Sneaking a Peak at the Walt Whitman Exhibit

The many editions of Leaves of Grass, many of which were published in short succession, makes us wonder why dear old Walt found it necessary to obsessively issue and reissue his poems.  Most likely, we’ll never find a satisfactory answer, but the six (or eight, if you think the 1871 and 1872 editions are separate entities, and if you believe the annexed “deathbed edition” is different from the 1881-1882 edition) editions that he left behind give us incredibly valuable insight into the evolution of his process.  While all six editions are useful in tracking this change, I chose to focus on the first edition published in 1855, and the third edition published in 1860.

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The first (1) object I chose to examine for our eventual Omeka exhibit was the title page of the 1855 Leaves of Grass.  It’s aesthetic is quite plain and simple – much like the verse Whitman was advocating in his 1855 preface when he says “The poetic quality is not marshalled in rhyme or uniformity or abstract addresses to things nor in melancholy complaints or good precepts, but is the life of these and much else and is in the soul” (pg v).  Also interesting to note is the publishing information located at the bottom of that page.  Whitman self-published the first edition of Leaves of Grass and as such, the page simply reads “Brooklyn, New York: 1855.”

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The second object (2) I was interested in the first page of Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” which at this point does not have a title.  Because 1855’s edition contains only twelve poems, Whitman did not (apparently) feel the need to include a title page; he chooses instead to jump straight into his poetry.  The main text of his book of poetry begins with a preface, not shown, then simply declares “Leaves of Grass” at the top of the page and proceeds to give us the first line of the poem, “I celebrate myself.”  The 1855 edition lacks the “clusters” or organizing groupings that will come in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass.

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For my third (3) object, I moved on to the third edition of Leaves of Grass.  This edition is fascinating because not only have 166 poems been added since its original publication in 1855, but it also marks the transition from Whitman as publisher to Thayer and Eldridge as publisher.  The title page tells us that Thayer and Eldridge published this edition in Boston, in “Year 85 of the States (1860-1861).  This edition holds the first publication of Whitman’s controversial “Enfans d’Adam” (Children of Adam) poems in which he discusses, quite explicitly, the joys of homosexuality.  Ed Folsom argues that the squiggly lines emerging from the word “Grass” in the title resemble sperm and refer to lines like “love-flesh swelling and deliciously aching, / Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous, quivering jelly of love, white-blow and delirious juice, / Bridegroom-night of love, working surely and softly into the prostrate dawn. . . .”

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My fourth (4) object was the first page of the table of contents for the 1860 edition (there are two pages total).  It is interesting to see the enumeration of poems that Whitman has included in this edition, and to see how his own proliferation has necessitated structural additions such as a title page.  In a mere five years, Whitman managed to completely revamp Leaves of Grass, though how much of it is of his own volition and how much is at the urging of a true publisher is unknown.  Certainly the advent of a table of contents makes Leaves of Grass much more organized and much easier to read.

My fifth (5) and final object is a comparison of the spines of the 1855 Leaves of Grass with the 1860 Leaves of Grass.  I found it extremely interesting to simply look at the difference in page numbers.  Though the 1855 edition is much longer and wider, thus contributing to its relatively low page count, the number of pages in the 1856 edition is much higher by virtue of the number of poems contained within.


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