Revising Himself: Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass

Leaves of Grass

Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855. He produced varied editions of the work ending with the ninth, or “deathbed” edition, in 1891-1892. What began as a slim book of 12 poems was by the end of his life a thick compendium of almost 400. Whitman regarded each version of Leaves as its own distinct book and continuously altered the contents. He added new poems, named or renamed old ones, and, until 1881, repeatedly regrouped them. He developed the typography, appended annexes, reworded lines, and changed punctuation, making each edition unique.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892). Leaves of Grass (from left to right). Brooklyn: 1855; Brooklyn: 1856; Boston: 1860-1861; New York: 1869; Washington: 1871; Camden, New Jersey: 1876; Boston: 1881-1882; Philadelphia: 1888, Philadelphia: 1891-1892. Rare Book & Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (10a-i)

Picturing Himself

Whitman printed the first edition of Leaves of Grass without the author's name on the title page. He used an engraving of himself in laborer's clothes as the frontispiece. Known as “the carpenter,” the image is an icon of the American poet as “one of the roughs,” or Everyman. Subsequent editions of Leaves depicted different Whitmans, ever more sophisticated and venerable. The elderly Whitman in 1891 reverted to an image of a young and urbane self, taken in Boston when he was working on the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass.

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Original Manuscript Page

The only known extant manuscript page of the first edition of Leaves of Grass has been matched through its revisions with the first issue of the 1855 edition. With some revisions, the lines shown eventually became section 14 and the beginning of section 15 of “Song of Myself” in the 1891-1892 edition of Leaves of Grass. On the verso are three columns of words in Whitman's hand, many of which were used in “Broad-Axe Poem,” appearing in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass.

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The Wonderful Gift

The most important letter in American literary history shows the leader of Boston's literary establishment recognizing Whitman's brilliant innovation and new voice. In his essay “The Poet,” Ralph Waldo Emerson had called for a voice to celebrate the poem of America itself, “Our log-rolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boasts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the Northern trade, the Southern planting, the Western clearing, Oregon and Texas.” Whitman began writing poetry that seemed to record everything Emerson called for, and his preface to the 1855 Leaves paraphrases Emerson: “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” He sent a copy of his unsigned but registered book to Emerson and received in return the letter that launched his career as America's premier poet.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) to Walt Whitman (1819-1892), July 21,1855. Page 2. Holograph letter. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (17)

Read the transcript

Promoting Himself

The 1855 publication of Leaves of Grass was heralded by anonymous reviews printed in New York papers, which were clearly written by Whitman himself. They accurately described the break-through nature of his “transcendent and new” work. “An American bard at last!” trumpeted one self-review. Whitman also soon received a generous boost of publicity from Fanny Fern. The best-selling writer befriended the newly published poet and aided his public relations. She championed Leaves as daring and fresh in her popular column in the New York Ledger on May 10, 1856.

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Marketing Leaves of Grass

Well trained in the art of printing and a stickler for detail, Whitman carefully directed the look and feel of Leaves of Grass. He had particular creative control over the 1860 edition published by Thayer and Eldridge in Boston. In it he used fancy type and decorative motifs, including ethereal images of a butterfly, a sunrise, and the planet Earth on a cloud. Whitman was just as active on the other end of the book business. He promoted and marketed his work and sold copies by subscription. Entries in his commonplace book note his sending “L of G” to various individuals.

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