Publishing History

The Life of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass

By Carley


Walt Whitman’s lifetime (1819-1892) can be marked as a time in American history where change was fundamentally its foundation. Not only was the nation itself changing, but the world of literature was also changing in an effort to create a unified culture “in the world of books” (Szczesiul par. 2). By 1855, America was “one of the world’s largest and most advanced publishing industries,” that was distinguishing itself by producing remarkable pieces of “American” literature “by authors such as Poe, Hawthorne,Melville, Stowe, Fuller, Thoreau,and Emerson” (par. 3). The eight editions of Leaves of Grass, starting in 1855 and ending in 1891-92, grew and changed as Walt Whitman, and “his” nation, grew and changed. Walt began his writing of Leaves of Grass in 1851, hoping to become "The Poet" Emerson was looking for, “one who would sing of the new country in a new voice” (par. 1).

His success is unquestionable.

Walt Whitman published and designed the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855. It was printed by the Rome brothers, James and Thomas, and was on sale in two stores, one in New York and the other in Brooklyn (Marki par.2). The edition included twelve untitled poems, which were named in later editions. He included no mention of the author, only his name on the copyright and in one line of the first poem, which is later titled “Song of Myself” (Szczesiul par. 10).

A portrait representing Walt is on the frontispiece. This portrait is commonly known as “the carpenter portrait” (Marki par. 5). The unstructured design of this first edition, specifically the absence of an author, titles, and punctuation, coincides with Whitman’s main message, that “he and America, thus people and land are one” (par. 6). “The poem [itself] is a single, unified experience just as its subject” (par.11).

This first edition of Leaves did not receive much criticism. The criticism it did receive came with mixed emotions. The reviewers merited the uniqueness of his style and thought it might strike the curiosity of some readers, however,they found it unlikely that the volume would become popular among mainstream society due to its “reckless and indecent” nature (Dana par.7).
His Leaves of Grass are doubtless intended as an illustration of the natural poet. They are certainly original in their external form… Indeed, his independence often becomes coarse and defiant. His language is too frequently reckless and indecent… His words… are quite out of place amid the decorum of modern society, and will justly prevent his volume from free circulation in scrupulous circles… the Leaves of Grass are not destitute of peculiar poetic merits, which will awaken an interest in the lovers of literary curiosities. (Dana par.7)
On the contrast, Emerson was pleased with Whitman’s work and proposed that he was indeed on the journey of becoming a “great” American poet (Marki par. 17). Walt Whitman also anonymously published several reviews, “which praised the volume in extravagant terms and in what must have appeared rather extravagant prose” (par. 16).

The second edition of Leaves of Grass was published in 1856 in Brooklyn,by Fowler and Wells. It is Whitman’s “greatest publishing failure” (Aspiz par. 3). This edition is comprised of thirty-two poems, including the twelve from the first edition. Also included in the volume is an appendix of reviews from the first edition, called “Leaves Droppings” (Szczesiul par. 13). In “Leaves Droppings,” Whitman, without permission, printed Emerson’s private letter to him. In the

1856 edition, Whitman numbered his poems and also begins to create titles in the table of contents (Bradley xxviii).

The sales of this second edition were worse than those of the first. Aspiz comments that “the readers were embarrassed by such overtly sexual poems as "Spontaneous Me" and "A Woman Waits for Me," by the author's self-promotion, and by his unauthorized appropriation of Emerson’s letter” (par. 3).

Critics attacked Whitman's work, saying they “hoped that they [Leaves of Grass] had dropped, and we should hear no more of them” (Christian Examiner par. 1). They found the poems religiously and morally wrong, and “offensive.” They called them “ obscene,” and labeled the volume as “one of its [American Literature’s] worst disgraces” (par. 1).

Despite the controversy that Leaves of Grass brought to American literature, Whitman was determined to achieve his goal of becoming the “people’s poet.” In 1860, Thayer & Eldridge, a publishing firm that went bankrupt after the first 1000 copies of this Leaves edition were sold, published this third edition in Boston. As a result of the firm’s liquidation, Richard Worthington’s New York publishing firm got a hold of the printing plates and sold unauthorized copies of this edition. The physical appearance of the 1860 Leaves of Grass was much more extravagant than the last two. The pages were “elaborately decorated” and the “carpenter portrait” that appeared on the first two editions, now illustrated Whitman “as a well-coiffured and genteel romantic poet wearing a large, loose silk cravat” (Eiselein par. 1-2).

