Leaves of Grass (American History Through Literature)
"Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos" is how the poet identifies himself in the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855). In one of the boldest acts of autopoeisis in American literature, Whitman (1819892) foregoes the name he used as a New York journalist in the 1840s, "Walter Whitman," which appears only on the copyright notice of his book, and uses a nickname rather than the formal tri-nominal typical of an age dominated by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803882) in the high culture and the likes of William Cullen Bryant (1794878) and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807882) among the most popular poets. The poet's name does not appear at all on the title pagenly his picture, a daguerreotype of a handsome man with a short beard, in shirtsleeves, open collar, and wide-brimmed hat, workingman's garb. The virtually self-made, radically democratic, and aggressively informal poet erupts on the scene in the first edition of Leaves of Grass, a thin quarto with green binding decorated with gold vegetation, vines and leaves twining among the letters of the title to signify the organic identities everywhere proclaimed in the method and textual practices of the book.
The collection's long preface rambles in a loosely Emersonian manner on the topic of what poetry should become in a great democracy in the open air of an unspoiled continent full of promise. What America needs, says the preface, is "poets of the kosmos" who represent the "gangs of kosmos," the common people of the United States. The poet should show the people the path between reality and their souls, he says, and should be "absorbed" lovingly by the country. The twelve untitled poems that follow set out to make good on its promises in a stunning display of poetic experimentation. Whitman took the Romantic premises of democratic poetry and the organic theory of art that he inherited from William Wordsworth (1770850) and Emerson to extremes never imagined by his predecessors. He brought new discourses into the province of poetry, ranging from scientific language to street talk, used extravagant figures of speech, treated topics usually considered outside the scope of poetry, including "low" topics dealing with sexuality and procreation, and experimented more widely and diversely with free verse than any English-language poet before him; free verse was an analogue to the freedom of people he espoused and the freedom of speech that he pursued in becoming "the poet of the body and the poet of the soul."
Over the next four decades, as if to enact the organic theory, Leaves of Grass grew. Enlarged and revised editions appeared in 1856, 1860, 1867, 1871, and 1881 along with separate issues containing annexes and inserts in 1876 and in the so-called deathbed edition of 1891892, on which most
1855: LANGUAGE EXPERIMENT
The 1855 Leaves provides what scholars agree is the most radically innovative, longest, and most widely celebrated of Whitman's poems. Best known under its final title as "Song of Myself," it appears first and takes up almost half the space allotted to the twelve poems in the first edition. Like the rest, it is untitled in 1855 and goes through a number of title changes and revisions in subsequent editions. It ranges far and wide in theme, touching on all the major topics of the book as a whole, offering an unsparing treatment of Whit-man's concept of selfhood in relation to his representation of mid-century America as an ascendant force for democracy. The persona of "myself" speaks in the name of Walt Whitman but also claims to embody the voices of others, including the underrepresented voices of the lower classes, the workers, the poor, women, slaves, prostitutes, immigrants, the mentally ill and deficient. The poem tells stories both personal and historical, fictional (such as the anecdote of the lady, the "twenty-ninth bather," behind the curtains of the fancy house, watching longingly the young men swimming in the surf) and nonfictional (such as the tale of the young men massacred in the Mexican-American War or the great sea fights from the wars with the British); it urges the reader to join the poet in an intensive program of self-realization and self-reliance on the Emersonian model; it models the marriage of body and soul; and it celebrates life in all of its variety, refusing to ignore the material realities of sex and death and poverty and even evil but keeping health and heartiness always in the forefront. It strives to give a sense of the present-day, the modern, the historical moment as the culmination of centuries and ages of preparation and thus represents one of the fullest poetic celebrations of progress and the emerging concept of evolution in English-language poetry.
