On July 4, 1855, the first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was published. Controversial at the time, Leaves of Grass is now acknowledged as one of the most important American collections of poetry.
The phrase “first edition” is more important with Leaves of Grass than with most books, because the book went through dramatic changes in its many editions. The first edition included only twelve poems; by the time the final edition was published in 1882, it contained more than four hundred poems.
Only about 800 copies were printed in 1855. Whitman was not identified by name, though there was an engraving of him, wearing work clothes, at the front of the book. As for the short length, less than 100 pages, that was deliberate. If the book could be carried in a pocket, Whitman thought, “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.”
The title Leaves of Grass was a self-deprecating pun. “Leaves” is another word for “pages,” and “grass” was a publisher’s term for books of little value. The poems themselves were untitled in the first edition, but titles were added in later editions. The dozen poems in the 1855 edition included “Song of Myself” and “I Sing the Body Electric.”
Whitman had written the book, in part, as a response to an 1844 essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson. In “The Poet,” Emerson called for American poets to focus their energy on things that are uniquely American. Whitman later wrote, “I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil.” He sent a copy of that first edition to Emerson, who replied that it was “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed.”
Not everyone agreed with Emerson. The book’s forthright sensuality, which went so far as to allude to homosexuality, offended many. Whitman was fired from his job at the Department of the Interior because James Harlan, the Secretary of the Interior, was deeply offended by the book. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a prominent minister and author of the day, wrote that “it is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.”
The book was well enough received, though, that Whitman issued a greatly expanded edition—up from 96 pages to almost 400—in 1856. It included what we would now call a “blurb” taken from Emerson’s letter of praise. “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” Emerson had written. Unfortunately, Whitman had not gotten Emerson’s permission to quote his letter, and Emerson was not pleased to have unwittingly become a pitchman for Whitman’s work.
Depending on how you differentiate between a reprinting and a new edition, Leaves of Grass went through somewhere between six and nine editions, growing almost every time. Two of its most important poems, ‘O Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” were written in 1865 in response to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
The controversy over the book’s content continued. In 1882, the district attorney of Boston contacted the publisher of the most recent edition, claiming that the book was obscene. He demanded that some poems must be edited, and others removed entirely. When Whitman flatly refused to make the requested edits, the publisher refused to reprint the book and returned the publishing plates to Whitman, who found a new publisher for the next edition. As is so often the case, the controversy boosted sales, and Whitman’s new publisher went through five printings of 1,000 copies each, with the first printing selling out in a day.
By the time of the 1892 “deathbed” edition, published just a few months before Whitman’s death, Leaves of Grass had grown to nearly 400 poems. Its length and its gradual growth over the length of Whitman’s career make it a useful book for tracing the development of his writing and his themes.
The book as a whole is a departure from most poetry of its time. English and American poetry tended to be strongly symbolic and allegorical and to deal with religious and spiritual themes. Leaves of Grass, especially in its earliest poems, is about the physical world, nature, and the human body, described in realistic, concrete terms.
If the poems are arranged chronologically, the themes with which Whitman was most interested at different stages of his life become apparent. The earliest poems are about liberty, freedom, and sexuality; the middle poems grow more contemplative and turn to themes of love and death. In his final years, Whitman’s work moved from the material world to the spiritual, and he was more interested in the afterlife and immortality than in death itself.
Since Whitman’s death, the controversial nature of Leaves of Grass has faded, and everyone seems eager to claim the book, and Whitman, as representative of their own vision of America.
In the early 20th century, Leaves of Grass was included in the “Little Blue Book” series, 5-cent paperback editions of classic literature, generally with a mildly progressive, even socialist, slant. The books were aimed at the working class, and the Little Blue Book edition of Leaves of Grass focused on Whitman’s emphasis on the common man.
During World War II, the U.S. government distributed copies of Whitman’s poetry to soldiers, to remind them of the American values they were fighting to defend. And in 1946, when Langston Hughes edited an anthology of Whitman’s poetry, he claimed Whitman in the name of the developing civil rights movement, saying that Whitman’s “all-embracing words lock arms with workers and farmers, Negroes and whites, Asiatics and Europeans, serfs and free men, bearing democracy to all.”
The poems in Leaves of Grass have inspired many composers. Frederick Delius’s Sea Drift sets the poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” for baritone, chorus, and orchestra. Ralph Vaughan Williams draws on several of the book’s poems as texts for his Sea Symphony. Robert Kurka’s Serenade for Small Orchestra is an instrumental work with no text, inspired by several Whitman poems, including “Song of Myself” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” has been the inspiration for several works. Roger Sessions uses Whitman’s elegy for Lincoln as a memorial for Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. George Crumb uses parts of the poem in his Apparition, a song cycle for soprano and amplified piano. And George Walker’s Lilacs, for voice and orchestra, was awarded the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Music.
Outside the realm of classical music, jazz musician Fred Hersch set several of Whitman’s poems to music for his album Leaves of Grass.
Justin Martin is the author of Rebel Souls, a biography of Whitman that casts him as one of “America’s first bohemians.”
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