Walt Whitman and the Development of Leaves of Grass

Introduction | Island 1 | Island 2 | Island 3 | Island 4

Island 1: Beginnings

Whitman was born May 31, 1819, and spent his first few years on his family's farm in West Hills, Long Island, the second of eight children. When he was four, the family moved to Brooklyn where Whitman would receive all his formal education. By the age of twelve he had left school and begun an apprenticeship in the printing office of the Long Island Patriot, later moving to the Long Island Star. After trying his hand at teaching, Whitman returned to journalism with the founding of the weekly Long Islander in 1838. This folded a year later, and, after a brief stint as a writer for another paper, Whitman returned to teaching.

Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate: A Tale of the Times (1842)
Myerson A 1.1, binding A

In 1841 Whitman moved to Manhattan where he worked in the printing office of Park Benjamin's popular New World. During this time he began placing poems and prose in the influential Democratic Review. By 1842, Benjamin was soliciting a novel from Whitman for his magazine's popular "Books for the People" series. In November of that year Whitman's first separately published work,Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate: A Tale of the Timesappeared. Advertisements hailed Whitman as "one of the best Novelists in this country." The temperance novel was so contrived and melodramatic, however, that, in later life, Whitman seemed embarrassed by it, going so far as to tell Horace Traubel that it had been written under the influence of alcohol. Ironically, it was Whitman's best selling work during his lifetime.

Over the next few years, Whitman would take a number of positions at Manhattan newspapters, all the while publishing occasional poems and stories. After returning to Brooklyn in 1845, Whitman became editor of the Daily Eagle a year later, holding the position for nearly two years. In 1848 he moved to New Orleans, writing for that city's Crescent, but soon returned to Brooklyn where he founded the Free Soil newspaperFreeman. After resigning the editorship a year later, Whitman wrote for the New York Sunday Dispatch before briefly assuming the editorship of the Daily News. By 1851 he had suspended his formal relationship with journalism, contributing only occasional articles to various papers for the next few years while working as a carpenter in Brooklyn.

Leaves of Grass (Brooklyn, 1855)
Myerson A 2.1.a1

Between 1851 and 1854, Whitman worked on developing his free verse style, issuing his efforts in July of 1855. One of the most strikingly unique books in American publishing history, the first edition of Leaves of Grass was self-published. Although the printing has generally been taken as strictly a professional transaction between Whitman and the Rome brothers (the printers), family tradition, passed down with this copy of the book, has it that the Romes agreed to print Whitman's poems as an act of friendship and of respect for his poetry. Whitman himself  assisted the printers in setting the type.

The book's unusual physical characteristics, combined with Whitman's use of a frontispiece portrait (see the image at the top of this page) in place of his name, helped create a mysterious aura about it. The only mention of the poet is found in the copyright notice and in one line from the first of the book's twelve untitled poems (after 1881 called "Song of Myself"):

In the preface to this edition Whitman called for a national literature, claiming that Americans "have probably the fullest poetic nature" of all the people of the world and that "The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem."

In addition to "Song of Myself," the first edition is comprised of the poems later titled "A Song for Occupations," "To Think of Time," "The Sleepers," "I Sing the Body Electric," "Faces," "The Song of the Answerer," "Europe: The 72nd and 73rd Years of These States," "There was a Child Went Forth," "Who Learns My Lessons Complete," and "Great are the Myths."

This particular copy was originally owned by Thomas Rome, one of the printers of the edition. It was the one millionth volume acquired by the University Libraries, donated by Mr. and Mrs. James W. Haltiwanger and Mr. and Mrs. Charles Haltiwanger in memory of James W. Haltiwanger, Sr.

Leaves of Grass (Brooklyn, 1856)
Myerson A 2.2

The second edition includes thirty-two poems, now with titles, including such significant additions as "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," "Song of the Open Road," and "By Blue Ontario's Shore," the last partially composed of lines from the first edition's preface. There is also a forty-two-page appendix of first edition reviews entitled "Leaves Droppings." The focal point of "Leaves Droppings" is a laudatory letter of thanks from Ralph Waldo Emerson which Whitman received in return for a complimentary copy of the first edition. Whitman used the letter as an endorsement without Emerson's permission, going so far as to quote it on the spine of this edition. Emerson's immediate reaction to Whitman's promotional tactics is unknown, but, considering the book's stormy public reception, it is unlikely that he would have been pleased.

Leaves of Grass was thought well of not only by Emerson but also by Bronson Alcott and Henry David Thoreau, who visited Whitman in Brooklyn in 1856. Their admiration, though, was not insufficient to find a publisher for the third edition. Whitman returned to journalism, taking up the editorship of the BrooklynDaily Times in 1857. Two years would pass before he would leave the position and turn once again to composing poems for his anticipated third edition.

Leaves of Grass (Boston: Thayer and Eldridge; London: Trübner, 1860-61)
Myerson A 2.3.a2

The young, progressive Boston publishing firm of Thayer & Eldridge was eager to be associated with Whitman and brought out the third edition in 1860. The first printing of 1000 copies sold quickly, and Whitman planned to publish a follow-up volume, Banner at Day-Break. However, his good fortune ran out when Thayer & Eldridge went bankrupt in December of 1860. To Whitman's dismay, the third edition's plates were sold at auction and eventually fell into the hands of Richard Worthington's New York publishing firm. Worthington continued to reprint the book for a number of years without the author's permission.

The third edition, considered by many critics to be the most successful, is remarkable for its inclusion of 122 additional poems. Most significant of these are the 45 poems in the "Calamus" cluster, a series based on themes of love, friendship, and homoeroticism. Also of note are "Starting from Paumanok" and "A Child's Reminiscence" (more commonly known by its first line "Out of Cradle Endlessly Rocking").

The original exhibit included one of three known copies from a small British issue of the edition; it is comprised of American sheets with a pasted label on the title page. The copy is part of the collection of Joel Myerson.

Leaves of Grass Imprints. American and European Criticism of Leaves of Grass (Boston: Thayer and Eldridge, 1860)
Myerson D 4

This small advertising pamphlet for the third edition reprinted a number of critical responses to the first and second editions ofLeaves of Grass, and a few of the anonymous reviews were actually written by Whitman himself. Due to its slight size and construction, this item is exceptionally rare today.


Introduction | Island 1 | Island 2 | Island 3 | Island 4

Columbia Departments Campus Libraries
Columbia Libraries and Collections