Whitman in his Prime: Changing Portraits and the Narrative of History

Almost than three decades after his death, poor Walt was finally getting the credit he deserved.

Today, Walt Whitman is considered by many to be the quintessential American poet, especially for his collection of poetry, Leaves of Grass. Yet, he received only modest public praise in his lifetime. When Whitman first self-published Leaves of Grass in 1855, the only nod to the author was a picture of him on the cover plate. In fact, his actual name didn’t appear until 500 lines into the body of the text when he used his own name midway through “Song of Myself.”

But by the end of his life, Whitman was beginning to attract the admiration of poets and of a small section of the public—admiration that would later grow into a reputation of national prominence.

Walt Whitman, The Gathering of Forces (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1920). Image courtesy of the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

The book pictured here, published in 1920, shows this shift. The Gathering of Forces, which contains work written by Walt Whitman as the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Beagle from 1846 to 1847, has Walt Whitman’s gravestone on the cover plate. More importantly and in greatest contrast to the nameless photo found in early editions of Leaves of Grass, the first page has a photo of a dignified, older Whitman and an accompanying page carries the caption “Walt Whitman in his Prime.”

Here he is a distinguished, well-dressed gentlemen staring off into the distance thinking great thoughts. The portrait in early edition of Leaves of Grass in contrast shows Whitman as a younger man wearing no tie, with his hip cocked almost with attitude. The illustration itself is also much smaller, signaling to readers that this is an author who has not yet earned his stripes.

That Whitman, whose work at the time was considered coarse and too sexual and who struggled to get published for most of his life, could be rewritten in less than thirty years into someone who has a prime is somewhat astonishing. With this caption, the failing poet becomes an Olympic athlete. The Gathering of Forces, which also states that it is proud to be a limited edition, sheds light on the changing view of Whitman, but also shows us just how quickly the narrative of history can change.

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