Today in Literary History – July 4, 1855 – the first edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass is published

The first edition of Walt Whitman’s book of poems, Leaves of Grass, was published in New York on July 4, 1855, when Whitman was thirty-six. It was a slim volume of only 12 (untitled) poems in 95 pages. Whitman said that he wanted the book to be small enough for anyone to carry it in their pocket.

“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,” he wrote.

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The 1860 edition

Whitman paid for the printing of 800 copies of the first edition and did much of the typesetting himself. The book was published anonymously although it did have a daguerreotype engraving of Whitman on the flyleaf dressed in workman’s clothing.

The first edition of Leaves of Grass didn’t sell very well but Whitman was not discouraged from publishing further editions. He published a second edition a year later running to 384 pages. Over the the next 37 years Whitman would continue to add more poems to each new edition, ending up at 383 poems by the time of his death.

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“I Sing the Body Electric,” “The Sleepers,” and “Song of Myself,” –some of Whitman best-loved poems– appeared in the first edition, containing such famous lines as “I am large, I contain multitudes” and “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.”

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Whitman in 1854

Further editions included other famous poems such as “Children of Adam,” “Drum Taps,” “I Hear America Singing,” “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d” and “O Captain! My Captain!”

The poems in Leaves of Grass are in free verse, are sexually frank and are on decidedly American subjects. Originally, this caused some critical dismissal, since the poems didn’t conform to British norms. The title, by the way, is a self-deprecating pun. “Leaves” can be sheets of paper, and in publishing jargon of the time “grass” meant poorly written filler that just takes up otherwise empty space.

 

Here is Whitman’s  “I Hear America Singing” from the 1860 edition:

I Hear America Singing

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics—each one singing his, as it
should be, blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his, as he measures his plank
or beam,
The mason singing his, as he makes ready for work,
or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his
boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat
deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the
hatter singing as he stands;
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s, on his way
in the morning, or at the noon intermission, or at
sundown;
The delicious singing of the mother—or of the
young wife at work—or of the girl sewing or
washing, each singing what belongs to her, and
to none else;
The day what belongs to the day—at night, the
party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing, with open mouths, their strong melodious
songs.

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