January 17, 2018

Whitman's First Leaves of Grass

On this day in 1855 Walt Whitman registered the title Leaves of Grass with the clerk of the United States District Court, New York. The first edition was published seven weeks later, on or about July 4th. Over the next 36 years, "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos," would revise and add to the original twelve poems, publishing seven more editions. His mission to "Unscrew the locks from the doors! / Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!" realized "the most brilliant and original poetry yet written in the New World, at once the fulfillment of American literary romanticism and the beginnings of American literary modernism" (Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman).

Whitman was a printer by trade, and he helped set the type for the Brooklyn company that printed the initial 795 copies of his poems. Perhaps the first edition was seen from the start as a work-in-progress: no plates were made, the type was distributed, the manuscript stored at the printers for several years but, said Whitman later, "one day, by accident, it got away from us entirely -- was used to kindle the fire or to feed the rag man." Whitman was also a believer in phrenology; the first edition of Leaves of Grass was sold only at the "Phrenological Cabinet" of Fowler and Wells, among "the busts, examples, curios, and books of that study." Like Henry Ward Beecher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Daniel Webster and many eminent others, Whitman had his head read; though not in Webster's skull-range -- said to be to the ordinary skull "what the great dome of St. Peter's is to the small cupolas at its side" -- Whitman was sufficiently proud of his marks in "Sublimity," "Benevolence," etc., to list them in his "second issue" of his first edition, at the end of 1855. Added too were nine reviews of his poetry, three of them anonymously-written by himself and describing him as "of pure American breed, of reckless health, his body perfect, free from taint from top to toe, free forever from headache and dyspepsia, full-blooded, six feet high, a good feeder, never once using medicine, drinking water only -- a swimmer in the river or bay or by the sea-shore."

Emerson's letter to Thomas Carlyle the following May described the poetry, rather than the poet, as such a frontier breed: "One book, last summer, came out in New York, a nondescript monster which yet had terrible eyes and buffalo strength, and was indisputably American." Emerson's most famous letter on the topic was earlier, a personal letter of praise to Whitman on July 21, 1855, in plenty of time for him -- "one of the roughs," but one who knew promotion -- to not only include it in the second edition without telling Emerson, but put some of it on the spine, in gold lettering: "I Greet You at the / Beginning of A / Great Career / R W Emerson."

But Whitman could play the other card too: one of the "Opinions" in the "Leaves-Droppings" section of that second edition had a reviewer from the London Critic wondering if it is possible "that the most prudish nation in the world will adopt a poet whose indecencies stink in the nostrils?" And he could leave out one of his best early reviews, by the feminist Fanny Fern: "Walt Whitman, the effeminate world needed thee ... [one who was] enamored of women, not ladies-men, not gentlemen. . . . It needed a man who dared speak out his strong, honest thoughts in the face of pusillanimous, toadying, republican aristocracy; dictionary-men, hypocrites, cliques, creeds." And he could let the poetry speak for him:
    I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
    And what I assume you shall assume,
    For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you....

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