Kathryn's Reviews > Leaves of Grass, 1860: The 150th Anniversary Facsimile Edition

Leaves of Grass, 1860 by Walt Whitman
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's review
Aug 23, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: poetry, americana
Read in August, 2010

In 1860, when the United States was 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:

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
place . . .
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 Main or Vermont, and a Carolinian and
an Orgonese, shall be friends triune, more precious
to each other than all the riches of the earth.”

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:

“I will make a song for These States, that no one
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;

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 clearly itemized in the introduction) -- were geared towards saving the Union, whether in a subtle or a direct way. And apart from the collection’s mission (and it’s 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.

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 as 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.

(This review was also published at CurledUpWithAGoodBook.com).

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