Selected Criticism

Leaves of Grass, 1891-92 edition
French, R.W.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Copyrighted in 1891, published in 1892, the 1891–1892 so-called Deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass is, strictly speaking, not an edition at all, but an impression; nor does the epithet "deathbed" pertain accurately to the text that has come to be so identified.

While the 1891–1892 volume was the ninth published during Whitman's lifetime to be entitled Leaves of Grass, and is therefore sometimes referred to as the ninth edition, it does not qualify as an edition according to generally accepted modern standards, since it contained no significant new material. The authentic editions of Leaves of Grass that Whitman compiled would be those of 1855, 1856, 1860, 1867, 1871, and 1881. With twenty-three minor revisions, pages 3–382 of the 1891–1892 Leaves of Grass reprint the 1881 text from the plates of James R. Osgood, the Boston publisher; the revisions include corrections of misspellings, changes of punctuation, and other alterations of the Osgood text that Whitman made for the 1882 and 1889 publications of Leaves of Grass and for the Complete Poems & Prose of 1888.

In the 1881 edition—the seventh publication of Leaves of Grass and the sixth (and last) true edition—the 293 poems, seventeen of them new, were given their final order and arrangement. The "clusters," as Whitman called his special groupings of poems under various titles, would now remain unchanged, having gone through extensive revision since their first appearance in the 1860 Leaves; and the twenty-five poems standing prominently outside the clusters were given their final placements. Although one additional poem, "Come, said my Soul," would later be restored to the Leaves as epigraph, it would appear on the title page, reclaiming a position it had first occupied in the impression of 1876.

In 1881 the poems of Leaves of Grass had achieved their final design. The plates for the 1881 edition were used in all subsequent publications of Leaves of Grass during Whitman's lifetime, as well as for the edition of 1897; thus no poem written after 1881 appears in Leaves of Grass proper. Whitman continued to write, however, and additional poems were published in two volumes, the poems of which were later to be included in the 1891–1892 Leaves of Grass as annexes rather than being integrated into the total structure.

The first annex was printed initially in the varied collection entitled November Boughs, published in 1888 by David McKay in Philadelphia. In its 140 pages the volume included a long prefatory essay entitled "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads" and sixty-four new poems, all short, as well as a collection of prose works. November Boughs appeared in its entirety as part of the Complete Poems & Prose of 1888; and then, under the title "Sands at Seventy," the poems of November Boughs were annexed first to the 1888 and 1889 impressions of Leaves of Grass, and finally to the 1891–1892 impression as pages [383]–404. "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads" was published in the 1889 Leaves of Grass and then was made the concluding text of the 1891–1892 volume as pages [423]–438. Between the poems and the essay, filling pages 405–422, appeared the second annex, "Good-Bye my Fancy," a collection of thirty-one short poems taken from the gathering of prose and poetry published under that title by McKay in 1891.

A posthumous gathering of poetry, "Old Age Echoes," edited by Horace Traubel, with the title supplied by Whitman, was included in the 1897 text of Leaves of Grass published by Small, Maynard and Company of Boston. In addition to its thirteen short poems it contained Traubel's preface, "An Executor's Diary Note, 1891," consisting mostly of Whitman's responses to two questions that Traubel, one of Whitman's literary executors, had asked him about the disposition of poems written after publication of the forthcoming 1891–1892 Leaves of Grass. Whitman is reported to have said, in part, "So far as you may have anything to do with it I place upon you the injunction that whatever may be added to the Leaves shall be supplementary, avowed as such, leaving the book complete as I left it, consecutive to the point I left off, marking always an unmistakable, deep down, unobliterable division line. In the long run the world will do as it pleases with the book. I am determined to have the world know what I was pleased to do" (Comprehensive 575). Not generally recognized as part of the Leaves of Grass canon, "Old Age Echoes" appears in some, but not all, volumes of Whitman's "complete poetry."