With the exception of two poems previously published in periodicalsEurope, the 72nd and 73rd Years of These States," a poem affirming America's solidarity with the European spirit of 1848, and "A Boston Ballad," an antislavery lyric, both of which differ stylistically from "Song of Myself"he other poems appear to be spin-offs both in style and theme. They all use the breathlessly long lines, unrhymed and metrically irregular, depending for their poetic effect and cohesion upon a wide range of devices for repetitionuch as alliteration, assonance, and anaphoraften recalling the oratorical techniques commonly used in the day and unfolding the characteristic enumerative style, Whitman's famous "catalogs" of anecdotes and images. The poem that would ultimately become "I Sing the Body Electric" develops the themes of sexual energy and the sacredness of bodily existence, protesting the selling of human beings in the twin evils of slavery and prostitution and drawing upon natural history and eclectic medical science for language and for authority. The poem finally known as "The Sleepers" focuses on the health of the mind, with the shamanistic figure of the poet leading the reader on a fantastic journey into the thoughts and dreams of fellow citizens sleeping in their variously troubled and contented psychological conditions.
Other poems look forward to future developments in Leaves even as they pick up key themes in the 1855 book. The theme of childhood experience and its formative influence upon adult life takes center stage in the mildly autobiographical lyric of reflection "There Was a Child Went Forth," which adds a key dimension to the treatment of selfhood and looks forward to "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." "A Song for Occupations" develops the celebration of the working class and anticipates "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" in its direct approach to readers in the present and the future. "To Think of Time" sets the stage for later philosophical musings such as "Chanting the Square Deific."
Leaves of Grass was all but ignored by the publishing establishment despite Whitman's connections on the journalistic and literary scene in New York. The reviews that did take noticether than those written anonymously by Whitman himself in the kind of self-promotion in which he would indulge throughout his careerended to dismiss the volume on either moral or artistic grounds. Reviewers saw the poems as either obscene or decidedly unpoetic, not really qualifying as poetry at all.
It made the biggest splash in Boston. Whitman sent a copy to Emerson, who not only shared the book with Henry David Thoreau (1817862) and Amos Bronson Alcott (1799888), both of whom visited New York to meet the author of such a work, but also penned what has become perhaps the most famous letter among literary figures in America. No doubt recognizing his own influence, Emerson praised the originality and power of the book and wondered about its "long foreground." Whitman took heart from this letter, which propelled him forward into a flurry of creativity to match, if not surpass, the inspired state that produced the first edition.
1856: THE FIRST EXPANSION
The greatly expanded second edition appeared a year later, setting the standard for the future growth of the book. The 1856 Leaves is often remembered for the poet's attempt to build upon his connections in the literary world, some would say tastelessly if not shamelessly. On the spine of the green book with its squat little format (a new pocket-sized volume in the minds of Whitman and his publishers), Whitman had a sentence stamped in gold letters from Emerson's private letter of 1855, along with a blurb-like attributionI greet you at the beginning of a great career. W. Emerson"; and the letter itself was included in the book's front matter, used without permission and followed by a long response from Whitman, virtually a new preface, addressed to his "dear friend and Master." Although Emerson remained cordial to Whitman thereafter, his ardor for Leaves of Grass cooled significantly after he was made unwittingly to endorse the new edition, the expansion of which significantly increased the number of lines dealing directly with matters of sex and the body, themes with which Emerson was never comfortable and which he urged Whitman to subdue in later editions.
Whitman's boldness as the self-proclaimed poet of the body may have gathered steam in 1856 from another connection, the sponsorship of a new publisherhe phrenological firm of Fowler and Wells, a group also known for a forthright, if otherwise conservative, treatment of sexual issues in its publications on health and society. Whitman, who was writing features for the firm's weekly publication, Life Illustrated, in the mid-1850s, could not sustain the relationship with his publishers beyond the one edition, however; ironically, it may have been the issue of his sexual candor, the "libidinousness" that one of the few reviewers denounced as "foul" and "impious," that led to the break, although poor sales could just as easily have been to blame. The awkward attempt of the self-conscious outsider to push his way into the literary mainstream appears even in the new titles given the poems in the second edition. As if in response to those critics who wondered whether these works could rightly be called poetry at all, Whitman included the word "Poem" in every title. Thus what finally become "Song of Myself" appeared as "Poem of Walt Whitman, an American" in 1856; "I Sing the Body Electric" went by "Poem of the Body"; and perhaps worst of all, the new poem ultimately named "A Song of the Rolling Earth" was called "Poem of the Sayers of the Words of the Earth."
