Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass
Walt Whitman looms large as an American original, as much a subject of his literary works as their creator; he celebrated both himself and his nation in the distinctive voice of “an American rude tongue,” as he himself termed it. With the publication of Leaves of Grass and its successive editions, Whitman burst onto the American literary scene at a time when writers like Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville were in the process of creating a distinctively “American” literature. Yet, born on Long Island and living much of his life in Brooklyn and Manhattan, Whitman was also a distinctly local figure at the same time, a self-styled common man—“one of the roughs”—who worked in various newspaper and editorial roles in Brooklyn and Manhattan, including editor of Brooklyn’s Daily Eagle in the 1840s.
Leaves of Grass
The first two, Brooklyn-printed editions of Leaves of Grass, which Whitman had to publish himself,sold very poorly; their combined printings totaled less than 2000 copies, most of which seem to have gone unsold. Copies of both volumes are thus quite rare.
The Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) is fortunate to hold in its library collections three early published editions of Whitman’s poem: the second edition (1856), third (1860), and seventh (1881-2).
Leaves of Grass: 2nd Edition, (Brooklyn, 1856)
Whitman published the 1856 second edition of Leaves of Grass himself, as he had the 1855 first edition; about 1,000 copies were printed by James and Thomas Rome of Brooklyn, who had also printed the first edition. (This compares with a print-run of 795 copies for the first edition, for which Whitman himself probably assisted in the typesetting and printing of some pages.) Much smaller than its first edition predecessor, which was distinguished by a tall and wide format, the second edition was advertised as being “handy for pocket, table, or shelf,” but this did not help sales much.
Significantly, Whitman’s name does not appear on the title page, only on the verso copyright page, as is generally the case with early editions of Leaves of Grass, but by the time the second edition appeared Whitman’s authorship would have been well known. Facing the title page was the same frontispiece engraving of a casually-dressed Whitman. Whitman remarked on “its portrayal of the proletarian—the carpenter, builder, mason, mechanic,” and the image is often termed the “carpenter portrait.”
For the second edition, Whitman added twenty new poems to the original twelve; among the new poems was “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (titled “Sun-Down Poem” here). He also assigned a title to each individual poem. The first one thus bears the title, “Poem of Walt Whitman, an American,” signaling Whitman’s desire to present himself as the national poet of America celebrating both himself and his country with “an American rude tongue,” as he termed it in his Preface to the first edition.
This language was one Whitman deemed essential to the new national literature he envisioned himself helping to create for “the United States [which] are founding a literature.” (Whitman would later retitle the “Poem of Walt Whitman, an American” simply “Song of Myself,” a name eventually taking on a life of its own in American literary lore.)
Whitman also included a number of critical reviews of the first edition and a correspondence exchange of sorts with Ralph Waldo Emerson concerning a complementary copy Whitman had sent him, in a section at the end of the volume called “Leaves-Droppings.” In a thirteen-page letter, Whitman publicly answered a private letter from Emerson in which he had termed Leaves of Grass “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” Emerson had added, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” a line that Whitman had gilt-embossed on the spine of this edition (apparently without Emerson's knowledge or permission).
The Brooklyn Historical Society’s copy of the second edition is distinguished by 1870s photograph of Whitman mounted on page 243 (at the end of the “Poem of Procreation”) with Whitman’s pencil signature written underneath, dated “1878.”
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