Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Leaves of Grass, 1860 edition
Author:
Eiselein, Gregory
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

In 1856, not long after the publication of the second edition of Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman began planning a third edition. By June 1857, in an explosion of poetic production, he wrote about 68 new poems and was seeking a publisher to bring out a new edition of Leaves of Grass. During the next two years, Whitman failed to locate a publisher. Yet he did ask the Rome brothers to typeset and print page proofs of the new poems; as he revised, Whitman liked to see printed versions of the poems and think about readers looking at the printed page. In February 1860 Whitman received an unexpected letter from Boston publisher Thayer and Eldridge, enthusiastically offering to publish his poems. A contract was quickly negotiated, and by 5 March Whitman had arrived in Boston to meet personally with his new publishers and to oversee the printing. Thayer and Eldridge announced the publication of the new edition in April, and the book appeared in May 1860. Although no one knows precisely how many copies of Leaves of Grass Thayer and Eldridge printed before the firm went bankrupt in 1861, Whitman biographers and bibliographers estimate 2,000 (two printings of 1,000 copies) to 5,000 (the estimate of Whitman's friend, John Burroughs)—a significant increase over the first two editions. There were also a number of pirated copies. In 1879 Richard Worthington purchased the electrotype plates and began printing and marketing unauthorized copies.

The 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass was 456 pages long and appeared in a variety of differently-colored cloth bindings—orange, green, and brown—many embossed with decorative designs. The book's pages were well-printed in a clear ten-point type on heavy white paper and elaborately decorated with line-drawings around titles and the beginning and end of poems. The title page and the poem titles appear in various fonts and sizes, and some—like the script-like typography of the title page—are fancy. Scattered throughout the volume are small illustrations of a butterfly perched on a human finger, a sunrise, and a globe resting on a cloud and revealing the Western hemisphere. The frontispiece is an engraving by Stephen Alonzo Schoff from an oil painting portrait by Charles Hine; it depicts Whitman not as a working-class rough as in the 1855 frontispiece but as a well-coiffured and genteel romantic poet wearing a large, loose silk cravat. In its advertisements, Thayer and Eldridge highlighted the book's elegant design.

To the 32 poems of the second edition, Whitman added a total of 146 new poems, the single largest augmentation of Leaves of Grass in its 37-year growth from 1855 to 1891–1892. He altered earlier poems and revised their titles. And for the first time he placed some of the poems in the distinctive, thematic, titled groupings that he called "clusters." The 1860 edition includes seven clusters: "Chants Democratic and Native American" (a group of 21 numbered poems prefaced by an introductory poem titled "Apostroph"), "Leaves of Grass" (which contains 21 numbered poems), "Enfans d'Adam" (15 numbered poems), "Calamus" (45 numbered poems), "Messenger Leaves" (15 short titled poems), "Thoughts" (seven short numbered poems), "Says" (eight short numbered poems), and "Debris" (17 short unnumbered and untitled poetic fragments). "Enfans d'Adam" (later called "Children of Adam") and "Calamus" possess the most thematic coherence as groupings. Whitman retained these two clusters in future editions, dropping the other five arrangements. There are also 26 individual, unclustered poems—several of them important, such as "Walt Whitman" (from the 1855 edition, later called "Song of Myself") and "A Word Out of The Sea" (new to Leaves of Grass in 1860, later titled "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking").

The clusters and the carefully-chosen titles in the third edition indicate an increased attentiveness to organization and structure. The 1860 Leaves of Grass begins with "Proto-Leaf" (later called "Starting from Paumanok"), a prefatory poem that announces the poet's intentions and major themes, a poem that deliberately marks the beginning of the book, just as So long! concludes the book. Because of these structural revisions, Whitman considered the third edition complete, although future editions indicate that he later changed his mind.

While planning this edition and writing poems for it, Whitman saw his project as " The Great Construction of the New Bible " (Notebooks 1:353). In some respects the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass looks like a Bible. It groups poems into clusters, numbers (rather than titles) the clustered poems, and individually numbers stanzas in a way that resembles the book, chapter, and numbered verse divisions of the Bible. This Bible-like appearance amplifies the 1860 edition's increased thematic emphasis on religion. In "Proto-Leaf," the program poem that begins the third edition, the poet invites his comrade to share with him "two greatnesses" (love and democracy) and also "a third one, rising inclusive and more resplendent"—"the greatness of Religion."

Love is the theme of the two most important, most coherent, and most famous clusters. Whitman conceived of "Enfans d'Adam" as a cluster about "the amative love of woman" (Notebooks 1:412), phrenological jargon for sexual love between women and men. These poems celebrate procreative sex and the innocence, beauty, and sacredness of the human body. Although Ralph Waldo Emerson urged him to delete these poems, Whitman retained them and their bold, erotic language. Moralistic critics and public officials condemned the "Enfans d'Adam" poems as obscene, while other readers—many of them women—expressed admiration.

