Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
'Leaves-Droppings' [1856]
Author:
Reitz, John
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

As an appendix to the second (1856) edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman published "Leaves-Droppings" (perhaps a pun on "eavesdropping"), primarily a collection of critical responses to the first (1855) edition. The first section, entitled "Correspondence," consists of Emerson's famous letter to Whitman, heralding Leaves of Grass as "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed" (Comprehensive 729), followed by Whitman's 3,800-word reply to his "Master." Emerson was angry and embarrassed, and the literary world in general was offended, because the letter, a private note that did not express Emerson's considerable reservations about the poetry, was published without his permission. Whitman's epistolary reply to Emerson is essentially an announcement of his literary ambitions and the American poetics he had first (and more successfully) elaborated in the 1855 Preface. The letter also baldly exaggerates the popular success of the first edition and predicts the steady growth of the poet's popularity and importance in future years. 

The second section of "Leaves-Droppings," entitled "Opinions. 1855-6," reprints nine reviews of the 1855 Leaves that had originally appeared in 1) the London Weekly Dispatch, 2) the Brooklyn Daily Times, 3) the Christian Spiritualist, 4) Putnam's Monthly, 5) the American Phrenological Journal, 6) the Critic, 7) the Examiner, 8) the London Leader, and 9) the Boston Intelligencer. This collection nearly equaled the "Correspondence" in generating controversy, since two of the reviews (numbers two and five) were written (though unsigned) by Whitman himself. Moreover, he did not shy away from including puzzled, mixed, or even flatly negative reviews in this collection, further showcasing the controversial nature of his poetry. 

"Leaves-Droppings" illustrates the shamelessness and skill with which Whitman promoted Leaves of Grass early in his career, gaining himself a degree of useful notoriety and establishing himself as a literary outsider. "Leaves-Droppings" has never been reprinted in its entirety, but the "Correspondence" appears in Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition, and the reviews have been reprinted individually in Milton Hindus's Walt Whitman: The Critical Heritage

Bibliography 

Hindus, Milton, ed. Walt Whitman: The Critical Heritage. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971. 

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

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 3. New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914. 

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Brooklyn: Fowler and Wells, 1856. 

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


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