Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, published in 1855, was quickly banned when the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice found the sensuality of the text disturbing. Caving to pressure, booksellers in New York, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania conceded to advising their patrons not to buy the “filthy” book.
Whitman spent his entire life writing Leaves of Grass, revising it in several editions until his death. Among the poems in the collection are “Song of Myself”, “I Sing the Body Electric”, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”, and in later editions, Whitman’s elegy to the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”. Though the first edition was published more than 160 years ago, the book has grown to become “must reading” in schools, universities and with lovers of poetry.
This book is notable for its discussion of delight in sensual pleasures during a time when such candid displays were considered immoral. Where much previous poetry, especially English, relied on symbolism, allegory, and meditation on the religious and spiritual, Leaves of Grass (particularly the first edition) exalted the body and the material world. Influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalist movement, itself an offshoot of Romanticism, Whitman’s poetry praises nature and the individual human’s role in it. However, much like Emerson, Whitman does not diminish the role of the mind or the spirit; rather, he elevates the human form and the human mind, deeming both worthy of poetic praise.
The first edition was very small, collecting only twelve unnamed poems in 95 pages. Whitman once said he intended the book to be small enough to be carried in a pocket. “That would tend to induce people to take me along with them and read me in the open air: I am nearly always successful with the reader in the open air.” About 800 were printed, though only 200 were bound in its trademark green cloth cover. The only American library known to have purchased a copy of the first edition was in Philadelphia.The poems of the first edition, which were given titles in later issues, were “Song of Myself,” “A Song For Occupations,” “To Think of Time,” “The Sleepers,” “I Sing the Body Electric,” “Faces,” “Song of the Answerer,” “Europe: The 72d and 73d Years of These States,” “A Boston Ballad,” “There Was a Child Went Forth,” “Who Learns My Lesson Complete?”, and “Great Are the Myths.”
From “I Sing the Body Electric”
The title Leaves of Grass was a pun. “Grass” was a term given by publishers to works of minor value and “leaves” is another name for the pages on which they were printed.
As 1891 came to a close, Whitman prepared a final edition of Leaves of Grass, writing to a friend upon its completion, “L. of G. at last complete—after 33 y’rs of hackling at it, all times & moods of my life, fair weather & foul, all parts of the land, and peace & war, young & old”. This last version of Leaves of Grass was published in 1892 and is referred to as the “deathbed edition”. In January 1892, two months before Whitman’s death, an announcement was published in the New YorkHerald:
Walt Whitman wishes respectfully to notify the public that the book Leaves of Grass, which he has been working on at great intervals and partially issued for the past thirty-five or forty years, is now completed, so to call it, and he would like this new 1892 edition to absolutely supersede all previous ones. Faulty as it is, he decides it as by far his special and entire self-chosen poetic utterance.
By the time this last edition was completed, Leaves of Grass had grown from a small book of 12 poems to a hefty tome of almost 400 poems. As the volume changed, so did the pictures that Whitman used to illustrate them—the last edition depicts an older Whitman with a full beard and jacket, appearing more sophisticated and wise.