Leaves of Grass, 1860
Jason Stacy, ed.
In 1860, when the United States teetered on the brink of civil war, Walt Whitman produced a book of poems that he hoped would provide a roadmap for preserving the Union. It was Leaves of Grass, the third edition.
Reading Whitman is always an exhilarating experience, but when reading from this facsimile edition put out by the University of Iowa Press, there’s a touch of something else: a sense of history. The introduction by antebellum historian and Whitman scholar Jason Stacy does an excellent job of situating the collection within its historical framework, showing clearly the issues that Whitman was trying to address and how he proposed to do so.
One of Whitman’s central ideas for preserving the Union was fervent brotherhood as portrayed in “Calamus,” a poem regarding love between men but which gains a deeper political meaning in the 1860 edition:
Stacy also points out that Whitman – who numbered the stanzas in the 1860 edition as if they were Bible verses – believed that a new humanistic religion would save the Union and he was establishing himself as its prophet: “I too, following many, and followed by many, inaugurate a Religion.” In the same poem – “Proto-Leaf” – in which this poet-prophet sets the tone and purpose of the entire collection, he (nearly) sings:
Were you looking to be held together by the lawyers?
By an agreement on a paper? Or by arms?...
There shall from me be a new friendship – It shall
be called after my name,
It shall circulate through the States, indifferent of
Affection shall solve every one of the problems of
Those who love each other shall be invincible,
They shall finally make America completely
victorious, in my name.
One from Massachusettes shall be comrade to a Missourian,
One from Maine or Vermont, and a Carolinian and
an Oregonese, shall be friends triune, more precious
to each other than all the riches of the earth.”
“I will make a song for These States, that no one
The entire collection isn’t all so explicitly focused on its times as are the quotes mentioned above, but its poems – some reworked from the previous two editions and 146 new to the third (unfortunately this is not itemized clearly in the introduction) -- were geared toward saving the Union, whether in a subtle or a direct way. Apart from the collection’s mission (and its occasionally strident poetry), some Whitman scholars believe that the third edition is the best: a general improvement over what came before and superior to those editions that followed.
State may under any circumstances be subjected
to another State.
And I will make a song that there shall be comity by
day and by night between all The States, and
between any two of them.
And I will make a song of the organic bargains of
These States – And a shrill song of curses on
him who would dissever the Union...”
Although the third Leaves was a critical success, 19th-century America obviously didn’t have the patience to listen to Whitman’s song long enough to find its national salvation. But with the new facsimile edition, it is possible to hold in one’s hands a collection of poems, exactly it appeared 150 years ago, written by a patriotic poet who believed in his ideas so fervently that he thought they could prevent a war.
Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Kathryn Atwood, 2010