Leaves of Grass | Study Guide

Walt Whitman

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Leaves of Grass | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass is a celebrated collection of poems written by one of the United States' quintessential poetic voices. Leaves of Grass was first published in 1855, though Whitman continued to add to the collection, with the final edition during his lifetime published in 1892. While Whitman's poems such as "O Captain! My Captain!" and "I Sing the Body Electric" are considered archetypal works of the American experience, other, more explicit poems, such as "A Woman Waits for Me," caused scandals because of their sexual content. As a result Leaves of Grass received both enthusiastic praise and harsh condemnation from Whitman's contemporaries and critics throughout his life. Today Leaves of Grass is a standard of American poetry, and it is read and studied widely for its summation of an era in American history and thought.

1. Whitman expanded Leaves of Grass over his lifetime, adding hundreds of poems to later editions.

When Leaves of Grass was published in 1855, it was a slim volume consisting of only 12 poems. Over the next 36 years, Whitman produced more and more editions of Leaves of Grass, culminating in a final 1892 volume of more than 400 poems. Some of Whitman's most famous works did not appear in the early editions—including his tribute to Abraham Lincoln, "O Captain! My Captain!" which wasn't included until the fourth edition in 1867.

2. Whitman's final version of Leaves of Grass is called the "deathbed edition."

By the time Whitman had finally expanded Leaves of Grass to include a full set of 400 poems, he was very ill, still crippled by a stroke from years earlier. His final edition of Leaves of Grass is referred to by scholars as the "deathbed edition" because at the time of its copyright in 1891 and publication in 1892, Whitman was bedridden and on the verge of death. The final volume was composed rather hastily, since Whitman wanted to see a full copy of the text before his passing. Whitman described the end of his life as "Bad days & nights with me, no hour without its suffering." When finally handed a copy of his "deathbed edition" of Leaves of Grass, he wrote:

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—the wonder to me that I have carried it on to accomplish as essentially as it is, tho' I see well enough its numerous deficiencies & faults.

3. Leaves of Grass got Whitman fired from his job.

Many of Whitman's contemporaries found Leaves of Grass quite offensive, since the somewhat sexually explicit nature of many of the poems clashed with the uptight moral American culture of the 19th century. Whitman was fired from his job as a clerk at the Department of the Interior after the publication of Leaves of Grass. Other notable figures of the era spoke out against Whitman's poems, including the author and minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who proclaimed:

It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.

4. One newspaper reviewer advised Whitman to commit suicide for writing Leaves of Grass.

Many early reviews of Leaves of Grass also claimed that the work was utterly offensive and in bad taste. An 1860 review in The New York Saturday Press read:

I would offer neither to The Press, nor its readers, the offence of spreading before them even the daintiest lines those pages of filth contain ... If Walt has left within him any charity, will he not now rid the taught and disgusted world of himself? ... Let him do this act of reparation, and the world may kindly extend to him the charity of forgetfulness—the highest boon it now can bestow.

Another critic took an even harsher stance, stating bluntly that Leaves of Grass was "a mass of stupid filth," referring to Whitman as having "the soul of a sentimental donkey that had died of disappointed love."

5. Leaves of Grass was banned in Boston—which helped sales.

The criticism and outrage that Leaves of Grass attracted upon publication eventually led to the volume being banned. An 1881 edition published in Boston was banned, particularly due to the poem "To a Common Prostitute," which caused a stir in the community. This actually led to an increase in sales as periodicals quickly bought up excerpts of Whitman's poems to publish, and the ban was overturned in court two years later. Throughout the controversy, Whitman took a firm stance against censorship of Leaves of Grass, rejecting most proposals for cuts or substitutions made by the publisher.

6. President Bill Clinton gave Monica Lewinsky a copy of Leaves of Grass as a gift.

Before the notorious 1998 scandal that led to President Bill Clinton's impeachment, Clinton presented White House intern Monica Lewinsky with a copy of Whitman's Leaves of Grass as a gift. Clinton shared the volume with Lewinsky in 1997, during what the president later described as an "inappropriate relationship" between the two.

7. Mark Twain defended Whitman during the controversy over Leaves of Grass.

During the 1881 controversy in Boston over Leaves of Grass, Whitman received the support of famous American author Samuel Clemens, who wrote under the pseudonym Mark Twain. Twain and Whitman shared the same Boston publisher, and Twain was intrigued by what was considered so inappropriate about Whitman's work. Finding nothing he considered offensive, Twain noted that Leaves of Grass contained nothing more explicit than other works that had already earned a beloved spot in the canon of American literature. Later in the 1880s Twain donated money to the aging and infirm Whitman to improve his quality of life. In contrast, Whitman's comments about Twain were lukewarm at best, stating:

I think he mainly misses fire: I think his life misses fire: he might have been something: he comes near to being something: but he never arrives ... I have always regarded him as friendly, but not warm: not exactly against me: not for me either.

8. Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass in response to a "challenge" from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Whitman was very familiar with the work of American transcendentalist philosopher and author Ralph Waldo Emerson, who stated in his 1844 essay "The Poet" that America needed its own distinctive poetic voice. Whitman took this as a challenge and attempted to fulfill this obligation with Leaves of Grass. Whitman sent Emerson a copy of the volume immediately after its publication in 1855. Emerson was thrilled to read Whitman's work, and responded:

I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy ... I give you joy of your free and brave thought ... It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging.

9. Whitman originally intended for Leaves of Grass to be small enough to fit in the reader's pocket.

Whitman's first edition of Leaves of Grass only contained 12 poems, and as a result it was a very slim volume. Although the collection would grow exponentially in subsequent editions, Whitman originally intended for the volume to be able to fit in the reader's pocket. Whitman explained his motives, claiming:

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.

10. Whitman's bankrupt publisher couldn't afford to pay him royalties for Leaves of Grass.

An 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass was published by Thayer and Eldridge, a company that went bankrupt shortly after releasing the volume. When Whitman inquired about royalty payments, he received the reply:

In regard to money matters, we are very short ourselves and it is quite impossible to send the sum you name.

The Boston publisher Horace Wentworth—whom American author and publisher William Thayer had called "my bitter and relentless enemy"—acquired the rights to the 1860 edition after Thayer's bankruptcy.

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