American Icons: Leaves of Grass

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This is the poem that taught America to sing itself.

Leaves of Grass Walt Whitman American Icons Studio 360

 A consummate patriot, Walt Whitman set out to invent a radically new form of poetry for a new nation. His book was first viewed as bizarre and obscene — one reviewer said that the author should be publicly flogged. But revising and adding to the book until his death, Whitman accomplished his goal, creating a new Bible for American poets. Poet Matt Miller reveals a secret to the making of this unprecedented work.

 

 

Slideshow: The changing editions of Leaves of Grass 

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The portrait of Whitman that appeared in the first edition of Leaves of Grass. This is a steel engraving of the original daguerreotype (which has since been lost).

( Courtesy of Ohio Wesleyan University Libraries, Special Collections. )

Even before publishing poetry, Whitman was a prolific writer. He wrote prose, notes, and even scribbled in the margins of books — and it was this writing that was cut and scrambled and collaged into what later became Leaves of Grass. Here you can see how Whitman cut and pasted lines of text, rearranging them into poetry.

( Courtesy Walt Whitman House, Camden, NJ )

The cover of the first edition of Leaves of Grass from 1855. The embossed fabric and fine embroidery are more detailed than all later editions. Only 200 books of the first edition were bound in green cloth.

( Public Domain (The Walt Whitman Archive) )

The delicate stitching on the cover of Whitman's self-published collection of poems. 

( Public Domain (The Walt Whitman Archive) )

The simple title page of the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass. The first edition had close to 100 pages.

( Public Domain (The Walt Whitman Archive) )

The first edition of Leaves of Grass held only twelve poems, including what would later be titled "Song of Myself." In this 1855 edition the poem appears at the beginning of the book.

( Public Domain (The Walt Whitman Archive) )

Only a year later, Whitman simplifed the text treatment but kept the famous green cover. The Leaves of Grass published in 1856 expanded dramatically to 384 pages.

( Public Domain (The Walt Whitman Archive) )

In the 1856 edition, "Song of Myself" appears as the first poem in the book.

( Public Domain (The Walt Whitman Archive) )

By 1860 Whitman had decided to try another color scheme, and the following editions include covers in warmer colors. This is the last edition to include detailed embossing on the cover.

( Courtesy of University of Virginia Library )

The 1860 edition had a title page that mirrored its front cover. This is the most decorative title page compared to the editions Whitman later published. 

( Courtesy of University of Virginia Library )

Whitman began numbering stanzas in the 1860 edition. He also chose to begin the collection with another poem, and moved "Song of Myself" further back to page 23.

( Courtesy of University of Virginia Library )

"Song of Myself" appears in 1867 much as it does in 1860, on a page with no decorative treatments.

( Public Domain (The Walt Whitman Archive) )

"Song of Myself" in the 1871 edition.

( Public Domain (The Walt Whitman Archive) )

Whitman finally gives a title to his poem in the 1881 edition.

( Public Domain (The Walt Whitman Archive) )

Whitman's final 1891 edition returned to the green cover, but was plain and unadorned.

( Courtesy of University of Virginia Library )

After 1860, the title pages of later editions remained simple. For Whitman's final printing of Leaves of Grass in 1891, he returned to a more creative layout (above). By this time, Leaves of Grass had grown even longer, finishing with a length of 438 pages.

( Courtesy of University of Virginia Library )

"Song of Myself" in the so-called "deathbed edition," the final printing of Leaves of Grass in Whitman's lifetime. 

( Courtesy of University of Virginia Library )

Darrel Blaine Ford, a Whitman "personator," at the 10th Annual marathon reading of Song of Myself. He was the last reader in the marathon. In our hour, you can hear him reading the "barbaric yawp" line. 

( Sean Cole )

Poet Martin Espada, another reader at the "Song of Myself" marathon.

( Sean Cole )

Whitman's poem "The Wound Dresser" is carved into the Dupont Circle entrace to the Washington, D.C. metro.

( Kate Mereand-Sinha )

A detail from Whitman's "The Wound Dresser" at Dupont Circle.

( Sean Cole )

A view from the top of the escalator at Dupont Circle.

( Dominic Campbell )

Another view of "The Wound Dresser."

( Sean Cole )
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