When Walt Whitman published his first edition of Leaves of Grass on or around the fourth day of July in 1855, he believed he was embarking on a personal literary journey of national significance. Setting out to define the American experience, Whitman consciously hoped to answer Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1843 essay, "The Poet," which called for a truly original national poet, one who would sing of the new country in a new voice. The undertaking required unlimited optimism, especially considering the fact that Whitman had published only a small handful of poems prior to 1855; however, Whitman felt confident that the time was ripe and that the people would embrace him. This optimism and confidence resulted largely from his awareness of the tremendous changes in the American literary world that had taken place during his lifetime.
At the time of Whitman's birth in 1819, the Constitution and the democratic ideas upon which this country was founded were only a generation old; America was a land of seemingly unlimited space, resources, and possibilities, yet a land with no cultural roots to call its own. In 1820, a year after Whitman's birth, Sydney Smith of Britain's Edinburgh Review was prompted to ask, "In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?" But the period between Smith's remark and the publication of Whitman's first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 was one of remarkable and unprecedented change in America, particularly in the world of books.
By 1855, America could boast one of the world's largest and most advanced publishing industries, producing distinctly "American" books by authors such as Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Stowe, Fuller, Thoreau, and Emerson. The amazing growth of American literature and of the supporting publishing industry was the result of a self-conscious effort by authors and publishers to establish for America a literary culture of its own. The resulting increase in, or rather the sudden appearance of, authorship in this country was made possible only through American ingenuity, innovation, and technology in publishing. In short, the advent of modern publishing practices during this period brought books to the people in heretofore unimaginable numbers, spawning as a result one of the greatest periods in the history of American literature.
Working as a printer, editor, jounalist, and publisher during the years of the publishing industry's phenomenal growth, Whitman became keenly aware that the tools necessary for his emergence as the new, democratic poet were at his disposal. He believed he could bring poetry to the common people, and with the publication of his 1855 Leaves of Grass, he assumed for himself the role of the American Poet, referring to himself as "one of the roughs," a common man. Whitman carefully continued to cultivate his literary personality throughout his career, especially through the relatively new field of photography. As he revised and enlarged Leaves of Grass (8 editions and numerous printings would appear between 1855 and 1891), Whitman's goal as the self-styled national poet became more clearly defined. Leaves of Grass is essentially a poem in process, with each succeeding edition representing a unique period in the poet's life as well as the nation's. This is perhaps best illustrated by Whitman's Civil War poetry. Originally published in 1865 as a separate volume entitled Drum Taps, these poems were later integrated intoLeaves of Grass, growing in importance in the book as the war's historical significance became clearer in Whitman's mind. He would eventually claim that Leaves of Grass "revolves around that four year's war, which, as I was in the midst of it, becomes, in "Drum-Taps," pivotal to the rest entire."
Today, more than a century after the publication of the final edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman's place in American literary history often seems as nebulous and enigmatic as the ideas upon which America was founded. Numerous poets since Whitman have consciously either placed themselves in the wake of his tradition or reacted violently against him, and the aesthetic value of Whitman's poetry continues to be a controversial subject. The intention of this exhibit is not to make a critical appraisal of Whitman's work; instead, it is hoped that the materials assembled here will help explain the phenomenon which was Walt Whitman. While the subject matter and themes present in Whitman's poetry reflect the historical attitudes and concerns of his day, the books themselves are also artifacts of a fascination and extremely dynamic period of American publishing history.
The original exhibition and catalogue greatly benefited from the advice of Professors Joel Myerson and Ezra Greenspan of the University of South Carolina's Department of English. Special thanks must also go to Mrs. Davy-Jo Ridge, who, during her tenure as Associate Director of Libraries, began the Whitman collection with the purchase of the first edition of Leaves of Grass as Thomas Cooper Library's one millionth volume.
Bibliographic information given in the following pages refers to entries in Dr. Myerson's Walt Whitman: A Descriptive Bibliography (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburg Press, 1992). These numbers will follow annotations, and a typical entry may read as follows: "A 2.1a2."
This virtual exhibit has been grouped into islands of material. To go to an island, simply click on one of the following links. While on an island page, click on the thumbnail pictures to see larger versions of those images.