As the Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems indicates, the 1891–1892 Leaves of Grass appeared in two distinct versions before the final publication by David McKay in the spring of 1892. While both included the annexes and other additional materials, there were differences in the texts of the poems of Leaves of Grass. One version, assembled in December of 1891, was a paperbound volume that contained unbound sheets of the 1889 impression; "rude, flimsy cover," was Whitman's comment about it in a letter to Dr. Bucke dated 6 December 1891, "but good paper, print & stitching" (Correspondence 5:270). These sheets incorporated the various minor corrections that Whitman had been making over the years to the plates of the 1881 edition, and the corrected plates of 1881 were used for the 1889 impression as well as for that of 1891–1892. Therefore, while the 1881 Leaves of Grass established the order, arrangement, and essential texts of the poems, the Deathbed edition was not, as is sometimes stated, simply a reprinting, with additional materials, of the 1881 Leaves, since Whitman later made a number of revisions to that volume—minor, to be sure, but revisions nonetheless.

A second version was bound in December of 1891 for presentation to friends in time for Christmas; it contained uncorrected sheets of the 1888 Leaves of Grass, sheets incorporating only the few minor changes made for the 1882 impression. The presentation copies were bound in heavy paper, with plain covers in gray or dark brown, and on the spine only a pasted label, showing the author's name and the title.

The production of the assembled volumes was a makeshift job, done in some haste so that Whitman might have a copy of the final Leaves before his death, and it came not a moment too soon. In the same letter of December 6 to Dr. Bucke, Whitman remarked on his physical condition—"Bad days & nights with me, no hour without its suffering"—and expressed satisfaction over the completion of his long labors: "L. of G. at last complete—after 33 y'rs of hackling at it, all times & moods of my life, fair weather & foul, all parts of the land, and peace & war, young & old—the wonder to me that I have carried it on to accomplish as essentially as it is, tho' I see well enough its numerous deficiencies & faults" (Correspondence 5:270). On December 17 Whitman came down with a chill and had to be helped to bed. He was found the next day to have congestion in the right lung; his physicians sensed that the end was near. Despite an improvement in January, Whitman did little more than endure, often in considerable pain, until his death on 26 March 1892.

While the 1891–1892 Leaves of Grass has come to be known as the Deathbed edition, that epithet would most properly be applied to the paperbound texts of 1891 rather than to the hardbound Leaves that would be published in the spring of 1892; still, it should be noted that the "deathbed" epithet, while romantically appealing, is in any case not wholly accurate, since compilation of the authorized text had been completed at least some weeks before the author's final illness (although he was assuredly in very poor health at the time). As early as 1 December 1891, Whitman noted in a letter to Dr. Bucke, "no books last edn L of G yet f'm binder, but expect them every day" (Correspondence 5:268). Bucke received his copy by 8 December; on 10 December Whitman wrote again to say that he was awaiting additional copies with heavier paper covers, one of which he would send to Bucke, and commented, "As I now consider it finished as I propose & laid out—even its deficiencies are provided for, or plainly hinted at—to me its best points are an unmistakable atmosphere and with any maturity or stamina or the like its being in process (or evolution) qualities f'm first to last" (Correspondence 5:271).

Actual publication of the 1891–1892 Leaves of Grass took place several months into 1892. Issued by David McKay, the book had plain covers, a hardbound cloth binding of dark green, and on the spine gold-stamped lettering bearing the title and the names of author and publisher. The final text of Leaves of Grass that Whitman authorized, then, began with the epigraphic poem "Come, said my Soul" on the recto of the title page, and on the verso it presented Whitman's definitive statement of preference for the 1891–1892 text. "As there are now several editions of L. of G.," he wrote, "different texts and dates, I wish to say that I prefer and recommend this present one, complete, for future printings, if there should be any; a copy and fac-simile, indeed, of the text of these 438 pages. The subsequent adjusting interval which is so important to form'd and launch'd work, books especially, has pass'd; and waiting till fully after that, I have given (pages 423–438) my concluding words" (Variorum 1:xxv). Whitman's statement was followed by the 1889 text of the poems of Leaves of Grass; the two annexes, "Sands at Seventy" and "Good-Bye my Fancy"; and finally the essay "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads" with its closing words—"the strongest and sweetest songs yet remain to be sung"—bringing the book to an end (Comprehensive 574). The total number of poems is 389.

