Leaves of Grass
|July 4, 1855|
Leaves of Grass is a poetry collection by the American poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Though the first edition was published in 1855, Whitman spent most of his professional life writing and re-writing Leaves of Grass, revising it multiple times until his death. This resulted in vastly different editions over four decades—the first a small book of twelve poems and the last a compilation of over 400.
The poems of Leaves of Grass are loosely connected, with each representing Whitman's celebration of his philosophy of life and humanity. This book is notable for its discussion of delight in sensual pleasures during a time when such candid displays were considered immoral. Where much previous poetry, especially English, relied on symbolism, allegory, and meditation on the religious and spiritual, Leaves of Grass (particularly the first edition) exalted the body and the material world. Influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalist movement, itself an offshoot of Romanticism, Whitman's poetry praises nature and the individual human's role in it. However, much like Emerson, Whitman does not diminish the role of the mind or the spirit; rather, he elevates the human form and the human mind, deeming both worthy of poetic praise.
With one exception, the poems do not rhyme or follow standard rules for meter and line length. Among the poems in the collection are "Song of Myself", "I Sing the Body Electric", "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking". Later editions included Whitman's elegy to the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd".
Leaves of Grass was highly controversial during its time for its explicit sexual imagery, and Whitman was subject to derision by many contemporary critics. Over time, the collection has infiltrated popular culture and been recognized as one of the central works of American poetry.
Publication history and origin
Leaves of Grass has its genesis in an essay called The Poet by Ralph Waldo Emerson, published in 1844, which expressed the need for the United States to have its own new and unique poet to write about the new country's virtues and vices. Whitman, reading the essay, consciously set out to answer Emerson's call as he began work on the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Whitman, however, downplayed Emerson's influence, stating, "I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil".
An 1890 recording, thought to be of Walt Whitman, reading the opening four lines of his poem "America", which is included in Leaves of Grass.
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On May 15, 1855, Whitman registered the title Leaves of Grass with the clerk of the United States District Court, Southern District of New Jersey, and received its copyright. The first edition was published in Brooklyn at the printing shop of two Scottish immigrants, James and Andrew Rome, whom Whitman had known since the 1840s, on July 4, 1855. The shop was located at Fulton Street (now Cadman Plaza West) and Cranberry Street, now the site of apartment buildings that bear Whitman's name. Whitman paid for and did much of the typesetting for the first edition himself. The book did not include the author's name, instead offering an engraving by Samuel Hollyer depicting Whitman in work clothes and a jaunty hat, arms at his side. Early advertisements for the first edition appealed to "lovers of literary curiosities" as an oddity. Sales on the book were few but Whitman was not discouraged.
The first edition was very small, collecting only twelve unnamed poems in 95 pages. Whitman once said he intended the book to be small enough to be carried in a pocket. "That would tend to induce people to take me along with them and read me in the open air: I am nearly always successful with the reader in the open air", he explained. About 800 were printed, though only 200 were bound in its trademark green cloth cover. The only American library known to have purchased a copy of the first edition was in Philadelphia. The poems of the first edition, which were given titles in later issues, were "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", "There Was a Child Went Forth", "Who Learns My Lesson Complete?" and "Great Are the Myths".
Whitman sent a copy of the first edition of Leaves of Grass to Emerson, the man who had inspired its creation. In a letter to Whitman, Emerson said "I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed." He went on, "I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy."
There have been held to be either six or nine editions of Leaves of Grass, the count depending on how they are distinguished. Scholars who hold that an edition is an entirely new set of type will count the 1855, 1856, 1860, 1867, 1871–72, and 1881. Others add in the 1876, 1888–89, and 1891–92 (the "deathbed edition").
It was Emerson's positive response to the first edition that inspired Whitman to quickly produce a much-expanded second edition in 1856, now 384 pages with a cover price of a dollar. This edition included a phrase from Emerson's letter, printed in gold leaf: "I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career." Emerson later took offense that this letter was made public and would become more critical of the work.
The publishers of the 1860 edition, Thayer and Eldridge, declared bankruptcy shortly after its publication and were almost unable to pay Whitman. "In regard to money matters", they wrote, "we are very short ourselves and it is quite impossible to send the sum". Whitman received only $250 and the original plates made their way to Boston publisher Horace Wentworth. When the 456-page book was finally issued, Whitman said, "It is quite 'odd', of course", referring to its appearance: it was bound in orange cloth with symbols like a rising sun with nine spokes of light and a butterfly perched on a hand. Whitman claimed that the butterfly was real in order to foster his image as being 'one with nature'. In fact, the butterfly was made of cloth; it was attached to his finger with wire.
The 1867 edition was intended to be, according to Whitman, "a new & much better edition of Leaves of Grass complete — that unkillable work!" He assumed it would be the final edition. The edition, which included the Drum-Taps section and its Sequel and the new Songs before Parting, was delayed when the binder went bankrupt and its distributing firm failed. When it was finally printed, it was a simple edition and the first to omit a picture of the poet.
