The First Leaves of Grass

May 15: On this day in 1855 Walt Whitman registered the title Leaves of Grass with the clerk of the United States District Court, New York, clearing the way for the first edition, published seven weeks later. Over the next 36 years, Whitman would revise and add to the original twelve poems, publishing seven more editions, these now regarded as "the most brilliant and original poetry yet written in the New World, at once the fulfillment of American literary romanticism and the beginnings of American literary modernism" (Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman).

 

Whitman was a printer by trade, and he helped set the type for the Brooklyn company that published the initial 795 copies of his poems. Whitman was also a believer in phrenology; the first edition of Leaves of Grass was sold only at the "Phrenological Cabinet" of Fowler and Wells, among "the busts, examples, curios, and books of that study."

 

Like Henry Ward Beecher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Daniel Webster, and many eminent others, Whitman had his head read. Though not in Webster's skull-range -- said to be to the ordinary skull "what the great dome of St. Peter's is to the small cupolas at its side" -- Whitman was sufficiently proud of his marks in "Sublimity," "Benevolence," etc., to list them in the second issue of his first edition at the end of 1855. Added, too, were nine reviews of his poetry, three of which were a direct application of the poem's famous opening, "I celebrate myself, and sing myself." Anonymously written by Whitman himself, the reviews went beyond both poetry and skull size, describing the poet as "of pure American breed, of reckless health, his body perfect, free from taint from top to toe, free forever from headache and dyspepsia, full-blooded, six feet high, a good feeder, never once using medicine, drinking water only -- a swimmer in the river or bay or by the sea-shore."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch is the winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. James Parker calls this Dickensian coming-of-age novel "an enveloping…

advertisement
Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.

Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet

Amara Lakhous delivers a mystery novel with its finger on the hot-button issues of today's Europe.  Immigration and multicultural conflicts erupt in the Italian city of Turin, as journalist Enzo Laganà looks to restore peace to his native burg.

Papers in the Wind

In this insightful novel by Eduardo Sacheri, a young girl left destitute by the death of her soccer-playing father is uplifted by the bold schemes of her uncle, his pals, and one newbie player to the professional leagues.