The question inevitably arises, since the poems are not in chronological order of composition, What does the structure mean? Various attempts have been made to find a coherent principle of organization, but none has proven definitive. Whitman himself compared the growth of Leaves of Grass to the successive growth of a tree, but a tree follows chronological order, while Whitman did not. It could, however, be said in general that the 1891–1892 Leaves of Grass demonstrates, at least in broad outline, a recognizable thematic structure.

The book begins with a prelude introducing major and minor themes to follow; this section includes the prefatory poem "Come, said my Soul" and the short poems gathered in the "Inscriptions" cluster. It then turns to varied explorations of human life in "Starting from Paumanok," "Song of Myself," and the "Children of Adam" and "Calamus" clusters, poems largely youthful in their passions, their sorrows, their expectations, and their energies. The dominant poem is of course "Song of Myself," with its celebrations both of human physicality and of a transcendent universe.

The book proceeds to move outward from personal experience to public, as it explores the mature poet's perceptions of human experience, beginning with poems significantly entitled "Salut au Monde!" and "Song of the Open Road." The central poem of this section is "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," in which the poet looks out beyond himself to the lives of people present and future. The tone then darkens as the book turns to poems expressing mature awareness of loss, poems imbued with the inherent sadness of humanity. This section includes such "Songs of Experience" as "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" and "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life" in the "Sea-Drift" cluster; it also includes poems of a philosophical and meditative nature, such as "On the Beach at Night" and "On the Beach at Night Alone."

Following the brief poems of "By the Roadside," poems that, as the title suggests, are vignettes of passing life, Leaves then turns to the life of a nation with the two war-time sections, "Drum-Taps" and "Memories of President Lincoln." Following the carnage of war, the concluding sections of Leaves of Grass are distinctly elegiac, taking us into advancing age and the approach of death, as in the dominant poem, "Passage to India." The titles of the clusters themselves tell a story: "Autumn Rivulets"; "Whispers of Heavenly Death"; "From Noon to Starry Night"; and "Songs of Parting."

In sum, Leaves of Grass takes its readers through the course of a human life, from birth to death. Significantly, the first lines of "Starting from Paumanok," the initial major poem following the brief introductory poems of "Inscriptions," speak of origins—"Starting from fish-shape Paumanok where I was born / Well-begotten, and rais'd by a perfect mother"—and the concluding lines of the final poem, "So Long!," in the "Songs of Parting" cluster, are spoken as from the grave: "Remember my words, I may again return, / I love you, I depart from materials, / I am as one disembodied, triumphant, dead." In between the two poems, Leaves of Grass ranges widely through the stages and circumstances of human life.

Beyond this general framework, however, there seems to be no clear plan; and even the broad scheme outlined above is subject to dispute, for many placements of poems may seem arbitrary rather than purposeful, as appropriate to one place as to another—indeed, a significant number of poems had already been in other places, since the arrangements of poems within and without the clusters had been so frequently revised over the course of more than twenty years.

Thus the structure of Leaves of Grass will always be open to differing perceptions. That is as it should be, for Whitman was not writing according to a strict blueprint, but according to his own spontaneous nature and lyric sensibility. Leaves of Grass may have the cumulative force of epic, but its components have the vitality and the variety of lyric.

Perhaps Whitman's summarizing comment in "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads" deserves the final say. "Leaves of Grass," he insisted, "has mainly been the outcropping of my own emotional and other personal nature—an attempt, from first to last, to put a Person, a human being (myself, in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, in America,) freely, fully and truly on record" (Comprehensive 573–574). While Whitman made a number of assertions about the nature of his book, some of them highly ambitious, some of them conflicting, this modest statement, taken with due regard for Whitman's characteristic reticence about precise details of his life as well as for the force of his artistic creativity, suggests at the very least a possible route into the large landscape of Leaves of Grass.

R.W. French


Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

____. A Reader's Guide to Walt Whitman. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970.

Bowers, Fredson. Principles of Bibliographical Description. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1949.

Crawley, Thomas Edward. The Structure of "Leaves of Grass." Austin: U of Texas P, 1970.

Miller, James E., Jr. A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass." Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

____. "Leaves of Grass": America's Lyric-Epic of Self and Democracy. New York: Twayne, 1992.

____. Walt Whitman. Updated ed. 1962. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

Whitman, Walt. 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. 3 vols. New York: New York UP, 1980.

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


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