Little Bits of History

The Mona Lisa of Poetry

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 4, 2014
Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

July 4, 1855: Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman is published – for the first time. The first time the book saw print there were only twelve poems included. However, the author kept revising and adding poems until his death thirty-seven years later. The poems are loosely connected and reflect the author’s philosophy of life and his view of humanity. His discussion of sensual pleasures was unique at the time and some of his writing was considered immoral. Much of his work was a product of the times and relied on the use of symbolism, allegory, and use of the religious or spiritual realms. This first edition was a paean of praise to the body and the material world. It praises nature and our place in it while still placing emphasis on the mind and spirit.

Whitman was heavily influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson, especially moved by his 1844 essay entitled The Poet. Emerson believed the US needed a local poet to express the country’s virtues and vices. After reading the essay, Whitman decided to answer Emerson’s questions by producing Leaves of Grass. He registered the title with the US District Court, Southern District of New Jersey on May 15, 1855 and received his copyright. The book was published in Brooklyn in a small shop on Fulton Street, a printing shop run by two Scottish immigrants – James and Andrew Rome. They were friends of Whitman and allowed him to do much of the typesetting himself. The first edition did not include the author’s name, but instead had an engraving by Samuel Hollyer of the author dressed in work clothes.

The 95-page book containing twelve poems was small and Whitman said he had intended it to be carried in a pocket if one wished. There were 800 printed but only 200 were bound in the trademark green cloth cover. The only known library to have purchased a copy of the first edition was in Philadelphia. Whitman sent a copy to Emerson who enjoyed the book and gave it great praise. There were several later editions and the number depends on where a scholar distinguishes the difference between issues and editions. Emerson’s high praise helped Whitman to quickly write more poems and expand the second edition which came out in 1856 and had 384 pages (and cost a dollar). That would be nearly $28 today.

The 1860 edition was published by Thayer and Eldridge who went bankrupt shortly thereafter and couldn’t pay the author and a second house took over publication. The 1867 edition was what Whitman thought would be his last revision and again there were issues, but this time with the bookbinder going out of business. Even with this, another edition came out in 1871-72, yet another in 1881, and there was the deathbed editions published in 1891-92. He once again (this time correctly) called the book finished. Each successive book had a different picture of the author and by the end, he was depicted as older, wiser, and dressed in jacket and looking more sophisticated.

Keep your face always toward the sunshine – and shadows will fall behind you.

I no doubt deserved my enemies, but I don’t believe I deserved my friends.

I have learned that to be with those I like is enough.

Re-examine all that you have been told… dismiss that which insults your soul. – all from Walt Whitman

Also on this day: I’m Late! I’m Late! – In 1862, Alice Liddell hears a funny story.
Tuskegee – In 1881, Tuskegee Institute opened.
International Date Line – In 1892, Samoa adjusts the International Date Line.
Clinton’s Ditch – In 1817, construction on the Erie Canal began.


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