In the view of many critics, the 1856 Leaves absorbed rather too heavy a dose of the social-scientific spirit characteristic of Whitman's phrenologist sponsors and other reformers in the "feminine fifties." The influence is especially clear in his approach to such issues as the social position of women. The appeal to a new kind of woman, vigorous and equal in power to the ideal workingmen of Whitman's vision, takes a particularly disconcerting turn in "A Woman Waits for Me," which appeared as "Poem of Procreation" in 1856 and which has proved one of Whitman's most controversial works among not only readers of his own time (including Emerson) but also feminist critics, largely because the sexual forthrightness suggests an element of brutality, a reduction of women to the function of maternity, and a step toward accepting the kind of eugenicist program later associated with racial exclusionists and Social Darwinism. The anatomical catalog of body parts and functions added in 1856 to "I Sing the Body Electric" has been criticized along similar lines as an aesthetically ill-advised appeal to the scientific temper of the times. Even the more widely admired "Unfolded out of the Folds," which uses the female genitalia as a figure for poetic creativity, seems to embrace the eugenic theme.
The ugliness of the volume, Whitman's personal shortcomings in handling promotional considerations, and even his occasional shift into a programmatic mode that slights aesthetic concerns should not, however, detract from the considerable accomplishments of the 1856 Leaves. The new poems were pouring forth at a rate and with a quality that remains a wonder in the history of poetic productivity. Among the more successful was the provocative "Spontaneous Me," which walks the fine line between the merely shocking and the purposeful unsettling of an audience too comfortable in their habits of reading. By modeling poetic inspiration and mystical enlightenment with masturbatory imagery and by asserting the creativity of all people by suggesting that the "real poems" of life are the parts and practices of physical regeneration, "Spontaneous Me" urges a reconception of the hierarchical relationships assumed in his culture. The body's relation to the larger processes of degeneration and renewal forms the topic of another new poem, "This Compost," perhaps the most ecologically powerful poem in nineteenth-century American literature, which dramatizes at once the human tendency to recoil from the threat of the earth, embodied in disgust over death and sickness, and the sublime realization of the earth's power to absorb and refine corrupt materials and regenerate the air, water, and soil that nourish and renew life. The continuity of life across the distances of space and time forms the key theme of perhaps the greatest 1856 poem, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," which sees in the amassing of people and activities in the urban environments the culmination of the past and the promise of the future, both material and spiritual.
For all its accomplishments, the book did not sell and failed to catapult the author into the arms of an adoring public. In the late 1850s, Whitman found himself admired by a limited circle of New York Bohemians and Boston transcendentalists but ignored by the masses he desperately wanted to reach. He lost his publisher and found his personal life in disarray. The nation whose unity and power he had celebrated was on the brink of war. And yet, from these troubles, he managed to create a new kind of poetic vision, something darker and more elegiac than the epic and celebratory poetry of the 1855 and 1856 poems. Leaves of Grass continued to grow and now diversified, sending its roots deeper into the resources of the human spirit, thereby extending its range and appeal.
1860: THE NEW BIBLE
By the time he contracted with a venturesome and enthusiastic new publishing firm, Thayer and Eldridge of Boston, Whitman had dozens of new poems ready to go. The 1860 Leaves of Grass would be the first edition to have so many poems that Whitman felt the need to arrange some of them into what he called "clusters," a practice he would follow in all subsequent editions. The poems on the love of man for woman, for example, would be all the more noticeable in this edition for having their own cluster, Enfans d'Adam, later Children of Adam, which complemented a cluster of new poems called Calamus.
