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Leaves of Grass  
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Walt Whitman, age 37, frontispiece to Leaves of Grass. Steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison.
Author(s) Walt Whitman
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Poetry
Publisher Self
Publication date 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 his entire life writing Leaves of Grass,[1] revising it in several editions until his death. Among the poems in the collection are "Song of Myself", "I Sing the Body Electric", and in later editions, Whitman's elegy to the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd".

OverviewEdit

This book is notable for its delight in and praise of the senses 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.

Publication history and originEdit

Initial publicationEdit

Leaves of Grass has its genesis in an essay called The Poet by Ralph Waldo Emerson, published in 1845, 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".[2] Template:Documentation subpage

{{Leaves of Grass}} allows audio files to be embedded in articles. It should be used for audio files that are set off from the text, like music clips or sound recordings. 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.[3] The first edition was published in Brooklyn at the Fulton Street printing shop of two Scottish immigrants, James and Andrew Rome, whom Whitman had known since the 1840s,[4] on July 4, 1855. 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 the poet in work clothes and a jaunty hat, arms at his side.[5] Early advertisements for the first edition appealed to "lovers of literary curiosities" as an oddity.[6] 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.[7] 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."[8] About 800 were printed,[9] though only 200 were bound in its trademark green cloth cover.[3] The only American library known to have purchased a copy of the first edition was in Philadelphia.[10] 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." The title Leaves of Grass was a pun. "Grass" was a term given by publishers to works of minor value and "leaves" is another name for the pages on which they were printed.[7] 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."[11] He went on, "I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy."

RepublicationsEdit

File:Whitman, Walt (1819-1892) - 1883 - Engraving.jpg

There have been held to be either six or nine editions of Leaves of Grass, the count depending on how a given scholar distinguishes between issues and editions. 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"). Whitman continually revised his masterwork, adding, shifting, and occasionally removing poems.[12] It was Emerson's positive response to the first edition that inspired Whitman to quickly produce a much-expanded second edition in 1856,[11] now 384 pages with a cover price of a dollar.[8] This edition included a phrase from Emerson's letter, printed in gold leaf: "I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career."[8] Emerson later took offense that this letter was made public[13] and would become more critical of the work.[14] 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.[15] 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.[16] 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.[17] The 1867 edition was intended to be, according to Whitman, "a new & much better edition of Leaves of Grass complete — that unkillable work!"[18] He assumed it would be the final edition.[19] 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.[20] In 1879, Richard Worthington purchased the electrotype plates and began printing and marketing unauthorized copies. [21] 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.[22]

"Deathbed edition"Edit

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".[23] This last version of Leaves of Grass was published in 1892 and is referred to as the "deathbed edition".[24] 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.[25]
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 of Whitman used to illustrate them—the last edition depicts an older Whitman with a full beard and jacket, appearing more sophisticated and wise.

AnalysisEdit

Template:Expand section 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.[26] The emphasis on American culture helped reach Whitman's intention of creating a distinctly American epic poem comparable to the works of Homer.[27] Originally written at a time of significant urbanization in America, Leaves of Grass responds to the impact urbanization has on the masses.[28]

Critical response and controversyEdit

File:1860 LeavesOfGrass Thayer Eldridge NYPL.jpeg

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 very offensive.[24] Poet John Greenleaf Whittier was said to have thrown his 1855 edition into the fire.[11] 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."[29] Critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold reviewed Leaves of Grass in the November 10, 1855, issue of The Criterion, calling it "a mass of stupid filth"[30] and categorized its author as a filthy free lover.[31] 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.[32] Griswold's intensely negative review almost caused the publication of the second edition to be suspended.[33] Whitman included the full review, including the innuendo, in a later edition of Leaves of Grass.[30] 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".[5] 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."[32] Emerson approved of the work in part because he considered it a means of reviving Transcendentalism,[34] though even he urged Whitman to tone down the sexual imagery in 1860.[35] On March 1, 1882, Boston district attorney Oliver Stevens wrote to Whitman's publisher, James R. Osgood, that Leaves of Grass constituted "obscene literature".[36] 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.[24] The poet found a new publisher, Rees Welsh & Company, which released a new edition of the book in 1882.[37] Whitman believed the controversy would increase sales, which proved true. Though banned by retailers like Wanamaker's in Philadelphia, this version went through five editions of 1,000 copies each.[38] Its first printing, released on July 18, sold out in a day.[39] 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.[40] 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.[41] 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".[42] 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.[43]

ReferencesEdit

  • Callow, Philip. From Noon to Starry Night: A Life of Walt Whitman. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992. ISBN 0-929587-95-2
  • Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979. ISBN 0-671-22542-1
  • Loving, Jerome. Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. University of California Press, 1999. ISBN 0-520-22687-9.
  • Miller, James E., Jr. Walt Whitman. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc. 1962.
  • Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage Books, 1995. ISBN 0-679-76709-6.

NotesEdit

  1. Miller, 57
  2. Reynolds, 82
  3. 3.0 3.1 Kaplan, 198
  4. Reynolds, 310
  5. 5.0 5.1 Callow, 227
  6. Reynolds, 305
  7. 7.0 7.1 Loving, 179
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Reynolds, 352
  9. Reynolds, 313
  10. Nelson, Randy F. The Almanac of American Letters. Los Altos, California: William Kaufmann, Inc., 1981: 144. ISBN 0-86576-008-X
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Miller, 27
  12. Folsom, Ed. Whitman Making Books Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary. [1]
  13. Callow, 236
  14. Reynolds, 343
  15. Reynolds, 405
  16. Kaplan, 250
  17. "Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass." The Library of Congress Exhibitions: American Treasures.http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/treasures/whitman-goodgraypoet.html
  18. Reynolds, 474
  19. Loving, 314
  20. Reynolds, 475
  21. "The Walt Whitman Archive ." "The Walt Whitman Encyclopedia: Criticisms." http://whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/encyclopedia/entry_23.html
  22. Miller, 55
  23. Reynolds, 586
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 Miller, 36
  25. Kaplan, 51
  26. Reynolds, 324
  27. Miller, 155
  28. Reynolds, 332
  29. Broaddus, Dorothy C. Genteel Rhetoric: Writing High Culture in Nineteenth-Century Boston. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1999: 76. ISBN 1-57003-244-0
  30. 30.0 30.1 Loving, 184
  31. Reynolds, 347
  32. 32.0 32.1 Loving, 185
  33. Reynolds, 348
  34. Loving, 186
  35. Reynolds, 194
  36. Loving, 414
  37. http://www.sc.edu/library/spcoll/amlit/whitman/ww4.html
  38. Loving, 416
  39. Reynolds, 543
  40. Loving, 317
  41. Reynolds, 404
  42. Crowe, Charles. George Ripley: Transcendentalist and Utopian Socialist. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1967: 246.
  43. Reynolds, 339

External linksEdit

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