September 08, 2014
Up and down Broadway, in and out of journalism, taken by daguerreotypes, transported by opera, gathering gathering gathering experience—but for what? By the early 1850s, Whitman began to feel what he later described as a “great pressure, pressure from within.” With his thirty-fifth birthday fast approaching, he grew pained by the notion that at the same age Shakespeare was “adjudged already to deserve a place among the great masters,” having by then written such plays as Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew, The Merchant of Venice, and Richard III.
Yet Whitman remained unsure where his area of mastery might lie. He’d tried such a variety of endeavors, yet failed to distinguish himself in any single one. By now, Whitman had drifted out of journalism, save for the occasional freelance piece. He was currently involved in building and flipping houses with about the same luck his father had managed. He’d even published a handful of poems, none of them memorable, none of them showing much originality or promise.
But a fresh pass at poetry yielded very different results. This time the ideas came pouring out of Whitman. He wrote in mad haste, seeking to capture what he called “the gush, the throb, the flood, of the moment—to put things down without deliberation.” Before long, he had covered myriad scraps of paper with scrawled fragments and half-formed notions. These he collected in an envelope. And then he set to the task of crafting this raw outflow into finished poems, a process as meticulous as what came before had been spontaneous. As Whitman put it, he “wrote, rewrote, and re-rewrote.”
By 1855—three years before he first showed up at Pfaff’s—Whitman had a collection ready. “Remember,” he would state many years later, “the book arose out of my life in Brooklyn and New York from 1838 to 1853, absorbing a million people, for fifteen years, with an intimacy, an eagerness, an abandon, probably never equaled.”
The title he chose, Leaves of Grass, was a treble entendre. On the one hand, leaves simply means “pages.” It was frequently used in 1850s book titles, such as Fanny Fern’s widely read Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio. As a veteran newspaperman, Whitman was also playing on grass as journalistic lingo for filler, articles that could be held for a slow news day. But he also meant his title to work on a more profound level, as an assertion that the whole of something and its parts are indivisible: grass consists of countless individual leaves, yet each is part of the whole.
Leaves of Grass was like no collection of poetry the world had ever seen. It consisted of twelve untitled poems, flowing inexplicably one into the next, propelled by lengthy, comma-less sequences and bursts of ellipses. Whitman mixed elevated language with slang such as tushes, blab, and foofoos (vain people). And he sprinkled in plenty of the day’s pseudoscience, things like electricity traveling via “instant conductors” from one person’s body to another.
Much about Leaves of Grass was groundbreaking. Whitman wrote the poems in free verse, a form for which he is acknowledged as the innovator. This was a complete departure from the rigid meter and rhyme of his contemporaries. Many of the poems also featured a kind of universal first person that shape-shifted and swung wildly through time and space. Sometimes I could be taken simply as Whitman, but this was an outlandishly fluid I that switched in an eye blink from male to female and with the greatest of ease assumed various identities: a slave, a witch being burned at the stake, a cholera sufferer, a clock.
With Leaves of Grass, Whitman laid out for himself an ambitious mandate: “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.” The techniques he employed—free verse, fondness for idiom, the universal I—were in service of trying to express the full nature of America. He was out to capture the country’s teeming, democratic vastness:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then. . . . I contradict myself;
I am large. . . . I contain multitudes.
Whitman chose to self-publish his collection, not unusual in that era. He hired the Rome brothers (Andrew, James, and Thomas), who ran a print shop in Brooklyn. The brothers’ only experience was with legal forms. Thus, Whitman’s poems were typeset in tiny ten-point letters on extra-large pages. The oversize work was bound and given a green cloth cover; the title, Leaves of Grass, was rendered so that the individual letters flowed together, sprouting roots and tendrils.
Because Whitman was paying to publish his own work, the first run was limited to 795 copies. He arranged to have his poetry collection sold, of all places, through the Phrenological Cabinet of Fowler & Wells. The books were available in the outfit’s New York, Boston, and Philadelphia locations. Otherwise, the work could be found at only a few other places, such as William Swayne’s bookstore on Fulton Street in Brooklyn.
Nevertheless, Whitman had massive hopes for Leaves of Grass. He envisioned the initial run selling out quickly. Money would keep flowing in, enough to fund the larger and then larger printings necessary to meet public demand. This was a time when poetry was a proven route to fame and fortune. Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha—published only a few months after Leaves of Grass—got off to a quick start, selling 30,000 copies during its first six months in print. Martin Farquhar Tupper, a wildly popular poet (yes, such a thing once existed), managed to sell 300,000 copies of his work Proverbial Philosophy. But the country wasn’t yet ready to absorb Walt Whitman. No reliable numbers exist for the first edition of Leaves of Grass, but according to the poet’s own bitter accounting, sales were minuscule.
It’s actually surprising—a tribute to how truly radical the work was—that it still managed to receive a handful of reviews. Most were not sympathetic. Putnam’s described Leaves of Grass as “a curious and lawless collection of poems…The introduction of terms, never before heard or seen, and of slang expressions, often renders an otherwise striking passage altogether laughable.” The Boston Intelligencer said of Whitman: “There is neither wit nor method in his disjointed babbling, and it seems to us he must be some escaped lunatic, raving in pitiable delirium.” Harsher still was a London publication called the Critic: “Walt Whitman is as unacquainted with art, as a hog is with mathematics. His poems—we must call them so for convenience—twelve in number, are innocent of rhythm and resemble nothing so much as the war-cry of the Red Indians.”
Whitman also sent copies of Leaves of Grass to various literary lions. Poet John Greenleaf Whittier delivered perhaps the most concise verdict. Supposedly, he hurled Whitman’s book into the fireplace.
A copy also went to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Back in the 1830s, Emerson had emerged as the leading light of transcendentalism, the profoundly influential movement centered in New England and dedicated to such precepts as the infinite potential of humankind and the need for self-reliance. Arguably, Emerson remained the arbiter of literary taste in America. He had a very different response to Whitman’s work than the critics. On July 21, 1855, Emerson wrote Whitman a five-page letter that contained the following: “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 find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be.” And the kicker: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.”
JUSTIN MARTIN is the author of Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted, Greenspan: The Man Behind Money and Nader: Crusader, Spoiler, Icon. Martin is a former staff writer at Fortune magazine. His articles have appeared in various magazines such as Newsweek, Money, and Conde Nast Traveler. He lives in Forest Hills Gardens, New York.
Excerpted from Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians by Justin Martin. Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Press.