Calamus, which celebrated the love of man for man as the heart of democracy and the "base of all metaphysics," appears to have begun as something like a free-verse sonnet sequence in a manuscript originally titled "Live Oak, with Moss" after the key poem "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing." The sequence contains a rough narrative of a relationship with another man, following it through joyful beginnings to a tragic break. The narrative is submerged in Calamus as it was finally published in 1860, the individual poems redistributed and joined with other short poems celebrating a more general love of humankind. But the homoeroticism, the feelings of loneliness and alienation from the mass of men and women, and the near-sexual intensity of the original group would remain. While critics have acknowledged the debt of the sentiment in Calamus to the Romantic friendship tradition, which always seems to edge over into homosexuality to modern readers more publicly attuned to the possibility of sex among men than were readers of Whitman's day, most have concluded that Calamus arises from and celebrates homosexual experience and thus stands at the beginning of a gay tradition in American letters. The cluster took on a new notoriety at the end of the century, especially among English readers like John Addington Symonds (1840893) who, in the context of the "sexual science" of writers like Havelock Ellis (1859939) and the historical shifts in consciousness occasioned by events like the trial of Oscar Wilde, began to see homoeroticism at the center of Whitman's book, with Calamus as the focal point. When Symonds questioned Whitman directly about the possibility of homosexuality in Calamus, the poet vigorously denied any such intention. Despite the denial and the cautious indirection of the poems themselves, the "paths untrodden" invoked in the cluster hint strongly at a relationship among men that goes beyond the constraints of a dominantly heterosexual culture.
The confinement of the poems on love into the two clusters tends to add emphasis to the poetry of the body in the 1860 Leaves. And yet, a note from the late 1850s as well as the avowed intention of the new overture poem "Starting from Paumanok" (called "Proto-Leaf" in 1860) suggests that Whitman hoped to bolster the poetry of the soul in this edition. The note referred to the forthcoming volume as the New Bible. The poems best fulfilling this ambition were later located in a cluster called Sea Drift, two of whichAs I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life" and "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"eserve special mention as products of Whitman's return to the seashore of his childhood home on Long Island in search of his inspiration, a linking of landscape and spirituality in a revival of the kind of natural mysticism first developed in the 1855 "Song of Myself." "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life" forms a record of his depression in the late 1850s, a kind of rural, ebb-tide counterweight to the celebratory affirmation of the urban flood tide in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." "Out of the Cradle" dramatizes the middle-aged man's return to the source of his inspiration by narrating the story of the boy-poet's vicarious encounter with loss and death through his observation of a mockingbird singing for its lost mate. In both of these poems, as well as in Calamus, the poet suggests that he was able to come to terms with his poetic vocation only after nearly abandoning it. He recoils from his earlier poems, leaves the city that has provided his central themes and subject matter, throws himself on the mercy of nature (the ocean figured as an old crone whispering "death," for example, in "Out of the Cradle"), and working through his suffering and alienation, recovers the spiritual connection with the kosmos that seemed to have come so easily in poems like "Song of Myself" and "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry."
The tragic depth and added psycho-spiritual dimension of these new poems has made the 1860 edition the favorite of many readers. Still at the height of his poetic experimentation with language and verse form, Whitman attained in this volume a richness and range that he would sometimes equal but never surpass.
1867: THE WAR COMES TO LEAVES OF GRASS
The young publishers of the 1860 Leaves were forced to close operations with the onset of the Civil War, so once again, the book was a financial failure, although the number of copies in circulation greatly increased. Whitman was gradually becoming known as a public figure and the object of controversy, the author of a notorious book. During the Civil War years, his fame grew and the public perception of his work shifted to some degree. He relocated to Washington, D.C., and became acquainted with other writers such as William Douglas O'Connor (1832889), who helped Whitman get a government job and defended him with a famous pamphlet, The Good Gray Poet, when he lost the job, ostensibly because he had written an immoral book. Again with the help of O'Connor, Whitman found an appreciative audience in England, led by William Michael Rossetti (1829919) who brought out a selection of Whitman's poems in 1867 and introduced a generation of enthusiastic English readers to Leaves of Grass.
