Walt Whitman and the Many Revisions of Leaves of Grass

Special thanks to Prof. Kyna Hamill for bringing this to our attention!

Turns out Leaves of Grass has more editions than your textbook, and the only thing that stopped Walt Whitman from releasing more than nine was his death (probably).

Leaves of Grass (fifth edition). Frontispiece: W.J. Hennessey engraving. Washington: 1872

“The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” (Preface to Leaves of Grass, 1855 edition) Frontispiece: W.J. Hennessey engraving for the fifth edition. Washington: 1872

Unlike your textbook, however, each edition of Leaves of Grass introduced a variety of new content, including but not limited to: progressively older portraits of the author decorating the frontispiece, further works (the “deathbed” edition featured 400 poems compared to the initial 12) and the revisions of the old, and even altered typography and punctuation. (Interestingly, hearkening back to classical portraiture, Whitman opts for a younger version of himself in the final iteration of his magnum opus. Nonetheless, the Walt Whitman that we know and love today takes the form of an older, bearded gentleman wearing a wide-brimmed hat, thus proving that, despite our efforts, our legacy may not always go according to plan.)

As we know from past Core lectures, Whitman was his own greatest promoter. With the release of the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 came a number of anonymous newspaper reviews lauding the work–reviews that had been, in fact, written by the poet himself. Nonetheless, actual readers, among them popular newspaper columnist Fanny Fern, applauded the publication. But the praise was not undeserved. Whitman spent a great amount of time not only revising his poems over the years but also constructing the book itself. His deliberation in choosing typography and decorative motifs is most visible in the 1860 edition, published by Thayer and Eldridge here in Boston, in which he held more creative control than he had in past editions.

Read about more about the production and perfecting of Leaves of Grass over on the Library of Congress website here.

Post a Comment

Your email address is never shared. Required fields are marked *