American Icons: Leaves of Grass

Feature

Friday, September 27, 2013

Leaves of Grass Walt Whitman American Icons Studio 360

This is the poem that taught America to sing itself.

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 

Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass American Icons Studio 360

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 Walt Whitman House, Camden, NJ

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.

Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass American Icons Studio 360

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.

Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass American Icons Studio 360

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

Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass American Icons Studio 360

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

Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass American Icons Studio 360

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.

Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass American Icons Studio 360

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.

Song of Myself Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass American Icons Studio 360

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

Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass American Icons Studio 360

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.

Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass American Icons Studio 360

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. 

Song of Myself Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass American Icons Studio 360

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.

Song of Myself Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass American Icons Studio 360

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

Song of Myself Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass American Icons Studio 360

"Song of Myself" in the 1871 edition.

Song of Myself Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass American Icons Studio 360

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

Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass American Icons Studio 360

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

Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass American Icons Studio 360

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.

Song of Myself Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass American Icons Studio 360

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

Walt Whitman Song of Myself Leaves of Grass American Icons Studio 360
Sean Cole

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. 

Walt Whitman Song of Myself Leaves of Grass American Icons Studio 360
Sean Cole

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

Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass American Icons Studio 360

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

Walt Whitman The Wound Dresser Leaves of Grass American Icons Studio 360
Sean Cole

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

Walt Whitman The Wound Dresser Leaves of Grass American Icons Studio 360

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

Walt Whitman The Wound Dresser Leaves of Grass American Icons Studio 360
Sean Cole

Another view of "The Wound Dresser."

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Guests:

Betsy Erkkila, Martin Espada, T. Hunter Wilson, Matt Miller and Ken Price

Produced by:

Sean Cole

Editors:

David Krasnow

Comments [9]

Sean Cole

Km from Everywhere,

Firstly, thank you so much for listening and for your comment. I don't tend to comment on comments unless there's a factual issue at hand. Inventing a new form of poetry is precisely what Whitman set out to do. It was not his only aim, but it was an aim. This is evident in both the preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass, and his later essay "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads" which I reference at the end of the piece.

Yours sincerely,

-- Sean Cole.

Oct. 15 2013 01:17 PM
Peter Max Lawrence from San Francisco

I agree that Leaves of Grass deserves a full hour and part of that hour should include Daniel Redman:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xakKaeaeTo8

http://petermaxlawrence.com/Archive/Art/2012/WTW/WTW_index.html

Oct. 14 2013 04:37 PM
Km from Everywhere

Whitman did not set out to invent a new form of poetry. That's absurd. He sailed in to the abyss and grace found him. Patriot, well that's a matter of definition- but what does it matter. If you want to know Whitman, read those leaves of grass ... regularly. It will sink in even if you aren't aware of it. What do you have to lose?

Oct. 06 2013 06:21 AM
Marianne from France

I agree with you Sally Cox That is difficult, today, to keep poetry alive in our world. In the USA, you have so wonderful poets but as you said their words are too much a thing of the past. On a desert Island I would take with me Emerson, Walt Whitman and H.D Thoreau... I apologize for my english !!!

Oct. 04 2013 11:55 AM
Chad from New York, NY

I enjoyed this segment but Walt Whitman and Leaves of Grass deserves a full hour program.

Oct. 03 2013 08:58 AM
Sally Cox from Texas


I am pleasantly surprised that a poet was chosen as one of your "American Icons". I had a professor who stated with all sincerity that "poetry was the highest form of literature". Indeed, poetry says things in ways that prose cannot. I worry a bit that our American poets have been forgotten and that their beautiful works are too much a thing of the past. Truthfully, I would like for an American poet to be a regular choice as you choose your list of Icons. Robert Frost for sure, but let's not forget James Whitcomb Riley, Carl Sandburg, Edna St.Vincent Millay, Sara Teasdale, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, William Cullen Bryant, Billy Collins (a living icon), Ralph Waldo Emerson, Eugene Field, Joyce Kilmer (male), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier... With your help and attention, we can keep poetry alive.

Sep. 29 2013 11:42 PM
Chadwick from Brooklyn, NY

Dupont Circle is the historic gay neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and the Whitman quote on the Metro Station wall is dedicated to those who helped the dying during the AIDS crisis. Would have made a lovely addition to the story if this had been mentioned.

Sep. 28 2013 05:05 PM
GregorSamsa from Washington Heights

Thank you!

Sep. 28 2013 04:53 PM
Brooke from Brooklyn

This segment is spectacular.

Sep. 27 2013 10:16 AM

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