The four year period between the second and third edition was a time of “intense creative energy” for Whitman; he 124 new poems that would appear in the 1860 edition of Leaves, along with the thirty-two poems of the previous one (Bradley xxviii). Whitman was also now grouping his poems into “ clusters,” the term Walt used to describe groups of poems (Eiselein par. 3). There were a total of seven “clusters,” with the three most noteworthy ones being, “Calamus,” which focused on “themes of love, friendship, and homoeroticism,” “Starting from Paumanok,” and “A Child’s Reminiscence” (Szczesiul par. 16). The three focal points Walt encompasses in this edition, “comradeship… procreation… and the nation at war… possess homogeneity so vital that through all succeeding editions they remained essentially undisturbed” (Bradley xxviii).

This edition produced much more criticism than the first two, partly due to its advertisement by Thayer & Eldridge in a pamphlet called, “ Leaves of Grass Imprints. American and European Criticism of Leaves of Grass” (Szczesiul par. 17). Most of the critics produced positive feedback, “ confidently announce[ing] that Walt Whitman has set the pulses of America to music …we can not dwell on this remarkable work as much as we would like” (Conway par. 1-2). Although, some still read the pages of Leaves of Grass in “disgust” and said that “Walt Whitman's poems are not amorous; they are only beastly. They express far more truthfully the feelings of brute nature than the sentiments of human love” (Beach par. 6).

In 1867, the fourth edition of Leaves of Grass, which contains three issues, was published in New York and printed by William E. Chapin. All three issues include the book of Leaves of Grass. In the first issue, "Drum-Taps," “Sequel to Drum Taps,” and “Songs Before Parting” are added as supplements. The second issue excludes “Sequel to Drum Taps,” and the third issue is only the Leaves of Grass poems (Szczesiul par. 21). With all supplements included, there are a total of 236 poems in the 1867 edition (Bradley xxix).

By then, the civil war was over and racial tensions in America were enormous. The post-war era, and the abolition of slavery in 1865, greatly influenced the revisions Whitman made to the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass. In this edition, Whitman transfered the image of the individual to a more “collective self” and a “continental identity,” focusing attention on the urgency to come together as a nation, specifically whites and blacks (Mancuso, "1867" par.4). “Whitman’s poem, [“Tears”], points threateningly to the result of such hatred if the cultural inequalities between races persisted indefinitely,” and the speaker in Whitman’s poem “Paumanok,” “can reincorporate the ex-Rebel states as potential readers of "Leaves” (par. 4).

The fifth edition of Leaves of Grass, 1871-72, was published with J.S. Redfield of New York. The book was on sale in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington. In this edition, “Passage to India,” an 1871 pamphlet, was added as a supplement, containing seventy-four poems, only twenty-two of them new (Bradley xxx). This edition was rearranged several times during its publication, maybe due to the fact that critics took very little interest in the volume. Although, the reviews it did receive commented on Whitman’s “ universality and his personal incarnation of American democracy” (Mancuso, 1871-72 par. 1). Whitman also continued the major theme of “nationalism in the pursuit of civil restoration after the war years” (par. 3). Whitman’s 1876 edition, often referred to as the “Author’s Edition,” was almost a duplicate of the previous one, with a few additions. The same printing plates were used, and it was bound with Whitman’s "Two Rivulets" as a double volume.

In 1881, the seventh edition of Leaves of Grass was published by James R. Osgood in Boston. Osgood’s company was in threat of prosecution for publishing and selling “obscene literature,” and because Whitman refused to alter his work, Osgood was forced to discontinue his work with Leaves of Grass (Renner par. 2). Soon after, Whitman continued the printing of the seventh edition with Philadelphia publishers, Rees Welsh and then David McKay. Ultimately, this edition sold over 6,000 copies (par. 2). The changes made to this edition would be Whitman’s last revisions. The poems included and excluded, along with the organization and structure, would be final. At last, Leaves of Grass was complete (Szczesiul par. 30).

Some poems were cut form this “final” edition and some were added, but “Whitman focused his editorial efforts on regrouping poems to create the sequence and unity of dramatic effects [that] he had in mind” (par. 3),… “rising action, crisis, resolution” (par. 7). The Civil War poems, in this final rearrangement, constitute as the “ pivotal” point in Whitman’s book. On the whole, the poems placed before these constitute as pre-civil war poems, and the poems after deal with post-war restoration. Critics of this edition “recognize the logic of the volume…acknowledging that twentieth-century readers have admired Whitman’s achievement as a lyric poet more than the larger communal and national purposes he envisioned for his work" (par. 11).

Whitman’s final edition, the 1891-92 edition, also known as the “ Deathbed Edition,” is simply grammatical corrections of the 1881 edition, and the addition of "November Boughs" as a supplement, "Good-Bye my Fancy" as a second supplement, and "A Backward Glance O'er Travell'd Roads" as the closing essay (French 5).

Whitman’s Leaves of Grass has gone through extensive revisions over the course of its eight publications. It has grown and changed with Walt Whitman and the nation. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is essentially a lifetime masterpiece.