In 1879, Richard Worthington purchased the electrotype plates and began printing and marketing unauthorized copies.
The eighth edition in 1889 was little changed from the 1881 version, though it was more embellished and featured several portraits of Whitman. The biggest change was the addition of an "Annex" of miscellaneous additional poems.
As 1891 came to a close, Whitman prepared a final edition of Leaves of Grass, writing to a friend upon its completion, "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". This last version of Leaves of Grass was published in 1892 and is referred to as the "deathbed edition". In January 1892, two months before Whitman's death, an announcement was published in the New York Herald:
Walt Whitman wishes respectfully to notify the public that the book Leaves of Grass, which he has been working on at great intervals and partially issued for the past thirty-five or forty years, is now completed, so to call it, and he would like this new 1892 edition to absolutely supersede all previous ones. Faulty as it is, he decides it as by far his special and entire self-chosen poetic utterance.
By the time this last edition was completed, Leaves of Grass had grown from a small book of 12 poems to a hefty tome of almost 400 poems. As the volume changed, so did the pictures that Whitman used to illustrate them—the last edition depicts an older Whitman with a full beard and jacket, appearing more sophisticated and wise.
Whitman's collection of poems in Leaves of Grass is usually interpreted according to the individual poems contained within its individual editions. The editions were of varying length, each one larger and augmented from the previous version, until the final edition reached over 400 poems. Discussion is often focused also upon the major editions of Leaves of Grass often associated with the very early respective versions of 1855 and 1856, to the 1860 edition, and finally to editions very late in Whitman's life which also included the significant Whitman poem "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd". The 1855 edition is particularly notable for the inclusion of the two poems "Song of Myself" and "The Sleepers". The 1856 edition included the notable Whitman poem "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry". In the 1860 edition, Whitman further added the major poems "A Word Out of the Sea" and "As I Ebb'd With the Ocean of Life". The specific interpretation of many of Whitman's major poems may be found in the articles associated with those individual poems.
Particularly in "Song of Myself", Whitman emphasized an all-powerful "I" who serves as narrator. The "I" tries to relieve both social and private problems by using powerful affirmative cultural images. The emphasis on American culture helped reach Whitman's intention of creating a distinctly American epic poem comparable to the works of Homer. In a constantly changing culture, Whitman's literature has an element of timelessness that appeals to the American idea of democracy and equality, producing the same experience and the same feelings within people living centuries apart. Originally written at a time of significant urbanization in America, Leaves of Grass responds to the impact urbanization has on the masses. However, the title metaphor of grass indicates a pastoral vision of rural idealism. The poem "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is Whitman's elegy to Lincoln after his death. Whitman was a believer in phrenology (in the 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass he includes the phrenologist among those he describes as "the lawgivers of poets"), and borrowed its term "adhesiveness", which referred to the propensity for friendship and camaraderie.
Whitman edited, revised, and republished Leaves of Grass many times before his death, and over the years his focus and ideas were not static. One critic has identified three major "thematic drifts" in Leaves of Grass: the period 1855 to 1859, from 1859 to 1865, and from 1866 to his death. In the first period, 1855 to 1859, his major work is "Song of Myself" and it exemplifies his prevailing love for freedom. "Freedom in nature, nature which is perfect in time and place and freedom in expression, leading to the expression of love in its sensuous form." The second period, from 1859 to 1865, paints the picture of a more melancholic, sober poet. In poems like "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd", the prevailing themes are of love and of death. From 1866 to his death, the ideas Whitman presented in his second period had experienced an evolution. His focus on death had grown to a focus on immortality, the major theme of this period. Whitman became more conservative in his old age, and had come to believe that the importance of law exceeded the importance of freedom. His materialistic view of the world became far more spiritual, and Whitman believed that life had no meaning outside of the context of God’s plan.
While Whitman has famously proclaimed his poetry to be "Nature without check with original energy" in "Song of Myself", scholars have discovered that Whitman borrowed from a number of sources for Leaves of Grass. He, for instance, lifted phrases from popular newspapers dealing with Civil War battles for his Drum-Taps and condensed a chapter from a popular science book into his poem "The World Below the Brine".
Critical response and controversy
When the book was first published, Whitman was fired from his job at the Department of the Interior after Secretary of the Interior James Harlan read it and said he found it offensive. Poet John Greenleaf Whittier was said to have thrown his 1855 edition into the fire. Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote, "It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards." The Saturday Press printed a thrashing review that advised its author to commit suicide. Critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold reviewed Leaves of Grass in the November 10, 1855, issue of The Criterion, calling it "a mass of stupid filth" and categorized its author as a filthy free lover. Griswold also suggested, in Latin, that Whitman was guilty of "that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians", one of the earliest public accusations of Whitman's homosexuality. Griswold's intensely negative review almost caused the publication of the second edition to be suspended. Whitman included the full review, including the innuendo, in a later edition of Leaves of Grass.