Whitman first came to Washington, D.C., on a family errand in search of his wounded younger brother, who was serving in the Union cause at Fredericksburg. After visiting with his brother in camp, Whitman was compelled to stay close to the war and redefine his poetic mission accordingly. While working part-time as a clerk in the government offices, he volunteered as a companion to sick and injured soldiers in the many war hospitals set up in the capitaln experience that changed his life forever and moved him to write a new collection of poems, Drum-Taps, published with a late sequel added in 1865866. The sequel contained his great elegy to Abraham Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd."
When he first conceived of Drum-Taps, Whitman thought it superior to Leaves of Grass as a book because of its epic theme of war and because of its artistic unity. (Yet in addition to the war poems it contained other performances of the period, many only marginally connected with the war, such as "Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun" on the tension between city and country, "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" on the tension between the ways hard science and Romantic mysticism approach nature, and "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" on the topic that would consume him in the 1870s, westward expansion.) Finally, however, Leaves of Grass absorbed the wartime poems into its growth, with new clusters entitled Drum-Taps and Memories of President Lincoln, and new places for the poems not directly related to war. In the 1867 Leaves, often called the workshop edition, Drum-Taps and the Sequel were roughly stitched into the covers at the end. These rough sequels account for the largest expansion of the volume. The poetic energy that did not go into the war poems was expended primarily on revision of the earlier poems, painstakingly worked out in Whitman's famous Blue Book copy of the 1860 Leaves. By the time the 1871872 Leaves of Grass was published, the war clusters had begun to settle into the structure of the book proper, although they were not arranged into their final clusters until the 1881882 edition.
The poems composed for Drum-Taps and the Sequel build upon preexisting trends in Leaves of Grass and also extend the book's range. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" as well as shorter lyrics about Lincoln and about death on the battlefield, such as the remarkable "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night," establish Whitman as one of the leading authors of the English elegy, taking the dark themes of personal experience from the 1860 poems and applying them to the mournful mood of the postwar nation. Nature lyrics such as "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" extend the ecopoetical canon of Whitman's writing, adding new perspectives to older poems like "Song of Myself" and "This Compost" and anticipating such shorter lyrics as "A Noiseless Patient Spider" as well as the delightful prose vignettes of retreat to nature in Specimen Days. In such poems as "Cavalry Crossing a Ford" and "Bivouac on a Mountain Side," Whitman experiments with a new genre, a kind of proto-modern imagistic lyric that anticipates the poetics of Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and other twentieth-century artists working under the influence of photographic technology.
In all, Whitman's wartime experience greatly enriched Leaves of Grass even as it may have destroyed the poet's health. The war restored his lagging sense of purpose as a poet but broke him physically and may have signaled the waning of his powers.
1871 AND AFTER: DECLINE AND FINALE
The dominant critical tradition in Whitman studies suggests that the poems composed and published after the Civil War suffer a significant loss of artistic power, reflecting the poet's aging and the increasingly uncertain condition of his health. The critics divide sharply over where to set the line of demarcationfter the 1860 edition, or after "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," or even laterut there is general agreement that the original energy of the 1850s is in decline by the 1870s and 1880s. During this time Whitman published his best-known prose works, Democratic Vistas and Specimen Days, and continued to add poems to Leaves of Grass, but the later poems were not as daringly unconventional either in subject matter or in poetic form. In subject matter, he largely avoided the sexual topics that had stirred such controversy (with a few notable exceptions, such as "The Dalliance of the Eagles") and focused instead on democratic political theory, nature, war reminiscences, westward expansion, technological progress, and spiritual matters. In poetic form, his drift back toward conventional forms began as early as 1856, when he abandoned the odd, oratorically suggestive use of multiple periods in varying numbers that he employed as punctuation in 1855. By 1860 the poet who had vigorously rejected "poems distilled from other poems" had begun to include more frequent echoes and borrowings, drawing upon Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, and even Alfred Tennyson in "Out of the Cradle," for example. Whitman's elegies grew more conventional in diction and topic by the time of "Lilacs" and other poems from the Drum-Taps era. One of the Lincoln poems, "O Captain! My Captain!" which became (somewhat to the poet's chagrin) perhaps his all-time most popular poem, featured regular stanzas and even rhymed. By the 1870s, Whitman was less inclined to employ the wild tropes and experimental language of the earlier poems and more inclined to use shorter, more regular lines and conventional poetic diction, even "thee" and "thou" (which could have come from his Quaker heritage but which were never used in the best-known earlier poems) as well as personifications of abstractions and figures from classical mythology.
