter. Thus The Christian Examiner attacked the "foul work" ("Impious" 62) for its "pantheism and libidinousness" and its "self-applause" (63). Relations soured between poet and publisher. In 1857, when Whitman had 100 poems ready for the press, he declared that "Fowler & Wells are bad persons for me.—They retard my book very much" (Correspondence 1:44).

This edition is more programmatic than its predecessor. In a notebook jotting, Whitman defines the "Idea to pervade" the book as "Eligibility—I, you, any one . . . any being, no matter who" (Notebook 8). And in a characteristic mixture of semi-mystic populism and personal hauteur, he positions himself as the spokesman-poet of the American masses, telling Emerson that "A profound person can easily know more of the people than they know of themselves" (Comprehensive 733). His letter to Emerson—in effect an essay explaining his poetic intentions to the literary establishment in the critical 1856 election year—asserts that his poems are intended to unify the nation, "for the union of the parts of the body is not more necessary to this life than the union of These States is to their life" (Comprehensive 733). He proposes a new literature for America to inspire a free, democratic youth, aware of their singularity and their sexuality and destined to overcome personal and national corruption.

Like the authors of Fowler and Wells's manuals of reform and personal advice—many of whose ideas are interwoven into Whitman's poems—the persona often appears as a fatherly or brotherly counselor in matters physical, personal, or spiritual. At times his prescriptive tone borders on the prosaic, even the banal, and dilutes the intensity of some of the new poems. But Whitman was attempting to enlarge the poet-reader relationship by projecting himself as "the general human personality" (Bucke 63). And Whitman's contemporaries often found this hortatory tone to be congenial. Of this edition, Thoreau (while troubled by the edition's sensuality and its mixture of poetic wonders with "a thousand of brick") declared: "I do not believe that all the sermons, so-called, that have been preached in this land put together are equal to it for preaching" (Thoreau 68).

With the 1856 edition Whitman began his lifelong practice of adding new poems, reworking previously published poems, and reordering poems into different groupings. Thus the dozen poems of the first edition are here distributed in the following sequence: 1, 4, 32, 26, 7, 27, 19, 16, 22, 25, 29, and 6, beginning with "Song of Myself," here called "Poem of Walt Whitman, an American." He added, deleted, and combined lines. For example, he deleted the two-line curse against those who defile the human body at the end of the 1855 "I Sing the Body Electric" and added a 36-line quasi-anatomical catalogue. He also began the practice of removing over-used conjunctions and abandoned the idiosyncratic but rhetorically effective combination of dots, dashes, and conventional punctuation of the first edition in favor of a more standardized system.

The 1856 edition is more than an update; it is, in effect, a new work. Despite some poetic lapses, it is probably the most effectively designed of the six editions, and it is poetically dazzling. Its most impressive cluster of new poems, numbered 8 through 13, includes the following. The massive "By Blue Ontario's Shore," largely cannibalized from the 1855 prose Preface, is a paean to the present and future greatness of Americans ("It is I who am great, or to be great—it is you, or any one" [section 15]) and to the superb Whitman persona, the "equable," profound interpreter of the world and its symbols. "This Compost" evokes the persona's emotional interplay between his fear of death and his faith in the perpetuation of life. The short poem "To You [whoever you are]" is the persona's comradely outreach to his downtrodden fellows. "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," with its stunning coloration and its musical and philosophical subtleties—the undisputed masterpiece of the second edition—pictures a deathless, empathic Whitman persona whose presence becomes palpable to generations of readers. "Song of the Open Road" presents the dynamic persona as a reader of the world's symbols proposing to lead the American masses out of their cramped existences into a continuum of transcendental selfhood. The group concludes with the sexually provocative "A Woman Waits for Me.''

Memorable new poems in this edition also include "Salut au Monde!," an inspired visionary catalogue of the persona's fellow beings throughout the world; "Song of the Broad-Axe," whose variations on the axe motif herald the emergence from tyranny of a new breed of individualistic Americans; "Song of Prudence," also largely derived from the 1855 Preface; the uniquely ironic "Respondez!"; "On the Beach at Night Alone," which, in its original version, testifies to Whitman's agonized struggle to comprehend death; and, the penultimate poem in the collection, "A Song of the Rolling Earth," with its image of the Whitman persona interpreting the world of beauty, language, and Emersonian compensation. The edition concludes with the 1855 funereal poem "To Think of Time," which intones a somewhat troubled faith in the immortality of the poet and his work. (All poems have been listed by their customary, rather than 1856, titles.)

Despite its relative obscurity, the second edition has not been without admirers. The poet Edgar Lee Masters praised it; the French critic Léon Bazalgette commended its "tremendous beauty" and its "passion, superabundance, torrential violence" (qtd. in Giantvalley 395, 291); and Gay Wilson Allen emphasized its "solid merits . . . literary, bibliographical, and biographical" (Introduction xii). Whitman had set himself the highest goal for this edition—to create an exemplary persona who combined the merits of his idealized self with the best elements in men and women: "I must combine the tolerance and sympathetic manliness of Jean Paul [Richter] with the strength of Homer and the perfect reason of Shakespeare" (Notebook 6). The volume provides valuable insights into a troubled genius whose public voice (in this most political of editions) and private (confessional) voice achieve a remarkable degree of blending. A study of this singular masterpiece will reward amateur and scholar alike.

Harold Aspiz

 

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. Introduction. Leaves of Grass: Facsimile of the 1856 Edition. By Walt Whitman. Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1976. xi–xxi.

____. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

____. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. New York: Macmillan, 1955.

Bucke, Richard Maurice. Walt Whitman. Philadelphia: McKay, 1883.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Giantvalley, Scott. Walt Whitman, 1838–1939: A Reference Guide. Boston: Hall, 1981.

Goodson, Lester. "The Second Leaves of Grass (1856): A Re-Evaluation." Papers on Walt Whitman. The University of Tulsa Monograph Series 11. Ed. Lester F. Zimmerman and Winston Weathers. Tulsa: U of Tulsa P, 1970. 26–34.

"Impious and Obscene." Walt Whitman: The Critical Heritage. Ed. Milton Hindus. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971. 62–64.

Myerson, Joel. Walt Whitman: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1993.

Stern, Madeleine B. Heads & Headlines: The Phrenological Fowlers. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1971.

Thoreau, Henry David. "Thoreau on Whitman." Walt Whitman: The Critical Heritage. Ed. Milton Hindus. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971. 67–68.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1856. Facsimile Edition. Ann Arbor: Microfilm International, 1980.

____. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.

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

____. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. Vol. 1. New York: New York UP, 1980.

____. Walt Whitman: An 1855–56 Notebook Toward the Second Edition of "Leaves of Grass." Ed. Harold W. Blodgett. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1959.


Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.