The companion cluster, "Calamus," focuses on love between men, what Whitman called comradeship or "adhesiveness," the phrenological term for "manly love" (Notebooks 1:413). The cluster's introductory poem (later titled "In Paths Untrodden") announces the theme of "manly attachment," and the cluster explores that theme in poems that are sometimes joyful and content and sometimes suspicious, anxious, and yearning. The origin of "Calamus" is a series of twelve poems originally titled "Live Oak with Moss," a series that biographers and critics see as Whitman's story about or poetic response to an unhappy romantic relationship in the late-1850s, a narrative about love and lost love. While the "Calamus" pieces are clearly personal, intimate, often erotic love poems, Whitman insisted that they were political. And indeed they are, for in them Whitman imagines homoerotic affection as the basis for the Union and democracy. The politics imagined here are an expression of faith in a spiritualized comradeship. Hence, "Calamus" is an important example of the merger of the third edition's major themes (love, democracy, religion).

More overtly, but perhaps less convincing, political poems are found in this edition's largest cluster, "Chants Democratic and Native American." In it Whitman celebrates democratic America with a nationalistic fervor that can at times sound shrill, especially given the approaching crisis—the bloody, four-year-long Civil War that threatened to dissolve the United States. Whitman's response to this threat in "Chants Democratic"—"O a curse on him that would dissever this Union for any reason whatever!" ("Apostroph") barely masks a deeper anxiety about the impending crisis.

Whitman's scarcely contained dread about national divisions and the sometimes suspicious or despairing poems in "Calamus" mark an important distinguishing characteristic of the third edition—its dark mood. In contrast to the confident, self-reliant persona of the 1855 edition or the 1856 "Song of the Open Road," the disconsolate speaker in the 1860 edition expresses melancholy, woe, and painful uncertainty about personal identity, national destiny, and metaphysical order. In the first poem from the "Leaves of Grass" cluster (originally published in the Atlantic Monthly [April 1860] as "Bardic Symbols" and later titled "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life"), the poet walks along the desolate ocean shore, examining the debris from the sea and identifying with the washed-up fragments. He yearns for nurturing from a maternal father figure, but to no avail. The poem ends with an address to the cosmos, an apparently deaf "You, up there," and an acknowledgment that like the sea debris, "we too lie in drifts at your feet." Self-doubt converges with skepticism about the order, benevolence, and responsiveness of the natural and metaphysical universe.

A melancholic tone also characterizes "A Word Out of the Sea" (first published in Saturday Press [24 December 1859] as "A Child's Reminiscence," later called "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"), a poem about a childhood encounter with death. Like "Leaves of Grass" number 1 ("As I Ebb'd"), this poem is set on the Long Island shore. The poet remembers observing as a child a pair of mockingbirds and listening to their songs. When the she-bird disappears, the solitary he-bird sings a wild, despairing song. But, unlike the nearly nihilist "Leaves of Grass" number 1, in which the isolated poet sees himself in the washed-up sea debris, "A Word Out of the Sea" has the boy identify with the solitary bird and take inspiration in the bird's sad, desperate song. Moreover, the ocean is no longer representative of the enormous, unresponsive universe, but of death—a cool, inviting, erotic merge with the universe. "A Word Out of the Sea" is certainly a dark poem, full of the desperation, yearning, melancholy, and doubt that characterize the 1860 edition. Yet, the focus on death here is notably religious; it leads to a reconciliation with death and the spiritual, maternal cosmos.

In addition to selling far more copies than previous editions, the well-advertised 1860 Leaves of Grass received more attention and critical acclaim than the first two. There are 32 known contemporary reviews of the third edition, and most of them are positive or mixed. Only eight reviews were mostly negative. Women readers and critics (such as Juliette H. Beach, Mary A. Chilton, and the renowned African-American actress and poet Adah Isaacs Menken) greeted this edition with exceptional enthusiasm, defending it against the hostile sometimes vicious judgments of male critics who disapproved of the candid, erotic passages in "Enfans d'Adam."

The significance of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass tends to be paradoxical. Although the poems often express grief over romantic and professional failures, the book's new sense of structure, the sizable increase in poems, its wider readership and critical praise made it one of Whitman's most successful books. Although the poems seem more intimate and personal than previous Whitman poems, the third edition is also a deliberate intervention into public life, an attempt to realize American democratic ideals and save the Union. And while it expresses a strong faith in comradeship as the means for realizing democracy, the 1860 edition also reveals a darker Whitman, suspicious, uncertain, and lonely: "Here the frailest leaves of me, and yet my strongest-lasting" ("Calamus" number 44).

Gregory Eiselein

 

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. 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.

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

Graham, Rosemary. "Solving 'All the Problems of Freedom': The Case of the 1860 Leaves of Grass." American Transcendental Quarterly 7 (1993): 5–23.

Moon, Michael. Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in "Leaves of Grass." Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1991.

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

Warren, James Perrin. Walt Whitman's Language Experiment. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1990.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Facsimile Edition of the 1860 Text. Ed. Roy Harvey Pearce. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1961.

____. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. 3 vols. New York: New York UP, 1980.

____. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1984.

____. Walt Whitman's Blue Book. Ed. Arthur Golden. New York: New York Public Library, 1968.

____. Whitman's Manuscripts: "Leaves of Grass" (1860). Ed. Fredson Bowers. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955.


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