The volume of twelve unnamed, free-verse poems was first published on the 4th of July, its cover page featuring only a title and the place and year of publication: Brooklyn, New York 1855. The poet/author was unnamed but on the opposite page was his engraved depiction, casually attired in work clothes and a jaunty hat; this in an era when the word “poet” conjured up visions of one of the Fireside Poets, as in staid John Greenleaf Whittier or distinguished Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with his leonine mane and finely tailored apparel.
Even the title itself was rather insouciant and actually a pun, “Grass” being a publishing term for works of minor value and “leaves” being another name for the pages on which a published piece was printed. Early advertisements appealed to “lovers of literary curiosities,” and although 800 copies were printed, only 200 were bound in its trademark green cloth cover.
Lauding both the human mind and form (to the offense of those not accustomed to such earthiness) with an emphasis on the American spirit, at 95 pages the first edition of “Leaves of Grass” was small enough to be carried in a pocket so that, in the words of that unnamed author, it would “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.”
Sales were predictably rare, but the man in the etching, Walt Whitman, had been on a mission since the day he’d read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “The Poet” in which the Concord sage proclaimed the need for a uniquely “American” form of poetry, written by a uniquely American poet, a poet of the people. “I was simmering, simmering, simmering,” Whitman later said, “Emerson brought me to a boil.”
Upon receiving a copy of the unusual new book, Emerson responded in writing, declaring it to be “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed…I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy.”
After that initial publication, Whitman would continually revise his masterwork (with nine editions through the years) shifting, adding and sometimes removing, for the rest of his life. The hugely expanded 384 page second edition followed only a year later, leading off with a phrase printed in gold leaf from Emerson’s letter, “I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career.”
“The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it,” wrote Whitman in the preface to the first edition and if the distinction of being the author of our finest American poem (the book’s first unnamed poem, which would also be continuously revised and by the second edition entitled “Song of Myself”) is anything to go by, “the country” absorbed Whitman very well.
As one contemporary of Whitman wrote, “You cannot really understand America without Walt Whitman, without “Leaves of Grass.” And that was a lasting sentiment. Deep into the next century; poet, editor and critic Ezra Pound would refer to Whitman as “America’s poet… He is America,” while the Beat Movement of the 1950s, particularly Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, would turn to Whitman’s “vagabond” lifestyle as a means of inspiration.
Awesomely, he was also a huge influence on the Irish-born business manager of London’s Lyceum Theatre who had decided to write a novel. The Irishman’s name was Bram Stoker, and as he himself noted, Whitman (with whom he regularly corresponded) was the model for his character, Dracula, because Dracula represented the quintessential male and that to Stoker was Walt Whitman.
“If you are American then Walt Whitman is your imaginative father and mother, even if, like myself, you have never composed a line of verse,” wrote literary critic, Harold Bloom in his introduction to a special 150th Anniversary edition. “You can nominate a fair number of literary works as candidates for the secular Scripture of the United States. They might include Melville’s “Moby-Dick,” Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and Emerson’s two series of Essays and “The Conduct of Life”. None of those, not even Emerson’s, are as central as the first edition of “Leaves of Grass.”
Today’s selection was first featured in the 1888, “Annex” (entitled “Sands at Seventy”) to “Leaves of Grass,” which included a number of Whitman’s later poems. It has the distinction of being the only known poem to be recorded in Whitman’s own voice.
Believed to have been recorded on a wax cylinder in 1889 with Thomas Edison serving as sound engineer, the recording was lost and then re-discovered after the death of Roscoe Haley in New York City. Haley was an elevator operator and eccentric collector whose Manhattan apartment was overflowing with books, recordings and papers, including an 1889 letter signed by Edison, making note of the recording, along with the damaged cylinder itself, from which modern sound engineers were able to retrieve four of the six lines of “America”.
Included in the splendid 1996 four-CD box set, “In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry,” linguistic analysis of the voice has shown that it exhibits a subtle, quaint regional inflection, “a soft mix of Tidewater Atlantic and an Adirondack dilution of the contemporary New York accent, which has quite literally disappeared in our age.”
All of which is to say that experts and collectors roundly agree that this is “America’s Poet” speaking. Although you may have heard it during a 2009 advertising campaign for Levi Jeans (a quintessentially American product that was actually around when Whitman was alive), one hopes that fact won’t diminish this 236th Birthday Recital. The poem’s final two (unspoken) lines are also included. Happy Independence Day and may you too be “Chair’d in the adamant of Time.”
LISTEN TO WHITMAN’S AMERICA – 4 July 2012
Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.