This volume, belonging to the Iowa Whitman Series, is identified as “the 150th Anniversary Facsimile Edition” of Leaves of Grass, third edition (1860). Originally issued in 1855, at the author’s expense, the collection was revised and republished in 1856, 1860, 1867, 1871, 1881-82, and finally 1892. The versions varied greatly in length and contents, as Whitman added numerous poems, while removing some and revising, retitling, regrouping, and otherwise modifying others. The first edition contained only 12 poems, the second 32. In 1860, he added 146 new ones. Later editions are viewed as less masterful. This 1860 version thus contains the poet’s most characteristic voice and delineates him most fully: the people’s bard, a prophet, sage, celebrant of the nation and its distinctive popular government—and the creator, on what turned out to be the eve of a horrible war, of a national imago by which, he dreamed, conflict might be avoided and a kind of democratic salvation brought about.
Though the font used for the table of contents is regrettably small, the rest of the 1860 typography may delight those who enjoy the appearance of an older book, especially the original title page, with its flowing cursive writing and the publisher’s imprint, “Boston, Thayer and Eldridge, Year 85 of the States, 1860-61.” The structure of the long collection is noteworthy, with its curious typographic arrangements (including numbered clusters of lines) and part divisions, bearing titles such as “Chants Democratic” and “Enfans d’Adam”—the out-of-date spelling of enfants suiting such other old spellings as Mannahatta and Kanada and unusual American terms that impart almost a frontier flavor.
Leaves of Grass is viewed by many as the most important collection by any American poet—certainly the most important at the time—and Whitman remains a giant in American literary history. His contribution to the creation of a vigorous free verse is enormous—his versatile lines (often long) and, in place of metric, line, and stanza regularity, the so-called organic principle of composition (which allowed him to expand and otherwise alter poems). Nothing that 20th-century American poets (such as T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound) proposed had any similar influence. (Pound wrote in “A Pact,” his homage poem to Whitman, “It was you who broke the new wood, / Now is a time for carving.”) Even in the development of French free verse, Whitman’s example was influential, though not crucial. To be sure, an enormous amount of extremely bad poetry has been written in his wake; and some readers today are still not reconciled to free verse, of course. But to develop a new mode of expression is no mean feat, and Whitman can scarcely be blamed for its abuses. Moreover, Whitman’s celebration of himself avoids the psychological narcissism that characterizes that of confessional poets, including Robert Lowell, and vast quantities of verse today. Even as the first-person pronoun occupies an enormous place, Whitman looks outward and writes of the general, not the particular, seeing individual life in an undifferentiated but connected order.
The Many in One—what is it finally except myself?
These States—what are they except myself?
Such rhetoric strikes a reader today as absurd, as well as bad—a dreadful mental and poetic pabulum—and many Chronicles readers will disagree with the assimilationist view that would, carried far enough, obscure distinctions and identities, including states’. Yet one should not overlook Whitman’s aspiration to something other than today’s solipsism. At least he “presses the pulse of life” rather than retreating into lotus-land.
Though Emerson, the “Sage of Concord,” had praised Whitman’s writing, and others hailed its “bold new voice,” early reviews of this edition were often hostile or mixed, and for decades Whitman’s work was widely viewed as immoral. Consider this statement in the New York Times: “Occasionally, a gleam of true poetic fire shines out of the mass of [Whitman’s] rubbish, and there are tender and beautiful touches in the midst of his most objectionable and disagreeable writings.” It remains easy to fault Whitman’s work, on poetic, political, moral, or social grounds, or all. Undiscriminating, indeed all-embracing socially and culturally, he was the outstanding 19th-century multiculturalist, the voice of democracy at its broadest, thus lowest, level. His inclusive, expansionist style fit his vision but gave little consideration to formal beauty and none to taste. He was the quintessential natural poet, the late Romantic singing in the wilderness; the Boston Globe reviewer called him “the very child of nature.” But he was also an early voice of urban and industrialized America.
These qualities are, of course, what made Leaves of Grass a new departure. Singing “Adamic songs,” the poet elevated to a creed the 18th-century metaphor—indeed, vision—of America as “essentially the greatest poem,” the New Eden. He even spoke of his work as a “New Bible,” a claim underlined by his quasibiblical style, not intended, surely, as blasphemy. Today he would be hailed as the voice of American uniqueness or “exceptionalism,” minority-group privileges, and, probably, the “living Constitution” (as well as a spokesman for a new sexual morality, or “the apotheosis of the flesh,” as the London Sunday Times put it in 1860). Indeed, some reviewers of this facsimile volume will, like Mark Doty in his cover comment, remind us that national unity has not yet been achieved, that democracy is still imperfect, that we must struggle to extend the vision of liberty and equality still further. With that noble aim in mind, critics need not assess the poetic merits of the verse; like much other rhetoric and so-called poetry today, it will be judged worthy by its social sentimentalism, ipso facto. As Gide wrote, “It is with good sentiments that bad literature is made.”
If you want to add an original-looking Whitman to your library, choose this reprint rather than a used copy of the 1961 facsimile, edited by Roy Harvey Pearce. The Introduction is lucid, and the annotations are useful. I shuddered, however, at the word “buzz” (talk), comma splices, and other errors. Jason Stacy, the editor, is an historian, not a literary critic. “As a historian, I understand literature as the product of past events, biographical moments, and aesthetic trends.” Stacy’s approach is sound, and he illuminates the poet in today’s intellectual context and in terms that nonspecialists will understand. Whether one approves or not of Whitman’s prosody and outlook and what admirers have made of him, his figure and work remain with us.
[Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman; edited by Jason Stacy (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press) 528 pp., $24.95 paper]