Leaves of Grass

walt whitman

Leaves of Grass is a collection of poetry by Walt Whitman praising sensuality, the material world, nature, and the experience of the senses. The book was published at Whitman’s own expense in 1855, a period where poetry focused on the soul and organized religion, and was a failure at first. Whitman spent most of his professional life writing and rewriting the book, revising it multiple times until his death. This resulted in vastly different editions over four decades—the first a small book of twelve poems and the last a compilation of over 400.

The collection is notable for its discussion of delight in carnal 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 physical form and ephemera. Influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalist movement, itself an offshoot of Romanticism, Whitman’s poetry praises nature and the individual’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 mind, deeming both worthy of poetic praise.

‘Leaves of Grass’ has its genesis in an essay called ‘The Poet’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson, published in 1844, which expressed the need for the United States to have its own new and unique poet to write about the new country’s virtues and vices. Whitman, reading the essay, consciously set out to answer Emerson’s call as he began work on the first edition of his collection. Whitman, however, downplayed Emerson’s influence, stating, ‘I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil.’ 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. Whitman sent a copy of the first edition to Emerson, the man who had inspired its creation. Emerson said ‘I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed.’ He went on, ‘I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy.’

Particularly in ‘Song of Myself,’ Whitman emphasized an all-powerful ‘I’ who serves as narrator. The ‘I’ tries to relieve both social and private problems by using powerful affirmative cultural images. The emphasis on American culture helped reach Whitman’s intention of creating a distinctly American epic poem comparable to the works of Homer. Originally written at a time of significant urbanization in America, ‘Leaves of Grass’ responds to the impact urbanization has on the masses. However, the title metaphor of grass indicates a pastoral vision of rural idealism.

When the book was first published, Whitman was fired from his job at the Department of the Interior after Secretary of the Interior James Harlan read it and said he found it offensive. Poet John Greenleaf Whittier was said to have thrown his 1855 edition into the fire. Critic Rufus Wilmot Griswold called it ‘a mass of stupid filth’ and categorized its author as a filthy free lover. Griswold also suggested, in Latin, that Whitman was guilty of ‘that horrible sin not to be mentioned among Christians,’ one of the earliest public accusations of his homosexuality. Griswold’s intensely negative review almost caused the publication of the second edition to be suspended. Whitman included the full review, including the innuendo, in a later edition.

An early review of the first publication focused on the persona of the anonymous poet, calling him a loafer ‘with a certain air of mild defiance, and an expression of pensive insolence on his face.’ Another reviewer viewed the work as an odd attempt at reviving old Transcendental thoughts, ‘the speculations of that school of thought which culminated at Boston fifteen or eighteen years ago.’ Emerson approved of the work in part because he considered it a means of reviving Transcendentalism, though even he urged Whitman to tone down the sexual imagery in 1860. In 1882, a Boston district attorney attempted to censor several poems from the collection, including ‘A Woman Waits for Me,’ and ‘To a Common Prostitute,’ ‘I Sing the Body Electric.’ Whitman categorically rejected censorship, but his publisher refused to reprint the book without the changes so he changed publishers, believing the controversy would increase sales, which proved true. Though banned by retailers like Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia, this version went through five editions of 1,000 copies each. Each sold out in one day.

Not all responses were negative, however. Critic William Michael Rossetti considered ‘Leaves of Grass’ a classic along the lines of the works of William Shakespeare and Dante Alighieri. A woman from Connecticut named Susan Garnet Smith wrote to Whitman to profess her love for him after reading the poems and even offered him her womb should he want a child. Though he found much of the language ‘reckless and indecent,’ critic and editor George Ripley believed ‘isolated portions’ radiated ‘vigor and quaint beauty.’ Whitman firmly believed he would be accepted and embraced by the populace, especially the working class. Years later, he would regret not having toured the country to deliver his poetry directly by lecturing. ‘If I had gone directly to the people, read my poems, faced the crowds, got into immediate touch with Tom, Dick, and Harry instead of waiting to be interpreted, I’d have had my audience at once,’ he claimed.

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