The turn to convention suggests that the poet had wearied of working as a kind of one-man avant-garde. The war strengthened his desire to be regarded as the national poet, which in turn led him to make some concessions to conventional taste. His nationalism also prompted him to cultivate a kind of globalist, some would say imperialist, attitude about the place of the United States in world affairs. The 1871 "Passage to India" begins with a celebration of the technologies that opened the different cultures to both influences and intrusions from other peopleshe Suez Canal, the transoceanic cables, and the transcontinental rail-roadnd finishes with a spiritual flourish that urges the soul outward to new possibilities. The poetic linking of spiritual growth to cultural imperialism proves disturbing for many critics, as does the decidedly pre-conservationist sentiment of a poem like "Song of the Redwood-Tree," which made its way into the 1881882 edition of Leaves and in which the poet gives voice to the song of natural spirits departing from the old forests, willingly abandoning the field to the new race of human beings with their axes and city plans. Poems on Christopher Columbus and on Custer's Last Stand ("From Far Dakota's Canons") contribute to the view of Whitman as primarily the white man's poet of westward expansion, although a more sympathetic view would also notice the tragic note of such poems: the too-heavy insistence on the promise of the future as the compensatory celebration of an old poet who feels that time has passed him by, like the war hero George Armstrong Custer, the aged old mariner wrecked on the shore in "Prayer of Columbus," or the spirits of the redwood trees departing before the coming generation of pioneers.
Moreover, the late editions still offer much to admire. The organization of the book as a whole, with well-crafted clusters and strings of individual "Songs," 293 poems in all, took on its final shape in the 1881 Leaves, a significant advance over the organization of the 1867 and 1871 editions. In the deathbed edition of 1891892, Whitman added "annexes" rather than disturbing the order of the 1881 Leaves. The first annex, "Sands at Seventy," serves as kind of reprise for the treatment of nature throughout the book. In particular Whitman revives an interest in his native shoreline, offering several fine examples of the short nature lyric, including the much-admired series "Fancies at Navesink." The second annex, "Good-bye My Fancy," includes among other accomplishments the outstanding lyric "To the Sun-set Breeze." While echoing sources in the Romantic and transcendentalist traditions with a celebration of a cool wind that comes at the end of a hot summer day and stirs the spirit of the sick old man, inspiring a vision of remembered landscapes to the north, the poem remains characteristically Whitman-ian with its attention to the condition of the body and the full experience of all the senses, with a special emphasis reserved for the tactile. To the end, Whitman would leave his mark as the poet of the body, never neglecting the soul but showing the way there by loving attention to the intensities of material life.
See also "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"; Democracy; Individualism and Community; "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"; "The Poet"; Romanticism; Sexuality and the Body; "Song of Myself"; Urbanization; "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"
Whitman, Walt. Drum-Taps (1865) and Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865): A Facsimile Reproduction. Edited by F. DeWolfe Miller. Gainesville, Fla.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1959.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Edited by Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. New York: New York University Press, 1965.
Whitman, Walt. The Walt Whitman Archive. Edited by Kenneth M. Price and Ed Folsom. http://www.whitmanarchive.org.
Whitman, Walt. Walt Whitman's Blue Book: The 18601 "Leaves of Grass" Containing His Manuscript Additions and Revisions. 2 vols. Edited by Arthur Golden. New York: New York Public Library, 1968.
Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. The Growth of Leaves of Grass: The Organic Tradition in Whitman Studies. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1993.
LeMaster, J. R., and Donald D. Kummings, eds. Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1998.
Loving, Jerome. Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
M. Jimmie Killingsworth