An early review of the first publication focused on the persona of the anonymous poet, calling him a loafer "with a certain air of mild defiance, and an expression of pensive insolence on his face". Another reviewer viewed the work as an odd attempt at reviving old Transcendental thoughts, "the speculations of that school of thought which culminated at Boston fifteen or eighteen years ago." Emerson approved of the work in part because he considered it a means of reviving Transcendentalism, though even he urged Whitman to tone down the sexual imagery in 1860.
On March 1, 1882, Boston district attorney Oliver Stevens wrote to Whitman's publisher, James R. Osgood, that Leaves of Grass constituted "obscene literature". Urged by the New England Society for the Suppression of Vice, his letter said: "We are of the opinion that this book is such a book as brings it within the provisions of the Public Statutes respecting obscene literature and suggest the propriety of withdrawing the same from circulation and suppressing the editions thereof." Stevens demanded the removal of the poems "A Woman Waits for Me" and "To a Common Prostitute", as well as changes to "Song of Myself", "From Pent-Up Aching Rivers", "I Sing the Body Electric", "Spontaneous Me", "Native Moments", "The Dalliance of the Eagles", "By Blue Ontario's Shore", "Unfolded Out of the Folds", "The Sleepers" and "Faces".
Whitman rejected the censorship, writing to Osgood, "The list whole & several is rejected by me, & will not be thought of under any circumstances." Osgood refused to republish the book and returned the plates to Whitman when suggested changes and deletions were ignored. The poet found a new publisher, Rees Welsh & Company, which released a new edition of the book in 1882. Whitman believed the controversy would increase sales, which proved true. Its banning in Boston, for example, became a major scandal and it generated much publicity for Whitman and his work. Though it was also banned by retailers like Wanamaker's in Philadelphia, this version went through five editions of 1,000 copies each. Its first printing, released on July 18, sold out in a day.
Not all responses were negative, however. Critic William Michael Rossetti considered Leaves of Grass a classic along the lines of the works of William Shakespeare and Dante Alighieri. A woman from Connecticut named Susan Garnet Smith wrote to Whitman to profess her love for him after reading Leaves of Grass and even offered him her womb should he want a child. Though he found much of the language "reckless and indecent", critic and editor George Ripley believed "isolated portions" of Leaves of Grass radiated "vigor and quaint beauty".
Whitman firmly believed he would be accepted and embraced by the populace, especially the working class. Years later, he would regret not having toured the country to deliver his poetry directly by lecturing. "If I had gone directly to the people, read my poems, faced the crowds, got into immediate touch with Tom, Dick, and Harry instead of waiting to be interpreted, I'd have had my audience at once," he claimed.
Leaves of Grass's status as one of the most important collections of American poetry has meant that over time various groups and movements have used it, and Whitman's work in general, to further their own political and social purposes. In the first half of the 20th century, the popular Little Blue Book series introduced Whitman’s work to a wider audience than ever before. A series that backed socialist and progressive viewpoints, the publication connected the poet’s focus on the common man to the empowerment of the working class. During WWII, the American government distributed for free much of Whitman's poetry to their soldiers. They believed that his celebrations of the American Way would inspire the people tasked with protecting it. Whitman’s work has also been claimed in the name of racial equality. In a preface to the 1946 anthology I Hear the People Singing:Selected Poems of Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes wrote that Whitman's "all-embracing words lock arms with workers and farmers, Negroes and whites, Asiatics and Europeans, serfs, and free men, beaming democracy to all". Similarly, a 1970 volume of Whitman's poetry published by the United States Information Agency describes Whitman as a man who will "mix indiscriminately" with the people. The volume, which was presented for an international audience, attempted to present Whitman as representative of an America that accepts people of all groups.
In popular culture
Leaves of Grass plays a prominent role in the American television series Breaking Bad. Episode 5.8 (titled "Gliding Over All" after poem 271 in the book), pulls together many of the series' references to Leaves of Grass, such as the fact that Walter White has the same initials as Walt Whitman (as noted in episode 4.4, "Bullet Points", and made more salient in "Gliding Over All"), that leads Hank Schrader to realize Walt is Heisenberg. Numerous reviewers have analyzed and discussed the various connections among Walt Whitman/Leaves of Grass/"Gliding Over All", Walt, and the show.
Leaves of Grass plays a major role in the John Green novel Paper Towns. The 1989 film Dead Poets Society makes repeated references to the poem "O Captain! My Captain!" from Leaves of Grass, along with other references to Whitman himself.
American singer Lana Del Rey references Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass in her song "Body Electric" from her 2012 EP Paradise. She also quotes some verses from Whitman's "I Sing the Body Electric" in her 2013 short film Tropico.
In the BYUtv series Granite Flats Season 3, Episode 8, Timothy gives Madeline a first-edition copy of Leaves of Grass as a Christmas gift. Many of Walt Whitman's poems are quoted in season 2 and 3.
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