When Leaves Were Only Just Budding: A Picture of Early Whitman

There is no denying that Walt Whitman embodies the spirit of America with his  bold  and individualistic poetry. Whether you find him egotistical and brash or brave and confident, cocky or self-assured, his presentation of his works and himself is undeniably American. Although perhaps not fully appreciated in his time by the general public (probably due to the perception of his poetry as sexual and coarse), he never waivered in his outspoken believe that he was THE Great American Poet.

Famous for revising his pieces throughout his life and leaving behind multiple editions of the same poems, his first book, Leaves of Grass, was published independently in 1855. Although the content of the poem is undoubtedly different from later incarnation, text is not the only difference from later works worth noting. The frontispiece portrait of Whitman in this original edition is strikingly different than the image of him we are now used to.

Frontispiece portrait from Leaves of Grass 1855 (Brooklyn, New York).Image courtesy of the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University

Typically depicted as a wise-looking older man, well dressed with a large beard; this picture of shows a much younger Whitman. Instead of his usual contemplative stare, we see him slouching, one hand in pocket one hand on hip. Additionally, the image is small, especially as compared to the entire page, probably because he printed the engravings himself and could not afford or didn’t have the equipment for a larger image.

A more traditional portrait of Whitman, courtesy of Wikipedia

This small, unusually casual picture of Whitman depicts him not as an academic or a scholar, but as an average American. Perhaps later in life he grew to imagine himself as an intellectual, but this picture is representative of his roots, and suggests how he imagined himself in this early work. The book is thin, lacks a table of contents and the poems inside are jumbled, in need of revision. This is a picture of a man with much work left to do. This is the early Whitman, and when we see this image and read this original version of Leaves of Grass, we are reminded of that. Just as the man in the image has much growth and change ahead of him,so does his poetry. Much like the leaves of grass for which his work is named, Walt Whitman never stops growing.

For more information about the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, see The Walt Whitman Archive. 


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