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Song of Myself

(American History Through Literature)

Walt Whitman. Engraving from the frontispiece to Leaves of Grass, 1855. CORBIS Walt Whitman. Published by Gale Cengage ©CORBIS

"Song of Myself" is the final title Walt Whitman gave to his long, changing, remarkably fluid poem that he originally published as "Leaves of Grass" in the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855).

It was renamed "Poem of Walt Whitman, an American" in the 1856 edition and was called simply "Walt Whitman" in the editions of 1860, 1867, and 1871. Only in the final edition of Leaves of Grass in 1881 did the poem become "Song of Myself." Not just the title but many other features of the poem changed over the years: Whitman radically altered the punctuation, added some sections and deleted others, tinkered with many individual lines, and divided up the poem in very different ways. In its original form, the poem had unnumbered stanzas that varied from a single line to over eighty lines; by 1860 Whitman had numbered these stanzas from 1 to 372; and by 1867 he had further divided the poem into fifty-two numbered sections, still keeping the stanza numbers; only in 1881 did he drop the stanza numbers and retain just the fifty-two sections. In addition to the internal changes, Whitman altered the position of the poem in Leaves of Grass, placing it first among the twelve poems in the 1855 edition but dropping it into second position in 1860 and moving it farther back in each succeeding edition. The poem thus plays a different role in each edition of Leaves, and its meanings shifted as Whitman revised it and recontextualized it over nearly three decades. He would never again write a poem anywhere near as long as "Song of Myself."


The origins of "Song of Myself " have remained a mystery. Whitman was an inveterate keeper of notebooks, a habit that began during his days as a newspaper reporter and editor in the 1840s. He used these notebooks to record the names of people he met, to keep financial ledgers, and to jot down notes about sights, sounds, and ideas. In one notebook, now known as "Talbot Wilson" (after the name that appears at the top of the first page), Whitman records many ideas and images that eventually make their way into "Song of Myself." There has been a long debate over when these notebook entries were made; for many decades, critics dated the notebook from the late 1840s, thus suggesting that Whitman had been working on "Song of Myself " for seven or eight years before its publication in 1855. The mystery was intensified during World War II, when the notebook, then housed at the Library of Congress, was shipped for safekeeping to a midwestern university. When the box containing the notebooks was returned to the Library of Congress, the Talbot Wilson was missing. In 1998 it was discovered in the attic of a book collector. Examinations of the notebook showed conclusively that, while Whitman did use it in the 1840s, he cut out the earlier pages and began reusing it in the early 1850s, perhaps as late as 1854. All the notes leading to "Song of Myself " date from the 1850s, thus indicating a much quicker development of the poem than had previously been assumed.

The later dating allows us to see more clearly how "Song of Myself" had its genesis and rapid gestation during the explosive decade of the 1850s, following the Missouri Compromise and the introduction of the Fugitive Slave Law, which increased federal oversight of the process of returning runaway slaves to their owners. Many Americans who resisted this law strenuously objected to the imposition of federal jurisdiction over what had previously been state decisions, and many argued that the enforcement of the law made all Americans complicitous in slavery and, even worse, coerced all Americans into becoming slave catchers. The controversies surrounding this law boiled over in 1854 when the escaped slave Anthony Burns was retained in Boston, Massachusetts, and ordered back to the South by federal marshals and by President Franklin Pierce. Pierce provided hundreds of U.S. troops to escort Burns through the streets of Boston, where twenty...

(The entire section is 4,414 words.)