May 31, 2020

Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass and Self-Promotion

whitman 1854
Whitman at age 35, image used as the frontispiece to Leaves of Grass - a steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer
 from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison

The daily Writer's Almanac reminded me that today is the birthday of the poet Walt Whitman. He was born in West Hills, Long Island, New York (1819) and he lived in many places but he lived out the last part of his life in Camden, New Jersey until his death in 1892.

My first memory of Whitman was reading his short poem "When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer" which was in the high school sophomore anthology we used in English class. 

When I heard the learn’d astronomer, 
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, 
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them, 
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, 
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, 
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, 
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. 

That poem resonated with me. That person in the astronomer's lecture who gets bored and going outside and seeing the stars of that lecture and is much more pleased and in awe, reminded me of me. At first, I identified as a high school student and later as a college student in a classroom bored with theories and wanting practices. I also began to understand that people interpreting poems, literature, songs, art, films, and the natural wonders of Earth and the universe were far less interesting than the things they were interpreting. 

I will admit that I didn't love Whitman's much more famous Leaves of Grass which is often mistakenly thought of as a single poem but is a collection of poems that are loosely connected. It is considered an American classic. 

Walt was really into self-promotion with Leaves of Grass. In 1842, Charles Dickens came to America for a tour and is sometimes credited for started the book tour. He could reasonably have been billed as the most famous writer in the world after Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers. Perhaps, Walt had that in mind when he published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855. 

Though self-publishing your writing once had a bad name (still does, sometimes) Whitman did so with the collection. He even did most of the typesetting for the book himself. He wanted the book to be small enough to fit in a pocket. He paid for the publication of 795 copies. He was 37. 

It might surprise a 2020 reader that some of those poems were criticized for being openly erotic. Reviewers at the time said it was “a mass of stupid filth” that promoted “that horrible sin [homosexuality] not to be mentioned among Christians" and that it was “full of indecent passages” and that Whitman himself was a “very bad man” and a “free lover.” 

Henry Thoreau, not a fan, wrote, “It is as if the beasts spoke” but his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson said the collection was “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed.” 

Whitman was always revising. He added 146 poems to his third edition. He spent those New Jersey years revising and expanding the collection until the 1891 eighth and final edition. 

Walt had no social media for self-promotion but he had a journalism background. In 1855, he got at least three anonymous positive self-reviews of the first edition of Leaves of Grass in the United States Review, the American Phrenological Journal, and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The one gain with an overly confident statement that we have  "An American bard at last!"

What Walt did is no secret. He was discovered early on. In 1856 Leaves, a reviewer in the New York Times identified Walt as the author of the three anonymous reviews. Whitman reprinted the "exposé" with the original self-reviews in a publicity pack along with the 1860 edition.

modernized Walt
A slightly updated image of Walt by Courtney Nicholas
Whitman was open about those reviews and his self-promotion and viewed it as he did the initial self-publication - a necessary way to get his work out to the public.

I think if Walt had been writing in the 21st century, he would be on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, posting videos on YouTube and offering his book's first edition as an Amazon Original. Walt would have loved the self-promotion of social media. And today he might be an openly gay author but when he was asked about his sexuality even at the end of his life, he declined to answer. At the end of his life he said that sex was “the thing in my work which has been most misunderstood — that has excited the roundest opposition, the sharpest venom, the unintermitted slander, of the people who regard themselves as the custodians of the morals of the world.”

He was unorthodox in his life, his writing and his way of creating the image of the "The Gray Poet" not unlike a modern-day Bob Dylan or any celebrity artist who has created a persona that mixes reality and fiction. 

In the film Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) alludes to Whitman's poem "O Captain! My Captain!" and other passages from Leaves of Grass. When Keating is fired from the school because his unorthodox teaching, his students use the poem to salute him.

I rediscovered some of the Whitman poems individually through other sources. "I Sing the Body Electric" came back to me through Ray Bradbury using it as the title of a short story and the title of his story collection. Earlier it had been the title of a Bradbury episode written for The Twilight Zone in 1962. Of course, I went back to the poem and though it had not changed, I had and so did my appreciation of the poem. 

That poem is a good example of the versions of the poems in the collection. Originally, like the other poems in Leaves of Grass, it did not have a title and it didn't have the line "I sing the body electric" until the 1867 edition because "electric" was not a commonly used term in 1855. 

Last summer was the 200th birthday of Whitman. I went to an exhibit at The Morgan Library and Museum in New York, "Walt Whitman: Bard of Democracy," much of which was about Leaves of Grass.


About 20 years ago, I visited Whitman's New Jersey home in Camden which is now maintained by the state. Touring the modest home wasn't inspiring. Unlike some other author's homes I have visited, I didn't feel Walt's energy there. 

I'm reading poet Mark Doty's new book, What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life, which begins with Mark's visit to the home. It's about the connections he has made personally with the poet and Leaves of Grass. His visit also seemed to be less inspiring than expected, but he works his way through the poems and Walt's life and looks for how it has influenced his own life and work. It's an interesting journey.

This essay originally appeared at Weekends in Paradelle

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